Phoenix, Arizona is known for its rugged rocks and proliferation of desert plants. It’s also renowned for its hot climate, sports, and a thriving urban culture. While visiting Camelback Mountain, the Sonoran Desert National Monument, and the Desert Botanical Garden are definitely awesome things to do, there is a host of underrated, relatively unknown attractions that can transform your getaway into something truly memorable. That said, take a look at hidden gems situated close to most Phoenix vacation rentals.

1. Alwun House

Alwun House, just a few blocks from the downtown area, is both a center for the arts and a historical site. Built in 1912 by John Sedler, it’s a bungalow style home from the turn of the century. Now the brightly painted house serves as an off-the-beaten-path nonprofit art gallery sitting on five acres of ground. You can view the house, art, and gardens or participate in one of the many events that regularly take place from the Grimmer Tales exhibit (think Once Upon a Time with a dark twist) to the three-day Bird City Comedy Festival. Located in a housing area, you can get a vacation rental in the same area and walk over for a visit or drive through the historic Garfield neighborhood.

2. Rio Salado Audubon Center

Located on the banks of the Salt River in South Phoenix, the Rio Salado Audubon Center is often overlooked for the more popular South Mountain Park further south or the Desert Botanical Garden to the east. However, this little oasis of natural river habitat is a prime example of life in Phoenix sans the humans with all the native birds and plant life you could want. Burrowing owls, the western yellow-billed cuckoo, and the Magnificent hummingbird can all be seen here along with hundreds of others. Stop by for the monthly Birds n’ Beer event (every third Thursday) featuring birds, beer, and live entertainment, or opt for a family-friendly educational event or nature walk. You can even volunteer with the family, a great opportunity to help out and teach the little ones about the outdoors.

3. Taqueria El Fundador

In western Phoenix just on the outside if I-17, lies Taqueria El Fundador. You’ll recognize it from the giant Bandido painted on the side of the building. Despite the huge wall art, this little joint is just that: little and overlooked, unfortunately for all the touristas. Fortunately for you, you only have to fight off locals as you enjoy tacos and burritos stuffed with freshly spit-roasted meats and enhanced with a range of mild to flamethrower-hot salsas. If you’ve never been, grab the bean burritos or tacos al pastor, two of the most popular dishes. This eatery is opened daily and right by public transportation, so you can easily get to it (preferably often during your stay).

4. Hotel San Carlos

Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix is less about a place to stay and more about history. For instance, it was the first air-conditioned hotel in Arizona at its opening in 1928. It also housed some famous movie stars who included Mae West, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe. As a result, it has its own walk of Fame. It’s also purportedly haunted by a woman in white, the ghost of a suicide who jumped from the roof the year the hotel was opened. Take a tour, and listen to the guide delight you with the ghost stories and sightings surrounded the site.

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5. Urban Bat Watching

If you want a totally unique travel experience, head down to the Maricopa County Flood Control Tunnel at Camelback Road and 40th Street (there are signs to help you) around sunset. At that point, several thousand Mexican free-tailed baths with some western pipistrelle bats thrown in break cover and go on their nightly scavenging raids of insects. This only occurs from spring to summer through maternity season.

6. Cha Da Thai

Cha Da Thai might not be the obvious choice for dinner when you’re in a city just north of the Mexican border, but you’ll be glad you went when you taste the Cha Da Twister, a combination of egg noodles, green curry sauce, and fried prawns. The unassuming place–on the outside at least–is located in a Scottsdale strip mall in the northeastern Phoenix metropolitan area on the edge of the Salt River Reservation. When you see purple walls and soothing decor, you’ve come to the right place. It’s fairly surrounded by vacation rentals, making it the ideal go-to place between attractions when you need to grab something good fast. Plus, it’s close to the OdySea Aquarium so you can hit both in the same afternoon.

7. Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve

Northern Phoenix boasts the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve, an underrated preserve and park featuring Hedgpeth Hills markings dating back to over 5,000 years old. While most visitors head to the bigger Cave Buttes Recreation Area and Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, both of which are nearby, most miss this little spot of history and nature found within the city’s boundaries. If you’re visiting the petroglyphs, opt for the sunset tour, which offers the best lighting for viewing. The preserve also has a Wet ‘n’ Wild and family golf so you can make a day of it.

8. My Mystery Castle

My Mystery Castle is located on the brink of the South Mountain Park in southern Phoenix. While most drive right by, headed for the rugged landscape of the park, those fortunate enough to stop will find a charming, rambling stone castle. It was originally built by Architect Boyce Luther Gulley as a playhouse for his daughter. He kept on building onto the original structure using found materials until an 18-room mansion emerged. Guided tours are offered from October to May, avoiding the hottest months of the year.

9. Papago Brewery

In the eastern Phoenix metro area lies Papago Brewery, which is nestled within the out-of-the-way Papago Plaza Shopping Center. It boasts the best beer selection in the valley with local craft brews and offers the classic bar experience including darts, board games, beer on tap, and great pub food. Rub elbows with the locals as you dine on hand-stretched pizza moistened with Orange Blossom Ale. The brewery also participates in several events, so keep your eyes peeled for something very exciting, such as the annual Arizona Beer Week in February.

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