Much to my surprise Tucson has so many fantastic things to do; from eclectic art to culinary surprises to outdoorsy adventures. Of all the possibilities I discovered in Tucson, here are a few of the best ideas for your visit.
**Disclaimer: This was a hosted trip, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.
Take a bike ride and city tour with Jimmy of Tucson Bike Tours.
Sure, you could take a walking tour but that is so last century.
You will find Tucson Bike Tours tucked behind a microbrewery in one of the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. The owner, Jimmy is fantastic. He is personable, informative, and fun. Before setting out for our 11-mile ride, he made sure everyone was properly fitted for their bike and gave a safety briefing. There were eight in my group that Jimmy had to wrangle and not lose along the way.
We first headed for Rattlesnake Bridge. This 280′ bridge is constructed to resemble the snake that bears its name. It even has a rattle. Although it was not on our route, we detoured and took a turn at riding across it and back. From here, we headed to 4th Avenue. This street is home to a variety of shops and bars, including The Shanty, which was the hangout of Congresswoman, Gabby Giffords.
Next, we made our way to Hotel Congress, an Art-deco style hotel built in 1919. The hotel became famous after a fire in 1934 that led to the capture and arrest of the infamous John Dillinger.
After a brief peek at the hotel, we headed downtown to the Southern Pacific Station, where trains first brought visitors. This irrevocably changed Tucson, by cutting travel time from San Francisco down from 10 days to 2 days, the train put the city on the map.
Our next stop was a visit with “El Jefe,” a large, extremely well-executed mural of a wild Jaguar known to live just outside Tucson. The cat is thought to be one of the only two wild Jaguars in the USA.
From here, we made our way through some of the charming older Tucson neighborhoods, including the Presidio, Barrio Viejo, La Placito, and Armory Park.
The oldest residence in Tucson, Casa Cordova built in 1848 can be found in the Presidio neighborhood. Additionally, you will find stately old mansions including the Owl’s Club and the Steinfeld Mansion. If you are interested in art, the Tucson Museum of Art and Old Town Artisans also resided in this part of town.
We then pedaled over to La Placito and Armory Park. La Placito, a 40-year old mixed Urban Renewal Project wiped out much of the Old Barrio. It is home to Tucson’s Visitor and Convention Centers. There are several worthy sites in this area. The Old Pueblo Club, a gentleman’s club that now serves as veteran housing would be one. This old building, constructed of California Brick, once hosted the likes of John Wayne, Buffalo Bill, and Charles Lindbergh. The Cathedral San Agustin, built in 1896 is another. In many ways, it is like a typical cathedral but it has some unique southwestern characteristics on its facade including horned-toad lizards and saguaro cactus.
Before heading to Barrio Viejo, we made two important stops. First, we peddled our way to the pick-up window at the Drive-Thru liquor store. What would you buy at the liquor store in Tucson? Tequila, of course. We then moved onward to Armory Park, a large city park used for various outdoor events. It was once the camp for the California Column after pushing the Confederate Army out of Tucson.
Finally, we made our way to Barrio Viejo, a community marked by colorful adobe homes that line narrow back streets. This multi-cultural neighborhood is home to the “Father of Chicano Music,” Lalo Guerrero. Once, small Chinese markets sat on every corner. The Lee Ho Store was probably the most important of the markets. A mural now graces the corner where his store once stood.
If you’ll be visiting Scottsdale during your Arizona travels and cycling is your thing, check out this bike path.
See a Reenactment
As part of our riding tour, we stopped at El Presidio de San Agustin, a Spanish fort founded in 1775 by Hugo O’Conner. Though most of the original compound is gone, once a month, actors in period costumes reenact a living history: Actors fire muskets and cannons, chickens roam free and goods are made in keeping with the period.
Visit Ted DeGrazia’s Gallery in the Sun
Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia was an under-rated artist, often bashed by critics. Yet, many thousands of works, in a number of media can be credited to him. While he had a Master’s of Fine Art from the University of Arizona, he was self-taught. DeGrazia was proficient in a variety of mediums including oil and watercolor, ceramic, bronze, and more. Though it may seem he bounced between mediums, he would spend many years perfecting his technique. Best known for his simplistic paintings of Pueblo children, his painting “Los Ninos” sold millions nationwide after its selection for the 1960 UNICEF holiday card. Besides being a prolific artist and marketing genius he was an interesting character.
DeGrazia’s Gallery in the Sun is part of the DeGrazia Foundation, which was established by his wife Marion, prior to Ted’s death as a way to preserve his works and avoid substantial inheritance tax for his heirs. Prior to establishing the Foundation, he went out to the desert with 100 of his paintings and set fire to them in protest of the inheritance tax. Clearly, this was something he felt strongly about. He invited some of the media to the desert to document the event. This act of protest garnered quite a bit of publicity for him.
DeGrazia’s Gallery in the Sun located at the Catalina foothills and tucked away off Swan Road houses over 15,000 pieces. This gem is part of the DeGrazia Foundation.
Explore the University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography Museum
Time did not allow me to visit the museum on this trip, however; I would definitely make time for it next time around. The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona has a collection of over 80,000 works by over 2,000 artists, including all of Ansel Adams’s negatives known to exist at the time of his death.
Adams was one of the center’s founders.
Eat! Tucson holds a UNESCO Designation for Gastronomy
In 2015, Tucson received the designation of a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. I found this surprising. However, Tucson has over 4000 years of agricultural history, perhaps one of the longest-running in North America. It’s commonplace for cooks to incorporate plants native to the region into the foods they prepare. The city has dedicated itself to creating livelihoods from its agricultural history. If you are visiting a city worthy of this UNESCO designation, you better look like diving into the food scene.
Oldest continuously family-owned Mexican restaurant in the USA. El Charro is credited with popularizing the chimichanga. Like any great food, there must be a story to go with it. Legend has it, El Churro’s owner, in 1922 dropped a burrito into the fryer. She reflexively began to shout out a Spanish profanity but quickly stopped herself and instead exclaimed “chimichanga.” And with that, the Chimichanga was born. Whether El Charro has the best chimichanga or not, it’s worth a visit based on legend alone.
The Grill and the Terrazo Patio at the Hacienda Del Sol
While Hacienda del Sol may seem out of the way from downtown Tucson, they are well worth the detour. The Waygu Burger at the Terrazo is out of this world. Burgers are not something I order out all that often. I find, too often that they are frozen patties that have been overcooked. However, I’m so glad I did. This burger was enormous. Its seasoning and doneness are perfect. Served with lettuce, tomato, red onion, jalapeno pepper, and a choice of cheeses, on a brioche bun, it is an explosion of flavor. This burger looked amazing and tasted better.
If you are visiting over a weekend, plan to indulge in the Grill’s award-winning Sunday Brunch. Its recognition as Best Sunday Brunch by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine is well deserved. The Grill serves up a vast spread of meats and cheese, a selection of fresh pastries, plump succulent shrimp (not soggy little ones), sushi, made-to-order omelets, hot entrees, Prime Rib, and their Grill Benedict. You’ll want to try one of their special mimosas made from fresh fruit from the citrus trees on the property. And, of course, indulge in the great selection of desserts.
Mister Bing’s Supper Club Experience
Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to do this on my recent trip. However, I did have the good fortune to meet Mister Bing himself. If his personality is reflected in the Supper Club, and I’m sure it is, then I say it is a winner. He is personable, charming, and witty.
This is a Golden Age of Hollywood, Cabaret-style show hosted by Hacienda Del Sol in their Cas Luna Ballroom. It offers featured performers, dance numbers, magicians, and more, all emceed by Mister Bing. The show touts, “culinary art is part of the performance.” And based on my experience at Hacienda Del Sol I would expect nothing less.
Hike Saguaro East and West
If you want to get out into the wilderness, you will want to connect with Peter Hughes of Southwest Odyssey Tours. I can’t say enough about them. They are unsurpassed: From the vehicles, they travel in, to preparedness, to flexibility. Peter arrived with a loose plan for what we might do on our afternoon out but adjusted based on the desires of the group, which by itself is impressive.
Southwest Odyssey can customize a hike for any experience level.
The afternoon we spent with them, we took a trip to Saguaro West. The National Parks of Saguaro East and West are both close to Tucson. We didn’t have the time to do both parks. There was not a lot of actual hiking on our trip, but Peter wanted us to see the National Park. Some of the people in our group had never seen the giant cacti or terrain like that found in the region. We drove to a scenic overlook but most of us could not be contained to the overlook and took off up the mountainside. Cacti grow on the terrain as pine trees grow in other areas of the country.
Additionally, Peter took us to a place not far from the main road where we could see petroglyphs left on rocky cliffs by the indigenous people. They aren’t easy to find. You can generally find these bygone communiques high up and because of thousands of years of exposure to the elements, they are well worn. You will need to pay attention or you will miss them.
Enjoy a horseback ride
As you can imagine horseback riding is popular in the Tucson area. I went on a Saturday morning ride at the Hacienda Del Sol stables. I had some concerns about my ability to ride because of years of hip issues. After getting me on the horse, they allowed me to just sit for a bit to let me decide if I would be OK to ride. I felt I could do it.
The ride was about an hour. We began with a descent down into an“Arroyo” or “wash.” There were seven riders in our group. Their ages ranged from around seven years old to 50ish. The experience level of the group ranged from first-time riders to seasoned. I am somewhere in between. These horses really just let you sit on them while they follow the lead horse. Nothing to it.
I imagine my experience was probably similar to what you could expect at any ranch that does trail rides.
Tucson was a city I felt lukewarm about visiting but after the first visit I have returned and look forward to doing it again. If you think Tucson might not be for you, I would urge you not to rule it out.
Where to Stay
I can not recommend Hacienda Del Sol Resort enough. It is an absolutely stunning resort in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains situated just outside Tucson. Be sure to read about the full Hacienda Del Sol Experience.