Tucson will never be Phoenix. That’s the first thing Tucsonans will tell you about their town, which was founded in the 18th century as a Spanish outpost. From Interstate 10 Tucson looks like a bland mishmash of strip malls, modern buildings and aging adobe structures.
But like any desert dweller, Tucson’s surface blandness is just camouflage meant to keep out those who would try to change it.
Venture off the freeway and you’ll find a vibrant metropolis of 850,000 where no two streets are alike and homogeneity is a dirty word.
Three cultures forged this little town with a big-city feel — American Indian, Hispanic and Anglo-American. Their imprints are all over Arizona’s second-largest city, whether you visit the Barrio Historico or the spas and resorts in the Santa Catalina foothills. College students, snowbirds and lovers of the outdoors are all drawn to Tucson.
Like its neighbor to the north, Tucson is dealing with tremendous growth. There’s an influx of Californians and Easterners attracted by relatively inexpensive housing and the laid-back lifestyle. Tucsonans are suspicious of the "Californication," as they call it, but find comfort in one thing — Tucson changes you, not the other way around.
Take 36 hours, from Friday after work to Sunday morning, and discover what Tucsonans are fierce to defend.
36 hours in Tucson
• 7:30 P.M.
Much-needed rain drenches the sidewalk in front of El Charro Café. It’s standing room only in the bar where diners escaping the rain devour chips, quesadillas and salsa as they wait for a table. Tucson boasts more than 150 Mexican restaurants, and El Charro Café is the oldest and most beloved by locals and visitors. Tucsonans have flocked to El Charro Café for traditional Mexican fare since 1922. This is the place locals bring their out-of-town guests. The Carne Seca Plate ($12.95) is a standard favorite. The beef is sun dried and roasted on the roof after marinating in fresh garlic, lime juice and spices.
Details: 311 N. Court Ave., Tucson. (520) 622-1922 or www.elcharrocafe.com.
• 9 P.M.
Tucsonans are fiercely loyal to local musicians. Pick any watering hole along Fourth Avenue and you’ll find something to suit your tastes. Folk music at the Rainbow Planet or rock at Plush and the Surly Wench Pub. Check out the Tucson Weekly for upcoming events.
Details: Rainbow Planet, 606 N. Fourth Ave., (520) 620-1770; Plush, 340 E. Sixth St., (520) 798-1298; and the Surly Wench Pub, 424 N. Fourth Ave., (520) 882-0009.
• 7:30 A.M.
Coffee is obligatory before any hike. There are several places in town to get that quick jolt of java, but the Epic Café is one of the few open early enough. This morning college students have taken over the tables. A hooded figure reads Dostoyevsky, and a blonde in a ponytail surfs the Internet. Signs on the wall tout Epic’s Internet connection as "faster than a john in a sting" or "a hooker to the clinic." The mojoe house blend is a quick pick-me-up, and there’s a variety of scones and bagels to choose from.
Details: 475 N. Fourth Ave., Tucson. Open 6 a.m. to midnight daily. (520) 624-6844 or www.epic-cafe.com.
• 9:30 A.M.
Tucson is surrounded by four mountain ranges —the Santa Catalinas to the north, the Santa Ritas to the south, the Rincons to the east and the Tucson Mountains to the west. Of the dozens of trails to choose from, Sabino Canyon is the local favorite. A 45-minute narrated tram ride takes visitors to the top of the canyon along a paved road built by the Works Progress Administration. There are nine stops along the way and at the top you can access the Blackett’s Ridge Trail, the Telephone Line Trail and Hutch’s Pools. Although ranger Bob George in the visitors center says there hasn’t been a mountain lion sighting in months, signs that warn of mountain lion activity are scattered along the road. Take the tram to the top and wait for it to leave. Once the smoke from the exhaust dissipates and the noise from the engine dies off, the canyon becomes a tranquil oasis. Soak it up for a few minutes, then hike 3.8 miles to the bottom. It’s paved, so you can hike it in sneakers. Water and a hat are musts.
Details: From Tanque Verde Road in Tucson, take Sabino Canyon Road north to the Recreation Area just north of Sunrise Road. Turn right into the parking lot. $5 day pass. The tram is $7.50 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 12. Cars are not allowed on the paved road, and bicycles are prohibited from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Tucsonans love their shrines, and none is more cherished than El Tiradito (the castaway). Located in the historic Barrio district next to El Minuto Restaurant parking lot, the shrine is dedicated to love. Legend has it that a woman’s lover was killed by her husband on that very spot. Tucsonans light candles and leave flowers on the spot in the hope their wishes will come true. Take a quick drive or a leisure stroll around the rest of the district and you’ll see what Tucson looked like in the 19th century. Small, colorful adobe houses, some with secret gardens, line the narrow streets.
Details: El Tiradito, 356 S. Main Ave., is located south of Cushing Street on Main.
• 1 P.M.
If the Barrio district is working-class Tucson of the 19th century, then the Presidio district is its Spanish Colonial past. Bordered by West Sixth Street, West Alameda Street and Granada Avenue, the district is home to examples of Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architecture. The Tucson Museum of Art maintains several houses in the district including the J. Knox Corbett House and la Casa Cordova. The former is Mission Revival on the outside, arts and crafts on the inside. The latter is typical of a Mexican-style home in the 1850s. Start at the museum and take a trip back in time. Peruse the museum’s contemporary collection, the Art of the Americas and then head to the historic block. Another must-see is Old Town Artisans, a collection of crafts stores across the street from La Casa Cordova. Tolteca Tlacuilo is a popular stop for Day of the Dead masks.
Details: Tucson Museum of Art and historic block, 140 N. Main Ave. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. $8 adults, $6 seniors, $3 students. (520) 624-2333 or www.tucsonarts.com.
• 2 P.M.
Most Arizonans don’t know the complete works of photographers Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Paul Strand are housed in their own backyard. The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona is one of Tucson’s best-kept secrets. The center’s collection includes the archives of more than 60 photographers in addition to more than 60,000 works by 2,000 photographers. Stop by the gallery and see the current exhibit through January — the works of Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Nine Ansel Adams prints are on display, including a shot of Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox at Canyon de Chelly. If you want to see the work of any particular photographer, call and make an appointment.
Details: 1030 N. Olive Road. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Donations accepted. (520) 621-7968 or www.creativephotography.org.
• 3 P.M.
Deli sandwiches, calzones and hand-tossed pizza have made the Time Market a favorite for the university set and the bohemians who hang out on Fourth Avenue since opening in 1920.
Details: 444 E. University Blvd. (520) 622-0761.
• 3:30 P.M.
Vintage clothing stores, ethnic restaurants and specialty shops line this half-mile strip of Fourth Avenue. Stop in Im"purse"onators for an imitation Louis Vuitton (starting at $150). Over at the Salt Crystal Palace owner Margaret Al-Amawi sells crystals with healing power. Testimonials written by customers hang on the door (one woman claims the crystal helped her find a wallet, another said it helped her win a $1,000 jackpot.) Then head over to How Sweet It Was, a vintage clothing shop serving the Halloween needs of Tucsonans since 1976. You might see a star there, too; manager Leslie Frost says actress Julia Roberts was in last week.
Details: Im"purse"onators, 634 N. Fourth Ave., (520) 240-6173. Salt Crystal Palace, 521 N. Fourth Ave., (520) 623-0580. How Sweet It Was, 419 N. Fourth Ave., (520) 623-9854.
• 5:30 P.M.
If the drive through the Santa Catalina Foothills to A Touch of Tranquility Spa doesn’t relax you, then the welcoming ceremony will. After you slip into a robe, an attendant will take you to the meditation room where another will wrap your feet in hot towels and rub them. A hot towel soaked in orange blossoms is placed on the back of your neck. A Touch of Tranquility is the latest day spa to open in Tucson, which bills itself as the spa capital of the United States. The spa offers a variety of treatments and a few signature ones you might not find anywhere else, including the Terra Sigillata Rasul Therapy. Six healing muds are applied to every part of the body during the 75-minute treatment and washed away with a tropical shower ($125).
Details: 6884 E. Sunrise, Suite 150. (520) 615-9608 or www.touchoftranquility.com.
• 9 P.M.
Located in the historic Hotel Congress, Club Congress is a place where history and rock converge. Walk in and you’ll see a vintage hotel lobby where weary travelers are checking in and clubgoers have taken over the dance floor. Often touted as one of Tucson’s hippest nightspots, the club is at the apex of Tucson’s night life. Alternative rockers, college students and international travelers take over the place Saturday nights. The Tap Room, once a favorite drinking spot of the Dillinger Gang, hosts an eclectic bunch of people. Even women who can’t stand to wait in line for the bathroom at the Rialto Theater across the street will make their way into the club.
Details: 311 E. Congress St., (520) 881-2808.
• 9 A.M.
Don’t let the word "museum" fool you. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just melts into the surrounding Tucson Mountains. The drive alone is worth the 12-mile trip from downtown Tucson. Follow Gates Pass and Kinney roads as they curve through the saguaro-dotted crags of the Tucson Mountains to the museum. Take a docent-led tour of the grounds. You will see more than 300 animal species, including mountain lions and ocelots, and 1,200 kinds of plants in a natural desert setting. An invisible fence patented by the museum separates you from the larger animals. Each tour is designed at the whim of the docent leading it, so no two are alike.
Details: 2021 N. Kinney Road. $9 adults, $2 children ages 6 to 12 through October and $12 adults,
$4 kids 6 to 12 November through April. (520) 883-2702 or www.desertmuseum.org.
• 11 A.M.
Drive along the road to San Xavier del Bac Mission and you’ll see parishioners walking to church as their ancestors might have done a century ago. Known as the White Dove of the Desert, the mission is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the United States. Its design is a mix of Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture. Sunday Mass begins at 8:30 a.m., and it’s standing room only. The plaza is filled with parishioners, tourists and a bustling market where locals sell Indian fry bread ($2 and up).
Details: 1950 W. San Xavier Road, San Xavier Indian Reservation. Free. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (520) 294-2624 or www.sanxaviermission.org.
With just 36 hours in Tucson, you can’t see every site or visit every attraction. Here are some options you might consider:
1. Old Tucson Studios, 201 S. Kinney Road. This theme park/movie studio hosts gunfight re-enactments, rides, stunt shows and more. Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. $12.95 adults, $7.95 children ages 4 to 11. (520) 883-0100 or www.oldtucson.com.
2. Saguaro National Park West, 2700 N. Kinney Road. The saguaros in this section of the park are magnificent. (520) 773-5158 or
3. Café Poca Cosa, 88 E. Broadway Blvd. Local food connoisseurs rave about this restaurant’s creative menu. The place is packed weekends, so make sure to get a reservation. (520) 622-6400.
4. Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. This 48-acre desert preserve has several trails and a popular tearoom. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students and $2 children ages 5 to 12. (520) 742-6455 or www.tohonochulpark.org.
5. Tucson Botanical Gardens, 2150 N. Alvernon Way. There are 16 different gardens representing a variety of gardening traditions and botanical themes to explore. Open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except holidays. $5 adults, $2.50 children ages 6 to 12. (520) 326-9686 or
6. Pima Air and Space Museum, 6000 E. Valencia Road. The world’s largest privately funded aerospace museum. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $11.75 adults, $9.75 seniors, $8 children ages 7 to 12. (520) 574-0462 or
7. Colossal Cave Mountain Park, 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail. More than 2,000 acres of desert, mountain and riparian habitats in a transitional Sonoran-Chihuahuan biome. The 50-minute tour of the cave covers half a mile. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. $5. (520) 647-7275 or www.colossalcave.com.
8. Arizona State Museum, 1013 E. University Blvd. The oldest and largest anthropology museum in the Southwest. $3. (520) 621-6302 or
9. Biosphere 2, 32540 S. Biosphere Road, Oracle. This mini-world contains a tropical forest, savannah, desert and the world’s largest man-made ocean. Tours begin at 9 a.m. and last throughout the day. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. $19.95 adults, $12 for children ages 6-12. (520) 838-6200 or www.bio2.com.
10. Mount Lemmon, Tanque Verde Road and the Mount Lemmon Highway. The 28-mile drive up Mount Lemmon is the biological equivalent of traveling from Mexico to Canada. (520) 749-8700 or