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Tucson, the second-largest city in Arizona, is a thriving arts center with an ethnically diverse restaurant scene. The city’s nickname, “Old Pueblo,” reflects its deep roots in Spanish, Mexican and Native American culture. Tucson’s population swells seasonally with students at the University of Arizona, and with “snowbirds” who come for consistent winter sunshine. The area’s copious outdoor recreation activities are concentrated in Saguaro National Park, designated to protect the park’s namesake cactus.
Go West: Tucson has several western-themed attractions. Old Tucson Studios was the filming location for four John Wayne flicks, as well as the movies Tombstone and The Three Amigos. It’s open to the public daily for old-west shootouts, carnival games, stagecoach tours and live performances at the Opera House. Leave your Tucson hotel and head downtown to see the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, with its extensive collections of pre-Columbian and Western art; and a partial recreation of the city’s fort, the Presidio of San Agustín del Tucson.
Eat Tucson: Tucson proclaims itself the “Mexican Food Capital of the United States,” and most Tucson restaurants serve Sonoran-style cuisine, emphasizing beef, cheese, and flour tortillas. The festive El Presidio Historic District is home to a large concentration of such eateries, including El Charro Café, the oldest Mexican restaurant in town.
Nightlife: The Maverick, known as “King of Clubs,” is the place to find line dancing, two-stepping and honky-tonk crooning. Cowboy hats and boots are optional but recommended. For a more celestial evening, check out the solar-powered Sky Bar Tucson, an astronomy-themed lounge decked out with powerful telescopes and “Big Bang” happy hours.
Good for Kids: The Old Tucson Studios and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are first-rate family attractions. In addition, the Children’s Museum Tucson gives kids the chance to dress up as firefighters and veterinarians, conduct scientific experiments, save the environment at Electri-City, or create masterpieces in the art studio. For natural wonders, take the 40-minute drive out to Kartchner Caverns State Park; the guided tour winds through brilliantly colored cave formations with stalactites dripping from above and stalagmites spiking up from below.
U District: The 380-acre University of Arizona has given rise to a lively U-District dominating the central section of the city. Hit the funky and fabulous Fourth Avenue for vintage shops, art galleries and dozens of cafes serving ethnic cuisine. Slide into the evening at Plush, a sleek bar run by high-tech mixologists, with a music room on the side that features local indie and acoustic bands.
Best Bet: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The exhaustive, insightful Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, inside Saguaro National Park, is one of the country’s best museums. This hybrid zoo/botanical garden/art gallery/natural history museum devotes 97 acres to showcasing the Sonoran Desert’s flora, fauna, and geology. More than 200 animal species are on display in habitats that range from the expected desert (featuring coyotes and javelinas) to forests (mountain lion and black bear), mountains (bighorn sheep), and rivers (otters and beavers)—a snapshot of the area’s surprising biodiversity. Most exhibits are outdoors; Tuscon Country Inns & Suites hotel guests should bring good walking shoes and a hat to shield from the sun. In summer, the museum stays open late so visitors can observe nocturnal creature activities.
Best time to Visit Tucson
Summer offers low prices, small crowds and desert heat, with average temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit come July. Go in the autumn or spring for mid-range prices and shorter waits at restaurants, golf courses and attractions.
Tucson Travel Tip
Some Tuscon festivals are extremely popular, including the International Gem and Mineral Show, in February. If you go during festival weeks, book well in advance for rental cars, lodging and restaurant reservations.