Travel Itinerary: Tucson

Explore Tucson's historic accommodations, restaurants, and activities.

The problem with visiting Tucson is it’s too easy to end up in the wrong city. There is Snowbird Tucson, a city of vacation condos, high-end resorts, and golf courses floating like green hallucinations in a land of desert tans. Then there is Sunbelt Tucson, a no-longer-booming boomtown of sun-bleached strip malls, fast-food joints, and countless Walgreens stores. The heart of this Tucson is Speedway Avenue, once named the ugliest street in America by Life magazine. (The editors were wrong. Grant Road, one mile north, is worse.)

These are the Tucsons too many visitors see, but there is another city, a city with a cultural heritage that goes back further than the United States. “What you have is this older Southwestern place in the midst of a Sunbelt City,” says Joseph Wilder, head of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center. “It’s this mosaic, and it’s finding and picking out those pieces that can be interesting.”

Tucson is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Native artifacts can be traced back 4,000 years. The Spanish arrived in the late 1600s, and the Hispanic heritage remains a central part of Tucson’s identity, as do a touch of the Old West and the counterculture you’d expect of a university town. And all of this is surrounded by a strangely beautiful landscape. To ferret out the best of Tucson, Preservation talked to three people with deep roots in the city and region:

  • Joseph Wilder, who was born and raised in Tucson. He joined the University of Arizona faculty and runs the Southwest Center, which studies and illuminates the culture of the region. Wilder is an expert on Southwestern urban form and, in the mind of at least one journalist, is the world’s greatest living authority on great, cheap Mexican food.
  • William Doelle, vice president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation board, also heads Archaeology Southwest, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring and protecting archaeological sites in the region.
  • Linda Ronstadt, a third-generation Tucsonan who recorded a series of chart-topping albums in the 1970s and gained further acclaim as an interpreter of American standards and traditional Mexican songs.

Eat

Cafe Poca Cosa is operated by chef Suzana Davila, who has been featured in Gourmet and PBS’ Great Chefs of America. The ever-changing menu at her downtown eatery has a strong connection to the traditions and history of the region and is inspired by the cuisine of her home state of Sonora, Mexico. “Poca Cosa has the best chips and salsa in the country,” Ronstadt says. “That lady knows her chilies.”

“The Hotel Congress is great for either breakfast or lunch,” Doelle says. The downtown establishment, built in 1919, is where “Public Enemy No. 1” John Dillinger was captured in 1934, and it has maintained a raffish, Prohibition-era decor. Doelle also suggests the historic Arizona Inn in midtown and Hacienda del Sol, established in the foothills in 1929, for high-end dining.

For far-cheaper eats, Wilder recommends visiting South Tucson, a Hispanic enclave that’s as close as you can get to being in Mexico without crossing the border. Wilder likes El Torero, tucked away on 26th Street. He also recommends trying a bacon-wrapped, bean-covered “Sonoran hot dog” from one of Tucson’s many food carts. Ruiz Hot Dogs, on the corner of 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue, is excellent. “Of course, you order the hot dog con todo,” Wilder says, “and take careful bites of the jalapeño that accompanies it.”

Stay

Doelle likes Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, one of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America. Adobe-style buildings blend into the high desert landscape while such amenities as an onsite spa, pool, hot tub, and fitness center belie the resort’s rugged surroundings. In the 1920s it was a ranch school before being extensively rebuilt in the 1930s by noted architect Josias Joesler. It later became a guest ranch and a Hollywood favorite, including, legend has it, a romantic hideaway for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Wilder suggests checking out El Presidio Bed & Breakfast Inn, located in a lovingly restored American territorial-style house in the downtown historic district.

A favorite retreat for Tucsonans, Ronstadt says, is the elegant Arizona Inn, founded in 1930 by Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first congresswoman. “They have a wonderful staff, the gardens are just gorgeous, and there’s a sense of peace and continuity there that’s just gone on forever,” Ronstadt says.

Do

For most of its history, Tucson was a community of tightly knit barrios, or neighborhoods. Although much was lost to urban renewal in the 1960s, Wilder says you can still spot the older Tucson in El Presidio, a historic downtown area that includes the Tucson Museum of Art, in Barrio Historico, and in the Fort Lowell Historic District. “The culture is there if you take the time to see it,” he says.

Tucson is inseparable, in both character and history, from the Sonoran Desert that surrounds it. “You need to get out in the country,” Doelle says. He recommends the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum, a few miles west of town, for an introduction to the desert and its native creatures. He also suggests driving over to Saguaro National Park, with its forest of stiff-armed cacti. For a deeper look at the ancient peoples who inhabited the area, check out the Signal Hill petroglyphs in the park. “That site takes you back thousands of years,” Doelle says.

Ronstadt, who grew up on a ranch near town, seconds Doelle’s recommendation to get out into the desert and experience its “fragile, savage beauty.” And she believes it’s worth taking the trip a few miles down Interstate 19 to Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded by Spanish priest Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1692. The current church, built in the 18th century and known as the “white dove of the desert,” rises like an angelic apparition from the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. “San Xavier is just a wondrous place,” Ronstadt says. “It’s the most beautiful mission in the country.”

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