A Perfect Day in Tucson, Arizona

Tucson, Arizona may sometimes get overlooked as visitors fly into and out of Phoenix, but Arizona’s second city is anything but second-rate. Savor a chile pepper–infused breakfast, then walk it off as you contemplate Tucson’s archaeology, botany, and multicultural shopping. Catch a legendary sunset from Tucson’s desert edges, then end the day with a farm-to-table dinner to get a real taste of this part of Arizona.

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...
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!
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
201 N Court Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA
La Cocina is a Southwestern gem, taking advantage of warm evenings and local culture to produce a truly Tucson experience. Sip at one of their cocktails—made with house-infused liquor—and enjoy a live concert. While you’re here, grab a bite to eat from a menu that includes a number of international favorites.
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