Encircled by mountain ranges and bookended by the two units of Saguaro National Park, Arizona’s second-largest city has everything for the vacationer that Phoenix has to offer, plus a bit more. There are world-class golf resorts, excellent restaurants, art museums and galleries, an active cultural life, and, of course, plenty of great weather. Tucson also has a long history that melds Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo roots. With a national park, a national forest, and other natural areas and historic sites just beyond the city limits, Tucson richly celebrates its Sonoran Desert setting.
At Saguaro National Park, you can marvel at the massive cacti that have come to symbolize the desert Southwest, while at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (actually a zoo), you can acquaint yourself with the flora and fauna of this region. Take a hike or a horseback ride up one of the trails that leads into the wilderness from the edge of the city, and you may even meet up with a few desert denizens on their own turf. Look beyond the saguaros and prickly pears, and you can find a desert oasis, complete with waterfalls and swimming holes, and, a short drive from the city, a pine forest that's home to the southernmost ski area in the country.
Founded by the Spanish in 1775, Tucson was built on the site of a much older Native American village. The city’s name comes from chuk shon, which, in the language of the indigenous Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, means “spring at the base of black mountain,” a reference to Sentinel Peak (now known simply as “A Mountain,” because of the large letter A planted on its slopes by the University of Arizona). From 1867 to 1877, Tucson was the territorial capital of Arizona, but that honor eventually went to Phoenix—punishment, historians say, for the fact that Tucson briefly sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Once the capital moved, Tucson did not develop as quickly as Phoenix, and as a result still preserves bits of its Hispanic and Western heritage. Back in the days of urban renewal, Tucson activists turned back the bulldozers and managed to preserve at least some of the city’s old Mexican character. Though much of the old city was destroyed, preservationists are bringing back its ghosts every year. Today, advocates for controlled growth are fighting hard to preserve both Tucson’s desert environment and the city’s unique character. The inevitable sprawl has ringed much of Tucson with vast suburbs, but the city is still far from becoming another Phoenix.
There’s an ongoing struggle here to retain an identity distinct from other southwestern cities. One great engine for renewal came in 2014, when a modern version of downtown’s old streetcar went into service. With it, block by block, downtown has been remade, and downtown Tucson has become a vibrant urban center featuring dozens of good restaurants and bars, museums and art galleries, and music venues surrounded by historic neighborhoods.
At some point in the last few years, Tucson went to bed an overgrown cowtown and woke up a full-fledged modern city. The town had spread as far as it could, from mountain range to mountain range in a valley 30 miles wide by 30 miles long—the only way left to grow was up. Downtown now bristles with tall buildings, and cranes putting more of them up. Even so, with the Santa Catalina Mountains for a dramatic backdrop, Tucson remains Arizona’s most beautiful and most livable city. Whether you’re taking in the mountain vistas from the tee box of the 12th hole, the saddle of a palomino, or a table for two, Tucson makes a memorable vacation destination.