A Local’s Guide to Tucson
Cactus and cowboys are just the beginning here. World-class spa-resorts dot the foothills of this desert city; the mountain ranges are topped with observatories and evergreen forests. A research university and an air force base add variety to the Anglo/Mexican mix. Mild winters and eternal sunshine draw runners and cyclists to the trails and canyons of the lush Sonoran desert. After a sunset hike to precolumbian petroglyphs, civilization awaits...
110 E Pennington St, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
No, you don’t have the wrong address—this is indeed a downtown office building and parking garage. But don’t be alarmed. Walk through the door, and Café Poca Cosa’s stylish interior tells you immediately that this is no boring strip mall Tex-Mex joint. Neither, fortunately, is it an overly precious nouvelle-cuisine bore. It’s been voted “Best Mexican” in Tucson by locals, who know that chimichangas were born in this desert town. That said: you’ll find no chimichanga combo-plate here. Chef-owner Suzana Davila changes the chalkboard menu twice a day. Her concentration is on fresh ingredients and innovative dishes that translate regional cuisines rather than betray tradition. National publications have sung her praises, but Ms. Davila still checks on her own customers and eats lunch in the dining room with everyone else. She’s a self-taught native of Guaymas who can concoct over two dozen varieties of mole. Complex sauces, refreshing drinks (such as pineapple-basil agua fresca), and Baroque masks in red niches await you. Come for a late lunch on a weekday if you want to avoid the justifiable crowds. Have an open mind (and mouth), and discover how great contemporary Mexican cooking can be. Tucson can be proud of its plentiful taco trucks and Sonoran hot dog stands, but Poca Cosa celebrates the variety of Mexican cuisine for when you want to sit down in style. Buen provecho!
2221 I-19 Frontage Rd, Tubac, AZ 85646, USA
Tucson is predictably well-endowed with Mexican restaurants...But it’s still worth driving about an hour south to the little town of Tubac for a meal at Elvira’s. Upon entering the cool space, you won’t be surprised to learn that the chef/owner got degrees in design and graphic arts before going to cooking school. The restaurant, family-owned since 1927, is named after Ruben Monroy’s grandmother. Originally located in Nogales, Mexico, Elvira’s moved up to Tubac a few years ago... Have a welcoming “Hola-tequila-shot” (just fifty cents!) while perusing the menu...I had the pipián rojo mole—perfectly tender chicken under a vibrant sauce made with ground pumpkin seeds; my wife tried the day’s light lunch special of mushroom enchiladas with tomatillo salsa, and for out-of-town family, the squash-blossom-stuffed poblano chile relleno “Frida Kahlo.” Beef tongue with salsa verde and the other moles will have to wait for a return visit. Suspended from the ceiling are constellations of lanterns, blown-glass teardrops, flying cherubs—Mexican folk-art with a surreal twist. Your eyes will not be bored. More importantly, neither will your taste buds... (Tubac, incidentally, was the starting point of the 18th-c. expedition that led to the founding of San Francisco, Santa Clara, & San José, CA. Not much of the original Spanish presidio remains, but for the past few decades, “where art and history meets” has become the slogan of this ‘artists’ colony’ in the high desert.)
Barrio Viejo, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
Adobe streetfront: door...window...sky. Color. Much of Tucson, like most western U.S. cities, is devoted to strip malls and parking lots, but the historic core still has blocks of 19th-century Sonoran-style row houses. In the 1960s, acres and acres of the Barrio Viejo was razed, but fortunately not all of it. Today it’s a combination of gentrification and the pleasantly decrepit: attorney’s offices, student rentals, and family homes share this yard-less streetscape in a bilingual neighborhood. In reading about the history of the neighborhood, I came across this description, written back in the 1930s by Dr. James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, who was visiting Tucson for the first time: “But this cannot be the United States of America, Tucson, Arizona! This is northern Africa - Tunis! Algiers! - or even Greece, where I have seen as here, houses built flush with the sidewalks with pink, blue, green and yellow walls, flowers climbing out of hidden patios and overall, an unbelievable blue sky. And the sweet-acrid smell in the air? Burning mesquite. Lovely! And the people - charming. But all this is the Old World, not America.” The Barrio Viejo is perfect for a bike ride. You do feel as if you’ve left reality-TV-obsessed Gringolandia...if only for a few blocks...
380 S Meyer Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
Just south of downtown Tucson is a reminder of the city’s Hispanic-and-adobe past: the Barrio Viejo. One of the most eye-catching buildings is the Teatro Carmen, which opened in 1914. For the rest of the teens and on into the mid-1920s, this venue featured Spanish-language plays and concerts. Plans exist to restore this structure, but for now you can still admire its colorful façade as you wander in this historic neighborhood and catch glimpses of history amidst the restoration.
375 S Stone Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
Casa Vicente is an institution in this desert city—Tucson’s outpost for tapas a la española. Just south of the downtown core, a couple of blocks from the neo-Baroque façade of the Cathedral of San Agustín, this restaurant also features live music on weeknights: classical guitar, flamenco, and even tango lessons. This particular evening, we tried chipirones rellenos, a trio of baby calamari skewered and stuffed with green tomatoes and spices. In a town more known for its tacos and burros (a.k.a. ‘burritos’ elsewhere), it’s appropriate, if somewhat uncommon, to find Iberian fare. Tucson was founded in 1775 as an outpost of the Spanish empire, decades before it became Mexican, and then in the mid-19th century, it finally became part of a U.S. territory. (And, by the way, the sangría here rocks.)
5201 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706, USA
Come to “El Güero Canelo” if you’re in southern Arizona. It’s a Tucson institution where you can get the best “Sonoran/Mexican hot dogs” north of the border... But what’s a Sonoran hot dog? It’s a wiener wrapped in bacon(!), served atop beans in a bolillo roll, topped with tomatoes, mustard, mayo, onions, and green chiles. That is, if you get it “con todo"—with everything. Some say these were invented in the city of Hermosillo, about a half-day’s drive south of Tucson, in the mid-20th century. They’re hard to find in most of the U.S. A tamarind soda washes it down nicely, and at “El Güero Canelo” you can get all the salsa, pico de gallo, roasted jalapeños, and grilled green onions you can eat to go with it! (Tacos and burros—not “burritos"—also are available, as well as “caramelos,” the Sonoran term for quesadillas with meat.) For more info: elguerocanelo.com
1950 W San Xavier Rd, Tucson, AZ 85746, USA
Just to the southwest of Tucson, on the San Xavier Reservation, sits the late XVIII-century Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the U.S. The combination of late Baroque and Moorish-inspired design is a beacon any time of the year, but on this winter day, the flooded fields worked some magic—panoramas of reflected landscapes are almost nonexistent in southern Arizona! The ‘white dove of the desert’ is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, and it still serves as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham people.
4280 N Campbell Ave #107, Tucson, AZ 85718, USA
When you hear the phrase, “summer in southern Arizona,” naturally your thoughts will tend toward heat and sunshine. Most wouldn’t think of mounds of fresh produce at a farmers’ market in the desert city of Tucson. But the arrival of the monsoon coincides with nature’s edible bounty, even here in the desert. The nearby Santa Cruz valley is actually one of the oldest continually-farmed regions in North America, with agriculture dating back four thousand years! Heirloom beans, squash, chiles, and tomatoes are still grown. The nearby higher elevation lands near Willcox are known for their orchards and even a few vineyards. Mesquite flour is made into cookies and tortillas. Prickly pear cactus is made into jams and frozen treats. All this is available throughout the week at various farmers’ markets around Tucson. The biggest one is on Sunday morning in the neo-colonial courtyards of St. Philip’s Plaza. And, if you’re curious, you’ll get language and cooking lessons, too. On a recent Sunday morning, my wife and I asked what some curious looking greens were. The answer? Purslane, or “verdolagas” in Spanish. They grow like weeds once the monsoon rains begin, and they contain more omega-3 fatty acids (think fish oil) than any other leafy plant. In a salad, or sautéed or stewed, they’re great. Who knew? Farmers’ markets are always a great place to get a vibe for a city—a cross section of people and produce. And, even in the desert, it is possible to shop and eat local.
Gates Pass, Arizona 85745, USA
Residents and visitors alike drive out to the western edge of Tucson on most evenings. The area averages 350 sunny days a year, so viewing the sunset is almost always a possibility. Summer evenings are predictably hot, but you’re in for a technicolor show if the monsoon clouds are just right. Gates Pass is the preferred spot. Mid-week evenings, you can sometimes have the vista almost to yourself. From the middle of the city, head west on Speedway. It curves up into the Tucson Mountains after fifteen or twenty minutes, and you won’t miss the Pass. Cacti, mountains, and sky: some clichés just don’t get old...
5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750, USA
Many who have not visited Arizona think that its saguaros grow in a Sahara-like setting...but the mountainous desert around Tucson hides many lush spots, like this riparian canyon on the NE edge of the city. Late fall paints the cottonwoods along the creek below cactus-studded slopes in Sabino Canyon. Hikers hike, runners run, and deer roam...
6934 E Tanque Verde Rd, Tucson, AZ 85715, USA
Que Bonita offers furniture from the Sierra Madre, textiles from Guatemala, Peruvian ceramics, Native American jewelry from the Southwest—all on the way to (or from) Mt. Lemmon on Tucson’s northeast side. This family-owned gallery/furniture/clothing store has been in Tucson for three decades. When in southern Arizona, check this place out for items from all over Latin America. (It’s only a couple doors down from a good pub, and next door to a hotel, too!)
15000 N Secret Springs Dr, Marana, AZ 85658, USA
No matter how posh, there’s always a place for something deep-fried to go with drinks, eh? Tucked into its own private canyon on the far northwestern edge of Tucson, the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain resort is the epitome of understated desert chic... Each February, world champion golfers come to the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains to compete in the Accenture Match Play Championship, the spa has recently been ranked one of the best in the world, and it’s been open for two and a half years now...So, curious, my wife and I (we live about an hour away), thought we’d spend an afternoon here... ...and on the patio of “Ignite” (the lobby lounge/café), we noshed on “Avocado FRIES!” With a three-chili aioli and an “Arizona Greyhound,” (grapefruit and vodka), cactus wrens and cardinals darting about the blooming saguaros, the fried avocado wedges were an unexpected accompaniment to relaxing in the shade...
Hohokam Road, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
Just beyond the western edge of Tucson, you’ll find these Hohokam petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park. No one knows precisely when they were carved into the rocks, but Hohokam settlements in the Sonoran desert date back almost two thousand years. We went on a short hike among the saguaro to end up on this hilltop with this pre-Columbian art—not your typical suburban stroll.
2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743, USA
Mountain Lion. Cougar. Puma. Panther. Any way you call it, it’s majestic but fear-inspiring... At the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, on the western edge of Tucson, you can get face-to-face with one of these massive felines; their well-designed habitat includes a high den with a thick glass window. If your timing is right, a catnap will have just ended, and you’ll be studied closely. “Desert Museum” might seem like a misnomer. Part botanical garden, part zoo, and part, yes, museum, it’s been ranked one of the best in the world. The habitats are well thought-out, and you get a true feel for the flora and fauna of the lush Sonora desert, which straddles the US-Mexico border: from the Sea of Cortez to the mountains, from subtropical coast to saguaros that get the occasional dusting of snow...
12350 E Roger Rd
Archaeological evidence shows human presence around this warm-spring-fed oasis NE of Tucson going back thousands of years. The grounds were a ranch from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries; today it’s free and open to the public. Weekends you’re likely to see families picnicking and piñata-breaking under the palms; mornings are a birdwatcher’s paradise. It’s just close enough to town to be a ready half-day escape from urban stress. I’ve not been along the Nile, but this is how I imagine it to look--an Arizona stand-in for Egypt...
11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85737, USA
When the southern Arizona desert gets just the right mix of rains at the right time in fall and winter, the following spring can produce a riot of wildflowers. People around Tucson said that the spring of 2010 was one of the best displays in decades--poppies and lupine for miles...perhaps the most vibrant ‘show’ in a generation.
Hike into Bear Canyon on the northeastern edge of Tucson, and you’ll be rewarded (most of the year) with a view of Seven Falls, gushing out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Even though the hike in and out is around seven miles, it’s mostly flat. You’ll find that, as you’re zigzagging across the creek on large boulders, with cliffs above the cacti all around, traffic and strip malls are a world away. When you arrive at the falls, the rushing waters are a balm for the soul. Midwinter through the middle of spring is a good time to visit this oasis; the higher-elevation snowmelt guarantees flowing water and the daytime temperatures are comfortable. Midsummer monsoon rains can also fill this canyon, and flash floods can be a sudden danger.
Tumacacori, Tumacacori-Carmen, AZ, USA
Want hot chiles? mild peppers? powder? paste? Across from the old Spanish mission in Tumacácori, you’ll find it. For decades, family-owned and family-run Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co. has been providing flavors in Southern Arizona. There’s even a mini Western Museum...and of course, you can sample the sauces and salsas... The Santa Cruz valley, between Tucson and Nogales, is one of the oldest continually-farmed regions in the U.S.; for four thousand years, native peppers, beans, squash, cactus and corn have been cultivated, even here in the desert. Then, beginning in the 17th century, Spaniards introduced Mediterranean plants: grapes, figs, pomegranates, figs, quince...and cattle ranching. A small garden on the grounds of the Tumacácori mission across the road from the Santa Cruz Chili Co. still grows some of these heirloom crops. A visit to the mission and spice market make for a great afternoon or day trip from Tucson. Go south from Tucson on I-19 for about an hour. (Note: I-19 is marked in kilometers, not miles; quirky.) Take Exit 29, turn left, then turn north on the old highway, and you’ll see the big chile-pepper sign on the left, just before you get to Tumacácori mission National Historical Park. The store is closed on Sundays.
446 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719, USA
In Tucson, gelato is, understandably, becoming part of the cityscape. A handful of Italian gelato-masters have settled here, educating desert palates with tempting desserts. Here, just a few blocks from the University of Arizona, Allegro rotates its offerings in style—literally. (I mean, come on, isn’t this the coolest frozen dessert display?) Flavors such as saffron and anise, or even avocado, beckon on a hot evening.
5425 N Kolb Rd #115, Tucson, AZ 85750, USA
A little over a mile from where the deer roam in the saguaro-studded foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, sit down for some izakaya-style dining. Japanese “tapas” might not be a completely accurate description for this genre of shareable plates, but you get the idea. Ginza is family-owned, and a nice surprise in this corner of the desert. After an evening hike in Sabino Canyon, sit down for your choice of izakaya-plates or fresh sashimi—Tucson is only a six-hour drive from the Pacific, and a four-hour drive from the Sea of Cortez. And if you’ve never had a bowl of ‘real’ ramen (just say ‘no’ to maruchan), you’re in for a revelation of toothsome noodles in porky broth. A few of my favorites are the sautéed shrimp with mild green chilies, the gyoza, and (for a main course) the bibimpbap-chirashi bowl. Over sushi-rice, you’re served a generous sampling of fresh sashimi, tamagoyaki (slightly sweet rolled omelet), sprouts, and seaweed, with a quail egg as a garnish. Korean-inspired spicy/sweet ‘bibim’ sauce tops it off. Chef-owner Jun Arai’s wife, Diana, is from Mexico, which explains the homemade flan on the menu. Take a hike, then take a seat. After the cactus, kampai!
1100 W Ruins Dr, Coolidge, AZ 85128, USA
Don’t go looking for Casa Grande, the national monument of pre-Columbian ruins, in Casa Grande, the sprawling exurb of a town about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. You have to drive about 20 miles away to the small town of Coolidge to find the site. This may not be the most scenic stretch of desert, it must be said, but the destination is worth the detour. The Hohokam culture built this complex of dwellings and irrigation canals—one of many—late in their tenure here. Erected in the 1300s, this particular site was abandoned by the mid-1400s—the end of perhaps a thousand years of irrigated agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. The network of villages and canals continue to fascinate archaeologists and urban planners. The “big house” (Casa Grande was named by the first Spanish explorers in the area) stands about four stories tall. In the 1930s, the current shelter was built to protect it from further erosion. (Look carefully: you might catch a glimpse of the resident horned owls.) The timbers needed for construction came from the mountains about 50 miles away; at the time there were no pack animals, and thus no wheeled vehicles in this desert—makes you think... The surrounding ballgame-courts show influence from Mesoamerica. Desert civilization in North America is often thought of as a recent phenomenon—take the 20th-century explosions of Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc. Dig deeper, and get off the interstate. The past is not remote, and this is an easy day trip from Tucson.
5501 N Hacienda Del Sol Rd, Tucson, AZ 85718, USA
The Grill is the only restaurant in Arizona to receive the “Award of Ultimate Distinction” from Wine Enthusiast. History, quiet service, and the most romantic dining in Tucson are all here. For the best dinner-with-a-view, ask for a table in the West Patio where you’ll have a panoramic view from the city lights to the peaks of the Santa Catalina mountains. The ranch on which The Grill is located, Hacienda del Sol, began in the 1920’s as an exclusive private girls’ school in the still-wilderness foothills above Tucson. In the 1940’s, the 34-acre estate became a guest ranch popular with the Hollywood stars of the time—Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, and Clark Gable.
311 N Court Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
El Charro sits in a converted set of historic houses & buildings a block off Tucson’s old town district—the same location where it began serving food in 1922. We had lunch here, at a big old wooden table in a warmly decorated dining room. Ask to be seated inside, or else in the garden, if the weather’s amenable. It’s a bit cold and dim in the front of the restaurant. I had an amazing vegetarian burrito, stuffed with roasted veggies, avocado and a green corn tamale. The others went for the excellent chimichangas, reputedly invented here (you can read the story on the menu). The special-brewed beer, an amber, was great, the salsa verde addictive, the decor a great talking point.
Few cities in the U.S. can claim to be ‘sandwiched’ by a National Park; Tucson might well be the only one. Saguaro National Park is divided into Eastern and Western divisions that flank the city--plenty of wilderness hiking within a half-an-hour’s drive from the middle of town. If you’re here, like most visitors, in the winter, a perfect half-day’s hike is up to Wasson Peak in Saguaro National Park, on the western edge of the city. Seven-miles round-trip with a nearly 2000-ft elevation gain: it’s a moderate climb with 360-degree views from the top. (You do NOT want to hike this in the summer; there is no shade.) At 4687ft/1428m, it’s low compared to some of the 9000+ ft peaks on Tucson’s other horizons, but the panoramas are unbeatable, and the trek up through a saguaro forest is unforgettable. There are several routes, but perhaps the most popular is the Kings Canyon trailhead--directly across the road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Hike the peak in the morning (give yourself around four hours so you can enjoy lunch and the view from the summit), and spend the afternoon visiting the animals across the road. (A new aquarium featuring the Sea of Cortez just opened; fall through spring also offer ‘raptor free flight’ demonstrations.) (From the top, the views: trail to the peak, looking south toward the distant Santa Rita mountains, looking over the NW part of the city to the forested peak of Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mtns.)
279 S Linda Ave, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
For about two decades now, this city in the Sonoran Desert has become a February gathering place for artists and vendors from all over Africa. For a couple of weeks, a tent city pops up and about a hundred vendors set up shop. Associated with the six-decade-old tradition of the international Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, this is one of the largest gatherings of its kind in North America. A small outdoor kitchen serves up Lamb stew, rice and plantains so you can get a taste of West Africa before or after browsing. There’s something for almost everyone, from strands of beads for jewelry-makers to monumental sculptures, and, of course, tie dyed clothing. Furniture from Mali, textiles from Burkina Faso, totems from Sudan, sculpture from Côte d’Ivoire, Zulu baskets, reproductions of Bénin bronzes, and masks from across the continent—all in one place. The rest of the year, it’s a nondescript desert lot behind a Waffle House adjacent to the Interstate highway, but every February, it’s a polyglot bazaar.
If, like most visitors, you head for Tucson between Thanksgiving and Easter, you’re probably seeking sun and warmth while the rest of the country deals with the winter blahs. And you’ll most likely find what you’re looking for. There’s a reason why golfers, cyclists, hikers, and runners flock to southern Arizona this time of year. But, once or twice a decade, the lush Sonoran desert might get a snowfall—it never lasts for long, but every saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and prickly pear cactus will be edged in ephemeral white. As soon as the sun comes up over the mountains, you’ll start hearing the drip drip drip of the inevitable melting...And by the next day you’re likely to be wearing shorts again. Saguaro National Park, which flanks both the western and eastern edges of Arizona’s second-largest city, is the ideal place to go for a hike in the rare desert snow. The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) division of the park has a hilly eight-mile one-way loop road with access to numerous trails. Drive slowly and yield to the runners and senior-citizen-cyclists-in-spandex with thighs of steel. Get out and up into the saguaro-studded hills before the unlikely landscape disappears...Keep your eyes open for bobcats, mule deer, and the pig-like javelina. (You’re less likely to encounter a rattlesnake in the winter months, but this is still desert wilderness.) And if there’s no snow, you might be treated to spring wildflowers. Don’t forget your sunscreen...
N 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ, USA
Come here and you’ll find a solar-powered bookstore, a Guatemalan restaurant, pubs, galleries, cafés, and this brick wall tribute to Gregory Colbert’s “Boy Reading to Elephant.” (The words that come to mind when I pass this street art are “tell me a good story and I’ll never forget.”) Just a few blocks north of downtown, and a few blocks west of the University of Arizona, Tucson’s Fourth Avenue district is a pedestrian eat-work-drink-play neighborhood with a new streetcar/trolley system. Construction is done, shops and restaurants are open, and you’ll find hardly a chain along the eclectic streetscape. From college kids and downtown workers, to artists, professors, and out-of-towners, Fourth Avenue is where the Old Pueblo welcomes techies and yuppies along with the ex-hippies... And, every winter and spring, for decades now, the neighborhood hosts a Street Fair—hundreds of thousands of people come for the arts, crafts, food, and music.
50 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
Chile en nogada is a poblano chile pepper, stuffed with peccadillo (shredded meat, aromatic diced dried fruit and spices), topped with a walnut-cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. This dish from Puebla is not often found on menus of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. It’s not even that common south of the border, except during the August-September season surrounding Mexican Independence Day. If you’re in downtown Tucson, however, you can try it at Penca. In a repurposed space with exposed brick and hip cocktails, this restaurant is also a worthy destination for brunch or late afternoon tacos. Choose from carnitas, fish, lengua, cabeza, nopales, carne asada, and more. The corn-tortillas are handmade right after you place your order. (The tortillas alone are almost worth the trip.) Mexico City is the inspiration. The food is fresh, and the scene is full of optimism: downtown Tucson is reinventing itself with a new streetcar for a live-work-play vibe. Taste and see how this desert city continues to evolve. (Penca has recently been named one of the best bars in the country. Start your meal here with a creative cocktail!)
1859 W Grant Rd #103, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
A husband-and-wife team have brought Canada’s national junk-food, born in Québec in the 1950s, to Tucson—finally, you can eat “poutine” in southern Arizona! And it’s even “local”...the “Zany Beaver” food-truck gets its cheese curds from local dairies, and the sodas are the old-fashioned glass-bottled kind from nearby Mexico. In case you don’t know what poutine is—it’s french fries topped with squeaky fresh cheese curds then doused with hot brown gravy. Variations include topping the artery-clogging deliciousness with pulled pork, bacon, jalapeños...(One très chic restaurant in Montréal includes foie gras!) Follow @ZanyBeaver on Twitter or Facebook to find out where they’ll be located as they drive their offerings around this desert city...On this particular evening, they were, conveniently, camping out in the parking lot of a local microbrewery...There are frequent city-wide “food-truck round-ups” as well; Tucson is more eclectic than you might imagine...
9121 E Tanque Verde Rd, Tucson, AZ 85749, USA
Le Buzz is the place to hang out and caffeinate on Tucson’s northeast edge. They roast their own coffee, bake their own pastries, and they’re on the way if you want to pick up something for a picnic on your drive up to Mount Lemmon above the desert. Don’t let the strip-mall location fool you. This institution is a beloved “third place” for the local community. Sit here among TV-anchormen, novelists, horse-trainers, students, biotech-spandex-clad-cyclists, couples on dates, crossworders-content-to-be-alone... Pastries are just the beginning—the quiches are killer, you can get carnitas skillets, reubens, and buckwheat pancakes—and the coffee is among the best in all of Arizona. Take a bag of beans with you... ...and if you’re here mid-week, breakfast pastries (if there are any left) are half-off after 3 p.m. The almond croissants are perfect for dipping into an afternoon latte...And be warned: Saturday mornings, you’ll have to compete with the cycling-spandex-crowd for a table.
2081 Hardy Road
“Orchards” is not the word that comes to mind when most think of southern Arizona...but less than 2 hours east of Tucson, up in the high desert, Apple Annie’s is a family farm destination for fresh summer fruit. At an elevation of 4400 ft (1300m), the Sulphur Springs Valley is an ideal source for Tucson’s locavore culture: orchards, fields, and even a handful of vineyards surround the old whistle stop cattle town of Willcox. There’s more than just apples. Sit down for some homemade pie or applewood-smoked burgers—and if you time it right, you can pick your own peaches, too. Several varieties of Asian pears, otherwise available only as Korean and Japanese imports, are grown here as well. A few miles away from the orchard are the farms where you can pick or buy fresh melons, peppers, squash, tomatoes. In the fall, there’s a giant 15-acre corn maze! From Tucson, it’s an easy 1hr40min drive, and if you’re heading west from El Paso, Willcox is at the 3hr20min point. The orchards and farms are just a few miles north of the Interstate—well worth a stop. Stretch your legs, drive past some homesteads with cottonwoods and horses, and get a taste of what the trees can produce in the high desert.
6260 E Speedway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85712, USA
For a decade and a half now, Tucsonans have been coming here for fresh-baked bread...and much much more. Get some challah French toast in the morning...or a chicken-green-chile omelette...and no shortage of croissants and scones... Mid-day, if you want one of the best sandwiches around, try the “Everything Reuben,” which won 2nd place in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas last year-- corned beef, vinegar slaw, Swiss cheese and house made Russian dressing on a fresh pretzel roll... Summer brings gazpacho, zesty and cold... ...and every Friday, there’s BABKA! Cinnamon or chocolate--(I pick the chocolate every time)--in a big ‘loaf’ or as a shareable ‘baby babka'--it’s an unexpected big-city-bakery taste here in the Southwest desert. Note the cycling gear on the wall--yes, they sponsor the spandex-clad, those helmeted pelotons who definitely earn their carbs...(Tucson is one of the nation’s biking meccas.) Ahh, “Tucson Born and bread,” read the jerseys and socks... The patio has mountain views and misters to counter the ‘dry heat.’ Years ago, when I first visited Tucson before deciding to move here, this was one of our stops--one of those places that makes you think ‘yeah, I could live here...’
Mt Lemmon, Arizona 85619, USA
On the northern edge of Tucson, you can drive through a condensed version of western North America’s ecosystem in about half an hour. On the way up the Mount Lemmon Highway (also known as “Catalina Highway” or “Sky Island Scenic Byway”), you traverse almost all of the different life zones you would encounter if you were to actually drive from Mexico to Canada: starting with the saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, up through grassland, junipers and oaks, pines, and finally a mixed-conifer forest with stands of aspen. You begin at about 2500 ft. and end up at almost 9100 ft. above sea level (about 760 to 2770 meters). In the summer, especially, southern Arizonans love this road: “thirty miles, thirty degrees cooler,” as the saying goes. When it’s 105 degrees down in the city, it’s a perfect 75 up on the mountain. In the winter, you can go skiing in the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.
5420 E Broadway Blvd
You won’t find any mediocre pastries or kitschy mugs at Savaya. Here, it’s all about the coffee. Owner Burc Maruflu hails from Turkey, and his passion for coffee permeates this intimate space — which is just big enough for a long mesquite bar, a few tables, and a bright green roaster. The map painted on the wall and the hanging burlap bags show where the fair-trade organic beans are sourced. They’re roasted at the café daily, and small classes are occasionally held for those who want to learn more. Tucsonans regularly name this place as one of the best spots to get a cup of coffee in the city. In addition to the original Midtown location, there are also Savaya cafés in the Santa Catalina foothills and Dove Mountain.
Romero Canyon, Arizona 85619, USA
One of the best day-hikes from Tucson is just north of town, on the ‘back side’ of the Santa Catalina Mountains: Romero Canyon. Drive up to Catalina State Park for the trailhead, and you’ll begin trekking through mesquite woods and towering saguaros before beginning to climb the rocky foothills into this mountain range. Then you’ll scramble down into the canyon itself, with a flowing stream at its heart. Most years, even in the early summer dry season, you can still find pools to cool off in--it’s a popular trail for Tucsonans. (Just get an early--dawn--start.) Continue past the pools and you can hike all the way up to Romero Pass, in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wiliderness, where naturalists are trying to re-introduce a herd of mountain bighorn sheep. Late fall through early spring are perfect here... “Desert oasis” might be a hackneyed phrase when describing places like this, but desert-dwellers don’t take them for granted. Fortunately, when you’re in southern Arizona, seek and ye shall find...
Mt Wrightson, Arizona 85624, USA
Tucson is surrounded by mountains. As you look south, however, the highest and most distinctive peak is Mt. Wrightson (9,453ft/2,881m) in the Santa Rita range. Hike to the top and you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view from the highest point between Tucson and Mexico. In fact, on a clear day, looking south from the top of the mountain, you’ll see all the way into Mexico. On the way, you’ll drive and hike up through forested Madera Canyon — one of the best spots in the U.S. for birdwatching. Around 250 different species (including 15 different varieties of hummingbirds) of birds, have been spotted, some of which are normally only seen in tropical ecosystems. You’re also likely to encounter deer and wild turkey as you drive up from the high desert grasslands south of Tucson. This is a challenging hike: about 11 miles round-trip, with a four-thousand foot elevation gain. You’ll be hiking mostly in forest, but at the top there’s no shade and the winds can be formidable. Nonetheless—the views! City, wilderness, grasslands, mines, forested slopes, and endless mountain ranges...worth it!
Ventana Canyon, Catalina Foothills, AZ 85750, USA
The foothills around Tucson are home to some of the best spa-golf-resorts in the U.S. and you don’t have to go far for a taste of the wilderness before you turn in. Just behind the Loews Ventana Canyon resort on the edge of the city, an unspoiled trail awaits. This lush riparian canyon takes you into the heart of the Santa Catalina Mountains, studded with saguaros. Deer, bobcats, javelinas, and the occasional mountain lion might cross your path. About 2 1/2 miles in, you’ll come across seasonal water; The Maiden Pools. If you’re an experienced hiker seeking a challenge, keep on going and you’ll reach The Window, a natural rock arch about 7000 ft high.
1580 Duval Mine Road, Green Valley, AZ 85614, USA
Visitors flock to southern Arizona for sun and saguaros... ...but for a hole in the ground? Other than the ones on golf courses? From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, Tucson was ringed by eighteen steel-and-concrete-reinforced holes in the ground--highly secure shafts in the desert that housed intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with multi-megaton nuclear bombs. “Peace through Deterrance” was the idea, as the propaganda-phrase goes... Of the 54 Titan Missile complexes that were scattered around the country, only this one, about 45 minutes south of Tucson, has been preserved and opened to the public. It’s a startling reminder of how thin the line was that separated the “Cold War” from “M.A.D."--"mutual assured destruction.” It would only have taken 30 minutes from its desert launch for this missile to deliver unimaginable destruction--via a 9 megaton nuclear warhead--up to 6300 miles (10,000km) away... On a lighter note, some of the filming of one of the Star Trek films took place here. You can visit the subterranean control bunker and staff living quarters, access corridors, and the missile silo itself. Tours are offered on the hour year-round, with additional tours offered every thirty minutes from January through April. Closed Christmas and Thanksgiving. Whether you’re coming from the left or from the right, politically, the sobering reality of this fusion of human nature and technology is worth going underground for if you’re driving down I-19.