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(Above) A hot air balloon soars over the Sonoran Desert near Glendale, Arizona. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

Sports, music, and outdoor adventure are the hot ticket for sun-drenched fun.

16-May-24 – State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, has hosted three Super Bowl championship football games, most recently last year.

It’s where Taylor Swift kicked off her Eras Tour.

And where I attended my first car show, a live buying and selling spree of 2,000 gleaming collector and classic vehicles. The motorized spectacle, produced by Mecum Auctions, is said to be the biggest in the nation.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

During the five-day auction in March, the 1969 Cadillac Eldorado previously owned by Elvis Presley sold for more than $250,000 after a bidding frenzy.

The stadium, opened in 2006, is most notable for its retractable roof and retractable grassy playing field, and a seating capacity of 70,000-plus. Its robust schedule of mega events alone anchors Glendale as the sports and entertainment hub of Metro Phoenix, but there are many ways to play, and more on the horizon. I packed in as much as I could in a few days.

Start at Westgate

Westgate Entertainment District, adjacent to State Farm Stadium, is a glittery mixed-use development of trendy restaurants, chic boutiques, live entertainment, and games galore.

A parade of statuesque palm trees and a dancing fountain choreographed to light and music stand at the heart of it all.

Photo by Michael Baxter

Photo by Michael Baxter

We lodged at the recently updated Renaissance Hotel and Spa on Westgate’s edge. Other nearby options are a new Aloft Hotel as well as several branded hotels on the opposite side of North 95th Street by the Tanger Outlets mall.

Balloons and balls

Glendale’s 300 days of sunshine each year promise an itinerary rich in outdoor experiences.

For many visitors, soaring over the Sonoran Desert in a hot air balloon is an aspiration, and we were no exception. Our sunrise flight with Rainbow Ryders was well worth the pre-dawn wakeup call. The ride is so gentle, you don’t realize you are in the air until you look down and note that buildings are the size of Monopoly game pieces. The feeling is one of floating as you pass over a rugged landscape speckled with saguaro cacti and occasional wildlife. Your flight lasts about an hour and ends with a celebratory toast.

Visit Glendale

You’ll view the desert from a different angle at Thunderbird Conservation Park, where 20 miles of multi-use trails range from easy to difficult.

Visit Glendale

Among the park’s diverse native residents are birds, reptiles, and mammals, from hummingbirds to coyotes to rattlesnakes. Beware the deceptive teddy-bear cholla that appears so huggable. The plants, also known as the “jumping cactus,” have very sharp spines that easily detach and can penetrate shoe leather.

Spring training for Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers is another huge draw.

Visit Glendale

Visit Glendale

The teams camp out in separate areas at Camelback Ranch for several weeks in March, and they meet up with rivals almost daily in the high-tech stadium. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, Camelback Ranch is worth a visit. The beautifully landscaped property sprawls 140 acres, 13 playing fields, a scenic lake, and walking trails.

Pop Stroke is a next-level miniature golf playground with a full-service restaurant and bar, and an ice cream parlor. The starring attraction is the two 18-hole putt-putt courses designed by Tiger Woods.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Instead of windmills and clown faces typical of yesterday’s layouts, these courses challenge with convoluting bunkers and freeform sand traps.

Keeping the energy high are game tables for ping-pong, foosball, and cornhole.

Chicken N Pickle is an indoor and outdoor entertainment complex featuring, as its name implies, pickleball and wood-fired rotisserie chicken. A vast faux lawn is arranged with picnic tables and clusters of red and white Adirondack chairs around yard games like Jenga, bocce ball, and cornhole. There’s also an assortment of hula hoops if you’re feeling twisty. The menu stands out for creative, locally sourced cuisine and craft cocktails.

Eating as entertainment

Glendale’s dining scene is global and delectable, from casual eats to formal fare. Often, the ambiance is just as buzzworthy as the seasonal flavors. Here are a few restaurants I’d definitely return to:

Over Easy is a cheerful breakfast and lunch spot featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives television show. Order the Golden Waffle Dogs, made with sausage links coated in waffle batter.

Sugar Factory is a vision of Instagrammable sweetness and pink light. The celebrity-driven cocktails (alcoholic and non) are delightfully frou-frou, and the burger buns really are Crayola bright.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The upscale, dimly lit Tulum Modern Mexican presents traditional faves with a contemporary twist; mole sauce and artisan cocktails are specialties.

Salt Tacos and Tequila serves up Mexican classics and 140 different tequilas in joyful artsy surroundings.

At Desert Diamond Casino West Valley, elegant Nineteen 86 Steakhouse is a good bet with white tablecloth dining and an award-winning wine list.

Next up: VAI Resort

Opening later this year with much anticipation is the luxurious VAI Resort, which will be the largest hotel and entertainment destination in Arizona. I was invited on a hard hat tour, and this place promises to hit all the “best of” lists in the travel industry.

Four themed towers, each with its own porte cochere entrance, comprise 1,200 rooms and suites.

VAI Resort

The towers circle a 360-degree concert stage, so get this – half the guests can watch the performances from their balconies.

VAI Resort

Also in the works are a dozen fine dining concepts, five-acre pool with white-sand beach and island, spa, nightclub, upscale shopping arcade, sky bar, and tethered hot air balloon.

Next door to VAI and also under construction is Mattel Adventure Park, a family-friendly theme park inspired by the toymaker’s hottest brands. Among the amusements are the Barbie Beach House, featuring a theater, shopping, rooftop dining, and hologram technology that brings your Barbie friend to life. Adventurous spirits will head to the Hot Wheels Bone Shaker roller coaster that climbs 84 feet into the air and dives into a double helix.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.