This Arizona City’s Desert Magic Will Keep You Coming Back for More
I’m standing beneath an ocotillo-thatched ramada enjoying a brief reprieve from the desert’s shimmering heat when a feathery blur catches my eye. Could it be?
Jiggling a handful of dried tepary beans, our guide tells us stories of the ancient Hohokam people who cultivated Tucson’s arid land nearly 2,000 years ago. The beans are just one of the heirloom crops grown at the Mission Garden, a living interpretation of the Sonoran desert’s deep agricultural heritage. Still, I’m distracted. Risking rudeness, I step away from the lesson in search of the blur. I have a feeling I know what it was and hope to get a better look at the elusive critter.
We leave the shady refuge of the ramada, kicking up small clouds of red dust as we walk along the garden paths. Beside a cluster of quince trees, I see my feathered friend again and let out a small squeal as he skitters past our group into a patch of hook-shaped brown pods called devil’s claw.
“I think that was a roadrunner!” I say, walk-running after the crested blur for the second time. For a girl born and raised on the East Coast, spotting a real, live roadrunner — one who wasn’t trying to outsmart an explosives-happy coyote — would be a serious thrill.
“Oh that’s just Kevin,” said our guide, unfazed by the roadrunner’s appearance yet clearly bemused by my excitement. “There should be some little Kevins around here somewhere, too.”
The nimble bird wasn’t the only aspect of the Sonoran desert that delighted me. On a hike through Sabino Canyon the day before I found myself photographing every cactus I encountered — paddle-shaped prickly pears, furry teddy-bear cholla, soaring saguaro — wondering whether desert-dwellers visiting the Atlantic coast for the first time were similarly intrigued by crashing waves and evergreens.
As the first place in the U.S. designated a UNESCO World Heritage City of Gastronomy, Tucson distinguishes itself through its rich, native foodways and storied agricultural past. But beyond its edible wonders, Tucson has blossomed in other ways recently. A massive downtown revitalization, which hit its stride in 2014 with the launch of the SunLink Streetcar, includes new restaurants, the renovation of historic theaters, a vibrant arts community, and a handful of stylish hotels.
Pairing that urban renaissance with Tucson’s surrounding natural beauty means visitors find themselves enveloped in vibrant desert magic from the moment they arrive. Tucson never has a problem getting people to come back — it’s motivating them to come in the first place that poses the challenge. Now that the Southwest’s most happening hub is on your travel radar, here are 10 not-to-miss spots for your next trip.
Old Town Artisans
A pair of heavy, wooden doors leads visitors into a flower-filled courtyard oasis surrounded by a 150-year-old adobe building. Once the stable area of the Spanish Colonial fort El Presidio San Agustín de Tucson, the enclosure now houses six funky shops and galleries each hawking an eclectic variety of wares.
Pick up a strand of Bisbee turquoise at Shelago’s Artwerks, where proprietor James Shelago shares tales about rattlesnakes hiding among the brilliant blue rocks.
Afterwards, wander through Art House Centro and admire the works of local painter Barbara Peabody, who transforms everyday furniture into “functional art” with her bright, southwestern designs. History buffs will love the nearby Presidio Museum, which offers walking tours of the Presidio District including a just-launched food tour spotlighting Tucson’s rich culinary heritage.
Holding court in the middle of Tucson’s vibrant downtown, the historic Hotel Congress, once an overnight stop for riders of the Southern Pacific Railroad, delivers overnight guests back to an era of clunky rotary dial phones, cathedral radios, and Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Anyone looking for action will find it at Club Congress, where the party goes into the wee hours most nights — guests are given drink coupons and earplugs upon check-in. Meanwhile, greasy, southwestern-style delights at the Cup Café — think smoked brisket or braised pork with eggs and biscuits — provide the perfect cure for whatever’s sure to ail you the next morning.
But the landmark hotel’s most notorious claim to fame is its role as the onetime hideout for American gangster John Dillinger, who was finally captured nearby in 1934 after long evading the police.
The warm, yeasty scent of fresh bread fills the small shop where artisan-baker Don Guerra greets a steady stream of loyal customers wearing a smile, a trim grey chef’s coat, and a small patch of flour behind his ear.
At his shop tucked into the recently revitalized Broadway Village shopping area, Guerra, who honed his craft kneading and baking bread in his garage, turns out 4,000 hearty loaves each day, many of which are made with ancient Sonoran grains and heritage flours. Guerra’s crusty breads are works of art as well as being delicious, with most of the loaves bearing flour-dusted symbols of the surrounding Sonoran desert.
The Lost Barrio
Less than a mile from downtown Tucson, this old warehouse district on a dead-end street in Barrio San Antonio got its name from the fact that, up until a few years ago, few knew it existed.
Along the block, six cavernous, brick-front spaces offer a cornucopia of treasures from antique furniture to colorful textiles to folk art. One of these, Rustica, inspires immediate home-envy — the entire place sparkles. Morovian star pendants glow in an entryway leading to a warren of color-coordinated rooms filled to the brim with gleaming Talavera pottery, traditional artwork and handcrafts, and gilded mirrors of every shape and size.
El Güero Canelo
Though Tucsonans may debate over who makes the best Sonoran dog, El Güero Canelo’s version tops almost every list. Case in point, El Güero’s bacon-wrapped sensation will receive one of five James Beard America’s Classics awards in Chicago in May.
The origins of this borderlands favorite can be traced to Hermosilla, Mexico when hot dog vendors, or dogueros, began selling them on the street in the '80s. Daniel Conteras, a native of Magdalena, Sonora, brought the tradition to Tucson in 1993 when he opened El Güero Canelo as a food cart.
Flash forward 25 years and Contreras now has three restaurants in Tucson and a new Phoenix location, each one featuring menus filled with traditional Mexican specialties. But it's the humble, $3.50 mesquite-grilled dog, nestled in a fluffy, bolillo bun and loaded with killer condiments that attracts the crowds.
One evening in 2006, furniture maker Stephen Paul and his wife sat pondering their glasses of scotch while watching the mesquite coals die down in their barbecue. Could they malt barley over mesquite, the wood Paul used to craft the pieces he made for his company, Arroyo Designs?
Unable to get the idea out of his mind, Paul began dabbling in distilling while also learning how to malt barley. By 2013, Hamilton Distillers was turning out three different styles of award-winning, single-malt whiskey. Tours and tastings, where you’ll delve into whiskey making from grain to glass, are offered twice a day on Saturdays.
Mercado San Agustin
This outdoor public market on Tucson’s west side launched in 2011 with the goal of nurturing small, independent businesses while sharing a passion for local foods and artisan-made wares. On any given day, the open-air courtyard hums with tourists and locals alike browsing through shops and eateries, listening to live music, or just relaxing in the desert sunshine.
Sample made-from-scratch horchata — a traditional Mexican beverage made with rice, sugar, and cinnamon — at Seis Kitchen, admire Jessie Aguiar’s traditional handcrafted southwestern moccasins at San Augustin Trading Co., or indulge in some of Tucson’s best-loved pastries at the deliciously authentic La Estrella Bakery. A second space, the MSA Annex, is due to open in May and will feature boutiques and restaurants housed inside uniquely reconfigured shipping containers.
White Stallion Ranch
Tucson exudes a hip, contemporary vibe these days, but you still don’t have to go far for a taste of the Old West. Channel your inner cowboy at White Stallion Ranch, the True family’s 3,000-acre working cattle ranch, where clusters of brick cottages sit among cactus gardens nestled in the foothills of the rugged Tucson Mountains.
Meet your mount upon arrival — you’ll saddle up the same horse for the duration of your stay — and head out for one of many guided rides. If it’s your first rodeo, ranch wranglers offer on-site lessons while trail rides are available for every level.
Back at the ranch, treat yourself to a massage — I’ve heard they’re transformative — soak in the hot tub, take a watercolor painting class, or kick back fireside on the patio with a glass of wine beneath a star-studded desert sky.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
About 10 miles southwest of Tucson, the bright white towers of Mission San Xavier del Bac rise up from the desert, guiding visitors to one of Arizona’s most stunning landmarks. Nicknamed “the White Dove of the Desert,” the Mission remains one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the U.S. and serves people living in the San Xavier district of the Tohono O’odham reservation.
After mass on Sundays, local Tohono O’odham members sell handicrafts and fry bread at an outdoor market in front of the Mission’s gleaming, Baroque façade. Docent-led tours take place several times a day Mondays through Saturdays and spotlight the history, architecture, and culture of the Mission.
Inside, a kaleidoscope of brilliant frescoes cover the walls, heavy, carved-wood pews line the sanctuary, and light spills into the space from large, arched windows. A small courtyard leads to the mortuary chapel, where hundreds of candles bearing the colorful images of saints burn brightly, filling the small space with an unexpected heat.
Saguaro National Park
The mighty saguaro cactus reigns supreme throughout Tucson and Saguaro National Park, which flanks the city on both the east and the west, is a veritable showcase for the prickly behemoths. Its 165-miles of trails lead hikers on adventures through the desert landscapes of the Rincon and Tucson Mountain Districts and two visitor centers offer ranger-led tours and informational exhibits.
For a great overview of the park and its ecology, drive the Bajada Loop in Saguaro West — several trailheads are located along the way, including the short Valley View Overlook Trail that leads to a ridge with gorgeous scenery. Afterwards, be sure to leave time for a stop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where you can take a deep-dive into the flora, fauna, and landscape of the surrounding desert.