This post is sponsored by the Tempe Tourism Office. All opinions are my own.
Until my family started traveling regularly to the state of Arizona the last few years, Tempe wasn’t really on my travel radar. The huge sprawl of greater Phoenix is actually made up of a number of cities, many of which might seem to blend together if you don’t live in the area. Tempe, Arizona is one of these places sometimes overlooked because of its larger neighbor.
My family and I had already planned to spend our 2020 Presidents Day vacation in Arizona to enjoy the nice weather, a dude ranch visit, and some spring training baseball. So when Tempe invited us to spent a little extra time in town, I jumped at the chance.
My kids and I ultimately had a blast in Tempe, eating amazing food, exploring the outdoors, and enjoying many of the family-friendly attractions the area offers. Little did I know then that this would be our very last family trip before the world changed, so we look back on this vacation now with so much fondness. And we can’t wait to return now that the travel forecast is improving!
For other traveling families, here is everything you need to know about travel to Tempe with kids.
Editor’s Note for 2021: Some attractions mentioned in this guide may currently be operating at reduced capacity or with other modifications. Always check official websites or call before visiting. Please also note that both the City of Tempe and Maricopa County currently have mask mandates as of the date this article was published. See Tempe’s Travel Safely Checklist for updated local information.
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How to Get to Tempe, Arizona: Location & Transportation
For anyone not familiar with Tempe, let’s start with the basics. Tempe, Arizona is a city immediately adjacent to Phoenix to the southeast. While it’s now a suburb, Tempe has a downtown area all of its own and a city history separate from Phoenix. Tempe is also the home of 70,000+ student Arizona State University, giving the city a unique style and college town scene not found elsewhere in greater Phoenix.
For a traveler like me coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, flying in to Tempe couldn’t be easier. Tempe is just a couple of miles from the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX). PHX is an American Airlines hub, but all the major US domestic airlines have service to the airport, including our family’s airline of choice – Southwest. It took us less than 15 minutes from the moment we pulled out of the PHX rental car lot until we pulled into the parking lot of our downtown Tempe hotel.
Speaking of rental cars, do you need one? Downtown Tempe around Mill Avenue is very walkable, so a car isn’t necessarily required if you are going to explore a lot of the sights in this area. Ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber are plentiful for those times you do need to go farther afield. The city also has plenty of scooter share options. There’s even a regional light rail service (Valley Metro Rail) that may get you many places you need to go.
That said, I think a lot of families will find having a rental car in Tempe to be valuable. Rental car rates at PHX are reasonable, and parking costs at most hotels in town aren’t too high. A car gives you the flexibility to explore the entire area as well as beyond downtown should you so choose. Additionally, for families with young kids who are still of car seat or booster age, it’s also easier to have a single vehicle with the child restraint device already installed.
Things to Do in Tempe with Kids
What makes Tempe such a family-friendly destination is the wide variety of activities for kids of every age in town. Some of the attractions I’ve previously given Phoenix “credit” for are actually located in Tempe. Our family’s favorite things to do in Tempe and in neighboring areas included:
The Phoenix Zoo is a world class zoo that impressed us at every turn. We spent the most time exploring the Arizona Trail section of the park which features a wide variety of species native to the Sonoran Desert, from snakes to javelina. But the zoo had animals from around the world as well. The zoo’s footprint is pretty large, so definitely bring a stroller for younger kids or you’ll be carrying them in the Arizona heat. Also save time for a ride on the carousel or playtime on the playground near the zoo’s entrance.
LEGOLAND Discovery Center Arizona
Many travelers are familiar with the LEGOLAND theme parks in California and Florida, but might not be familiar with the smaller indoor discovery centers that Legoland also offers in 13 different US locations. Tempe is home to one of these LEGOLAND Discovery Center locations in the Arizona Mills shopping center, and it was probably my 6 year old son’s favorite activity in Tempe.
The play center has several small indoor theme park rides, a large playground, a 4D theater, a cafe, and millions of Legos kids can play with. The attraction has a local element as well, with an entire Miniland room of Lego creations on display made by master builders that feature important Arizona sight and scenes. We spent about 4 hours visiting, but could easily have hung out all day with our two Lego-loving kiddos. Hot tip – wait until later in the afternoon to ride the rides if you can. We found the center cleared out in the later afternoon after many families went home for naptime or dinner.
SEA LIFE Arizona Aquarium
Right across the way from Legoland Discovery Center is Sea Life Arizona Aquarium, an indoor aquarium perfect for younger kids. The aquarium has touch pools, a ray exhibit, and even animal meet and greet times throughout the day. Plan for about an hour to visit, and look for discounts that are available with combination tickets to the Legoland Discovery Center.
Scale “A” Mountain
Hayden Butte is a large hill overlooking the city of Tempe. It’s colloquially known as “A” Mountain after the giant yellow A visible from below – a symbol of ASU pride. A popular activity is to hike to the top, especially at sunset, for amazing views of the entire area. The switchbacks to make the climb are no joke, but my 6 year old was able to complete the hike all by himself so it’s doable even with determined younger kids.
Boat or Bike at Tempe Town Lake
When the weather is nice, a popular place to enjoy the outdoors is in the open space by Tempe Town Lake. Here, you can rent a paddle boat or a surrey bike and get some exercise in the fresh air. Look for the Boat Rentals of America kiosk, but prepare for a line on good weather weekends!
Tempe is home to an award-winning professional children’s theater company that holds performances throughout the school year. During our visit, my kids and I were able to see a performance of Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie’s “We are in a Play” that was truly top notch. A Childsplay show is a great way to introduce younger kids to live theater without the worry that they will interrupt or disturb a performance. My kids (especially my older daughter) have both seen a lot of theater because their uncle is an actor, and we were all incredibly impressed by the caliber of the production at Childsplay.
Hall of Flame Museum
My family loves visiting unique niche museums on our travels – the Country Doctor Museum in Wilson, NC and the Pez Museum in San Mateo, California are a few of our favorites. Now we can add the Hall of Flame Museum to that list! This museum is devoted exclusively to the history of firefighting and is located just a minute or two from the Phoenix Zoo. Hundreds of antique fire engines and other equipment are on display, including one of the engines that responded famously to the Twin Towers on 9/11. The museum has a full size engine that kids can climb on and explore as well as a play area with a fire pole and more. Plan on about an hour for a visit with kids.
Main Event Entertainment
When outdoor activities are off the table because of rain or heat, head to this indoor entertainment complex. Inside, there’s a full bowling alley, arcade, ropes course, and restaurant. The kids and I stopped by for a quick visit during our time in Tempe and found it had a lot to keep us busy.
Baseball Spring Training
For visitors who can come to Tempe in the spring months, the city is right in the thick of things for Major League Baseball’s Cactus League spring training. The Tempe Diablo Stadium in town is home to the Los Angeles Angels. A number of other teams, including our hometown Oakland A’s, play minutes away in surrounding towns like Mesa and Scottsdale. Be sure to check out my complete guide to Cactus League Spring Training with kids for all of the tips!
Hike Hole in the Rock
Last but certainly not least, kids will love exploring the Hole in the Rock at Papago Park. This sandstone hill has holes in it created by erosion and is visually arresting. It’s an easy and quick stop while you are visiting either the Phoenix Zoo or the Hall of Flame Museum.
Where to Stay in Tempe with Kids
Lodging in the Tempe area is plentiful, with a wide variety of hotels that work well for families at several different price points. Guests looking for moderately priced options with family-friendly amenities like free breakfast will find plenty of choices. There are also several hotel options for luxury travelers who want a full service resort or a unique pool scene in the warmer months. Top Tempe hotel choices to consider include:
Sonesta Select Tempe Downtown
We stayed in the Sonesta Select Tempe Downtown (formerly the Courtyard Tempe Downtown) for three nights of our Tempe vacation. We loved the convenient downtown location that was easily walkable to restaurants, A Mountain, and more. The hotel has a cafe in the lobby for grabbing breakfast or a snack on the go. A secret tip for families – several of the two queen rooms at this hotel come with an additional sofa bed, making room for families of five (or in our family’s case, two kids who never can peacefully share a bed!).
Tempe Mission Palms Hotel
Also located in the heart of downtown Tempe on Mill Avenue is Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. This urban resort property has several higher end restaurants and a rooftop pool with a view. I was able to tour every room type the hotel offers and found the junior suite to be ideal for families. The room has plenty of extra space as well as both a king and a double sofa bed. Tempe Mission Palms is a Destination Hotel which now participates in the World of Hyatt program, so Hyatt loyalists can earn and redeem for stays here now too.
Embassy Suites Tempe
For traveling families, Embassy Suites hotels often have the perfect combination of amenities – free breakfast and plenty of extra space. The Embassy Suites Tempe location delivered in spades for our family on our own trip as well. Our two room suite had two double beds as well as a double sofa bed in the second room as well as a fridge and microwave. The included hot breakfast buffet – with made-to-order omelets – was probably the most extensive I’ve seen at a moderate hotel in years (note that breakfast is currently limited in spring 2021).
Marriott Phoenix Resort Tempe at The Buttes
The Marriott Phoenix Resort Tempe at the Buttes is located right next to Tempe Diablo Stadium and features a full service spa and gorgeous desert poolscape. For anyone looking for a relaxing resort getaway in Tempe, this is the place! Just be aware that standard rooms have two double beds, so sleeping arrangements might be tight for families looking to share a single room. The hotel is a Marriott Category 5 property, so it can be a great value when spending annual free night certificate that comes with some Marriott credit cards.
Where to Eat in Tempe with Kids
Like so many college towns, the city of Tempe has pretty impressive food scene. We found so many family-friendly restaurants offering amazing cuisine at incredibly reasonable prices. Some of our favorite restaurants included:
- Snakes & Lattes: Much more than just a restaurant, Snakes and Lattes has an enormous library of board games you can play while you eat for a small additional fee. Give yourself plenty of time for a meal here because the board game finds are amazing! This was our favorite restaurant in Tempe and a must-do for families.
- Ghost Ranch: If you go to Arizona and don’t eat Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, have you really been to Arizona? This higher end (but still casual) restaurant serves delicious regional fare. It’s a bit of a drive from downtown, but was ultimately well worth the trip.
- Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill: Located in Tempe Marketplace, a large outdoor shopping and dining complex, Thirsty Lion worked well for our family for a casual dinner out. It had a huge menu with more daring options for parents as well as plenty of kid-friendly familiar pub food fallbacks (my daughter highly recommends the giant pretzel with cheese).
Best Times to Visit Tempe & For How Long
So now that you know what to do, where to stay, and where to eat, when should you come to Tempe? I personally think Tempe is a destination that works year round so you don’t have to think too hard about finding the perfect time of year.
My family visited Tempe over the February Presidents Day holiday, and we were very happy with that choice. When spring training season is in full swing like it was during our trip, you’ll pay more for lodging, but you also get to partake in the fun. Just be aware that although the days are warm this time of year, it gets chilly in the evenings when the desert sun goes down. We brought – and needed – jackets!
If you want slightly warmer weather, come once spring training has finished for spring break or Easter vacations. The fall is also another ideal time to visit for great weather.
Summer is naturally a slower season because it is so hot in Arizona. But that’s also when some hotel deals can really be found. You can easily make a summer vacation work if you plan to spend more time by the pool and at more of the many indoor activities in the area – Tempe certainly has many. If you truly think you won’t be able to handle the blazing heat of July or August, come in June or September instead when temperatures are still hot but a bit more reasonable.
Last but not least, how much time do you need to spend in Tempe to do the city justice? My family spent three full days exploring Tempe at a pretty speedy pace and still couldn’t get to everything on our must-see list. So I’d say don’t make the mistake of only planning a day or so in the area. That’s especially true if you plan to spend some of that time watching baseball games! If you are going to spend time exclusively in Tempe, you’ll need at least a long weekend. Alternatively, a trip of up to a full week would be ideal to visit Tempe as well as attractions in several other cities in the Phoenix metro area.