Tucson by Personality

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Travel Issue: November 2012
Group Free

Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

Whether you’re a foodie, an alfresco fitness fan, a culture vulture or a science geek, there’s a Tucson getaway for you.

Locals aren’t kidding when they say Tucson feels like a small town; it’s the kind of place where familiar faces are as common as taco stands, and where the vibe is a cross-breed of San Diego chill and Austin offbeat-country charm. Despite its folksiness, Arizona’s second-largest city is crammed with recreational options for every personality type, from food fanatics and outdoorsy people to Bill Nye the Science Guy-types and arts aficionados who know more about kick lines than place kicks.

Tucson for Foodies
Tucson’s parade of celebuchefs includes James Beard Award winners Melissa Kelly of Primo and Janos Wilder, formerly of Westin La Paloma Resort. Wilder’s new joint, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (135 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-7700, downtownkitchen.com), is garnering attention for its innovative Asian-inspired dishes including honey-soy duck breast, red curry catfish, and mussels in coconut milk and lemongrass broth. 47 scott (47 N. Scott Ave., 520-624-4747, 47scott.com), recently named one of CNN’s “Best new bars in the U.S.,” offers an equally chic experience. Their mixologists craft spicy Southwestern drinks like Preakness Punch with peppercorn-infused gin that nearly outshine the delicious seasonal fare.

Travis Peters, former executive chef of the Hotel Congress Cup Café, answered locals’ prayers for bayou fare with The Parish (6453 N. Oracle Rd., 520-797-1233, theparishtucson.com). Standouts include the War Pig – a bacon-wrapped hot dog – and Haitian shredded pork that should come with a spontaneous combustion warning. For cheap eats, high-quality seafood tacos are the best reason to hit up Taco Fish “La Carreta” (250 E. Grant Rd., 520-777-6235, tacofishtucson.com), while “Cinnamon Blonde” Daniel Contreras’ El Guero Canelo chain (elguerocanelo.com) is the go-to place for Sonoran wieners touted by Man v. Food’s Adam Richman.

For a walkable smorgasborg, foodies can hit up Tucson’s unofficial Restaurant Row on Tanque Verde Boulevard between Pima and Rancho Esperanza for a broad choice of upscale eateries including Jonathan’s Cork (6320 E. Tanque Verde Rd., 520-296-1631, jonathanscork.com). Mainstream fare such as Lindy’s mac-and-cheese burgers and Café Marcel’s mouthwatering ham and brie crêpes can be found in the South Congress district (facebook.com/socotucson).   

The chalkboards at Suzana Davila’s homey-but-upscale Café Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington St., 520-622-6400, cafepocacosatucson.com) regularly feature the best tamale pie around. But if you’re willing to endure blaring music and have cash on hand, you can score an equally good chef’s choice plate at their “little” sister restaurant located improbably in a downtown parking garage (151 N. Stone Ave., littlepocacosa.com). Highlighting Tucson’s culinary diversity, Chef Alisah’s (5931 N. Oracle Rd., 520-887-5305, alisahrestaurant.com) dishes up locally adored Bosnian sausages served on puffy bread. If you don’t know how to top your pljeskavica, or can’t pronounce it, Chef Ahmet Alisah is usually on hand to help sort out condiment and consonant problems.

Cooking class at Miraval Resort

With all this culinary talent, it’s not surprising Tucson hosts an Iron Chef competition (ironcheftucson.com) every spring, in which top chefs face off in a fast-paced secret ingredient challenge. Foodies who aspire to two-time winner Chef Ryan Clark’s heights can get a head start with cooking classes at Miraval Resort (5000 E. Via Estancia Miraval, 800-232-3969, miravalresorts.com). Especially intriguing is Pastry Chef Kim Macy’s Hands-on Baking class ($300 per person), which introduces techniques for using fruit juice and honey to make low-calorie pastries once thought to be as elusive as Bigfoot. 

Tucson’s microbrew industry is also hopping. Dragoon Brewing Co. (1859 W. Grant Rd., 520-329-3606, dragoonbrewing.com) and Barrio Brewing (800 E. 16th St., 520-791-2739, barriobrewing.com) offer solid ales in no-frills settings, and you can score $3.25 pints at Barrio’s Toole Avenue warehouse whenever a train passes by. Don’t want to drink on an empty stomach? 1702 (1702 E. Speedway Blvd., 520-325-1702, 1702az.com) pairs pizza with hard-to-find beers like Lost Coast’s Double Trouble and New Belgium Lips of Faith cocoa mole ale.

Houston’s Horseback Riding

Tucson for Outdoorsy Types
Fall and winter are the ideal seasons to explore Tucson’s five surrounding mountain ranges – prime destinations for hiking, biking and sometimes even skiing. Water lovers should head to Sabino Canyon (5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd., 520-749-8700, sabinocanyon.com) and take the Bear Canyon tram to the popular Seven Falls trail, which traipses across a creek seven times on its way to the falls. 

Dense stands of saguaros stripe the lower turf of Saguaro National Park’s Hugh Norris Trail (27 N. Kinney Rd., 520-733-5158, nps.gov/sagu), named after a Tohono O’odham police chief. But as the 9.8-mile roundtrip trek switchbacks gradually (for the most part) up Wasson Peak, the air cools and the cactuses grow sparser until you reach the summit, with its unimpeded views of the crinkly, khaki mountains.

If you prefer two-wheel action, the 12-mile, bike-friendly Rillito Trail (visittucson.org) snakes across pedestrian bridges along a dry riverbed, while the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead (3500 W. River Rd., 520-877-6000, pima.gov/nrpr) – named in honor of Gabrielle Giffords’ staffer killed in the 2011 Tucson shootings – offers a zippy, flowing 2- to 3-mile ride. Serious mountain bikers love Fantasy Island (mtbikeaz.com/trail-index/tucson/fantasy-island), a trail network that begins at Harrison and runs 19 miles through landscapes dotted with funky sculptures and seasonal wildflowers. Glance at a map and you’ll see how the park earned its name: The six-loop course looks like a roller coaster designed by a sadist. Hold on tight as you take the corners or you’re liable to end up pulling cholla thorns from unfortunate places.

Adrenaline junkies may also appreciate challenging climbs found along the Catalina Highway up to Mt. Lemmon, about 25 miles from Tucson. Granite outcroppings provide handholds for bouldering, and standard climbers can easily find walls to clip or plug cams into. At the peak is America’s southernmost ski resort, Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley (10300 Ski Run Rd., 520-576-1321, skithelemmon.com). Bunny slopes are available among the 21 ski trails, but be forewarned that unmaintained snow increases the difficulty factor.       

No outdoor tour of the Southwest would be complete without the iconic trail ride. Luckily, Houston’s Horseback Riding (12801 E. Speedway Blvd., 520-298-7450, tucsonhorsebackriding.com) ain’t no rodeo; easy-going horses put inexperienced city slickers at ease. For $85 per person, you can mosey through Saguaro National Park at sunset on weekends and feast on a hearty cowboy steak dinner.

DeGrazia Gallery

Tucson for Culture Vultures
Tucson’s arts scene is diverse and eclectic, with equal opportunities for history buffs and bohemians. Two must-see adobe landmarks are the historic Mission San Xavier del Bac (1950 W. San Xavier Rd., 520-294-2624, sanxaviermission.org), called the Sistine Chapel of the Southwest for its intricate artwork, and the DeGrazia Gallery (6300 N. Swan Rd., 520-299-9191, degrazia.org), which features a rotating collection of 15,000 sculptures, ceramics and paintings by late artist Ted DeGrazia. Hohokam pottery shards and tools are regularly unearthed in the Fort Lowell Historic District (oldfortlowellneighborhood.org) around Craycroft and Fort Lowell roads, where some descendants of the area’s original settlers live in their ancestral abodes.

It’s not often you see a shrine to a sinner. That’s reason enough to visit El Tiradito (Main Avenue south of Cushing), a shrine to a man supposedly murdered after being caught in flagrante delicto with his mother-in-law. Visitors tuck wishes written on paper into crevices in this adobe wall, much like Italian travelers do at Juliet’s Wall in Verona.

Another architectural marvel is downtown’s Fox Theatre (17 W. Congress St., 520-547-3040, foxtucsontheatre.org), opened in 1930 as a vaudeville cinema and recently restored to its former glory. This November 18, visitors can relive the Fox’s glory days at the Chasing Rainbows Gala with a viewing of the Jack Benny musical shown on the venue’s opening night. Film buffs can get a taste of Cannes and Sundance at the annual Loft Film Festival (loftfilmfest.com) beginning on November 8 at the quirky indie cinema. For live hijinks, the effervescent Beowulf Alley (11 S. Sixth Ave., 520-622-4460, beowulfalley.org) will tackle David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Greek tragedy Lysistrata, and Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love during its 2012-2013 season.

Tucson’s most anticipated fall event is the annual All Souls Procession (allsoulsprocession.org), a Mardi Gras-like celebration the first weekend of November that draws around 35,000 costumed revelers. The festival culminates with a closing ceremony in which locals pitch their hopes, written on scraps of paper, into a fiery urn.

International Wildlife Museum

Tucson for Science Buffs
Wacky parades and culinary competitions aren’t the only Tucson-area phenomena worth observing. Mount Lemmon SkyCenter (933 N. Cherry Ave., 520-626-8122, skycenter.arizona.edu) and Kitt Peak National Observatory (Highway 86 and Highway 386, 520-318-8726, noao.edu/kpno) are constantly one-upping each other’s telescopic offerings like two sixth graders competing for first place at the school science fair. The former, a University of Arizona affiliate, boasts a 32-inch Schulman telescope and offers astronomer nights where advanced users (or honeymooning geeks) can stare at the stars. Located about an hour southwest of Tucson, Kitt has evening programs, day tours, and more than 25 telescopes including a 20-inch Ritchey-Chrétien.

Sky objects of a different sort can be observed at Pima Air and Space Museum (6000 E. Valencia Rd., 520-574-0462, pimaair.org), home to more than 300 aircraft. Look for a replica of the original Wright Brothers plane and a Boeing B-52G Stratofortress.

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., 520-883-2702, desertmuseum.org) spotlights desert flora and fauna – including wolves, black bears, mountain lions and more than 200 birds – that wander through natural enclosures. Don’t miss the Raptor Free Flight Demonstrations (October 20-April 14). For animals that will actually stand still for a photo op, you’ll have to stalk the preserved critters and dinosaur skeletons at Tucson’s International Wildlife Museum (4800 W. Gates Pass Rd., 520-629-0100, thewildlifemuseum.org).

Just outside the city are a variety of natural and man-made wonders well worth the drive. Named one of Time-Life Books’ 50 must-see Wonders of the World,  Biosphere 2 (32540 S. Biosphere Rd., 520-838-6200, b2science.org) houses tropical rainforest plants and a million-gallon saltwater tank filled with exotic fish and coral reefs. Originally a project to see how humans could live in a contained, self-sustaining environment, the living lab is now the focus of environmental studies.

Impress fellow spelunkers with your knowledge of spindly “soda straw” stalactites at Kartchner Caverns (Hwy. 90 in Benson, 520-586-2283, azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA), where a tour of the Throne Room will lead you past the cave discoverers’ original trail, antediluvian bat guano, and Arizona’s tallest natural column. Colossal Cave (16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, 520-647-7275, colossalcave.com) is a dry cave system that was once home to the ancient Hohokam people and is now the residence of thousands of bats. You can take a regular tour, a candlelight tour (with or without dinner) or grab a hard hat and spring for the Wild Cave Tour ($55-$75 per person), a grueling trek through passageways nearly a quarter-mile underground. Since pilfering souvenirs is prohibited, mark your calendar and return February 14-17, 2013 for the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (tgms.org), the largest national event of its kind. The city-wide bazaar, whose crowning jewel is a giant show in the Tucson Convention Center, is a trove of everything from turquoise jewelry to precious stones, fossils, meteorites and mammoth bones – gifts for every personality.