Insider’s Guide to Downtown Tempe

There’s more to this town than Arizona State University and Mill Avenue.

For Phoenix-area visitors, there’s more to the hometown of Arizona State University than Mill Avenue, although that’s a great start. A desert city with a human-built lake, a collegiate stadium that hosted a Super Bowl, lots of creative infill development and secret pockets of on-trend restaurants—you’ve got to see downtown Tempe for yourself.

Landmarks, Adventures & Views

Twenty years ago, Tempe’s lively and sparkling waterfront simply didn’t exist. The riverbed of the Rio Salado had long run dry due to upstream diversions, but when engineers found a way to fill in a two-mile “lake” bookended by inflatable dams in 1997, developers leapt aboard.

Today Tempe Town Lake offers a marina, boat rentals, a water playground, recreational paths, views for high-rise office and condo tenants, the futuristic-looking Tempe Center for the Arts, and an LED bridge that illuminates anytime a light-rail train crosses it.

The industrial fixture that gave Mill Avenue its name was built in 1874, suffered fires and was replaced twice, and worked until the mid-1990s. Hayden Flour Mill then languished for a decade and a half; cast-in-place and full of overwhelmingly weighty (and dangerous) equipment, it was secured and politely ignored. In 2012 the site was spiffed up and redefined as a civic monument with interpretive signage, open ground-level windows to look through, and an informal stage fronted by lush grass.

Sun Devil Stadium and “A” Mountain can’t help but be admired together; one’s built right into the other. The stadium hosted the 1996 Super Bowl and remains ASU football’s home field, even as major renovations continue through 2017. The 60-foot letter A upon the side of the adjacent crag is usually painted an ASU shade of gold—except when rivals from University of Arizona in Tucson sneak up to deface it. For a swift workout with a huge visual payoff, hike past it to the peak.

At least give ASU Gammage a drive-by gaze. The round auditorium, whimsical in shades of terra cotta, is often likened to a pink wedding cake; it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect better known for low-slung, serious structures.

Solid Foods

Sweet teeth have it easy along Mill Avenue among Sparky’s Old Town Creamery, Paletas Betty (fruity popsicles) and Slickables (ice cream sandwiches). Hunt a little harder to unearth Desert Roots Kitchen, a vegan bakery and lunch counter with a Mill Avenue address but no street frontage (it’s in a brick courtyard). Lurk for slurpable ramen bowls at Umami on the non-Mill side of the Brickyard complex.

Forge on to Farmer Avenue, parallel to and west of Mill, to discover an area of recent infill development on what used to be the “wrong side” of the tracks: gastropub Culinary Dropout (three-bitter Manhattans, meatloaf and yard games), breakfast joint Over Easy (candy-studded pancakes), and an exercise studio. Or hit College Avenue, parallel to and east of Mill, for savory redevelopment in the form of Postino (wine and bruschetta), Snooze (six Benedicts) and more.

Beer & Coffee

Beer is doing well in this college town. Like, really well. Upstart brewery Blasted Barley entered the game with an orange-and-dark-chocolate stout at the beginning of the year, and maintains a long list of other made-in-state suds. The Handlebar Tempe employs a “beer geek” and offers 48 beers, American-craft to European, at any given time. Gordon Biersch (which brews in San Jose, Calif.) and World of Beer (champion of hundreds, maker of none) have Mill Avenue locations. Four Peaks and Huss Brewing sit beyond “walkable” Tempe but shouldn’t be overlooked.

Longtime Tempe coffee roaster Cartel makes beer now, too; the coffeehouse on University Drive doubles as a tasting room. Other java joints in the neighborhood include Cupz, Romancing the Bean and Royal Coffee Bar.

Precious Things: Art, Dresses & Books

Tempe can be called a lot of things: a party town, an indie/corporate mash-up, an equal playing field for artistic and scientific pursuits. You just can’t call it snobby. Permanent public art tends to be photo- and climbing-kid-friendly, like the giant rabbits on Centerpoint’s plaza and the “Greetings from Tempe” mosaic throne near city hall. Neighborhood retailers keep it real too, selling ASU-spirited sportswear (Sun Devil Marketplace; Cactus Sports), affordable sundresses (Divaz; Pitaya) and counterculture goods (Hippie Gypsy; The Graffiti Shop). And while a certain big-box bookstore was chased from Mill Avenue years ago, the printed (or illustrated) word presses on at Old Town Books and Critical Threat Comics & Games.

Lisa Polacheck
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