Don’t make the mistake of thinking of Flagstaff as just a small northern Arizona mountain town. It’s SO much more than your typical National Park gateway town.
This in-depth guide will help you plan:
- what to do in Flagstaff, as well as,
- give practical travel tips like getting from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, and
- finding Flagstaff lodging that’ll keep you comfy while you explore this action-packed area of Arizona.
The Best Things to Do in Flagstaff Arizona
Flagstaff is not what you typically picture when you think of Arizona. Swap out the cacti for Ponderosa Pines. Instead of the red-orange desert sprawling endlessly, you’ll see snowcapped mountain peaks and wooded forests full of Aspen and evergreen trees.
Sound beautiful? It is.
Flagstaff sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet and, because of this, it experiences four seasons and bright days of sun. The town has its roots in the historic pioneering days of the west. This past is still visible from the turn-of-the-century buildings downtown to the never-ending freight trains passing through town.
Flagstaff also sits along 14 miles of Historic Route 66 and has an incredible lunar legacy and deep-rooted connection to studying the Universe. Combine these with a wide range of 4-season outdoor activities, Native American roots, and a mountain-chic downtown, it’s beyond clear why Flagstaff is a must on your Arizona itinerary.
If you’re driving from Phoenix, it’ll take just under 2 1/2 hours to reach Flagstaff. From Las Vegas, the drive is just under 4 hours. Either way, use a site like Kayak to compare rental car costs. They search multiple sites at once so it’s easy to see which company is offering the best deals for your dates.
No matter what your travel style is, Flagstaff has the right hotel to serve as your comfortable northern Arizona base.
- Downtown Flagstaff hotels like the Weatherford Hotel offer a one-of-a-kind historic charm and a stay in the heart of Flagstaff’s nightlife scene.
- Cabins in Flagstaff become your own slice of home away from home.
- Bed and Breakfasts and motels in Flagstaff range from quaint, mountain charm to budget-friendly and efficient.
- And, if you’re looking for pet-friendly hotels in Flagstaff, not to worry! The city and its hotels are among the most welcoming of any place I’ve ever been.
Where to Stay in Flagstaff
For travelers hoping to earn miles and points or use them for an award stay, Flagstaff has Hilton, Marriott, Choice, Radisson, IHG, and Wyndham hotels.
I had a really comfortable and enjoyable stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton Flagstaff. The hotel is located less than 5 minutes by car from the historic downtown. It’s conveniently located to all Flagstaff things to do. A full breakfast was served in the lobby restaurant and included in the hotel’s nightly rate.
My room was open with high ceilings and plenty of space. I loved having a mini-fridge, which is not always a given these days. And, of course, as someone who travels with devices like my laptop, having a safe that could fit everything made me very happy.
Can’t-Miss Things to Do in Flagstaff Arizona
The now historic downtown Flagstaff was formed around the railroad and lumber industries in the mid to late 1800s. Flagstaff’s train depot opened in 1926 and remains a symbol of the town’s early days even though plenty of others like the Babbit Brothers Building or the Citizen’s Bank Building were built before the train depot.
Flagstaff downtown makes a great place to begin exploring. For starters, the Flagstaff Visitor Center is inside the train depot and has maps, guidebooks, and a ton of great information about the area.
From here, stroll around the pedestrian-friendly downtown streets of San Francisco and Leroux either on your own or with the help of a Historic Walk guide from the visitor’s center. The side-by-side buildings (some more than 100 years old) have been preserved and adapted to both honor Flagstaff’s past and embrace modern small businesses and an unbelievable number of restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Speaking of which, your list of things to do in Flagstaff, AZ must include time enjoying the city’s incredible food scene.
Before visiting, I had no idea Arizona cities like Flagstaff and Tempe were total foodie havens? Did you? Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or big enough pants to eat at all of Flagstaff’s 97 restaurants to tell you with complete certainty which are the best restaurants in Flagstaff.
But speaking directly on behalf of my taste buds, these were my favs!
I had my first meal in Flagstaff here, and HOLY COW was the bar set high! You know when you visit an art museum. All the paintings are great but the ones by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Monet just stop you in your tracks. You can see they’re on another whole level of genius. That’s Shift.
Using local ingredients to plan the menu, owners Dara and Joe serve up robust combinations of flavor disguised as absolute works of art. Seriously, the food presentation was striking and second only to how delicious everything tasted. The concept of Shift is to order small plates and have multiple courses…to which I did not resist!
I recommend sitting at the bar not just to see these master chefs at work but also engage with them throughout your meal. Leave any notion of high-brow food snootiness behind. Flagstaff is a mountain town with a friendly, welcoming vibe and dinner at Shift is a continuation of this sentiment.
Macy’s European Coffeehouse & Bakery
A local favorite with barely a seat to be found, Macy’s serves up foamy warm beverages in oversized mugs, hearty baked goods, and breakfast staples like eggs, oatmeal, and granola. After 12, stop by for a lunch sandwich or salad.
My breakfast sandwich was delicious but the coffee culture and comfortable ambiance are far more memorable. Macy’s is the perfect place to grab a quick bite or spend half the morning catching up with an old friend while sipping a cup of joe and noshing on a sweet treat.
Criollo Latin Kitchen
I don’t know about you, but preparing authentic Latin cuisine is hard! No matter what I try, my black beans or tacos never taste like the real thing. So I was excited to eat at Criollo because it’s truly food I can’t get at home.
The restaurant uses homegrown and locally-farmed Arizona foods for a fresh, vibrant take on popular Latin dishes. My black beans were whole and not refried. The mushroom taco was hearty and full of flavor. The tacos are street-sized, perfect for a small bite or ordering a few to try different ones. I totally could have filled up on a few more of these goodies!
I also loved the art hanging on the walls featuring local artists, which only added to the warm and inviting community vibe put out there by the Criollo staff. I dined solo at Criollo and even still, felt a part of the busy dining scene.
Tourist Home All Day Cafe
Tourist Home is a bright and airy cafe serving pastries, brunch, sandwiches, and salads. Grab a counter seat, sit on the outdoor patio, or order to go. Tourist Home has that relaxed, local cafe feel combined with a modern, hipster-ish vibe. If you’re walking around downtown Flagstaff and need some lunch or just a sweet pick-me-up and place to rest your legs, you’ve landed in the right spot.
Let me start by saying, coming from NYC I’ve had more than my fair share of amazing authentic pizza. I’ve done the legwork and know a legit slice when I taste one.
Many places to eat in Flagstaff are situated in the historic downtown but Fat Olive’s is about a mile or so past the downtown center right off of Route 66. They pride themselves on serving authentic Neopolitan pizza, importing ingredients and their wood-fired oven directly from Italy.
And rightfully so. On the night I visited, the dining room was packed and it was definitely not by chance. Hands down, my Bufala Margherita pizza topped with arugula was some of the best pizza I’ve had outside of Italy.
Flagstaff Public Art
As you walk around downtown Flagstaff, you can’t miss the building-side murals, mosaics, and other works of public art on display. There are over 40 works of art spread across the town catching your eyes and making you think about the artist’s message, as well as telling the story of the Flagstaff.
I loved the public art in Flagstaff, maybe even more so because it was semi-unexpected. I spied a few murals upon arriving into town and knew there was no way I’d leave town without seeing more. Using this Flagstaff Public Art map, I walked around for a couple of hours one morning with my camera out to see as much art as I could. Definitely save some time in your Flagstaff itinerary for a public art scavenger hunt!
Flagstaff Route 66
No other town has as much of Historic Route 66 in its limits as Flagstaff. You’re sure to check off more than a few things on your Route 66 bucket list whether you’re soaking up as much classic Americana as you can, passing through Flagstaff as part of a larger Route 66 or Arizona road trip, or just want a few key location selfies along Flagstaff’s stretch of Route 66.
Flagstaff’s historic buildings, famous Route 66 crossroads, and Route 66 cafes, motels, and neon signs combine everything that’s classic about this historic route.
Flagstaff prides itself on its pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit. You won’t find downtown streets lined with the same stores you’d find back home. Small business owners thrive in Flagstaff and the result is a one-of-a-kind downtown shopping experience. Flagstaff stores include an old-style general store, artisan clothing boutiques, sweet shops, creative house decor, and pet shops with a sweater for your fur baby no one else at the dog park will be wearing.
I’m a notorious light packer, priding myself on only 1 rolling carry on whenever possible. Well, this turned out to be an epic fail for this trip! I was kicking myself as I browsed a few downtown Flagstaff shops (crying on the inside) for everything I would’ve loved to fit in my bag.
Luckily, you don’t have to suffer! My takeaways are to save time for Flagstaff’s shops and to pack an empty bag to fill up for your return trip home. 🙂
You haven’t truly been to Flagstaff unless you’ve taken a journey into the Universe. And, Lowell Observatory is the perfect launchpad.
Flagstaff is much more than just another destination to stargaze. It has a lunar legacy which includes being the place where Apollo 11 astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained before landing on the moon. Scientists at Lowell Observatory studied the surface of the moon with high-powered telescopes to map the moon and helped prepare these first lunar astronauts.
Astronomers at Lowell’s Observatory also first discovered Pluto. And, Flagstaff is a certified International Dark Sky Community, meaning the city is dedicated to protecting its night sky by limiting the amount of light pollution.
Without a doubt, Lowell Observatory is one of the coolest things to do in Flagstaff with kids or adults! I went on a Saturday night and it was packed, as in standing room only crowds for live indoor astronomy shows!
On the observatory campus, there are high-powered telescopes that let you see the moon, stars, and planets closer than you ever have before. Guides also lead walking tours of the night sky, pointing out constellations and explaining the view on the night of your visit. And in 2019, Flagstaff is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with special tours at the observatory and events around town.
Lowell Observatory isn’t just another place on a list of Flagstaff attractions to see. It’s at the center of what makes a Flagstaff visit complete.
Pro Tip: The USGS Flagstaff Science Campus has one of the actual lunar rover test vehicles on display. It’s located in Building #6, along with other lunar legacy memorabilia and newspaper clippings. It’s free to see after signing in as a guest.
With the exception of some super popular National Monuments like the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore, the 59 National Parks across the U.S. typically steal the spotlight from the 117 National Monuments.
Add to this, Grand Canyon National Park is the 2nd most visited National Park in the U.S. and is by far the most popular place to visit near Flagstaff. So, it’s no wonder you may not have heard much about Flagstaff’s 3 standout National Monuments. I certainly hadn’t.
Quite honestly, though, I was blown away by how fascinating each one was. Yes, visit the Grand Canyon, but you need to have these Northern Arizona gems on your Flagstaff itinerary.
For practical planning purposes, these National Monuments are all in proximity to one another and can easily be done in a day or less.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
The canyon is the former home of the Sinagua people who made cliffside dwellings in shallow caves and somehow managed to live and survive in this dry canyon. Today, remnants of those cave houses still exist and date back to the early 1100s. Visitors can choose to survey the canyon from the Rim Trail or hike down into Walnut Canyon for a closer look at what’s left of these cliff houses using the Island Trail.
If you have the time and are physically able, go for the Island Trail. The hike itself isn’t long but you’ll need to have the stamina to climb out using the stairs along the trail.
Sunset Crater National Monument – Lava Flow Trail
Flagstaff’s lunar legacy has direct ties back to Sunset Crater. The Apollo 11 astronauts used the terrain for training missions before their fateful first moon landing.
Once you set off on the Lava Flow Trail, it’s not difficult to see why. Volcanic rock from Sunset Crater’s eruption over 1000 years ago blankets the landscape. The result is a gray gravely surface that feels absolutely otherworldly!
And with snow-capped mountains in the distance and evergreen trees dotting the landscape around the lava flow, you’ll even have to remind yourself that you’re actually in Arizona.
The trail is a 1-mile loop-trail along an easy path. If you’re interested in connecting all the pieces of Flagstaff’s connection to outer space, this National Monument hike is a must. And, in honor of the 2019 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, look for special tours at crater field training sites like Sunset Crater.
Wupatki National Monument
After a visit to Sunset Crater, drive along the scenic 35-mile loop road that connects to Wupatki. Sitting at the divide between Arizona’s desert and it’s Ponderosa Pine forests, you’ll come upon ancient Pueblo dwellings. These dwellings are remarkably well-preserved given they’re nearly 1000 years old and situated in such a harsh landscape.
The main Wupatki dwelling sits behind the Visitor’s Center at the monument’s main entrance. Use the self-guided walking path leading to and around the ancient ruins with the help of a free historical booklet from the Visitor’s Center.
Without a doubt, Wupatki was one of the best authentic Native American cultural sites I’ve ever seen. You’ll wonder (like I did) why sites like Wupatki and the other Flagstaff National Monuments aren’t more well-known.
Museum of Northern Arizona
To dig deeper into Flagstaff’s Native American history, spend a few hours at the Museum of Northern Arizona. It’s a compact gem of a museum dedicated to teaching the geology of the Colorado Plateau and showing how the Native Americans lived long ago and are still present today.
The Colorado Plateau covers parts of 4 states including, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. It’s a natural marvel in and of itself and is home to 9 National Parks (including the mighty 5 in Utah) and more than 15 National Monuments! The museum is a great introduction to how one of the Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon, formed.
The Native American artifacts tell how these early people lived on the Colorado Plateau and teach about their customs and culture. The museum also displays temporary art exhibitions from modern-day Native American artists including a younger generation using skateboards as a new canvas to paintings that show how Native American students used art to connect with their cultural traditions.
Flagstaff Skiing at the Arizona Snowbowl
Seriously, did you ever think you could ski in Arizona?? I know I didn’t!
But, Flagstaff’s high elevation makes it cold enough for snow. Not just a couple of inches per season but rather between 100-240 inches of the fluffy white stuff in a given year. That lands Flagstaff, AZ at the top of the list for snowiest cities in the U.S! (Yes, Arizona city & snowiest…it takes a moment to process. 😉 )
Just 14 miles north of Flagstaff, the Arizona Snowbowl sits at 9,200 feet above ski level and has the longest ski season in Arizona. Take your pick from 55 trails covered in powder and 2,300 vertical feet just waiting to be carved.
I’ve been teaching my nephews and niece how to ski and can so appreciate when a ski resort makes it more affordable for families! This season, Arizona Snowbowl is offering free Power Kids Passes. Kids 10 and under get a free pass just by registering online or picking one up at the ticket office with no date restrictions or minimum purchase. That’s as sweet a ski lift deal you’ll find just about anywhere!
Pro Tip: Visiting Flagstaff during the warmer months? Take the scenic chairlift up for sweeping views, outdoor activities like hiking, and a bite to eat.
This duplex Arts & Craft style mansion was built in 1904 for the Riordan family. The Riordan brothers built their fortune by running the Lumber Mill in town. They married and raised their families in Flagstaff, and during that time, gave money to establish healthcare for mill workers, a Catholic church, education in the form of schools and libraries, and even donated the land for the Lowell Observatory campus.
Today, the mansion is run by the Arizona Historical Society. Guided tours of the house are led on the hour and last about an hour. Not only is seeing the historic house an interesting thing to see in Flagstaff, but the Riordan family and town history add a fuller understanding of how the town grew.
Flagstaff Hiking & Biking
It seems almost silly that Flagstaff’s hiking and cycling paths would be this far down on the list. But, there are so many fun things to do in Flagstaff that the list is long and you just might overlook the miles and miles of urban and scenic trails for walking, hiking, and biking. Buffalo Park is just a few minutes from downtown. Locals and visitors love it because you can see the tops of the San Francisco peaks and access trails in Coconino National Forest and the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile statewide trail that goes from one side of Arizona to the other.
Looking for the best hotels in Flagstaff?
Grand Canyon Day Trip
In 2019, Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating its 100th Anniversary, with special Centennial events held throughout the year!
Roughly 6 million visitors travel to see the Grand Canyon every year. More than 5 million of them choose Flagstaff as their gateway to this iconic U.S. National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and 1 of only 7 natural wonders of the world.
Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon is just a 90-minute drive. Whether you’re driving yourself or joining a Grand Canyon day tour, leaving in the morning means you’ll have plenty of time to spend a full day at the Grand Canyon. You could also easily return for another day in the Grand Canyon while still using Flagstaff as your base.
Use this Grand Canyon day trip guide for the specifics of planning your trip and, in the meanwhile, here are answers to a few commonly asked Grand Canyon questions.
1. What is the distance from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon or Flagstaff to the South Rim?
- Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about 80 miles.
2. What should I see in the Grand Canyon in one day?
- There are so many things to see and do it’s hard to give an answer! But, you should plan on a combination of walking and shuttling around the Rim Trail, visiting Mather Point and Desert View Watch Tower. If you are able, hiking down into the canyon for a day hike is a great way to experience the Grand Canyon. The Bright Angel Trail is one of the most popular in the National Park. (Full Grand Canyon guide coming soon!)
3. Are there Grand Canyon tours from Flagstaff?
- Yes. There are classic day tours to the Grand Canyon that leave from Flagstaff. These are full day tours that include transportation, a guide, and lunch. If you were hoping for a birds-eye view of the canyon, air tours of the Grand Canyon depart from an airport near the canyon.
Day Trips from Flagstaff
The Grand Canyon aside, Flagstaff sits in a sweet spot for getting to other popular places to visit in Arizona. Whether you’re looking for more jaw-dropping natural landscapes, historic towns, or just want to set off on a mini Arizona road trip, have your camera ready to discover all the things to do in northern Arizona.
Flagstaff to Sedona
Sedona is of the most popular things to do near Flagstaff. Sedona’s red rock formations sit just 28 miles to the south. Spend the day hiking, driving and making stops along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, or off-roading on a Jeep tour.
Flagstaff to Williams
In less than an hour, you can step back in time to the old Wild West all while staying along historic Route 66. The popular Grand Canyon Railway also travels from Williams to the Grand Canyon. Enjoy the views on your way to the national park, but just keep an eye out for any outlaws along the journey.
Flagstaff to Meteor Crater National Landmark
It’s not every day you see something that’s lasted for 50,000 years. But, in less than 1 hour from Flagstaff, you could be standing at the exact impact spot where a meteor smashed into the Earth. At 550 feet deep and nearly 2.5 miles wide, you’re sure to be amazed by this preserved impact site.
Flagstaff to Winslow
If you’ve made it to Meteor Crater, drive a few more minutes into the town of Winslow. It sits along Historic Route 66, has connections to the 1970’s rock band, the Eagles, and is home to some of the best Native American petroglyphs.
Flagstaff to Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon’s slot canyon is just 2 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. Who hasn’t seen the incredible canyon photos with its smoothly curved walls in every shade of orange? If you take your own car, don’t miss Horseshoe Bend less than 20 minutes away. If you’d rather sit back and enjoy the scenery, set off on an Antelope Canyon tour from Flagstaff instead.
Flagstaff to Monument Valley
Not technically a day trip, but questions about visiting Monument Valley come up often. It would take about 3 hours to reach Monument Valley from Flagstaff. So while not a day trip, it’s an iconic stop on an incredible Arizona or Utah road trip itinerary.
Flagstaff might just be the most popular gateway town to the Grand Canyon. But, as you can see, it’s a total package destination in its own right.
Which Flagstaff activities are on your itinerary?
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Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Flagstaff. As always, all opinions are my own honest thoughts and feelings about fabulous Flagstaff.