Anthropologists estimate that the Tucson area has been continually inhabited for more than 3,000 years. At about the time our nation’s forefathers were signing the Declaration of Independence, Spanish soldiers led by the Irish expatriate Hugo O’Conor were building a presidio that would one day grow into modern Tucson.
The city lies along Interstate 10, about two hours south of Phoenix. Its airport is deep on the city’s south side, and if you’re flying in, you’ll want to rent a car, because Tucson’s anemic public bus system has limited hours and struggles to keep up with the community’s ever-expanding boundaries. Summers are blistering and winters are mild, but springtime in Tucson is simply extraordinary. In February, jewelers, rock hounds, and meteorite hunters flood the city for the annual Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase; March brings to town for spring training three major-league baseball teams: the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Chicago White Sox, and the Colorado Rockies. For details on these and all attractions, call the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-638-8350, or visit
Tucson is surrounded by resorts offering luxurious getaways in the Sonoran Desert. In the Santa Catalina foothills, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 North Resort Drive, tucks neatly into a rising mountainside, with a full-service spa, 36 holes of golf, and access to breathtaking hiking trails. Call 520-299-2020. Other outlying resort options include the Sheraton El Conquistador (10000 North Oracle Road; 520-544-5000) and the Westin La Paloma (3800 East Sunrise Drive; 520-742-6000). For a less extravagant foothills experience, consider Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort (5601 North Hacienda del Sol Road; 520-299-1501). A former girls’ prep school, the rustic lodge may not have all the modern amenities—you’ll find shuffleboard rather than golf—but makes up the difference with spectacular views and Old West charm.
Closer to the heart of the city, the venerable Arizona Inn, on an elegant 14-acre property at 2200 East Elm Street, was built in 1930 by Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first U.S. congresswoman. The adobe-style hotel offers more than 80 rooms, clay tennis courts, and one of Tucson’s most beautiful swimming pools. Call 800-933-1093. Downtown, the Hotel Congress, 311 East Congress Street, built to serve railroad business in 1919, is the center of downtown cool. In the 1930s, John Dillinger was captured in Tucson after a fire at the Congress smoked his gang out of the hotel; these days, the stylishly refurbished place boasts the hip Cup Café, the Library of Congress cybercafé, and one of Tucson’s best-known nightclubs, the Club Congress. Rooms are spare, though, with no televisions, and the noise from the club has prevented many a guest from getting a good night’s sleep; earplugs are available at the front desk. Call 800-722-8848.
The town has an extraordinary array of Mexican restaurants. South Fourth Avenue alone has more good ones than you’ll find east of the Mississippi. Mi Nidito Restaurant, 1813 South Fourth, is among the finest, serving a meal fit for a king —or at least a leader of the free world. When President Clinton visited, he tried nearly everything on the menu. In case you’re inclined to follow his lead, the President’s Plate features a chile relleno, a chicken enchilada, a bean tostada, a birria taco, and a beef tamale. Be prepared to wait for a table. Call 520-622-5081.
Nestled in downtown’s historic El Presidio neighborhood, El Charro, 311 North Court Avenue, has been serving Mexican food for more than three-quarters of a century. Its rambling interior is casual yet elegant. Don’t miss the specialty of the house, carne seca , beef that has dried slowly in the sun before being shredded and sautéed. Call 520-622-1922. Suzana Davila, the owner of Café Poca Cosa, 88 East Broadway, changes her menu daily, presenting it on a chalkboard that waiters carry to the tables. The meals are built around subtle sauces, particularly an astonishing mole . Call 520-622-6400.
Janos Wilder, the master of nouvelle Southwestern, has been creating culinary masterpieces in Tucson since 1983. At the Westin La Paloma Resort, 3770 East Sunrise Drive, he uplifts Southwestern standards with exquisite sauces, native ingredients, and elaborate preparation. His lobster enchilada includes toasted pumpkin seeds, white Cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, fresh corn, and a zesty tomatillo salsa. For a less formal—and less expensive—experience, Janos also runs a cantina, J Bar, on the property, with an equally adventurous menu and a margarita that is not to be missed. Call 520-615-6100.
Tucson’s mild winter climate makes for wonderful hiking, biking, and camping. If you plan to hit the trail, take plenty of water, and in summer be sure to get out and back early in the morning; temperatures rise quickly in the desert.
Tucson is flanked on the west side by Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park, which combine to preserve thousands of acres of the Sonoran desert. Both parks feature networks of hiking, biking, and driving loops through a thorny saguaro forest. Tucson Mountain Park is also home to the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 North Kinney Road, a 21-acre facility with more than a mile of pathways past creatures of the desert, from rattlesnakes and scorpions to javelinas and bighorn sheep, all living in natural habitat. Call 520-883-1380.
On Tucson’s east side, you’ll find another branch of Saguaro National Park, as well as Sabino Canyon, an oasis of thick vegetation fed by a stream. Sabino offers a shuttle-bus ride into the canyon as well as hiking opportunities.
Perhaps the most spectacular architecture in the area is that of the Mission San Xavier del Bac, 1950 West San Xavier Road, on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Built in 1797, it had slipped into decline by the twentieth century, but recent efforts have gone a long way toward restoring its magnificent beauty, particularly the carvings and paintings in the church. Call 520-294-2624.
The Tucson Arts District contains a cluster of galleries, museums, and performance spaces in the heart of the city. The recently renovated Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block features a permanent collection of classic cowboy art as well as rotating shows by contemporary artists, some well-preserved historical homes, and a splendid exhibition exploring the layout of the original Spanish presidio.
Smaller galleries give downtown much of its charm, and the area comes alive the first and third Saturdays of each month with Downtown Saturday Night, an ongoing festival amid the restaurants, cafés, galleries, and clubs along Congress Street and nearby. Bands of all kinds perform in public plazas, and shops stay open late for browsers. Nearby, North Fourth Avenue, lined with independent boutiques, thrift stores, record shops, bars, and cafés, offers a bohemian slice of life.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Cold War, consider a visit to the Titan Missile Museum, at 1580 West Duval Mine Road in Sahuarita. From the early 1960s through 1982, this military facility held a 103-foot-long nuclear ICBM ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. Tours take visitors underground and into the silo itself, where a decommissioned missile is on display. Call 520-625-7736.