Tucson is a comfortable mix of Old West, Mexican, Native American and Spanish. It's more than the cowboy image of old jeans and trail-worn boots, however. Tucson is emerging as an urban center of tourism, international trade and high-tech industry.
In this desert city of almost constant sun, traditional adobe architecture and modern high-rises stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Traditional folklorico mingles with modern art, dance and music. Cuisine encompasses everything from traditional bean salads to fine French.
The mix of ancient and modern extends beyond the city, too. Tucson is surrounded by interesting day-trip destinations. Some take you through the fascinating desert landscape in which Tucson lies, and some lead you through the human history of the region, which includes everything from Spanish missions to nuclear missiles. Others will help you enjoy the splendid scenery and recreational activities—with more than 300 days of sunshine each year, people in Tucson are passionate about being outdoors.
Tucson spreads out over a valley surrounded by four mountain ranges: the Santa Catalinas on the north, the Rincon Range to the east, the Santa Rita Mountains to the south and the Tucson Mountain range to the west. Sentinel Peak, called "A" mountain by University of Arizona students, is slightly southwest of downtown Tucson and affords a fantastic view of the metropolitan area. The Santa Cruz River, once the lifeblood of the region, is now a dry riverbed that crosses Tucson diagonally from northwest to southeast.
Tucson's historic neighborhoods are primarily clustered within the central city and include Barrio Historico, El Presidio, Armory Park, West University, Sam Hughes, Iron Horse and the Pie Allen District (named for an early settler famous for his dried-apple pies). The downtown Arts District and the Fourth Avenue Shopping District are also centrally located.
The valley where Tucson lies has drawn people for a long, long time. Native Americans farmed along the Santa Cruz River thousands of years ago. When the Spanish arrived, they found a village that the Pima and Tohono O'odham peoples called "Stjukshon," meaning "spring at the foot of black mountain." The word eventually evolved into Tucson.
In 1699, Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino established Mission San Xavier del Bac just south of present-day Tucson. San Augustine de Tucson, a Spanish presidio, or military post, was built 75 years later.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Tucson became a Mexican territory. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase made Tucson part of the U.S., and in 1867, the city was named capital of the Arizona Territory. (Phoenix became the state capital in 1912, when Arizona achieved statehood.)
During the mid-1800s, settlers spread out from the Presidio district into what is now known as the Barrio Historico. Working-class Mexicans, Chinese, African Americans, Anglos and Native Americans, many of whom went to Arizona to work in the copper mines, gave a rich ethnic diversity to Tucson.
With the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1880s, the Presidio district became affluent and was populated by city leaders and aristocrats. The city prospered, the Arizona Territorial University was established (it's now the University of Arizona) and, by 1920, Tucson had a population of more than 20,000. The onetime outpost has managed to maintain its cultural diversity and Old West charm while becoming one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country.
Tucson's past is most clearly reflected in the Barrio Historico (also known as the Barrio Viejo—old neighborhood), a district of buildings more than a century old. It contains five of the oldest houses in the city, including Casa Cordova and the Corbett House, which are maintained by the Tucson Museum of Art. The museum's galleries, nearby, contain works from pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, as well as Spanish Colonial items and temporary exhibits. The museum also owns Casa Romero, a house built in 1868—now the museum's library and pottery studio. Farther south is the impressive St. Augustine Cathedral, built in the 1920s. The cathedral is graced by two high white towers. The Arizona Historical Society operates the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House, which lies just west of the cathedral. It's one of Tucson's oldest adobe residences.
The best place to explore the state's past is at the Arizona Historical Society, near the University of Arizona campus. There you can enter a replica of an old mine shaft, listen to antique music boxes, visit replicas of pioneer-period homes or enjoy a photographic exhibition. The Arizona Historical Society also operates the Fort Lowell Museum, east of downtown, where you can see the commanding officer's reconstructed quarters and a museum of military memorabilia from the territorial period.
The university itself has two excellent museums. The Arizona State Museum will introduce you to the arts of the Anasazi, the Hohokam and the Navajo peoples. And the Center for Creative Photography contains the archives of master photographer Ansel Adams and more than 1,000 other photographers.
Though there is a lot to see within the city, one of the best attractions is on the city's fringes. Mission San Xavier (pronounced ha-vee-AIR) del Bac, south of the city, is an absolute must-see. Known also as "The White Dove of the Desert," this beautiful mission was founded by Father Kino in 1692. The Franciscans built the current church in the late 1700s (the interior was restored in 1999).
West of town, Old Tucson Studios is a combination movie set and theme park. It was first built in 1939 to film the movie Arizona and has since hosted the production of many westerns. Though it's still used as a film set, there are plenty of daily activities.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an indoor-outdoor combination of zoo, botanical garden and natural-history museum. Among the many other forms of wildlife, look for the bighorn sheep in their natural habitat. Another must-see is Saguaro National Park, where the huge saguaro (pronounced suh-WAR-oh) cacti are found in incredible numbers.
Sabino Canyon is a pleasant oasis just northeast of town. Mammoths roamed through that area some 12,000 years ago, and around AD 1200, the Hohokam constructed irrigation dams there. Today, Sabino Canyon provides an abundance of hiking trails and picnic spots, and you can take narrated shuttle-bus rides through the area.
Three Tucson-area attractions will delight those interested in aerospace history. The Titan Missile Museum has the only remaining Titan of the 54 constructed in the U.S. during the Cold War (the rest were destroyed under the terms of the SALT II treaty). The Pima Air and Space Museum, just south of town, is the largest privately funded air museum in the world. Among the more than 180 aircraft are former U.S. President John F. Kennedy's plane, Air Force One, and an SR-71 Blackbird. Nearby is the "airplane graveyard" of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. This is the Air Force's repository for old and obsolete aircraft. Hundreds of airplanes (including B-52s and many old commercial airliners) are parked wingtip to wingtip in the desert, awaiting sale or demolition.
Tucson has a good range of nightspots, from quiet wine bars and all-night dance clubs to student-friendly hangouts.
The younger crowd generally congregates in the University of Arizona area or in the alternative-music venues downtown. More mature patrons tend to gravitate toward the resorts and several jazz and blues clubs. Most bars and clubs close around 1 am.
Tucson has great restaurants of all flavors, but what the city does best is, appropriately, Mexican and southwestern cuisine. At high-end restaurants, this means sublimely spicy entrees doused with colorful chili pepper-based sauces; at hole-in-the-wall taco stands, it means homemade tortillas wrapped around shredded meat and fiery salsa. Either way, the food is delicious, though those with uninitiated palates should ask for their order to be prepared "mild" or with the hot stuff on the side.
Enclaves of good eating can be found all over the city. A high concentration of interesting dining can be found along Tanque Verde Road, Tucson's restaurant row, where you'll find everything from steaks and seafood to schnitzel and sushi. Plaza Palomino and the area surrounding it also boast a terrific cross section of local and ethnic restaurants, as does the upscale shopping center La Encantada and the nearby River/Campbell area. For an authentic taste of Sonoran cuisine, head to South Tucson. And, of course, you can always expect exceptional dining rooms at the resorts on the north and east sides of the city.
In Tucson, dining times are generally 7-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the price of dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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