In DepthTucson is a culturally rich city that enjoys a starkly beautiful Sonoran Desert setting and reliably warm weather. It's this tourism trifecta that today draws droves of golfers, hikers, shopaholics, Mexican-food lovers and leisure-wear resort regulars to Arizona's second-largest city.
With a population above the half-million mark, Tucson has seen some unfortunate stucco-and-strip-mall suburban sprawl. But make no mistake, this is no Phoenix Junior. With the lovely Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop and the towering cacti of Saguaro National Park at its doorstep, Tucson feels connected to its surroundings.
Many of the city's historical adobes were bulldozed back in the 1960s. However, a good number of the low-slung Spanish and Mexican-era structures remain, especially in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood (just south of downtown) and the El Presidio Historic District in the heart of downtown.
When the summer sun isn't blazing, the latter is a nice area for a leisurely stroll, shopping at the Old Town Artisans complex and perhaps a happy hour Cadillac margarita at El Charro Cafe, the city's oldest restaurant.
Downtown's Stone Avenue is home to two of the city's most important houses of worship. The baroque St. Augustine Cathedral, completed in 1868, looks like it's been plucked straight out of a colonial Mexican town. Nearby, the historic 1910 Stone Avenue Temple was one of Arizona's first synagogues. Designed in a mix of neoclassic, Romanesque and Moorish styles, the building now houses the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center .
The downtown core has long boasted some beautiful public murals and buildings, including the mosaic-tile domed, Spanish Colonial Revival-style Pima County Courthouse, completed in 1928. The Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block in addition to two historic neighborhoods are also downtown.
Years ago some tourists complained that there's little else to entertain a non-history buff for long, but today the area is booming with dozens of restaurants—including several run by well-known chefs—and regular food truck and art gallery gatherings. Making it easy to explore Tucson's downtown, the Sun Link streetcar runs from Main Gate Square and the adjacent University of Arizona campus through the 4th Avenue shopping, dining and nightlife district, to the Mercado, Tucson's public market.
On the east side of downtown is the lively Congress Street district. Tourists, hipsters and college students amble down sidewalks lined with early 20th-century buildings. Amtrak trains rumble into the lovingly restored Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, parts of which are more than a hundred years old. Today the depot houses a transportation museum.
After dark, indie rock fans line up under the historic Rialto Theatre's electric pink-and-purple neon marquee for a sold-out gig. It's also here you'll find the 1919 Hotel Congress, home to a hip nightclub. On the west end of Congress Street, a former silent-movie house, the Fox Tucson Theatre, is a beautifully restored venue for live shows and classic movie screenings.
Spanish, Mexican and Western heritage play big parts in the city's cultural pageant. But the constant parade of Arizona Wildcats T-shirts on the street will show you that this is a college town as well. The University of Arizona campus sits a few miles northeast of downtown.
Golf and spa resorts and modern shopping centers are ubiquitous in the foothill neighborhoods north of town. If you drive further up into the Santa Catalina Mountains, you’ll find Mount Lemmon, where you can hit the slopes at one of the country's southernmost ski areas. The mountain tops out among pine trees at 9,157 feet, and from here you’ll be treated to expansive views of Tucson and its surroundings. This is also the location of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, which takes advantage of the Tucson area's clear skies, clean air and low humidity, as do other internationally known observatories within a couple hours' drive: Kitt Peak and Whipple observatories.
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
Arizona's statewide sales tax is 5.6 percent; an additional 2 percent is levied in Tucson. The tax on a hotel room in Pima County is 13.05 percent, plus an additional $2 per room per night in Tucson. There is a combined state and county rental car tax of 10 percent, plus a Pima County rental car fee of $3.50 per rental; a concession fee of 11.1 percent is added if the car is picked up at the airport, and an additional 2 percent tax is added if the car is picked up off airport property but within the Tucson city limits.
(520) 791-6813 (8 a.m.-10 p.m.)
Carondelet St. Joseph's Hospital, (520) 873-3000; Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital, (520) 872-3000; Northwest Medical Center, (520) 742-9000; Tucson Medical Center, (520) 327-5461; University Medical Center, (520) 694-0111.
The visitor information center is open Mon.-Fri. 10-2; closed major holidays.
Ten miles south of downtown,
Hertz, (520) 573-5201 or (800) 654-3131, offers discounts to AAA members.
The Amtrak station is at 400 N. Toole. For advance ticket and schedule information phone (800) 872-7245. Tickets may be purchased at the station.
The terminal for Greyhound Lines Inc. is at 471 W. Congress St.; phone (520) 792-3475 or (800) 231-2222.
There are many independent taxi companies in Tucson. Rates are not regulated by the city. Companies that serve the area include Discount Cab, (520) 388-9000; VIP Taxi, (520) 300-3000; and Yellow Cab, (520) 624-6611.
Sun Tran, (520) 792-9222, operates a fleet of buses running throughout the metro area as well as a streetcar line downtown.