By Tim Hull
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- The top sights and unique experiences: Visit remnants of ancient cultures or browse galleries of Pueblo art. Tour Mission San Xavier del Bac, stroll through Tucson’s El Presidio Historic District, and see artifacts from the Old West in a ghost town
- Get a taste of the city: Eat traditional chiles rellenos and fresh handmade tortillas or try a Sonoran hot dog with all the fixings. Dance to live music and check out the street vendors at downtown’s Second Saturdays, sip habanero-infused vodka, and stargaze at an astronomy bar
- Ideas for recreation like hiking, biking, or horseback riding among the saguaro cacti, or stopping at a resort for a round of golf or a spa day
- Local insight from Tucson resident Tim Hull
- Extensive coverage of the Santa Cruz Valley, the Border Region, and Southeastern Arizona: Go deep into Kartchner Caverns, hike the Huachuca Mountains, or kick back at a historic saloon in Tombstone
- Honest advice on when to go, where to stay, how to get there, and how to get around
- Maps and Tools like background information on the landscape, history, culture, plus full-color photos and easy-to-read maps
Planning Your Trip
THE THREE-DAY BEST OF THE OLD PUEBLO
SONORAN DESERT ADVENTURES
MIDTOWN BIKE RIDE
Over the past two centuries, Tucson has grown from an adobe-hut village on the far edge of the Spanish frontier into a major Sunbelt city, and yet through all that time and change the Old Pueblo has held on to the disparate cultural ingredients that have made it one of North America’s most unique destinations.
In Tucson, visitors will find the true Southwestern experience, one that is neither encased under glass nor petrified through architectural uniformity; the Southwestern lifestyle is lived, not merely marketed. And what is this lifestyle? It involves a dedication to cultural mixing and a concentration on an active life lived outdoors on the saguaro-lined trails of the desert. This lifestyle is casual and laid-back, with flip-flops and shorts sufficing for dinner-wear, and a friendly margarita-and-sunshine-inspired smile sufficing for a general greeting.
If you’re looking for extreme pampering, holistic poolside navel-gazing, brisk hikes into the cactus foothills, and horseback rides along ancient trails, there are numerous world-famous resorts at which to stay and play. If you’re longing for physical proof of the myths of the Old West, you’ll find it in many of the city’s museums and historic buildings. If you want to experience the Sonoran Desert, one of the continent’s most exotic natural landscapes, you’ll find it within a short drive of your hotel. This Old Pueblo is bustling with life, the Southwestern life—one lived just a bit off center, a bit slower, with a mild sunburn and a big happy smile.
Planning Your Trip
WHERE TO GO
The downtown area is where Tucson began and where its heart still beats today—although downtown usually becomes a bit deserted after 5 P.M. on Friday. History is everywhere here, and it’s the only truly pedestrian-friendly section of the city.
The University District has 4th Avenue—the city’s bohemian-chic enclave—sometimes called a smaller version of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. It’s busy here most hours of the day with a mix of University of Arizona students and hipsters.
Tucson’s midtown neighborhood is where most of the Old Pueblo’s real-life living takes place. The Fort Lowell Museum in the northern part of this district preserves the artifacts of the military’s role in Tucson, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens are the best place to learn about the unique local flora that thrives on aridity. The small but prestigious Reid Park Zoo is a must for families.
The foothills area features artist Ted DeGrazia’s romantic DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun and renowned architect Josias Joesler’s imprint on Tucson. And at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, the desert meets the mountains and a cool-water creek rushes down from the peaks to create one of the state’s most beautiful and popular desert riparian areas.
DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun
West Side and the Tucson Mountains
This rugged desert land, west of central Tucson, is where you’ll find Tucson’s premier attraction, the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Here you’ll see mountain lions and black bears lounging on warm rocks, and watch baby bighorn sheep negotiating the man-made cliff sides. But before you even reach the museum, you’ll rise and descend over spectacular Gates Pass, looking down across a sweeping saguaro-dotted landscape.
East Side and the Rincon Valley
The top draw here is Saguaro National Park East, the park’s largest and oldest section. You can walk, bike, or drive through a thick saguaro forest, one of the best and most accessible portions of the Sonoran Desert and the very best place to learn about and witness the desert’s fauna and flora. Head east from the park to tour Colossal Cave Mountain Park, where Old West outlaws used to hide out.
The South Side holds one of Tucson’s top sights, San Xavier del Bac (the “white dove of the desert”), one of the nation’s finest remaining examples of mission architecture. Lovers of Mexican food in all its varieties will want to return to the small incorporated city of South Tucson again and again, for it is here that you’ll find the region’s best enchiladas, tamales, and carne asada.
Greater Tucson includes the forested heights of the Santa Catalina range, whose highest peak, Mount Lemmon, reaches above 9,000 feet and holds the nation’s southernmost ski run. The mountains feature such a different ecosystem that the trip along the twisting Sky Island Scenic Byway is like driving from Mexico to Canada in about an hour. To the south is the lush Santa Cruz Valley, where you can learn all about the nuclear missiles that once ringed the city.
boulders on Mount Lemmon
WHEN TO GO
The Tucson calendar can be divided into just three seasons: spring, summer, and second spring. In January, the average high is about 64°F. February is the Old Pueblo’s so-called “golden month,” with an average daily high of 70°F. At least three major events—the Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase, the Fiesta de los Vaqueros, and the Accenture Match Play golf tournament—have the hotels booked solid during this time. Unless you’re coming to town for one of these popular events, I’d recommend staying away from town in February, despite the near-perfect weather.
In March, the average high is about 73°F, and in April, Tucson and Southern Arizona is a paradise, with an average daily high of 81°F.
The high season, during which prices are highest and tourists are everywhere, runs from February to the end of April. This is the first spring, and it is the most popular time of the year. You need to plan ahead and get a reservation if you’re coming to town during this time. The spring months also feature the multicolored bloom of all the desert’s cacti, trees, and wildflowers.
It’s very hot in the desert in the summer (often over 105°F), but it’s perfect in the mountains, and in July and August Tusconans can usually count on near-daily late-afternoon thunderstorms.
THE THREE-DAY BEST OF THE OLD PUEBLO
The following suggested itinerary is meant to guide you to the city’s very best—the essential Old Pueblo experience. You’ll need your own car, a camera, a hat, and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
3 Try to get an early start for sightseeing, especially during the hot months, when you only have a few hours before the weather gets unbearable. If you’re an early riser, I’d suggest heading downtown to the St. Augustine Cathedral before 7 A.M. You can stand across the street and watch as the rising sun lights up the Spanish revival cathedral, and the tall, skinny imported palm trees cast their shaggy shadows against the glowing building. It’s a perfect Southwestern scene.
St. Augustine Cathedral in early morning light
3 Head downtown to the Hotel Congress, have a big breakfast at The Cup Café, and take a look around the historic old hotel.
3 Hop in the car and head west from downtown into Tucson Mountain Park, stopping to enjoy the view of the desert below at Gates Pass.
3 Spend a few hours exploring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just down the hill.
3 Next, head back over the Tucson Mountains to downtown and stroll, shop, and eat a late lunch or early dinner on 4th Avenue and nearby Main Gate Square.
3 If you have it in you, barhop around Congress Street, 4th Avenue, and Main Gate Square, taking in a few bands at The Hut, The Playground, and Plush along the way.
3 Drive to midtown for a filling greasy-spoon breakfast at Frank’s.
3 On your way back downtown, stop by the Arizona Inn and have a look around the lush grounds.
3 Then drive to the El Presidio district downtown and explore the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block and El Presidio Real de San Agustín del Tucson for a few hours.
Tucson Museum of Art, downtown
3 For lunch, go to El Charro, right near the museum, or to Little Cafe Poca Cosa, a short walk away, then take a short drive south on I-19 and check out San Xavier del Bac.
3 In the late afternoon, drive into the foothills to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and take a tram ride up into the canyon or hike one of the trails.
3 As the sun dips behind the Santa Catalina Mountains, head on over to Hacienda del Sol for drinks and appetizers (or dinner) on the patio overlooking the city.
3 Hit El Parador (assuming it’s a Friday or Saturday night) for salsa dancing, or knock back a few drinks at The Tap Room and dance, or watch a band at Club Congress.
3 Depending on your personal inclinations, you should either tour Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson, or head north up the Sky Island Scenic Byway into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Both trips are scenic and fun and take about two hours of driving time round-trip; it just depends on whether you prefer sweeping mountain views or otherworldly underground sights.
3 If you’re headed up to the mountains, stop at the Rincon Market on your way out of town and pick up a picnic lunch. If you take a trip to the caverns, stop afterwards at the Horseshoe Café in Benson for lunch. Either way you go, you’ll likely get back to town in the late afternoon if you get an early start.
3 Once back downtown, head to Old Town Artisans to have a few drinks in the lush courtyard and check out the shops.
3 For your final dinner in Tucson, go to Mi Nidito or La Fuente, where you’ll be sent home with the brassy sounds of mariachi ringing in your sunburned ears.
MIDTOWN BIKE RIDE
Tucson is a biker’s paradise, what with the nearly constant beautiful weather, the many dedicated bike routes, and that perfect mixture of flatland breezeways and steep mountain roads. This ride through Midtown’s residential neighborhoods stays on the flats.
3 Pick up the 3rd Street Bike Route at the far eastern edge of Midtown at Wilmot Road and Rosewood Street. Follow the signs along the quiet residential streets, checking out all the little desertland bungalows along the way.
3 After about five miles of easy pedaling, you’ll pass Himmel Park, where you can pause for a dip in the public pool, or a quick set of tennis at the Himmel Park Tennis Center.
3 Cruise through the beautiful tree-lined Sam Hughes neighborhood. Cross Campbell Avenue and you’re on the campus of the University of Arizona.
University of Arizona campus
3 Ride to the west side of campus on the bike lanes, then take a rest and have some lunch at one of the many restaurants and bars at Main Gate Square.
3 From there you can continue your ride along the same route through the West University neighborhood, to 4th Avenue and the many attractions downtown.
West Side and the Tucson Mountains
East Side and the Rincon Valley
Many of Tucson’s attractions are meant to provide easy access to, and to put a human-made frame around, the exotic natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert, one of the rarest and strangest landscapes in North America. Even the Old Pueblo’s most urban sights—art museums and galleries, historic neighborhoods, the ruins of lost civilizations—must be seen and judged within the context of how their creators, residents, and builders adapted and responded to the area’s unique, often harsh environment.
Sightseeing in and around Tucson, you’ll discover not only the arid beauty of a mythic landscape, but also a kind of living timeline of a region that has been home to many different, often contradictory cultures going back at least 12,000 years.
You’ll see the left-behind evidence of the Hohokam, desertland farmers who lived here long before the Spanish came to the New World. You’ll learn the lifeways of the Tohono O’odham, and the Apache, who fought the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans, and each other for the right to make a life in this forbidding land. You’ll see the remains of the Spanish, who were building whitewashed missions and ranching the region’s fertile river valleys back when Jamestown was just somebody’s crazy idea. Everywhere you go you’ll feel and see the influence of Mexico, just an hour or so south of the city: The language, the culture, and the food of that dynamic nation infuse Tucson and its environs quite thoroughly. And you’ll also see evidence of the American pioneers, who began moving into the valley about 150 years ago, and their generations-long efforts to create a pretty typical American city in a decidedly atypical environment. Most of all, though, you will see the land. Its secrets may seep into your soul, and you may find yourself irrevocably changed because of it.
|Downtown||Map 1 (tap here)|
Bordered by S. Stone Ave., I-10, W. Cushing St., and W. 18th St.
The photogenic Sonoran-style row houses in the Barrio Histórico district on the southwest edge of downtown are well adapted to the desert environment. Their front entrances hug the property line (unlike their Anglo counterparts with large front and back yards) to make space for central courtyards hidden from the street, which provide a shaded outdoor living space within the home. Many of the adobes here have been lovingly and colorfully restored and now serve as offices, working galleries, and private residences. Sometimes called Barrio Viejo (the Old Neighborhood), the barrio has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s. It dates from the mid-1850s and, as its dominant architecture suggests, has traditionally been a Mexican enclave. Many similar neighborhoods once sprawled out to the edge of the El Presidio district, a large quarter referred to as Barrio Libre (Free Neighborhood), due either to the anything-goes atmosphere in some corners or because the Mexican population was mostly left alone to follow its own rules and culture. Much of the quarter was razed in the late 1960s to make way for the “urban renewal” program that built the Tucson Convention Center. The best examples of the adobe row houses can be found along Myer, Main, and Cushing. Along Myer look for the old Teatro Carmen, a now-empty Spanish-language theater that opened in 1915. The adobe building, which over the years would become a movie house, a boxing arena, and an Elks Lodge, still retains the charm and historic interest that once pervaded this district.
EL PRESIDIO PARK AND PIMA COUNTY COURTHOUSE
160 W. Alameda St.
HOURS: El Presidio Park daily 6 A.M.–10:30 P.M.; Pima County Courthouse Mon.–Fri. 8:30 A.M.–noon and 1–5 P.M.
The 80-year-old Pima County Courthouse has a sea-green tiled dome that is a landmark of the Old Pueblo’s modest skyline, and it’s worth a walk around the grounds of the city’s government beehive to take in the Spanish colonial revival touches and, on weekdays, to see downtown at its most industrious. On the weekends, especially in the summer, you’ll likely find the area mostly deserted but still inviting. Walk across the front courtyard through a few arches and you’ll be in El Presidio Park, with its fountains and memorial to the Mormon Battalion, which occupied the presidio briefly in late 1846. There are also memorials and statues in this large, urban government-center park honoring World War II veterans, John F. Kennedy, and various pioneers of the Old West. There’s usually a hot-dog cart on the plaza on weekdays, and plenty of opportunities for people-watching and shade.
EL PRESIDIO REAL DE SAN AGUSTÍN DEL TUCSON
Corner of Washington St. and Church Ave., 520/884-4214, www.tucsonpresidiotrust.org
HOURS: Oct.–May Mon.–Sun. 10 A.M.–4 P.M.; June–Sept. Thurs.–Sun. 10 A.M.–3 P.M.
Experts on the history, lifeways, and architecture of the original Spanish settlers of the Tucson valley have re-created a portion of the old Presidio de San Agustín del Tucson at the downtown corner of Washington Street and Church Avenue. Within the newly raised adobe walls there’s a large, realistic mural depicting daily life in and around the fort; the details are all historically accurate, and there are a few dark, cool adobe rooms set up in period style to show visitors what life was like on the far, lonely northern edge of the Spanish Empire circa 1776, when an Irishman working for the crown rode north to Tucson from Tubac to establish the fort in an effort to outrun Apache predations. During the week parking is available in a nearby parking garage on Alameda Street; metered parking is also available on nearby streets. On weekends, street parking is free.
El Presidio Real de San Agustín del Tucson
EL TIRADITO SHRINE
221 S. Main Ave.
HOURS: Daily 24 hours
- On Sale
- May 29, 2018
- Page Count
- 130 pages
- Moon Travel