Today, Tucson is home to historic Mexican barrios and well-preserved mid-century neighborhoods, strip malls and heavily-trafficked avenues, funky bars, restaurants, and shops, posh golf resorts, and like many other Sunbelt cities, suburban sprawl. It's also home to the the University of Arizona, Old Tucson Studios, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Saguaro National Park. But no matter what side of Tucson you seek out, the singular beauty of the Sonoran Desert and the city's own history offers up a consistently compelling mix of past and present.
Downtown is a cluster of historic barrios, government buildings, art galleries, and newly-risen high-rise condos. The city's much-hyped Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment and renewal project has been stalled for years, but downtown already offers plenty to see and do. Downtown Tucson is home to a network of historic, still-standing neighborhoods of colorful 19th century adobes and Victorian mansions. Mesquite tree-lined downtown neighborhoods such as the Barrio Viejo, El Presidio, and Armory Park are full of color and eye-grabbing architecture that are quintessentially Tucson, and must-see for out-of-towners.
In the northern downtown quarter, art lovers will appreciate the Tucson Museum of Art an the shops and galleries of the historic Old Town Artisans marketplace. Visitors with even a passing interest in history should check out remnants of the original Tucson Presidio settlement. The original El Charro Cafe, one of the oldest family-run Mexican restaurants in the United States, is a popular lunch and dinner spot on Court Avenue.
Busy Congress Street is the main downtown artery, with landmarks that include the Hotel Congress, Rialto Theatre, and the historic Fox Theater, which hosts arts performances and repertory film screenings. Other downtown landmarks include the Tucson Convention Center, La Placita, the Temple of Music and Art, and the historic St. Augustine Cathedral.
Just south of downtown is the small municipality of South Tucson, a largely Latino area with deep community roots. Here you'll find great examples of Tucson mural art and some of the best Mexican restaurants in the city. Dozens of taquerias, sit-down restaurants, Mexican bakeries and groceries, and old-fashioned motor motels line the streets along Fourth, Sixth, and Twelfth Avenues, making this a hotspot for foodies on the look-out for the next great culinary find. South Tucson restaurants such as Mi Nidito, Michas, Taqueria Pico de Gallo, and El Guero Canelo have already been enshrined in the increasingly crowded pantheon of treasured local Mexican eateries.
Traveling further south and west of the Tucson city limits, you'll enter parts of the Tohono O'odham Nation, including the Tohono O'odham San Xavier reservation, home to the magnificent Mission San Xavier del Bac. The mission was founded in 1699 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino and features an elegant, white Moorish-inspired design with hand-carved mesquite doors and an elaborate altar. The mission, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, still serves the San Xavier community, offering daily mass and celebrations. The plaza has a small market place where visitors can purchase fry bread and artisan crafts.
West Tucson generally refers to the neighborhoods on the western side of Interstate 10. The area is comprised of several historic Latino neighborhoods, and is home to Sentinel Peak (often referred to as A Mountain), which offers panoramic views of the city. Foodies have much to enjoy on this side of the city, including Pat's Drive-In, Teresa's Mosaic Cafe, and Dragon View Restaurant. Further west you'll find posh desert manors atop the slopes of the Tucson Mountains, which border the city to the west.
One of the best drives in Tucson is across the Tucson Mountains through Gates Pass, a narrow, twisting road offering incredible panoramic desert views. Gates Pass offers spots for hiking, picnicking, camping, and wildlife observation.The road is popular for sunset viewing and bicyclists, but be forewarned that the narrow turns and sudden drop-off also make it one of the city's most dangerous, yet thoroughly exhilarating, driving areas.
On the other side of Gates Pass are some of Tucson's most enduring attractions, including the popular and world-renown Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson Studios, and the International Wildlife Museum.
North Central and the Foothills
North of downtown Tucson you'll bump into the large University district, comprised of several historic neighborhoods, the Fourth Avenue shopping district, and the University of Arizona campus. Fourth Avenue, with its assortment of cafes, coffeehouses, vintage clothing shops, and bars, is a magnet for the city's youth, especially college students pulling all-nighters, the type of which have nothing to do with books and studying.
The city is bounded to the north by the Santa Catalina Mountains, the most prominent range in the city, visible throughout much of central Tucson. As the northern part of Tucson rises up towards the Santa Catalinas, the views grow more spectacular and the home prices get steeper. The posh Foothills District is known for large, custom homes surrounded by lush desert landscaping, premium resorts such as Loews Ventana Canyon, the Westward Look, and the Westin La Paloma, and exclusive shopping districts such as La Encantada and Foothills Mall.
The Northwest area of Tucson is comprised of sprawling new communities set against the lush Sonoran desert landscape. For twenty-five years, Tohono Chul Park, just west of Oracle Road, has preserved the natural beauty and culture of the desert. The botanical garden features several demonstration, low-water use gardens, and a popular tearoom.
Further northwest is the town of Oro Valley, a prominent Tucson suburb. Past I-10, development gives way to the preserved desert of Saguaro National Park West situated in the Avra Valley.
North and east of Tucson, the city is bounded by the Catalina Mountains and Rincon Mountains, respectively. East Tucson encompasses a great deal of the suburban sprawl the city experienced starting in the 1970s. Further east, houses once more give way to the eastern segment of Tucson's national park, Saguaro National Park East. Northwest of central Tucson is another of the city's most popular natural attractions, Sabino Canyon, a haven for day hikers and popular spot for visitors.
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