The Sonoran Desert community in Southern Arizona is boarded by the expansive Saguaro National Park, with several mountain ranges to its east and west. Just a two-hour drive from Phoenix, Tucson is a culturally colorful, historically rich, art- and food-centered oasis. Though American Indian civilization in the Tucson area can be traced back thousands of years, the city’s history officially dates back to 1775 when Presidio San Agustín del Tucson was established by Spanish soldiers. The area experienced territorial conflicts between the Spanish, Mexican and Apache groups until the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. Initially a part of the United States’ New Mexico Territory, Tucson joined the Arizona Territory in 1863, and was the largest city in Arizona when statehood became official in 1912. Today, Tucson is the state’s second largest city, with a population of more than 525,000 residents.
There’s no shortage of Southwestern, American Indian, Spanish and Mexican flare throughout the city. Tucson’s vibrant festivals introduce visitors to Southern Arizona’s character—like Las Fiesta de los Vaqueros, its annual rodeo and parade that has taken place in the city since 1925, and All Souls Procession, a celebration inspired by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The arts are celebrated at a myriad of galleries and festivals including the bi-annual 4th Avenue Street Fair, and culturally inspired food has its place at the table at numerous locally owned restaurants.
Begin downtown to explore the best of Tucson. Landmarks like the historic and still-operating Fox Tucson Theatre and Hotel Congress are good places to begin. From there, the beautifully ornate St. Augustine Cathedral is a few blocks south of Congress Street, and the Old Pima County Courthouse, Presidio San Agustín del Tucson and Tucson Museum & Historic Block are just a couple blocks north. Art lovers and shoppers seek out districts like Gallery Row, La Encantada, Casas Adobes Plaza, Plaza Palomino, St. Philip’s Plaza, 4th Avenue and Main Gate Square. Must-visit sites include the 80-acre Pima Air & Space Museum, adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and its Aircraft Boneyard; the Old Western town-within-a-town, Trail Dust Town; a former movie set and recreated Western town, Old Tucson; the 1692-founded Mission San Xavier del Bac; and the site of an intercontinental ballistic missile at Titan Missile Museum.
Outdoor expeditions come in many forms in and around Saguaro National Park. Petroglyphs are occasionally found in close proximity to trailheads—check out the Signal Hill Picnic Area in the Western district of the park for starters. Mount Lemmon, Tucson’s tallest mountain at 9,159 feet, can be navigated by bike and car along the Catalina Highway, all the way up to Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley. When the snow melts, the ski lift continues to run for those wanting an aerial vantage point of the city. The stars are brighter up here, and seen through telescopes at Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, and another observatory operates southwest of the city—Kitt Peak National Observatory. Go below ground at Kartchner Caverns to see living stalagmites and stalactites, or explore where many earthly science experiments take place at Biosphere 2. Just a short road trip south and southeast of Tucson leads to the artsy town of Tubac, Wild West Tombstone and mile-high Bisbee.