When I was a kid we moved to Tucson Arizona where my father, who had always hated snow, had gotten a professorship at The University of Arizona. He was thrilled with the climate and as a kid, this southwestern community, surrounded by the “green desert” and mountains was a fantastic place to grow up. My friends and I built endless forts in the desert, learned to horseback ride and spent summers on friends ranches. My parents seemed to love it too. They had great jobs, a beautiful home that always seemed to be full of their guests eating my moms plentiful food. My dad started working with the Indian tribes in the region and we as a family began to embrace their culture. Of course there were some down sides to the town, “Life” magazine had featured it on its cover and called it the ugliest city in America and there started to be talk of the increasing drug trade across the nearby border. But despite this, it was a pretty pleasant place to live. And then, after five years, my father got a new job in Carmel California and we moved.
I never returned to The Old Pueblo until last January; and I’m sad to say that was a longer stretch of time than I’d care to admit! But in my absence, Tucson, unlike many places around the world, that seem to get worse as time goes on, has become better than it was when I was a kid. The hideous neon signs that lined the boulevards and “Life Magazine” had bewailed, were fantastically gone! The imported palm trees and the grass they spray painted in the medians of these said boulevards were gone too; replaced by native plantings. The downtown, that was a derelict place where only bums and junkies hung out years ago, is now hip and happening, chock-o-block with new museums, shops, coffee places, boutique hotels and hot new restaurants. And happily there were things left unchanged: unlike its bigger brother Phoenix, Tucson still only has one freeway, on one side of town, giving it a quieter residential feel.
When you visit Tucson you don’t get the pretentious “wanna be” vibe that one encounters in Scottsdale (that’s another travel story). What you do get is a laid back relaxing feeling where most people just genuinely seem to be having fun. The climate of Tucson during the winter is beautiful with sunny days in the mid seventies and crisp cool nights. As The Old Pueblo has sprawled far and wide across its natural valley, it is definitely not a walking city, with the possible exception the old downtown and perhaps the University. Many of the places you’ll want to visit are a drive, so a car is pretty much essential. The airport is near the downtown and happily traffic is never too bad. There is plenty to do and see here, so we recommend that you spend at least four days in Tucson. Of course if you feel like spending more time in the region there is plenty more to see in the surrounding area.
WHERE TO STAY
THE ARIZONA INN
Rarely have we enjoyed a hotel as much as this place. What made it exceptional began at the front desk after a long day’s drive complete with our autos transmission locking up. Although it was late, when we arrived, we were graciously told that the main dining room was open until 11:00 and the bar, would remain open and serving a full menu after that. Moreover, we were informed that in the morning breakfast would be served all day! Okay, we are not early risers and we like to work out in the morning, so this schedule was indicative of the real luxury and leisure we would experience at this charming establishment.
Opened in 1930 and family run since then, this meticulously maintained property is set in the center of Tucson. Lovely casitas are sprinkled about the lush gardens where guests can enjoy the tennis courts, a drink on the veranda or a dip in the large pool. The fitness center is one of the few disappointments here as it is adequate, but barely. Our casita was huge and comfortably furnished with original furniture created by the owners. The feel is old fashioned but everything including the ipad for ordering and exploring is up to date. Each morning a complimentary “New York Times” was delivered to our room. Although there is a coffee machine in each room, coffee is also served in the gorgeous library/great room where a crackling fire seems to always be burning. In the afternoon a complimentary high tea is served there as well.
We enjoyed live music in the beautiful domed bar the first night as well as delicious tasting dinner in the elegant dining room on our first night. Service is excellent, drinks are swiftly delivered and the food obviously draws the locals for special occasion dinners as well. Only one note of caution, if you are looking for the hip young hangout, this ain’t it! But there are plenty of other places to experience that scene in this up and coming city and then retreat to the comfort of a gracious old style establishment.
THE LODGE ON THE DESERT
in the same part of town, and a ten minute drive to the U of A and downtown The Lodge on the Desert is another hotel with great character. This hotel originally built in 1931 is another Tucson landmark. Set in five acres of beautiful grounds and dotted with casita style rooms The lodge has mingled charm with well maintained up to date services
There is a classy on site restaurant called Cielos with both indoor dining overlooking the patio where one can also dine alfresco by the fireplace. The food is contemporary and has a focus on local southwestern ingredients. There is a new and up to date fitness center which is a pleasure to see.
There are a variety of room choices from those in the original hotel to more modern, but still charming options added in 2009. Many rooms include kiva fireplaces,original furnishings and beamed ceilings. Included in all tariffs is a full breakfast.
Beware, if you decide to stay at this landmark hotel in downtown Tucson be prepared to party and have a great time. Do not be prepared to sleep well. A disclaimer at the top of the hotel’s official website makes this abundantly clear. There are “quieter” rooms that can be requested and they do have earplugs on request. If painting the town red is on your agenda, we can’t think of a better place to stay.
Originally opened in 1919, the hotel played host to among other notables and notorious, John Dillenger who was finally apprehended on location here in 1934. The hotel practically burst with character. The Tiger Taproom is quintessential old style bar presided over by Tiger, head bartender since 1959. The lobby oozes with character featuring all the original furnishings, switchboard and carefully restored decorative painting. There is a huge patio where bands play nightly and one can sip their cocktails under the stars and excellent food is provided by the famous Cup Cafe. The hotel showcases the hip club congress and there are nightly and weekly music options here. And of course the Congress hotel, puts you within walking distance of many of the cities best restaurants and bars, as well as cultural joints and shops.
You don’t get elegance in the rooms here, but you do get well maintained character and up to date features such as air conditioning. The hotel also offers packages that include breakfast at The Cup Cafe, VIP passes Toni house events and clubs, swag, etc.
If you are looking for a clean and modern place without the funky vibe that is still in the thick of the entertainment, we recommend checking out or for that matter checking in to the AC hotel. The first hotel built in downtown in forty years, it has all the amenities you’d expect from Marriotts hipper new line of hotels.
There is a rooftop bar and pool which is a fun place to get away from the scene during the day and a modern fitness center. The rooms are clean with an anywhere feel to them, but very comfy.
WHERE TO EAT
THE ARIZONA INN
Well some may say don’t eat where you sleep, but having created three hotel restaurants ourselves, we can safely say this old adage isn't so! And it’s especially not “so” at the Arizona Inn. Start your evening with a classic cocktail in the bar where you’ll enjoy live music and attentive service, then move into the beautiful dining room with its old southwestern beamed ceilings and corner fireplace. Old fashioned dining still exists here with flowing white linen, a well selected wine list and a well conceived ala carte and pre fix menu. We opted for the Chef’s menu and were impressed. And the best part about it...no long drive home!
CAFE POCA COSA
The creation of Chef/Owner Susana Davila, Poca Cosa is a sleek urban restaurant in downtown. The food is an amalgam of many regions of Mexico rather than the food of the local Sonoran area. Actually we think it’s fair to say that the food is even more accurately described as a unique creation of the Chef. The menu is presented on a chalkboard and to some may seem very limited. Main dishes (which is all one can order) arrive with a bountiful salad on the plate and perhaps some fruit as well. The drinks are good and the scene is “see and be seen”. Service on our first visit was warm and professional and on our second rushed and inept, but the food and atmosphere were great both times!
This jumping cafe at the Congress Hotel is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. For us it was a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the patio. The menu is eclectic, shall we say, and the food is clean, fresh and abundant. For us the Mission Street tacos, the fish tacos and the southwest salad are the sort of dishes one wants for lunch and comes to Tucson expecting. You won’t be disappointed.
Elvira’s in Tucson is the offshoot of the Nogales Mexico original founded in the 1920’s. Set in a restored downtown building the decor of this place is very stylish. Hand blown glass creating a vast mod chandelier hangs from the ceiling and the slinky booths contrast nicely with the rough exposed brick. There is a huge selection of tequila and the “craft” cocktails are really good. The menu pushes hard to be unique and achieves it even if all the dishes are not perfection. Our service was warm and friendly. Bottom line this is probably a great place to start the evening with a snack and a cocktail.
This new industrial chic steak house is busy, big and fun. The family that created Tucson’s beloved Mexican restaurant El Charo, first opened in the 1920s have now brought their take on a Sonoran steakhouse to The Old Pueblo. Although for some reason our reservation was not on the book, the hostesses handled the issue well and got us a great table within a short period of time.
The menu is far from the traditional “American” mainstream steakhouse. We particularly enjoyed the Tabla del Charro which is a selection of small bites, the guacamole prepared tableside and the Tres Carnes Chimichangas, mini deep fried flutes of slowly braised meat in either green or red sauce. The charred romaine wedge sprinkled with Chicaharon was also tasty. The steaks were well prepared if oddly enough not the stars of the show, being eclipsed by the plethora of delicious side dishes such as charred corn with crema, perfect frijoles and “Sonoran” slaw. The service here is friendly and efficient.
WHAT TO SEE
There is a lot to see and do in The Old Pueblo. First of all, for those who have never been to the Southwest, the topography will be an eye opener. This is not the desert of North Africa, of stone and sand, this is the Sonoran “green desert”, a unique area stretching through much of southern Arizona. If you grew up watching the cartoon “The Roadrunner” then you are already partially familiar with this landscape. This is the land of the giant saguaro cactus, mesquite trees and palo verdes. It is also the land of high mountain ranges, and so as you drive from the desert floor, a place of cactus, you will eventually come to a pine forest and if it’s winter you can even ski!
Contrary to our east coast Western civilization focused outlook of American history, this part of the country has some of the oldest settlements in North America. Here there are structures built by the Anasazi and Hohokum cultures that date back over a millennium and remains of the Clovis culture are dated to 13,000 years ago! The Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the early 1500s, almost two centuries before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth and their impact is still very palpable. So for those interested in history there is plenty to see here as well.
Tucson is hopping! The downtown is being completely re-made with new museums, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants; why there’s even a brand new trolley to transport one around. And don’t miss the murals downtown, there are some pretty impressive works.
THE DESERT MUSEUM
I know, I know, you don’t want to go inside to some musty old museum and look at some dioramas of cactus. But this is NOT that. First off, it’s all outside with acres and acres (98 to be specific) of space to walk and see one of the most beautifully curated assemblies of desert animals and habitat. This museum is really a fusion of botanical garden, zoo, art gallery, natural history museum and even an aquarium. There are 242 animal species here, and believe me, if you lived in the dessert all your life you probably wouldn’t encounter many of these rare animals. Plan to spend at least one full morning or afternoon here. You won’t regret a minute of it!
SAN XAVIER DEL BAC
This magnificent structure rises incongruously from a barren area of land in the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation just ten miles from Tucson. Originally founded by the Jesuit Father Kino in 1692 and destroyed in an Apache raid in 1770, the present structure was finished in 1797. After Spanish born priests were banned by the Mexican government in 1828, the basilica was eventually left vacant and despite the O’odham people’s valiant efforts to save it, it began to decay badly. Thankfully, after the site of San Xavier became part of the U.S. the Santa Fe Diocese added the mission to its jurisdiction and the structure was gradually restored. What one sees today is a wild amalgam of baroque with Moorish and native elements, that is considered by many aficionados to be the best example anywhere of Spanish colonial architecture. A visit here takes only an hour or so it’s easy to combine it with other adventures. And be sure to check out the wares of the O’odham people who set up small stalls in front of the church.
From the city of Tucson and it’s beautiful desert cactus to the 9,159 summit of this peak and its towering pine trees is only an hour drive; and boy is it a fun one! As one starts ones ascent the foothills are literally covered with spectacular saguaros that slowly turn to shapparel covered rock formations which gradually transition to a huge pine forest. Mt. Lemmon, named after the naturalist and her husband who first summited it when the Apaches had not yet surrendered, is a stunning introduction to the “islands” of coniferous forests that crisscross the Southwest. At the summit, stop for a bite to eat at the Iron Door which opened early in the last century. Take a seat by the giant cozy stone fireplace or on the deck if it’s sunny. The foods not amazing but the service is prompt and the atmosphere is great. Many cyclists brave the ascent from the valley floor and refuel here and of course there is terrific hiking. Oh, and the skiing can be good too!
When I was a kid living in Tucson, this was one of our favorite places for a picnic and a hike. Nestled in a steep gorge with a year round stream (which is a big deal in these parts) at the base of the Catalina range the scenery here is intimate and peaceful. The water cascades and pools in deep stone outcrops sheltered by towering cottonwoods. And happily, since 1978 automobiles have not been allowed into the canyon. Shuttle busses are available regularly however, so pack a picnic and enjoy yet another unique art of the desert ecosystem.
As a kid living in Tucson we rarely entered downtown. Like most American cities in the sixties and seventies it’s downtown had been left to bums and junkies. Of course there were the obligatory office towers and convention center, but other than that there was no reason to go there. Happily this has changed and the Old Pueblo’s core is experiencing a renaissance. Happily too there is still a bit of seediness, one might say just enough to maintain character. It’s also newly accessible with smooth new trollies that can whisk you to all six districts of downtown. And if getting on and off a trolley isn’t your thing, don’t worry, this is one of the few parts of the city you can actually walk. HOTEL CONGRESS, seems to anchor the downtown Bohemian night life with its two indoor bars, lounge and outdoor patio with nightly live music. CASA FILM BAR is a unique Tucson institution that regularly hosts film inspired theme nights like Bollywood Night and Twin Peaks Night. SCOTT & CO. has a Prohibition style vibe, a cozy atmosphere and well made drinks. It is accessible via a secret back hallway of the 47 Restaurant. As the oldest continually serving bar in Tucson, THE BUFFET is a great dive bar. It’s cheap, cash only, the locals are colorful so it’s definitely worth a stop. If “dive” isn’t your thing and “trendy” is, check out DOWNTOWN BAR. The specialty cocktails are creative and the food to go with it is good too. For the happy go lucky and gay, the consensus seems to be that IBT’S DANCE CLUB is the best venue. With three different rooms, two dance floor spaces an outdoor patio and DJs that spin up to the minute tunes you can’t go wrong here.
Beyond nightlife downtown Tucson has a lot more to offer. First off we enjoyed just walking about in this neck of the woods. There is lots of fun architecture ranging from old adobes from the founding of the city, to deco motels in various levels of repair and renovation and even some interesting churches and office buildings of variety of styles and vintages. Scattered about in this amalgam is some really fun wall art too. One of the highlights for us was a visit to MOCA or The Museum of Contemporary Art, which was opened in 1997. This beautiful open space is a venue for amazing contemporary art installations that are well presented, international and a lot of fun to see!