Tucson blends the old and the new, with roots extending thousands of years into the Native American past and tendrils projecting far into the future, in forward-looking places such as Biosphere II and a cluster of astronomical observatories. You can taste the city’s rich history in its many museums—and taste its flavors in restaurants and food trucks around town (Tucson is one of only two international Cities of Gastronomy in the United States). Look in any direction, and you’ll find something fun, inspiring, and delicious.
Seeing It All from "A Mountain" — The best way to get a feel for the geography of the Tucson area is to drive to the top of a mountain -- but not just any mountain. "A Mountain" (officially called Sentinel Peak) rises just to the west of downtown Tucson on the far side of I-10. The peak gets its common name from the giant whitewashed letter A (for University of Arizona) near the summit. To get here, drive west to the end of Congress Street and turn left on Sentinel Peak Road. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.
The Historic Districts — If you’re interested in the history of Tucson, join a walking tour of the Old Pueblo. Begin with a $3 guided tour of the Downtown History Museum, arm yourself with a street map, and go explore. Tours of downtown Tucson are also offered several times each week by local historian Ken Scoville of Old Pueblo Walking tours (tel. 520/230-9345), who charges $79 per adult ($69 children) for half-day tours.
Tip: Don’t visit this neighborhood on Mondays, when all of the attractions listed below are closed.
The Shrine That Stopped a Freeway — The southern Arizona landscape is dotted with roadside shrines, symbols of the region’s Hispanic and Roman Catholic heritage. Most are simple crosses decorated with plastic flowers and dedicated to people who have been killed in auto accidents. One shrine, however, stands out from all the rest: Tucson’s El Tiradito. Not only does this crumbling shrine attract the devout, but it once also stopped a freeway.
El Tiradito, on South Granada Avenue at West Cushing Street, is the only shrine in the United States dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated soil. Several stories tell of how this shrine came to be, but the best of them concerns a young Mexican American man who was having an affair with a railroad conductor’s wife. Caught in the act, he was chopped to bits, his body scattered along the railroad tracks—thus “El Tiradito,” Spanish for “the Little Castaway.” Because he had been caught in the act of adultery and died without confessing his sins, his body could not be interred in the church cemetery, so he was buried where he fell.
The people of the neighborhood soon began burning candles on the spot to try to save the soul of the young man, and eventually people began burning candles in hopes that their own wishes would come true. They believed that if the candle burned through the night, their prayers would be answered. The shrine eventually grew into a substantial little structure, and in 1927 was dedicated by its owner to the city of Tucson. In 1940, the shrine became an official Tucson monument.
Such status was not enough to protect the shrine from urban renewal, however. When the federal government announced that it would level the shrine to build a new freeway through the center of Tucson, the city’s citizens were outraged. Their protests eventually resulted in the shrine being named to the National Register of Historic Places, and the freeway was moved a few hundred yards to the west.
To this day, devout Catholics from the surrounding neighborhood still burn candles at the shrine that stopped a freeway. A visit after dark, perhaps in conjunction with dinner next door at El Minuto, a popular Mexican restaurant, is a somber experience that will easily convince you of how important this shrine is to the neighborhood.
Rattlesnake Crossing — Generally speaking, rattlesnakes should not be crossed, but there is one Tucson rattler that should not be avoided. I am referring here to the city's unusual , a snake-shaped pedestrian bridge designed by Tucson artist Simon Donovan that spans E. Broadway Boulevard just east of downtown Tucson. From the north end, you enter through the giant vipers open mouth (watch out for the fangs). At the south end of the bridge, a giant rattle is raised in the air, and if you're lucky you just might hear it buzzing as you pass. The bridge is best accessed from the south end of the Fourth Avenue shopping district. Just walk east on E. Ninth Street, turn right on N. Third Avenue, and then follow the bike path through Iron Horse Park.
Mirror, Mirror in the Hall —The mountaintops of southern Arizona are dotted with astronomical observatories, and one thing many of them have in common is that they use massive glass mirrors to reflect the light of distant stars. At the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab (tel. 520/626-8792), you can tour a facility that has made mirrors for telescopes all over the world. Keep in mind that some of these mirrors are more than 25 feet in diameter. The mirrors are cast and polished inside a facility under the east wing of the UA football stadium (not actually a hall). Monday through Friday at 1 and 3pm, there are 90-minute tours of the mirror lab ($20 adults; $18 seniors and military; $10 children and students 10–20). Reservations are required.
Art in the Open Air — Although it isn't very big, the Jewish Community Center Sculpture Park, 3800 E. River Rd. (tel. 520/299-3000) exhibits some excellent sculptures and is well worth wandering through. It’s just off the Rillito River Park path, so you can combine a visit to the sculpture park with a walk or bike ride along the (usually) dry riverbed. You'll find the community center at the north end of North Dodge Boulevard.
Driving the Catalina Highway —Within a span of only 25 miles, the Catalina Highway, which begins off Tanque Verde Rd. on Tucson’s northeast side, climbs roughly 1 mile in elevation from the lowland desert landscape of cacti and ocotillo bushes to forests of ponderosa pines. As it passes through several different life zones, this route is the climate-zone equivalent of driving from Mexico to Canada. When you look at it this way, the $5 fee for driving this twisty-turny road seems like nothing compared to the cost of a flight to Canada (and that fee will also get you into Sabino Canyon, above). Along the way, there are numerous overlooks, some of which are head-spinningly vertiginous. Other spots are particularly popular with rock climbers. Be sure to stop at Windy Point, with its sweeping view of the entire Tucson Valley. There are numerous hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds along the route. For more information, contact the Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd. (tel. 520/749-8700).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.