Like many other Sunbelt cities, Tucson has experienced tremendous growth over the past 20 years, expanding from a mid-size Western town into a metropolitan area of more than 800,000 people and counting. You will find plenty of historical and architectural treasures waiting to be explored.
Of all the neighborhoods in Tucson, downtown offers the most variety. Century-old adobe homes, Victorian mansions, imposing government buildings, museums and affordable restaurants lie within easy walking distance of each other. It's a favorite destination for artists and art lovers, with numerous galleries and studios situated in and around the
Downtown is also the site of the city's major performing arts events, with the
Renewal has already been quite successful in the
Bordering downtown Tucson on the south, the small municipality of South Tucson has become a largely Hispanic community. For out of town visitors, its main attractions are the Mexican restaurants, which, although low profile and inexpensive, offer the best of south-of-the-border food in town. The quality at places like
Moving further to the south, the Hispanic influence deepens, intermingling with the Native American people living in and around the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Tucson's far southwest. Many visitors get at least a glimpse of this area going to and from Tucson International Airport, the
North and the Foothills
In Tucson, "north" generally means "north of Broadway," with Broadway Boulevard as the dividing line between north-south street numbers. Bounded on the north by the natural barriers of the
Further to the north, the land and the income level slowly rise all the way up to the tony Foothills residential district. This area features beautiful homes with a view, surrounded by stately saguaro cacti and mesquite trees, outside the city limits and well out of reach of Tucson's tax authorities. Wintertime visitors relax after a game of golf at one of the posh resorts in the area, such as the
Northwest essentially means that big chunk of Tucson stretching from Oracle Road, the main north-south artery, and I-19 westward to the base of the Tucson Mountains and the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. Bordered on the northwest by the ever-expanding residential and recreational retreat of
Bounded roughly on the west by Wilmot Road, the Rincon and
Cultural life in Tucson, by and large, reflects the ethnic and social diversity of the city, ranging from the conservative retirement communities at the outskirts to the progressive artist community downtown. To find out what's happening in the arts and who's coming to town, read the entertainment pages of the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen, especially the "Caliente" section in the Friday edition of the Star, or grab a free copy of the Tucson Weekly.
Thanks to continuous cultural sponsorship, Tucson has managed to support both an opera and a symphony orchestra for several decades now without without interruption. Both the Arizona Opera and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra usually perform at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, the main venue for high culture downtown.
If you are culturally more in tune with the progressive camp, check out the Borderlands Theatre or the Invisible Theatre for avant garde political productions and light comedy. For laughs, take yourself and your family to the Gaslight Theatre, Tucson's only dinner theater, where you can munch on sandwiches and ice cream cones while watching Western dramas with lots of music, slapstick and practical jokes.
The variety of Tucson nightlife defies stereotypes about the kind of entertainment a Western town has to offer. In fact, most clubs offer alternative rock instead of country and western music. The blues is very much alive in Tucson, with local acts taking turns at the Boondocks Lounge, Berky's Bar, Margarita Bay and various other clubs. Check weekly listings in the papers for details. Venues for live jazz are rarer; try the Cafe Sweetwater on 4th Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights, or the Cascade Lounge at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort for light dinner jazz on Thursday to Sunday afternoons.
While the western section of downtown is dominated by the temples of high art, the eastern part belongs to the "dark" forces of alternative rock, centered around the legendary Club Congress on the ground floor of the equally famous Hotel Congress. It's featured as "The World's Darkest Nightclub," and once you've stepped inside, you will see why it deserves that title (if you can see anything at all). Right across the street from the club there is the Rialto Theatre (The), a vaudeville theater that has been restored to its glorious old past, now featuring big names in blues and rock from out of own.
For the quintessential experience in Mexican music, go to El Mariachi on Drachman Street and check out the restaurant's house band, International Mariachi America. There are, of course, various places for country and western, but for the most authentic brand, you'll have to drive to the out-of-the way Li'l Abner's Steakhouse on a Friday or Saturday night. If you enjoy country dancing, join the up to 3,000 patrons crowding into the dance floor at the New West on Ina Road, an establishment which frequently features famous country and western acts such as Asleep at the Wheel.
Museums and Galleries
Tucson's art scene is very much alive and thriving, particularly on the gallery and studio level. There are plenty of museums and galleries displaying the entire range of artistic styles from realistic paintings of Southwestern scenes to multimedia installations. Although it is still a mainstay of traditional Western art, visitors should be aware that Tucson is slowly becoming a driving force in cutting-edge international contemporary practice, with progressives such as the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery and Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art spearheading the movement.
The Tucson Museum of Art, the main exhibitor of contemporary art in the city for more than forty years, has recently been expanded to include both Western Art and contemporary experimental works, as well as a gallery of pre-Columbian pieces. A little further to the east, the University of Arizona Museum of Art offers a good sampling of famous 20th-century sculpture and a collection of Renaissance art. The Center for Creative Photography across the street houses one of the best collections of photographs in the world, including the work of renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Its archives, which are open to the public, contain the works of hundreds of other first-rate photographers.
The city's real strengths, however, reside in its science and history museums, particularly the on-campus Arizona State Museum with its splendid displays of Native Southwestern art, and the Arizona Historical Society Museum, which is devoted to the local history of Native Americans, Mexicans and pioneers.
As a place offering consistently dry and sunny weather throughout the year, Tucson is popular with golfers around the world. Green fees vary from course to course and from season to season, with municipal courses like the Fred Enke Municipal Golf Course offering lower rates than resorts such as the Ventana Canyon Golf Courses in the foothills.
The horse racing season at the recently expanded Rillito Park Racetrack lasts from early February into March, with more races scheduled at the Pima County Fair in April, along with horse shows, gun shows, and various kinds of other diversions. And, of course, no entertainment guide to the Old Pueblo would be complete without the Tucson Rodeo, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros as it is called in Spanish, the largest winter rodeo in the United States. If you're here in late February, you just simply can't ignore it.
Tucson offers a variety of diversions for kids. Proposing to take them to the zoo is usually a sure bet, and while Reid Park Zoo offers a good variety of assorted international animals, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is more unique in presenting creatures of the desert in their natural habitats, with spectacular desert views. Another sure winner is a visit to Old Tucson Studios, a Western theme park and movie location surrounded by giant sahuaro cacti, not too far from the Desert Museum west of the city. Cowboy stunts and gunfights are also available in Trail Dust Town, especially during Trail Dust Days; and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy it.
In 1698, Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, on his way north from what is now Mexico to explore possible sites for building new missions, came across an Indian village called Shuk Shon. During the 70 years of Spanish colonial acquisition that followed his visit into the territory later known as Arizona, the place was renamed San Agustin del Tucson, with the hard "c" in the middle still pronounced. Both the saint's name and the hard "c" were later dropped by Anglo-Americans, with St. Augustine Cathedral downtown now the only surviving memory of the Spanish name.
When Father Kino arrived, people had already lived in the region for more than 2,000 years. Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam and O'odham tribes came and went in successive waves of immigration over the centuries. One of the favorite settlements lay at the base of a big hill of black volcanic rock. Known as Chuk Shon (meaning, roughly, "village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain" in the O'odham language), it is an elevation now officially called Sentinel Peak, and also nicknamed A Mountain for the large whitewashed letter (for University of Arizona) on its eastern side. In any case, it is one of the best lookout points, commanding a view of the entire Tucson basin.
A few miles further to the South, out of a nearby village named Bac, the Jesuits worked to convert the local Pima Indians to the Christian faith. Today, this is the location of Mission San Xavier del Bac, the "White Dove of the Desert," known for its beauty world-wide.
Though the colonialists from Europe were not exactly considered friends by the Indians of Bac, they seemed the lesser evil compared to the Apache raiders that moved into the Tucson valley, to the extent that the Pima and O'odham asked for Spanish military assistance against the Apaches. The Jesuits, who had to be considered inept in effectively defending the locals, were replaced with Franciscan priests who understood the strategic importance of Tucson. Finally, in 1775, an Irish mercenary in Spanish employ known as Don Hugo O'Connor arrived to establish a presidio, or military fort, here. Though nothing is now left of the structure, El Presidio Park downtown still marks the fort's original location.
While the village at the foot of Sentinel Peak vanished, a new Mexican village slowly grew up around the Spanish presidio, nicknamed the Old Pueblo, an endearing term still used for the city. After the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, following the Mexican-American War, which gave a large part of Sonoran territory to the United States, the village quickly became a new American frontier town. It even served as the capital of the Arizona Territory from 1867 to 1877. Cattle ranchers moved into the valley, and mining companies began prospecting the mountains for copper and gold. The real boom came with the arrival of the railroad in 1880, allowing goods and raw materials to be transported at drastically reduced costs.
As East Coast entrepreneurs and investors considered Mexican housing primitive, they began replacing the mud-brick adobe buildings, first with imported brick and lumber, and later with concrete and steel, thus drastically changing the look of Tucson. With Anglos pushing into formerly Mexican-American territory, many of the old adobes fell into disrepair and were eventually bulldozed into oblivion. Today, with the adobe style being the rage, many Tucsonans wish that those "primitive" but cool and practical houses were still standing. Luckily, some of the original adobes have been preserved in the Barrio Historico district south of downtown. The uneasy relationship between pioneers, Indians and Mexicans is well documented both at the Arizona Historical Society and the Fort Lowell Museum, while people interested in the more distant past of Arizona and its original inhabitants will find a wealth of material at the Arizona State Museum. Mexican culture is celebrated during the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and the local Tohono O'odham and Yaqui people keep their traditions alive in the Wa:k Powwow and Yaqui Easter Lenten Ceremony.
With the discovery of silver and copper deposits in the nearby towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, minerals became the dominant industry in southern Arizona until copper prices took a nosedive in the 1970s. Many mines were closed at the time, but the effects of decades of strip mining, both in its economically beneficial and environmentally damaging senses, can still be viewed at the Asarco Mineral Discovery Center.
When the mining business went into a slump, aerospace and aircraft industries moved in to pick up the slack, a development extensively documented at the Pima Air and Space Museum. Since the founding of the University of Arizona in 1891, Tucson has gradually shed its image as a rugged Western town filled with cowboys, miners and hard-drinking gamblers and replaced it with marks of intellectual and technological activity. Due to the presence of the university, the city is now home to several hi-tech companies. It is also one of the world centers of astronomy, as certified by the presence of nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Furthermore, Tucson has become the center of a booming health industry. Every year, thousands of visitors from the northern regions, mostly senior citizens, come to stay and enjoy the mild winter sun of southern Arizona, thus securing the financial health of the numerous spas, resorts, real estate agencies and Southwestern souvenir shops in the region.
One of the main issues currently confronting Tucson and many other cities in the west is how to deal with urban sprawl. Since the 1950s, city development has run out of control, spawning tacky strip malls along Tucson's street grid and nondescript tract homes at the outskirts, while parts of the old barrio downtown were leveled to make room for high-rises and concrete structures such as the Tucson Convention Center. In recent years, however, Tucsonans have learned to consider their architectural and ethnic heritage as more of an asset in helping to attract tourists and conventioneers to the city. By the early 1990s, what remained of the barrio had been restored, and the depressed downtown was revived with some success by the Tucson Arts District. Still, the controversy over urban development continues and, for the foreseeable future, the diverging demands of job security, population growth, water conservation, environmental protection and aesthetics promise to dominate the political agenda in the Old Pueblo.
Tucson offers a good variety of accommodations for any budget. Whether you're an executive in need of state-of-the-art business facilities, a vacationer seeking to be pampered in a luxury spa, or a backpacker looking for an affordable room, you'll find it here.
If you're in Tucson to attend a convention, your most convenient location will be downtown. Apart from staying within walking distance of a variety of dining and entertainment venues, you'll also be near the Tucson Convention Center.
You don't need a large budget to stay in downtown Tucson, either. The historic Hotel Congress offers interesting decor at affordable prices, plus retro ambiance mixed in with some Southwestern chic. It is definitely hip here, as you will discover by observing the crowd of businessmen and bohemians mingling at the hotel cafe.
Most of the hotels clustered around Tucson International Airport on the south side of town cater to the business traveler, offering plenty of business and conference facilities, fitness centers, full-service restaurants, swimming pools, and free airport shuttle services. Some of them, like the Clarion Hotel Tucson Airport and the tastefully landscaped Courtyard by Marriott Tucson Airport, also have computer facilities and Internet access.
North and the Foothills
The area north of the University of Arizona campus (east of downtown) is another good choice if you're a visiting scholar or business traveler. From there, you will have easy access to all the academic facilities, libraries and museums on campus, as well as the ethnic restaurants and shops centered around the hip Fourth Avenue business district. Located right at the busy U of A main gate, the modern Marriott University offers rooms especially designed for business folks, including a full business center and secretarial services. If you prefer a quieter setting, book a room at the historic Arizona Inn, just a few minutes from the university.
Most of Tucson's famous resort hotels are located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains to the north. The Westin la Paloma on Sunrise Drive is a favorite among business travelers, due to its state-of-the-art business facilities and abundance of meeting rooms. A few miles to the west, the hacienda-style Westward Look Resort offers spectacular views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which you can explore on guided horseback tours offered by the stables located next to the resort complex.
The Omni Tucson National Golf Resort and Spa on the northwest side of town is world-renowned for its 27-hole PGA championship golf course. Located off Oracle Road, the Hilton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club affords breathtaking views of the rugged western flank of the Catalinas, while pampering guests to the max.
On the northeast side, just minutes from scenic Sabino Canyon, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort has gained fame for its spectacular golf course at the mouth of a gaping canyon.
If you are attracted to the charm and comfort of bed-and-breakfast accommodations in natural settings, you should focus your search on the area west of Oracle Road, Tucson's great north-south divide, all the way up to the Tucson Mountains. The Casa Tierra Adobe Bed and Breakfast Inn is situated in the middle of an amazing saguaro cactus forest in Saguaro National Park West, a paradise for birders, hikers, and stargazers, and so secluded that the only noises you are likely to hear are those of coyotes howling at the moon and javelinas rustling in the bushes.
Accommodation on the east side of town is generally more affordable than in the Catalina foothills, and still within reasonable range from the city's major shopping and entertainment venues. Several hotels are clustered around the Park Mall and Williams Centre business areas, such as the Courtyard by Marriott-Williams Centre, which attracts many business clients. Other moderately priced accommodations in the area are available at the La Quinta Inn East and the Hilton Tucson East.