By Josephine Matyas
Think of Tucson as a place where the freedom to be/think/experiment/try intersects with a world of boundless possibilities. Toss in a little imagination and what flows is a way to play, to work, to relax and to rejuvenate in whatever way fits best for you. It’s like finding that comfy sweater in the bottom of the dresser drawer. You’d forgotten it was there, but when you slip it on it feels oh so right; a new experience, yet familiar at the same time.
Arizona’s second largest city shares much with the rest of the state: that trademark sunshine (350 days a year sound good?), wide open skies, a backdrop of desert and mountains, and history steeped in the flavours of Native American tribes, ranchers and frontiersmen of the Old West.
But take a look at the map and you’ll see that Tucson sits just a little off the beaten path. And it’s not just where the roads run; it’s where the mind travels as well. Anything is possible and every experience is unique. So, shift your imagination into gear, fasten your seatbelt and come along for a ride to explore the free spirit of Tucson.
Let Your Taste Buds Off The Leash
Tucson’s restaurant scene seems to grow by the day. There is absolutely no way to sidestep the fabulous Mexican and Southwest cuisine (and why would you want to?) but by stretching your culinary borders you will discover a great way to explore new flavours and familiar ingredients, chopped, sautéed, drizzled and infused to create some excitement with every forkful. You’re gonna love it. Promise.
- El Charro Café is a pioneer on the Tucson culinary scene. As the oldest, continuously family-run Mexican restaurant in the U.S., they serve award-winning traditional and innovative Mexican-Sonoaran dishes. The guacamole prepared tableside is a good way to start. There’s no shortage of Mexican eateries in Tucson – head to La Fuente for a dose of traditional mariachi while you dine, or to the Tucson Tamale Company for gourmet, hand-rolled tamales made daily in small batches for peak flavours.
- Even pizza is elevated to a “close-your-eyes-and-take-a-bite” experience. It can be a different taste adventure every time – make your flavour choices and then leave it up to the artisan dough whiz in the kitchen. Scordato’s is known for an amazing crust, made the way they did in the Old Country – perfect for sharing slices around the table. Renee’s Organic Oven uses only preservative-and pesticide-free basics, spices and veggies on their pizzas. Pair one with a glass of Organic Prickly Pear Lemonade.
- Sunday brunch remains a time-tested way to either stretch out a lazy morning or to follow a sunrise hike. Complimentary champagne and mimosas kick off the Sunday eats at The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol, known for a creative menu, historic setting and vista of the Catalina foothills. The Abbey Eat + Drink celebrates Sunday morning in a neighbourhood setting with views of Ventana Canyon from every seat in the house and a menu that bridges the virtuous (veggie scramble) to the decadent (10-oz prime rib with all the sides).
- The menu at CORE Kitchen & Wine at The Ritz Carleton, Dove Mountain draws inspiration and direction from a commitment to the sustainability of local growers. How local? Look for fresh Arizona oranges and red grapefruit picked from the citrus groves a stone’s throw from the kitchen.
For The Culture Vulture – Freedom To Roam
Anywhere you look, Tucson’s rich cultural vibe and visionary genius will be there, too. Dance, music and the work of artisans – from classic styles to contemporary – reflect the values of this offbeat desert community. From pulsating sights and sounds to vintage hideaways and galleries, the city overflows with creative energy.
- Relax into a seat at a performance of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and prepare for a feast for the senses. As the longest continuously performing professional arts organization in the state, the TSO delivers professionally performed classical, chamber and pop music to the concert hall.
- From classics to contemporary plays to musicals to new works, the Arizona Theatre Company showcases Arizona’s finest stage productions.
- Ballet Tucson is a professional dance company that breathes life into a repertoire of both classical works and newer works.
- “Storytelling through music” is at the heart of performances by the bi-city Arizona Opera (the company performs in both Phoenix and Tucson).
- Recognized as a “mini Mecca for the arts” by the Wall Street Journal, Tucson is filled with world-class galleries, including DeGrazia in the Sun, Gallery Row (home to 100 artists, many with working studios), the Tucson Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Etherton Gallery and its photographic masterpieces.
Museums That Energize
Stepping into the days of the Old West, the colourful past of Arizona’s Native tribes or the plants and animals of the Sonoran desert community is as easy as heading directly to one of Tucson’s top drawer museums. Try a few samplers:
- The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the real deal: the place to learn about the vast Sonoran Desert landscape, and the common and endangered species of reptiles, birds, mammals and fish. The behind-the-scenes tours can be as sweet as learning about the flutter of tiny hummingbirds or as hands-on as following in the footsteps of one of the zoo’s animal keepers.
- Hundreds of aircraft are on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the world’s largest museums of its kind. Take a guided tour of the “Boneyard,” a one-of-a-kind facility to repair and provide maintenance services to more than 4,400 warfighters.
- The Arizona State Museum celebrates the origins and histories of the indigenous Native cultures of Arizona. The museum also hosts the annual Southwest Indian Art Fair, one of the state’s premier art shows and exhibitions.
- In an area known for jet black, star-filled skies, there is no shortage of world-class observatories. Close to Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to the world’s largest solar telescope, the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes and a tour of the night sky led by professional astronomers.
- Photos Metropolitan Tucson CVB
Legends Of The Old West
There’s a crossroads at Tucson – literally and culturally. Once upon a time, the early Spanish conquistadors, the settlers and ranchers exploring the West and the expanding railroad all crossed through the region. They left behind a treasured history in the adobe buildings, spicy foods, music, crafts and warm welcomes, all touched by Native American, Hispanic and Old West influences. You’ll find it in every neighbourhood and on every street, but there are a few “don’t miss” stops:
- There is history for the finding along The Turquoise Trail, a four-kilometre loop trail passing through downtown Tucson. Explore the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, a reconstruction of the fort built by the Spanish in 1775 to mark the northern frontier of their expanding empire in the New World.
- It’s known as the White Dove of the Desert but the official name is Mission San Xavier del Bac. The 214-year-old church on the outskirts of the city is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and considered the finest example of mission architecture in the U.S. Join a guided tour to learn about the mission’s history and its ornate interior décor.
- Ranches, horseback riding, saloons and cowboys abound. Outside of Tucson, day trips to Bisbee, Tombstone and Yuma are ways to walk in the footsteps of Old West history. Closer still, a visit to Old Tucson – a film studio with a rich history – is a way to see, touch, feel, hear and explore the sensations of days gone by. Surround yourself with historic tours, stunt shows and gunfights, musical revues, wagon rides and living history.
The Outdoors Rocks
If you thirst for the outdoors, Tucson fills your cup…over and over again. With mountain ranges and cacti-studded desert as a backyard, there’s no shortage of outdoors experiences, each one packing a WOW factor!
- There are five mountain ranges encircling the outskirts of Tucson. Climbs for all levels of experience make this area a rock climber’s paradise. There’s always action at Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains – this one mountain alone has 1,200 climbing routes from beginner to expert.
- Tucson sits along a migration flyway for birds travelling back and forth between their summer and winter homes – more than 500 species make up the Tucson area birder’s checklist. During the seasonal migrations it is possible to see 150 or more species in a single day.
- You could be forgiven if you came to Tucson just for the chance to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails. Desert? Got it. Mountain trails? Yup. There’s even an 80-kilometre car-free hiking/biking pathway called the Tucson Urban Loop that runs through and around the city. Other popular spots include the trails in Saguaro National Park and the vista-rich hikes along the trails of Sabino Canyon.
For more information, visit www.visittucson.org