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
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.
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.
With restaurants operating today that have existed since the 1920s, Tucson's cuisine can't help but be inextricably intertwined with its history and culture.
El Charro, opened in 1922, is the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the United States, and a must when visiting the Tucson area. This local landmark, in the historic El Presidio District, is now run by Carlotta Flores, grand-niece of founder and trailblazer Monica Flin. Eclectic cafe-style cuisine can be found at Cafe a la C'Art, Cafe Poca Cosa and Caffe' Milano. Dine with a view at La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina, which serves traditional Mexican in a lively atmosphere.
The Scordato family emigrated from New Jersey in 1972 and opened their eponymous Evangelos Scordato's, and Vivace. Over the past quarter-of-a-century the family name has become synonymous with fine Italian dining in Tucson. Le Bistro, with its impressionist Paris street scene facade, brings the flavors of France to desert diners, and has been voted one of Tucson's Top Ten Restaurants by the Tucson Citizen for seven consecutive years.
In Green Valley, south of Tucson, Metro Restaurants operates San Ignacio Country Club and Coyote Grill, offering contemporary regional cuisine. Their newest addition, Old Pueblo Grill, is also sure to be a popular spot in the neighborhood just south of the University of Arizona.
North and the Foothills
On Halloween of 1983, Janos Wilder and his wife, Rebecca, opened Janos in a National Historic Landmark-registered home on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art. Anthony's in the Catalinas, a Triple-A Four Diamond and DiRoNa award-winning bastion of Continental cuisine, delights diners with breathtaking views of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Wildflower features the culinary skill of Chef Christopher Cristiano in an attractive atmosphere. Fantastic grilled meats are abound at Metropolitan Grill and Keaton's Arizona Grill, both also multiple award-winners.
A restaurant known affectionately as "The Cork" (formerly the Cork & Cleaver) has been a local tradition for more than 30 years. In 1994, Chef Jonathan Landeen took the reins of what is officially called Jonathan's Tucson Cork, bringing his gold medal-winning culinary style to the area.
The Metro Restaurant Group has created, in a sense, its own global culinary tour with its eight established restaurants (and more in the works) - Firecracker Asian-American Bistro offers an explosion of tantalizing Pacific Rim tastes and aromas—look for the flames shooting from the roof (no, not from the food, from the torches!). City Grill has been feted as the Best Grill and Best Business Lunch by Tucson Lifestyle magazine.
Backstage is just plain fun—and plenty of it—with dancing, games, sports and casual, contemporary cuisine. And then there's McMahon's Prime Steakhouse, voted Tucson Lifestyle's Best Steak Restaurant and Best New Restaurant of 1999.