But for those with shallow pockets, the Valley of the Sun has budget-friendly options mixing an urban identity with access to nature. It's not every big city where you can scale a mountain, sample authentic Mexican food and take in a free art show - all in one day.
Phoenix's $1.4 billion Metro Light Rail debuts Dec. 27. The 20-mile (32-kilometer) line will stretch from northwest Phoenix to neighboring Tempe and Mesa. The train will be free for the first two days. The grand opening will have music, activities and exhibits at stops along the track.
In chichi Scottsdale, take advantage of the free trolley. The purple street car runs every 10 minutes, from Oldtown Scottsdale, brimming with local eateries, bars and shops selling Native American arts and crafts, to the art galleries lining Main Street. The free Scottsdale Art Walk is every Thursday evening.
The trolley also stops by the waterfront, where restaurants and shops line the canal.
A rental car may be your best bet for metropolitan Phoenix and day trips. The city's streets are laid out like a grid, making it hard to get lost.
TAKE A HIKE:
Hiking in Arizona is fun even in winter. Piestewa Peak, formerly Squaw Peak, at 2,608 feet tall, offers miles of trails inside Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation area.
More adventurous hikers can scale Camelback Mountain's sandstone hump. At 2,704 feet, Camelback's two main summit trails amount to a 1,200-foot gain in elevation, with less arduous trails near the base.
For easy strolls or mountain bike rides, head to Papago Park, where there's little elevation amid the woods, desert sandstone and fields.
Sedona and its red mountain majesties are a two-hour drive north. Take a hike and survey the grandiosity of the red rock formations at the hilltop Chapel of the Holy Cross, an aesthetic marvel. Parking is free; the view is priceless.
Halfway between Sedona and Phoenix lies the city of Prescott. The folksy downtown, anchored by the historic Courthouse Plaza, has a warm small-town ambiance. Restaurants, boutiques and live music are abundant. But the Old West heritage is still very much alive. Stroll Whiskey Row, a block once full of nothing but saloons. Have a drink at The Palace Restaurant and Saloon, whose past patrons include Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Venture farther out to Prescott National Forest, which has five lakes and more than 450 miles (724 kilometers) of trails for hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking.
Home to 200 golf courses, many of them PGA-champion caliber, metro Phoenix has long been a luxury golf destination. But there are bargain rates too. For the winter, the city's eight municipal courses charge between $34 and $43 for 18 holes. Fees slide to $18-$25 if you tee off after 1 p.m. At Palo Verde Golf Course, nine holes cost just $10.
Each course has a unique layout. For first-time visitors, head to Aguila Golf Course at the base of South Mountain, with lovely vistas of the Sonoran desert. Book tee times at least a week before.
If conventional golf isn't your thing, try flicking a flying disc at a disc golf course fitted with "tee boxes" and baskets mounted on poles. If you're new to the game, stop by Spinners on the Green, a disc golf equipment and apparel store in Scottsdale, for help. Spinners also rents bikes, $10 an hour.
There are two disc golf locations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, the latter located along a 25-mile (40-kilometer) multi-use path known as the Indian Bend Wash.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT:
Artists, musicians and vendors take over downtown Phoenix streets for an artwalk the first Friday of each month. Visit galleries or shop for everything from jewelry to decorated cigar boxes.
For more highbrow art, check out the Phoenix Art Museum, free on Tuesdays, 3-9 p.m. and during First Fridays, 6-10 p.m. Current exhibitions include 54 drawings by artist Elihu Vedder and the fashion evolution of the jumpsuit.
The Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden, teeming with desert plants, is hosting Dale Chihuly's "The Nature of Glass" through May 31. Chihuly's dazzling glass sculptures have been installed throughout the garden, even hanging from the roof. Admission is $15 (students, $7.50 with ID; $5 ages 3-12). Reservations at 480-481-8188.
The Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum, 1502 W. Washington St., has a small building but a big collection of more than 3,000 rocks, fossils and minerals, including an 8-foot hunk of copper, lunar rocks from the first Moon landing and precious gems and minerals local to Arizona. Admission is $2 (free ages 17 and under).
Chances for a white Christmas in Phoenix are slim to none, but there are other holiday scenes.
Glendale, the suburb west of Phoenix that played host to the Super Bowl last February, is operating Glendale Glitters until Jan. 17, illuminating downtown with 1.5 million lights for 12 blocks. Free parking and free admission.
Glendale also is the backdrop for the U.S. Bank Arizona Celebration of Lights, a two-mile route with 300 animated light displays set to music, until Jan. 4. Admission is $12 per car. Donate three canned food items or a new unwrapped toy, get $2 off.
Just north of Phoenix, the town of Carefree, with street names like Ho Hum Road and Easy Street, is planning a Currier & Ives-style Christmas Festival, its first, Dec. 12-14, complete with town crier, carolers, horse carriage rides, roasted chestnuts and hot chocolate. The entire town center will be blanketed in fake snow.
In Scottsdale, McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park displays 100,000 lights, Dec. 12-Jan. 3. Tracks go for one mile; ride admission is $2.
Mexican immigrants have brought culinary gems to north Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood, also known as "Little Oaxaca." At Los Reyes de la Torta, 9230 N. 7th St., good luck scarfing down an entire torta. The choices for these Mexican sandwiches vary, with the most voluminous being the Del Rey - ham, breaded beef, sausage, refried beans, eggs, melted cheese, avocado, tomato, onion and jalapenos stuffed between a crisp, white roll. Wash it down with an agua fresca (strawberry, mango, watermelon, pineapple or cinnamon-flavored horchata).
On the opposite side of town, lunch can be crowded at Carolina's Mexican Food, 1202 E. Mohave St. Carolina Valenzuela has been serving up handmade tortillas since 1968. Many in central Phoenix say the prices and quality are worth the drive.
Matt's Big Breakfast, 801 N. First St., is a beloved downtown staple. The owners boast big portions, local organic ingredients, waffles made from scratch and the Chop and Chick (two eggs and a skillet-seared pork chop), plus sandwiches and salads. The line of waiting customers outside the small red brick building sometimes starts before 7 a.m.