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With copper-hued deserts, multiple mountain ranges, and nearly 350 days of sunshine a year, the city of Tucson has long inspired the creative and the unconventional. For decades, free-thinkers and free spirits have been drawn to the region’s authentic vibe and famous southwestern light, as well the captivating history that’s reflected in landmarks like its colorful adobe houses. As home to the University of Arizona, Tucson caters to its trendy college students with a vast selection of shopping, dining, and entertainment options—with many eateries, nightclubs, and galleries housed inside warehouses that once served trains during the reign of the railroad. Whether you want to dive into the history of the Wild West, soak in views of the desert on horseback, or savor the unmistakable flavors of the southwest, this breathtaking oasis offers something for everyone.
Though Tucson’s downtown has been the hub of the city’s activity for well over a century, the neighborhood has seen a rebirth in recent years, with new shops, an array of bars, and some of the city’s top-rated restaurants. A unique blend of urban chic, western nouveau, and hip and artsy, the “centro” is broken up in 5 distinct districts, all connected by the Sun Link Streetcar.
The epicenter of Tucson’s offbeat culture, 4th Avenue is where to go if you’re in search of something weird, loud, eccentric or crazy. Here, find artisans selling selections of vintage clothing, artwork, and hard-to-find books, alongside an eclectic mix of eateries, tattoo parlors, bike shops, and bars. Since 1970, the district has been known for its biannual 4th Avenue Street Fair, a legendary festival celebrating local art, culture, and food.
On and around the cultural hub of Congress Street is where hip meets history, urban dwellings sit next to colorful barrios, and funky art houses share the street with award-winning restaurants. The district buzzes throughout the year with events at venues like the Rialto Theatre, the Tucson Music Hall, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Connecting the rest of downtown to the University of Arizona, Main Gate Square is the center of collegiate culture in the city. Find a range of international cheap eats, sports bars playing the latest Wildcats game, and shopping that runs the gamut from UA gear to name-brand denim.
History comes to life in Presidio, one of the oldest inhabited neighborhoods in the United States. Inside the block of adobe shops called the Old Town Artisans, uncover authentic Mexican cuisine, Latin American handicrafts, and a stunning Spanish-style courtyard where you can kick back among regional flowers and trees.
To the west of Congress Street on the edge of downtown is Sentinel Peak, an iconic location for enjoying panoramic views of the city. At the base of the peak sits the Mission Garden, a spectacular cropland that recreates Tucson’s 4,000-year agricultural history. Experience this heritage for yourself at nearby Mercado San Agustín, the city’s premier public market and dining destination.
Largely uninhabited and untouched, the eastside of Tucson boasts an unmatched combination of otherworldly desert beauty and anthropological history. Dive deep into the region’s wonders at Colossal Cave Mountain Park, where you can spend the day exploring the largest dry cavern in the world.
Home to the picturesque mountains that bear the city’s name, Tucson’s westside is filled with dusty desert trails, towering cacti, and ancient petroglyphs dating back to the prehistoric Hohokam. In the center of the park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which houses more than 230 animals and thousands of native plants. On the southside of the park is where you’ll find Old Tucson, an homage to the days of the Wild West and the setting used in some of the most famous Westerns to ever grace the silver screen.
Soak in the jaw-dropping views of the desert with a trip east into the Rincon Mountains. Start the day with a stop at Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 2,400-acre (971-ha) ranch featuring rugged hiking trails, majestic summits, and crystal-filled caves. After exploring the geological and anthropological history in the subterranean depths, embark on a horseback ride deep into the mountains at sunset. Leave the world behind as you trot through chalky forests of cacti while gazing out upon fiery shades of red, purple, and orange.
Mine Tucson’s past and present with a guided walking tour of downtown’s Turquoise Trail. Begin with a look at the Paleo Indians who first settled in Arizona nearly 12,000 years ago, and meander through a prehistoric site in the awe-inspiring Presidio district. As you travel forward in time, see structures that were built beginning during the boom of the mid-1800s, uncovering how the city has grown and changed over the last 150 years.
For fans of the Wild West, a visit to historic Old Tucson is just what John Wayne ordered. Experience the iconic era as if you lived it yourself with an array of attractions including stunt shows, gunfights, saloon musicals, and stagecoach rides. Enjoy all the time you want to explore the streets of this incredible setting that’s been used in more than 400 film, TV, and commercial productions since 1939.
Head south out of downtown for a day in the wild landscape of the Santa Rita Mountains, where sweeping views await you at the summit of Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the southern part of the state. At the base of the mountain is the Madera Canyon, one of the region’s most popular spots for hiking. Embark on a trek through a range of life zones that span desert grassland to mountain forest, keeping your eyes peeled for any of the hundreds of species of bird that’ve been recorded here.
With it’s location just 70 miles (117 km) north of the border, it’s no surprise that Tucson is famous for its authentic Mexican flavors. However, it’s become particularly known for its Sonoran-inspired cuisine, a style seldom found outside of Arizona. Unlike Tex-Mex, New Mexican, and Baja styles of cooking, Sonoran cuisine emphasizes wheat instead of corn, beef over chicken and pork, and hearty simplicity over a wealth of ingredients. Tantalize your taste buds with a tour to discover the city’s most delectable Sonoran-style eats, paying a visit to beloved, family-owned eateries in the adobe buildings south of Congress Street.