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Tucson is surrounded by a ring of mountain ranges with the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop. Found in the Sonoran Desert, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and one of the most attractive holiday destinations in Arizona.
Combining the amenities of a modern metropolis with a small-town atmosphere, the almost constant sunshine and dry desert air provide an oasis where visitors can rest and rejuvenate by the popular health resort.
Its proximity to the Mexican border is evident in its architecture and cuisine, and a long history that has left the city with a dynamic legacy of Spanish, Mexican, American, and Native American influences.
With naturally eroded cliff forms, cacti, bird life, and old cowboy towns in the area, Tucson is also a good central base from which to explore the many natural wonders beyond the city limits. Horseback riding and hiking along the wilderness trails are excellent ways to explore the region.
Nearby attractions include the Saguaro National Park, with the highest concentration in the world of the desert-symbol Saguaro cactus, the Spanish-style Mission San Xavier del Bac, and the first-class Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum that features almost every kind of local desert fauna and flora in an outdoor setting.
The old mining town of Tombstone attracts crowds of tourists to the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the most famous shootout in Wild West history. There's no reason to ignore Tucson's city centre though. With a number of museums, parks, shops, restaurants, and nightspots, Tucson has a lively atmosphere that will keep any visitor thoroughly entertained.
The University of Arizona Art Museum is situated on campus as part of the Edward J. Gallagher Memorial Collection. It is home to an impressive permanent collection including works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. The museum houses the C. Leonard Pfeiffer Collection of American paintings and the Samuel H. Kress Collection of European works, from the 14th to the 19th century. Temporary exhibitions are also hosted by the museum so check the official website to see what's available during your visit. The University of Arizona campus is also the location of the Center for Creative Photography, displaying various works by leading artists such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Lovers of art in all forms will find a visit rewarding while in Tucson.
At the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum, pioneer artefacts and a recreated Western Main Street represent what Tucson looked like, and what it had to offer in the way of businesses and services, back in the old days of the Wild West. The museum also has an inventory of about 150 vehicles, with everything from small buggies to wagons and coaches on display. The museum hosts the Tucson Rodeo Parade each February, which is great fun for those in the area at the time. Outside of Rodeo Week, the museum is sadly only open between January and March, with guided tours available daily at 10am and 1pm. There are hopes to extend the opening season once sufficient funds have been raised.
This historic Spanish mission in the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation is located 10 miles (16km) south of the city (a 20-minute drive) and was founded by Father Kino in the 1660s. The present church, a remarkable building, dates back to the 18th century and remains the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, housing a number of impressive artefacts and murals. It is a National Historic Landmark and is still an active place of worship, where visitors can attend services should they please - check the website for a service schedule and note that the church may be closed to sightseeing tourists during times of worship. The mission has a small museum, which showcases artefacts and multimedia presentations on its history.
The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is an iconic Tucson landmark located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Established by the famous artist, Ettore DeGrazia, the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features a museum of DeGrazia's work and an adobe chapel, called the Mission in the Sun, as well as striking murals, gardens, and the artist's home and grave site. Apart from the works displayed in the gallery, the property is strewn with sculptures and art installations by the artist renowned for having captured the spirit of the Southwest. Free public tours are available, but must be scheduled in advance. Check the official website listed below for details.
Trail Dust Town is built on the site of a 1950s Western movie set and is home to a vintage 1920s Fiesta del Presidio carousel and a museum dedicated to Western cavalry and dragoon military units. Designed as a replica of a 19th-century Western town, it has Old West souvenir shops, galleries, and restaurants, as well as a custom leather store, wooden sidewalks, a central plaza, shooting gallery, and a C.P. Huntington train. Hosting Wild West stunt shows and an annual cowboy show in late February, Trail Dust Town is a great place to visit, especially if you are travelling with kids.
The Tucson Botanical Gardens is a major attraction, and not just for the rich collection of cacti and desert wildflowers. An educational walk highlights the history of the native Tohono O'odham Indians and the work local scientists have done to preserve native seeds. Be sure to visit the traditional Mexican-American neighbourhood garden ( ), and relax on the shaded restaurant patio. The gardens are open seven days a week, all year, and provide a pleasant sample of the desert vegetation of Arizona as well as a taste of the indigenous culture. There are about 17 speciality gardens, as well as rotating exhibitions, and tours of the gardens are available.
Tom Philabaum is well known as one of America's foremost glass artists, with exhibits throughout the Western world. His gallery showcases and justifies this reputation with examples of his own work, also exhibiting over 100 other nationally and internationally celebrated glass artists. Aside from viewing the extraordinary exhibits, visitors are also welcome to watch glassblowing in progress and learn more about the craft in the studio. The gallery has been a great favourite on the Tucson art scene for more than 30 years and travellers interested in art will relish a visit to this creative gallery. It is also an exciting place to buy souvenirs.
The Valley of the Moon was designed to stimulate the imagination of children and to awaken creativity and spirituality in all visitors. Delve into a fantasy land in the desert, with historic Western sites in a magical setting, created by George Phar Legler in the 1920s. Mineralised rock cliffs, caves, pools, and garden miniatures have merged with tropic and desert flora to make what Legler called the 'Fantasy Touch of Three', referring to the worlds of Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are tours, shows, and a gift shop on site. The Valley of the Moon also hosts events ranging from weddings to concerts to yoga retreats. Although this unusual attraction may not be to everybody's taste, those travelling with children will no doubt find a visit rewarding.
Tucson experiences a desert climate, meaning that temperatures are high and rainfall is too low to sustain much vegetation at all. There are two major seasons, summer and winter, with three minor shoulder seasons: autumn, spring, and the monsoon.
Early summer, particularly June, enjoys low humidity and clear skies, with daytime highs reaching above 100°F (38°C) and average overnight temperatures ranging between 66°F (19°C) and 85°F (29°C). In July and August, temperatures are much the same but it is much more humid and rain is very common, as this is the monsoon season.
Flash floods are possible in late summer. Winters, between December and February, are mild, with average daytime highs between 40°F (4°C) and 68°F (20°C). The milder weather of winter is usually most pleasant for tourists.
A popular event held in early spring is the Fiesta de los Vaqueros, also called the Tucson Rodeo. While the fiesta is a sporting event, it includes what has been declared the world's largest non-mechanised parade. Join a crowd of more than 200 000 people to enjoy the Wild West-themed floats, horse drawn cariages, Mexican folk dancers, marching bands, and the riders who will take part in the rodeo. The parade still keeps the spirit and style of the first event back in 1925. The Rodeo Parade is such a popular event that schools give two rodeo days off instead of Presidents Day. Traditional Western attire is seen throughout the city during the Fiesta, marking the beginning of the rodeo season in the United States. This is the premiere event of the rodeo year is not to be missed.
Each October for the last 40 years, the Tucson Meet Yourself festival has celebrated the faces of the many ethnic groups in southern Arizona and northern Mexico that contribute to the rich cultural identity of the city. Experience a weekend of artwork, singing, dancing, and food from more than 30 different ethnicities in the downtown area. The variety of local performers bears testament to the region's cultural and ethnic diversity. Although this is essentially a celebration for locals, revolving around the preservation of living traditional arts, travellers in the region in October should find the festival fascinating.
One of the largest festivals in Tucson, the All Souls Procession is celebrated annually in the first weekend of November. Inspired by the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), thousands of people in vibrant costumes gather to acknowledge the deceased and the grand mystery of death. Experience the Fine Art Photography Exhibition, the Evolving Community Altar, the Dance of the Dead, and the Procession of Little Angels. On Sunday evening, the All Souls Procession snakes through the historic Fourth Avenue of Tucson to the culmination of the festival where a large urn filled with the hopes and offerings to those who have passed is burned.
Tucson has an extensive public bus system operated by Sun Tran. The city also has a large network of bike routes and with its flat terrain is considered bike-friendly, but the heat makes this option less attractive in the summer months.
The roads are easy to follow and driving is relatively pleasant, though the streets are congested at certain times of day. As with most cities in the US, things are fairly spread out and many tourists find it most convenient to hire a car, especially as so many of Tucson's top attractions are just outside the city.
Much like nearby Phoenix, Tucson is primarily celebrated as a gateway to the glories of the desert. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Sabino Canyon, the Mission San Xavier del Bac, the Tucson Mountain Park, and Madera Canyon are very close by.
The incredible caves in the Colossal Cave Mountain Park and Kartchner Caverns State Park provide spectacular scenery for hikers and spelunkers. The iconic cowboy town of Tombstone is also in the area, attracting travellers keen to experience the rough charm of the Wild West.
Within the city of Tucson, popular stops on the tourist trail include the Tucson Botanical Gardens, the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum (between January and March), and a number of interesting art museums and galleries, like the University of Arizona Art Museum and the Degrazia Gallery in the Sun.
If you intend to see and do a lot in Tucson, it is worth purchasing a Tucson Attractions Passport: a pocket travel guide that offers discounts and coupons for many of the best attractions in the region. The passport costs about $25 and can be bought online or at the Tucson Visitor Center.
Tombstone is probably the most famous town in the Wild West, attracting thousands of tourists with its old Western-style buildings, saloons, stagecoach rides, gunslingers, dusty streets, and shootout re-enactments. Many Hollywood movies have been shot here against the rugged mountain backdrop. Originally a silver boomtown in 1877, it rose to notoriety in 1881 when lawmen Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and Doc Holliday confronted a band of outlaws in a gunfight. This event has come to epitomise the spirit of the Wild West and the star attraction of the town is the O.K. Corral, one of southern Arizona's most visited tourist sites. There is a staged 30-second shootout each day at 2pm, and exhibits relating to the event inside the corral. The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park features an old courtroom where several renowned trials took place, as well as some excellent exhibits, including alternative versions of the O.K. Corral shootout and a museum dedicated to the Tombstone Epitaph, the oldest newspaper in Arizona. Although a classic tourist-trap town, with souvenir shops and restaurants galore, many people love the Wild West atmosphere and the rugged setting of Tombstone, and relish the chance to play cowboy for a day.
In 1923, the first proper tours of Colossal Cave were conducted using ropes and lanterns. Today, more advanced and comfortable options are offered. The cave is considered dry or dormant, no longer producing crystal formations due to a lack of water. The preserved stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone create a cavern of wonder visitors enjoy during guided tours which take just under an hour. The cave itself is only part of the attraction, as the Mountain Park is blessed with a variety of wildlife and some glorious landscapes. Western-themed horseback tours are a popular way to explore the park.
Kartchner Caverns State Park is home to one of the great natural wonders of the American west. There is no known record of the huge living cave being seen before the 1970s and the pristine conditions within have been carefully preserved. A remarkable feature of this cave is that it's a 'wet' or 'living' cave; the calcite formations are still growing and display a stunning variety of multi-coloured cave formations. Two different tours of the caves are available and there is a visitor's centre which details the history and geology of the caverns with interesting exhibits. Tours take between 90 minutes and two hours. Photography is not allowed in the caves but there are postcards available.
This world-renowned museum is more like a zoo, with the majority of the exhibitions outside showcasing the surrounding desert's creatures in their natural habitats. Exhibits include mountain lions, otters, coyotes, bighorn sheep, lizards, and a walk-in aviary. Located in the Sonoran Desert, the setting of the museum also offers awesome views of the surrounding mountain ranges, which visitors can enjoy while touring the botanical garden, natural history museum, art gallery, and aquarium. The gift shop has an excellent selection of Sonoran desert souvenirs. The interactive museum is a must for any visitor staying in Tucson for more than just one day, and kids will love seeing the animals and experiencing the desert landscapes.
Of the many natural attractions in the Tucson vicinity, Sabino Canyon is one of the most popular. This gaping divide in the Santa Catalina Mountains is the site where ancient Hohokam people constructed irrigation dams while mammoths still roamed the area. After a six-mile (9.6km) hike, enjoy swimming in the crystal clear pools at Seven Falls. When the weather is a little too hot for hiking, visitors can take a ride on the Sabino Canyon Tram, which takes a 45-minute tour with nine stops along the canyon. The canyon is a natural oasis in the desert and is home to a rich variety of wildlife, as well as beautiful landscapes.
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