Like many other Sunbelt cities, Tucson has experienced tremendous growth over the past 20 years, expanding from a mid-size Western town into a metropolitan area of more than 800,000 people and counting. You will find plenty of historical and architectural treasures waiting to be explored.
Of all the neighborhoods in Tucson, downtown offers the most variety. Century-old adobe homes, Victorian mansions, imposing government buildings, museums and affordable restaurants lie within easy walking distance of each other. It's a favorite destination for artists and art lovers, with numerous galleries and studios situated in and around the Old Town Artisans marketplace, just a block north of the Tucson Museum of Art .
Downtown is also the site of the city's major performing arts events, with the Tucson Convention Center and the Temple of Music and Art providing the main venues for opera , symphony and dance performances.
Renewal has already been quite successful in the Barrio Historico , the now-gentrified Hispanic historic quarter south of the Convention Center , where old Spanish-style homes have been largely restored to their original beauty. Take your time to explore this area on foot after leaving your car in one of the parking garages downtown.
Bordering downtown Tucson on the south, the small municipality of South Tucson has become a largely Hispanic community. For out of town visitors, its main attractions are the Mexican restaurants, which, although low profile and inexpensive, offer the best of south-of-the-border food in town. The quality at places like Michas and Mi Nidito is hard to match.
Moving further to the south, the Hispanic influence deepens, intermingling with the Native American people living in and around the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Tucson's far southwest. Many visitors get at least a glimpse of this area going to and from Tucson International Airport, the Desert Diamond Casino on the reservation, or on the road to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac , a national landmark and by far the most attractive site on this side of town.
North and the Foothills
In Tucson, "north" generally means "north of Broadway," with Broadway Boulevard as the dividing line between north-south street numbers. Bounded on the north by the natural barriers of the Santa Catalina Mountains and Coronado National Forest, this area includes the University of Arizona campus with its many venues for science and art as well as the city's main business and shopping areas, with the Tucson Mall and the Foothills Mall considered by many to be the biggest and the best of them.
Further to the north, the land and the income level slowly rise all the way up to the tony Foothills residential district. This area features beautiful homes with a view, surrounded by stately saguaro cacti and mesquite trees, outside the city limits and well out of reach of Tucson's tax authorities. Wintertime visitors relax after a game of golf at one of the posh resorts in the area, such as the Westin La Paloma , Westward Look or Loews Ventana Canyon Resort .
Northwest essentially means that big chunk of Tucson stretching from Oracle Road, the main north-south artery, and I-19 westward to the base of the Tucson Mountains and the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. Bordered on the northwest by the ever-expanding residential and recreational retreat of Oro Valley (more golf courses here), this part of the city offers few visual attractions other than Tohono Chul Park , a very civilized, pleasant desert garden with an artsy touch. Once you're past I-10, the road starts snaking into the grandeur of Saguaro National Park West , covered by entire forests of the giant cacti that gave the park its name, and the site of several ancient Indian petroglyphs. Don't miss the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the far side of the Tucson Mountains, and consider stopping at Old Tucson Studios for the sake of the kids.
Bounded roughly on the west by Wilmot Road, the Rincon and Catalina Mountains on the east and north, and Interstate 10 on the south, expansion of this district is largely limited by state and federal lands. The most attractive natural feature in the northeast is certainly Sabino Canyon , the most accessible part of the Catalinas , which teems with tourists, trams, hikers and joggers on weekends, while still retaining its serene beauty. If you are an outdoors person, you will also appreciate the vast expanses of Saguaro National Park . Enjoy the desert and mountain scenery, and try not to disturb the roving of the native scorpions and rattlesnakes.
With restaurants operating today that have existed since the 1920s, Tucson's cuisine can't help but be inextricably intertwined with its history and culture.
El Charro , opened in 1922, is the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the United States, and a must when visiting the Tucson area. This local landmark, in the historic El Presidio District, is now run by Carlotta Flores, grand-niece of founder and trailblazer Monica Flin. Eclectic cafe-style cuisine can be found at Cafe a la C'Art , Cafe Poca Cosa and Caffe' Milano . Dine with a view at La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina , which serves traditional Mexican in a lively atmosphere.
The Scordato family emigrated from New Jersey in 1972 and opened their eponymous Evangelos Scordato's , and Vivace . Over the past quarter-of-a-century the family name has become synonymous with fine Italian dining in Tucson. Le Bistro , with its impressionist Paris street scene facade, brings the flavors of France to desert diners, and has been voted one of Tucson's Top Ten Restaurants by the Tucson Citizen for seven consecutive years.
In Green Valley, south of Tucson, Metro Restaurants operates San Ignacio Country Club and Coyote Grill, offering contemporary regional cuisine. Their newest addition, Old Pueblo Grill , is also sure to be a popular spot in the neighborhood just south of the University of Arizona .
North and the Foothills
On Halloween of 1983, Janos Wilder and his wife, Rebecca, opened Janos in a National Historic Landmark-registered home on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art . Anthony's in the Catalinas , a Triple-A Four Diamond and DiRoNa award-winning bastion of Continental cuisine, delights diners with breathtaking views of the Santa Catalina Mountains .
Wildflower features the culinary skill of Chef Christopher Cristiano in an attractive atmosphere. Fantastic grilled meats are abound at Metropolitan Grill and Keaton's Arizona Grill , both also multiple award-winners.
A restaurant known affectionately as "The Cork" (formerly the Cork & Cleaver) has been a local tradition for more than 30 years. In 1994, Chef Jonathan Landeen took the reins of what is officially called Jonathan's Tucson Cork , bringing his gold medal-winning culinary style to the area.
The Metro Restaurant Group has created, in a sense, its own global culinary tour with its eight established restaurants (and more in the works) - Firecracker Asian-American Bistro offers an explosion of tantalizing Pacific Rim tastes and aromas—look for the flames shooting from the roof (no, not from the food, from the torches!). City Grill has been feted as the Best Grill and Best Business Lunch by Tucson Lifestyle magazine.
Backstage is just plain fun—and plenty of it—with dancing, games, sports and casual, contemporary cuisine. And then there's McMahon's Prime Steakhouse , voted Tucson Lifestyle's Best Steak Restaurant and Best New Restaurant of 1999.
Downtown is about the only district in Tucson that can be explored on foot because most attractions here are within easy walking distance. The rest of the city, from Tohono Chul Park to Sabino Canyon , sprawls across the valley covering distances too vast to overcome without wheels.
Barrio Historico Tour the Spanish-Mexican district, the Barrio Historico , which contains historic buildings like St. Augustine Cathedral and the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House , built in the late 1800s. Grab lunch at the legendary El Charro . Nearby is the Tucson Museum of Art , home to collections of Pre-Columbian, Hispanic and contemporary works.
Old Town Artisans Walk through the galleries and craft shops at Old Town Artisans , then observe the decorated facade and tiled Moorish dome of the Pima County Courthouse . Nearby is the site of the original Spanish fortress at El Presidio Park . Enjoy lunch at Cup Cafe or the Barrio bistro.
Mission San Xavier del Bac Visit the Mission San Xavier del Bac , the "White Dove of the Desert," called the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the country. You'll also find the International Wildlife Museum and Sentinel Peak , the site of Tuscon's first settlers. Have lunch at Daisy Mae's Steak House , then stop into Brumm's Nature Gallery , which features artwork made with natural elements.
Tohono Chul Park Take a walk in the Tohono Chul Park , where you can take a close look at the plant and bird life of the Sonoran Desert. Have a bite at the park's cafe , then take the tram down Sabino Canyon . Enjoy the scenic beauty of the Catalina Mountains or hike through Catalina State Park .
Gates Pass Take the scenic drive past Gates Pass into Sahuaro National Park , stopping at the world-famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the way. Once you've seen the Park, stop by and see the astronomical art at Novaspace , then dine at Linen , famed for its service-minded staff.
Consulting a professional tour company to add focus to your days in Tuscon is recommended. They can get you where you need to go, both in style and comfort.
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