Arizona’s second-largest city after Phoenix, Tucson is located on the northern boundary of the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona, in a basin surrounded by five mountain ranges. The city was officially founded by Irish explorer Hugh O’Connor in 1775. Tuscon’s pride in its history is reflected in the careful preservation of its 19th-century downtown buildings.
t Tucson downtown skyline with Sentinel Peak at dusk
Experience Phoenix and Southern Arizona
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This is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited sites in the US – archaeological excavations have found artifacts from the prehistoric Hohokam people, who lived on this spot from around AD 700 to 900. The original Spanish fortress (presidio), San Agustin del Tucson, was established in 1775 by Irishman Hugo O’Connor, who worked for the Spanish crown. The reconstructed presidio is now a museum.More than 70 of the houses here were constructed during the Territorial period, before Arizona became a state in 1912. The oldest are built of adobe in Spanish-Mexican style, while the later Anglo-American dwellings are Victorian brick buildings separated by gardens. Today the buildings are largely occupied by shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
Tours of El Presidio Historic District are run by the Tucson Museum of Art.
Opened in 1975, the Tucson Museum of Art is located in El Presidio Historic District. The museum encompasses five of the presidio’s oldest dwellings – all of which are more than 100 years old. These historic buildings house some of the museum’s extensive collection. The sculpture gardens and courtyards also form part of the Historic Block complex.
The art museum’s collections include American art, Asian art, modern and contemporary works, Latin American art, European art, and folk art. It also has Pre-Columbian artifacts, some of which are 2,000 years old, displayed in the second-floor gallery. The Spanish Colonial collection features stunning pieces of religious art. The 1850s Casa Cordova houses El Nacimiento, a large Nativity scene with more than 300 earthenware figurines created in the 1970s by Maria Luisa Tena. The J. Knox Corbett House, built in 1907, has Arts and Crafts pieces (1880–1930), including a William Morris chair. The Goodman Pavilion of Western Art (also called Edward Nye Fish House), built in 1868, displays art of the American West and hosts changing exhibitions. Romero House is home to the Romero potters ceramics studio,while the Stevens/Duffield House houses the museum’s restaurant.
Both guided and self-guided walking tours of the Historic Block are run by the museum.
Opposite the Tucson Museum of Art, the Old Town Artisans complex is a warren of small shops selling Southwestern art, ranging from textiles to pottery and paintings.
t The elegant Pima County Courthouse, in the Mission architectural style
The former main county courthouse with its pretty tiled dome is a downtown landmark. It was built in 1927, replacing its predecessor, a one-story adobe building dating from 1869. The position of the original presidio wall is marked out in the courtyard, and a section of the wall, 3 ft (1 m) thick and 12 ft (4 m) high, can still be seen inside the building.
t The ornate Spanish Colonial facade of St. Augustine Cathedral
Begun in 1896, St. Augustine Cathedral was modeled after the Spanish Colonial style of the Cathedral of Querétaro in central Mexico. This gleaming white building has an impos-ing sandstone facade with intricate carvings of the yucca, the saguaro, and the horned toad – three symbols of the Sonoran Desert. A bronze statue of St. Augustine, the city’s patron saint, stands above the main door.
EXPERIENCE Phoenix and Southern Arizona
El Charro Café
Opened in 1922, this is one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in the US and features innovative Tucson-style Mexican food. Savor the legendary carne seca (shredded sun-dried Angus beef) marinated in garlic and lime juice.
⌂ 311 N Court Ave ∑ elcharrocafe.com
Dine in the shaded courtyard or the colorful cantina filled with artwork at this casual café serving an eclectic mix of Mexican, Southwestern, and international dishes. There’s regular live music too.
⌂ 201 N Court Ave ¢ Dinner Sun & Mon ∑ lacocinatucson.com
This area was Tucson’s main business district in the late 19th century. Today, its quiet streets are lined with attractive original adobe houses painted in bright colors. On nearby Main Street is the “wishing shrine” of El Tiradito, which marks the spot where a young man is said to have been killed as a result of a lovers’ triangle. Local people light candles here for his soul and they still believe that if their candles burn for a whole night, their wishes will come true.
Several museums are located on or near the University of Arizona campus, about a mile (1.5 km) east of downtown. The Arizona Historical Society Museum traces Arizona’s history from the arrival of the Spanish in 1540 to modern times. The University of Arizona Museum of Art focuses on European and American fine art, from the Renaissance to contemporary pieces. Opposite the Museum of Art is the excellent Center for Creative Photography, which contains the work of many of the 20th century’s greatest American photo-graphers. Visitors can view the extensive archives by reserving in advance. The Flandrau Science Center features a range of child-friendly interactive exhibits.
One of the most renowned collections of artifacts, covering 2,000 years of Native history, is displayed by the Arizona State Museum, which was founded in 1893.
Tucson was the first city in the US to be named a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2015.
Beyond the city center, Metropolitan Tucson extends north to the Santa Catalina Mountains, whose foothills are the start of a scenic drive to the top of Mount Lemmon. To the west are the Tucson Mountains, which frame the western portion of Saguaro National Park; the park’s other half lies east of the city. To the south lies the beautiful mission church of San Xavier del Bac, which stands out from the flat, desert landscape of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation.
Modeled on an old Western town of the 1860s, this Wild West theme park was built in 1939 as a set for a Western movie, Arizona. Since then, Old Tucson Studios has formed the backdrop for some of Hollywood’s most famous Westerns, such as
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Rio Bravo (1958). The popular 1970s and 80s TV series Little House on the Prairie was also filmed here.
Performers in period costume entertain visitors with stunt shows, gunfights, and stagecoach rides.
The Pima Air and Space Museum contains one of the largest collections of aircraft in the world. Visitors are met with the astonishing sight of more than 300 vintage aircraft set out in ranks across the desert. The VC-118 “Air Force 1” planes used by presidents Kennedy and Johnson are on display here alongside a replica of the Wright brothers’ famous 1903 aircraft and bombers from World War II. Exhibits in five aircraft hangars show military and aviation memorabilia, including a replica World War II barracks. The adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base displays more than 2,000 planes, including B-29s and supersonic bombers.
Situated 25 miles (40 km) from Pima Air and Space Museum, the Titan Missile Museum tells the story of the Titan II nuclear missile that was on alert from 1963 to 1987 in the context of the Cold War (www.titanmissilemuseum.org).
t View of surrounding mountains from the top of Mount Lemmon
At 9,157 ft (2,790 m), Mount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and a popular summer destination. A one-hour scenic drive, beginning in the Tucson city limits and connecting to the Mount Lemmon Highway, takes you to the summit. There are 150 miles (240 km) of hiking trails here, while a side road leads to the resort village of Summerhaven. At the top, the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley lift operates most of the year.