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A weekend getaway to the “Valley of the Sun” in Arizona is now just two hours away, thanks to American Airlines’ new non-stop flights from Santa Rosa to Phoenix. Emerging under sapphire-blue skies, passengers make their way to palmy vacation resorts, where they settle into lounge chairs beside the swimming pools, and with umbrella-topped libations in hand, they wonder what Phoenix and the adjacent resort city of Scottsdale are all about.

“Cactus League” spring training for the Giants and the A’s (and more teams) comes to mind, and golf on 200+ courses. Other popular activities are climbing Pinnacle Peak and Camelback Mountain, shopping in upscale malls and cruising around on trolleys and on the light rail to eateries, tourist attractions and nightspots.

Art, history, music, cowboys

Beyond the pools and the play, the surprise of the sprawling cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale are the abundant and rather flamboyant expressions of art and culture, from literally hundreds of outdoor art installations to truly unique art museums and historic sites.

The Phoenix Art Museum, the largest art museum in the southwestern United States, showcases special exhibits and various forms of art from all over the world. Just up the street, the Heard Museum displays more than 40,000 pieces of fine art and cultural artifacts in twelve galleries. The on-site Courtyard Café is a great place to take a break from viewing the huge collection of rare Native American textiles, beadwork, basketry, ceramics and sculpture. This year until mid-August, a blockbuster exhibition entitled “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera” includes Kahlo’s famous Self Portrait with Monkeys, and Rivera’s Calla Lilly Vendor. On the first Friday evening of each month, the Heard opens its doors for a party; admission is free, live music and special artisan events ensue and food and drink are enjoyed. And in November, the museum hosts the annual Mercado de Las Artes, featuring strolling mariachis and a lively marketplace with Hispanic artists from Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.

A brand new bastion of cowboy culture, Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West displays paintings, sculpture, artifacts and interactive exhibits from across the Western states. Maynard Dixon’s 1935 mural of Kit Carson’s mountain men leads the way to depictions of the Lewis and Clark expedition, to the works of Arizona artist John Coleman and those by Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles M. Russell, Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser; and to vintage saddles, spurs and ephemera that illuminate the lives of the cowboys.

Rated Phoenix’s top attraction by TripAdvisor, unlike any cultural institution in the world, the Musical Instrument Museum presents more than 6,000 instruments in riveting, interactive audio-visual displays. Visitors see, hear and feel the vibes of such icons as Johnny Cash, Elvis, Taylor Swift and traditional music from around the world. On view through Sept.4, “Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces” presents on the spectacular artistry of inlaid guitars.

Adjacent to Sky Harbor Airport, the Pueblo Grande Museum lies on an ancient Hohokam archaeological site. A short walking trail leads to a platform mound, a ball court and replicated dwellings, and to galleries of pre-Columbian and Native American artifacts. Through August, the “One World, Many Voices: The Artistry of Canyon Records” exhibit features one of the country’s oldest independent record labels, accompanied by live music on Sundays.

Today a National Historic Landmark, Taliesin West was, 1937 to 1959, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and his student protégées, who hand-built a sleek, revolutionary-in-style complex of homes and studios at the foot of the looming McDowell Mountains. A must for first-time visitors, best booked in advance, the uber-popular 90-minute guided tour showcases Wright’s influence on architecture throughout the surrounding region and the world.

On an historic ranch established in the 1930s, open to the public for tours, Cattle Track Art Compound is a cluster of busy workshops and studios inhabited by architects, printmakers, a blacksmith, a jeweler and a ceramist, among others. The ranch has a long history of resident artists such as Native American Fritz Scholder and the abstract expressionist Louise Nevelson.

Art alfresco

The Arizona Science Center, the historic 1895 Rosson House Museum and a collection of restored historic homes and buildings (some housing restaurants and bars) comprise Heritage & Science Park in downtown Phoenix. The leafy park is also known for a busy calendar of annual ethnic festivals and events.

A veritable outdoor Southwestern art gallery and museum, the Scottsdale Public Art Collection incorporates more than 100 sculptures and installations. A self- or audio-guided tour shows off such works as the kaleidoscopic mirrored panels of Donald Lipski’s “The Doors;” Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture and monumental Western equestrian bronzes such as the monumental Hashknife Pony Express and the Arabian Horse Fountain. Anchoring the canal waterfront, designed by Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, steel-clad, 64-foot-high pylons create a moving shaft of light over the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, made magical by the soft sounds of his world-famous bronze windbells. (Soleri fans visit his gallery and studio at Cosanti to watch the fiery casting of his bronze windbells, “must have” souvenirs of Scottsdale.)

In the city’s art district, standing tall at the entrance to Expressions Gallery are two life-size, bronze Native American figures: “Rain in the Face” and “American Horse.” The artist, Dave McGary, is legendary for his goose-bump-producing statuary in the Smithsonian, in the White House and at state capitol buildings throughout the West.

A visit to one of the Phoenix or Scottsdale luxury resorts often turns out to be a cultural experience. Paintings by legendary cowboy artist, Lon Megargee, are on view at the circa-1930s Hermosa Inn, which is an architectural icon in itself.

At the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, visitors watch Cuban artist, Nelson Garcia-Miranda, create his exciting works most evenings, and the public spaces of The Phoenician resort are home to a $25 million art collection on par with the state’s top museums. It’s a short road trip through dramatic desert landscape to the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North to see extensive fine art installations, and, cocktail in hand, to watch the stars come out over the Valley of the Sun.

Cultural Tours

Phoenix Rising Tours offers a History & Culture Trolley Tour; the Art & Mural Bike Tour and “Step-On” guided tours in Phoenix (www.phxtours.com, 480-710-1006).

Ultimate Art and Cultural Tours’ local expert, Ace Bailey, has personal connections with artisans and historians who meet personally with her clientele (www.ultimatearttours.com, 480-634-6850).

The Free Scottsdale Trolley stops at scenic and historic sights around town, from Old Town to the waterfront and the arts and architecture districts (www.experiencescottsdale.com, 480-312-7250).

Karen Misuraca is a Sonoma Valley-based guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder of DeepCultureTravel.com.