Although it’s best known for being the Grand Canyon State, Arizona does not fall short in its offerings in the large cities outside of this national park. Boasting iconic Saguaro cacti, an expansive desert landscape, energetic nightlife, infinite sunshine, and a bustling metropolitan area, this Southwest state will meet the standards of even the pickiest tourist.
Whether your cup of tea is kayaking on its unexpected lakes or gawking at its numerous art districts, the cities of Arizona exhaust the list of high-demand activities. The state offers a pleasing blend of happenings influenced by its diversity, blend of customs, and preservation of past cultures.
Here are the ten biggest cities in Arizona, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
With a population of 1.6 million at the time of the 2020 census, Arizona’s state capital takes the cake as the state’s largest city and secures its place as the sixth-largest city in the United States. Known for its Southwest culture and year-round warmth, Phoenix is a popular destination for tourists seeking unwavering sunshine, natural desert wonders, and cultural arts.
Located in south-central Arizona, Phoenix is a hub for nightlife, high-end resorts, and sightseeing. Highlights include the Desert Botanical Garden, the Heard Museum, Papago Park, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Musical Instrument Museum. The city is also known for its fine dining peppered with Mexican and Native American influences.
Even though it’s known for its desert landscape, one of the city’s most recognizable features is Camelback Mountain. Popular for hiking and scrambling, the mountain features a 2.4-mile trail that climbs 1,420 feet to the summit and offers 360-degree views of the city.
On the first Friday of every month, Phoenix visitors and locals alike can attend First Friday, a community event that highlights local arts, shops, music, and food. It primarily takes place on Roosevelt Row, an artists’ district boldly marked with colorful street art.
The Valley Metro Rail makes transportation easy and accessible, servicing Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. The light rail system was introduced in 2008 and plays a major role in transporting the citizens of the cities.
Located in the southernmost part of the state, Tucson is home to 542,629 residents according to the 2020 census. It’s Arizona’s oldest city, incorporated in 1877. The construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880 encouraged the spread of multicultural roots, deepening the influences of the Native Americans, Mexicans, and other early settlers.
At the city’s hub, today sits the University of Arizona (Go Wildcats!), the funky and historic Fourth Avenue, as well as a lively downtown scene.
Saguaro National Park makes a name for itself just outside of Tucson, encompassing 91,327 acres of desert landscape spotlighting giant Saguaro cacti, ancient petroglyphs, wildlife, hiking trails, and scenic drives. The Saguaro cactus is symbolic of the city of Tucson, “a free, open, and welcoming land”.
Major tourist attractions in the area also include Pima Air and Space Museum, San Xavier del Bac Mission, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Mini Time Machine Museum, and Old Tucson movie studio and theme park. Tucson also claims to be the Mexican food capital of the United States, and those familiar with the cuisine recommend starting on 12th Avenue to kick off your journey of tasting “the best 23 miles of Mexican food”.
Seated just east of Phoenix, Mesa houses artifacts of the Hohokam people, who inhabited the area between 300 and 1500 AD. The historic land is now home to 504,258 people, as of the 2020 census. The city’s name was inspired by its location, as it is situated on a plateau above the Valley.
Patterson Field, formerly known as the Hohokam Stadium after the original dwellers, seats 12,500 and draws a large crowd to the city. The stadium was built in 1997, and it is the spring training site for the Oakland Athletics baseball team. The stadium is located just down the road from Mesa Grande ruins, which consists of a series of structures built by the Hohokam people, including brilliantly-constructed irrigation systems.
Other highlights of the city include the Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Mesa Arts Center, Arizona’s largest arts center. Additionally, Organ Stop Pizza is home to the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” the world’s most valuable organ — priced at six million dollars.
Those seeking activities that allow them to connect with the outdoors will find themselves well-inclined to explore the Usery Mountain Regional Park, kayak the Salt River or Saguaro Lake, or drive the scenic Apache Trail.
This Phoenix suburb is home to 275,987 residents as of 2020. The city is known for its diversity, award-winning outdoor events, and access to outdoor recreation; the citizens of Chandler pride themselves on active lifestyles.
In all its sunshiney glory, Chandler boasts several parks. A favorite — Desert Breeze Park — offers antique carousel rides and vintage train rides around the park. Veterans Oasis Park provides wetlands, a Sonoran Desert landscape, excellent birding opportunities, and a Solar System Walk that exhibits a scale model of the planets.
For those who like to shop til they drop, Chandler Fashion Center is the second-largest mall in the state. The center hosts concert series, boutiques, special events, and a wide array of full-service restaurants.
Unique offerings of the city include horseback rides at Koli Equestrian Center, the Arizona Railway Museum, and the Crayola Experience — a creative, colorful space for family fun. Chandler’s Environmental Education Center presents educational programs featuring natural sciences, health and fitness, and information for outdoor enthusiasts.
Once known as the “Hay-Shipping Capital of the World”, Gilbert is home to 267,918 people as of 2020, up from 1,971 in 1970. William “Bobby” Gilbert owned 160 acres in the area from 1898 until 1902 when the Phoenix and Eastern Railroad Company purchased it from him. The railroad construction led to a boom in population growth, solidifying Gilbert as a true Arizona town.
Until the late 1920s, it was a prime farming community, powered by the construction of the Roosevelt Dam and the Eastern and Consolidated Canals. It is now the largest town in the U.S.
Must-sees in Gilbert include the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, the Hale Center Theatre, and St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. The downtown area offers an impressive variety of food and music and hosts a farmers market every Saturday of the year.
With a 2020 census population of 248,325, Glendale is the official home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. The State Farm Stadium will soon see its third Super Bowl, having also hosted the 2008 and 2015 Bowls. A serious sports-positive community, Glendale also accommodates the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes at the Gila River Arena.
In the heart of Glendale, the Westgate Entertainment District pulls in tourists and locals alike, showcasing major music artists, a plethora of specialty shops and restaurants, and special events.
Thunderbird Conservation Park is dedicated to preserving the natural desert environment and provides hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails, as well as areas ideal for birdwatching and picnicking.
Glendale’s Historic District is a collection of antique shops, eateries, museums, and a candy factory. Much of the city’s pioneers’ cultural influence and heritage can be found preserved in this area, including one of the West Valley’s oldest ranches, the Sahuaro Ranch.
Known as “the world’s finest golf destination”, Scottsdale accommodates 241,361 residents as of 2020. With luxury resorts, an impressive collection of golf courses, and more than 330 sunny days per year, the city has earned its name as a superior vacation destination.
Other noteworthy attractions include visiting Butterfly Wonderland, an indoor, interactive rainforest housing thousands of butterflies (I am purchasing my ticket right now). Outdoorsy visitors and locals may spend their time hiking or biking through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the largest-of-its-kind urban preserve that contains over 225 miles of trails.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home and studio, Taliesin West, is certainly worth visiting, as it has made its way onto the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with the likes of Yellowstone and Machu Picchu.
The list goes on with this treasure of a city that has something for everyone. Visit Old Town, the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and Pinnacle Peak Park.
A major suburb of Phoenix and split between two counties, Peoria has a population of 190,985 according to the 2020 census. The city is about half an hour northwest of Phoenix and began as an agricultural community.
Peoria is home to the oasis-esque Lake Pleasant, a hub for boating, fishing, water skiing, and camping. The Arizona Broadway Theatre can also be found in this suburb, presenting the likes of Mame, A Christmas Carol, and Escape to Margaritaville.
The Peoria Sports Complex draws a large crowd, as it hosts MLB spring training for the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Peoria also embodies local artistic culture with attractions like its historic Old Town, P83 Entertainment District, and Peoria Center for the Performing Arts.
Named Zillow’s top college town in 2022, Tempe is known for its vibrant community and outdoor events. With a 2020 population of 180,587, it is home to the state’s biggest school, Arizona State University. The Sun Devils make up the country’s largest university by population.
Tempe Center for the Arts pulls in sizable audiences with concerts, dance, and comedy shows. ASU’s Gammage Auditorium also attracts its fair share of theater enthusiasts, boasting a grand venue designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Get outside by kayaking, peddle boating, or paddle boarding Tempe Town Lake, the very spot where the Hohokam people used to make human sacrifices. Go boogie boarding and surfing at Big Surf Water park, the country’s original wave pool. View centuries-old rock art at Hayden Butte, a mountain located partially on the ASU campus.
Visit Sea Life Arizona Aquarium to immerse yourself in the state’s only 360-degree ocean tunnel. The aquarium features sharks, octopuses, and interactive touch tanks.
Surprise — yet another Phoenix suburb — is home to 143,148 residents as of 2020, up from just 30,848 people in the 2000 census. Surprise explodes with people every year when the MLB’s Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers come to the Surprise Stadium for Spring Training.
The city of Surprise holds the title for the Southwest’s largest tennis and racquetball complex, in addition to high-end golf courses, urban fishing reservoirs, and aquatic centers.
Surprise is also a short drive to the White Tank Regional Park, a mountain range that offers camping, hiking, and views of giant Saguaro cacti. The regional park also holds a public library on its land, the White Tank Library, which contains massive windows that open up to breathtaking views of the desert landscape and the White Tank Mountain Range.
Visit the Justice Brothers Ranch and U-Pick to pick your own fruit right from the tree. This ranch is the longest continually-operated citrus orchard in the state.
Although most of its hustle and bustle occurs in the Phoenix metropolitan area and south of Tucson, there are noteworthy attractions all throughout Arizona. Even though it’s dominated by sprawling suburbs, there are natural wonders both in and outside of the urban areas.
Those that crave first-class luxury are sure to find their asylums in places like Scottsdale, while sports fans will be happy to find themselves in Glendale, Peoria, and Surprise. Outdoor lovers will make do anywhere, as the whole state seems to appreciate the natural wonders of the earth and the abundant sunshine.