36 Hours in Tucson, Ariz.
36 Hours in Tucson, Ariz.
By RICHARD B. WOODWARD - New York Times, 1/3/2010
TUCSON has worked hard to shed its reputation as a tanning salon for retirees and snowbirds. To complement its natural beauty — a national park in its midst and mountains on four sides — the city has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its downtown during the last decade. Instead of adding strip malls and high-rises, older buildings were saved and retooled as movie houses and museums. And with a deep-rooted Hispanic community, tides of Mexican immigrants and students from the University of Arizona who never left after graduation, the city has now taken on a youthful and multicultural glow.
1) JET AGE GRAVEYARD
Tucson’s bone-dry climate is easy on all kinds of metal bodies. The city is a hunting ground for used-car buyers as well as home to one of the world’s largest airplane graveyards. A sample of the 4,000 or so stranded military and civilian aircraft can be viewed by driving along the fence on Kolb Road by the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. For a closer look, the Pima Air & Space Museum (6000 East Valencia Road; 520-574-0462) offers tours with frighteningly knowledgeable guides who can run down all the specs on the SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane.
2) DINING TROLLEY
The Southern Pacific railroad reached Tucson in 1880, and the moaning whistle of freight and passenger trains can still be heard day and night. For a front-row seat to the passing leviathans, head to the Maynard’s Market and Kitchen (400 North Toole Avenue; 520-545-0577). Less than 50 feet from the tracks, this dark and handsome former depot attracts an upscale crowd that comes for the extensive choice of wines (from the store next door) and the reasonably priced menu. Meat eaters enjoy the 14-ounce dry-aged New York strip ($27), and vegetarians the roast garlic and wild mushroom stone-baked pizza ($10). But just as inviting are the sights and sounds of the rattling plates and glasses.
3) TUCSON NIGHTS
Tucson has a jumping band scene on weekends, a sleepier one the other five days. On warm nights, the noise of music pumps through the open doors of restaurants and bars along Congress Street. The center of the action is often the historic Rialto Theater (318 East Congress Street; 520-740-1000). A nonprofit showcase vital to downtown’s renewal, it books major acts but has no stylistic agenda (Sonic Youth is playing on Jan. 4, and Cowboy Mouth on Jan. 14).
When the summer sun isn’t blazing, Tucsonians head outdoors. A prime destination is the Saguaro National Park, which embraces the city on two sides. To walk among fields of multi-armed cactus giants, drive west about a half-hour along a snaking road. Look for an unmarked parking lot a few hundred feet after the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This is the start of the King Canyon Trail (www.saguaronationalpark.com/favorite-trails.html), put in by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the path for a refreshing morning hike. A covered picnic area is at mile 0.9. Fitter types can proceed 2.6 miles to Wasson Peak, highest point in the Tucson Mountains.
5) MODERN MEXICAN
Tucson thinks highly of its Mexican restaurants, perhaps unjustly so. One place they have a right to be proud of is Cafe Poca Cosa (110 East Pennington Street; 520-622-6400). Don’t be put off by its location (in an ugly office building) or the décor (a vain attempt to import some glam L.A. style). The chef Suzana Davila has attracted national attention for her novel take on Mexican cuisine, which emphasizes fresh and regional. Try the daily sampler (El Plato Poca Cosa) of three dishes chosen by the chef. It usually has an exotic mole and perhaps a zinger like a vegetarian tamale with pineapple salsa. Lunch is a relative bargain (about $15 for all entrees), but dinner is more expensive (about $26 for entrees). Dinner reservations are essential for weekends.
6) PICTURE THIS
One of the most impressive collections of 20th-century North American photographers can be found at the Center for Creative Photography (1030 North Olive Road; www.creativephotography.org), in a hard-to-find building on the University of Arizona campus. Containing the archives of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, W. Eugene Smith and more than 40 other eminent photographers, it also runs a first-rate exhibition program. On view through Jan. 31 (free) is a retrospective of the peculiar, self-effacing German émigré John Gutmann.
7) THE BUY AND BUY
Phoenix-style shopping has arrived at La Encantada, a mall in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, with Tiffany and Louis Vuitton (Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue.; 520-615-2561; www.laencantadashoppingcenter.com). At the Plaza Palomino (520-320-6344; www.plazapalominotucson.com), local merchants like Enchanted Earthworks (www.enchantedearthworks.com) carry more idiosyncratic items like funky handmade jewelry and crafts.
8) EYES ON DESERT SKIES
The surrounding mountains are heavenly for star-gazing. The Kitt Peak National Observatory (Tohono O’odham Reservation, 520-318-8726, about 90 minutes southwest of the city and 6,900 feet above sea level, says it has more optical research telescopes than anywhere in the world. Aside from serving professional astronomers, it also has generous offerings for amateurs. One of these, the Nightly Observing Program ($48 a person), begins an hour before sunset and lasts four hours with an expert who will show you how to use star charts and identify constellations and will give you a peek through one of the mammoth instruments. (Dinner is a deli sandwich; remember to wear warm clothing.) Reserving a month in advance is recommended, but you may get lucky and find an opening the day of.
9) MORE COSMOS
For a nightcap, head to the Club Congress (311 East Congress Street; 520-622-8848), a boisterous joint on the ground floor of the Hotel Congress with five bar areas that offer steeply discounted drinks after 10 p.m. ($3 for shots of Jack Daniels). Live bands often have crowds of dancers spilling out into the lobby of the hotel. Finish the night at Plush (340 East 6th Street; 520-798-1298; www.plushtucson.com), where the acts are less polished but the drinks are almost as cheap and just as strong.
10) EARLY BIRD
The Epic Cafe (745 North Fourth Avenue; 520-624-6844) is a happening spot at almost any hour. This neighborhood hub on the corner of University Boulevard is open from 6 a.m. to midnight and serves an eclectic menu of sandwiches, sweets and drinks to a clientele of would-be intellectuals with laptops and dog owners who jam the sidewalk tables. Grab a cup of the excellent coffee ($1.84) and a vegan seed cookie ($2.50). If it tastes like delicious bird food, that’s because it is.
11) MISSILE AMERICA
For a terrifying yet educational reminder of the cold war, drive about 30 minutes south of downtown on Interstate 19 to the Titan Missile Museum (1580 West Duval Mine Road, Sahuarita; 520-625-7736; reservations advised). The nuclear silo housed a single intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a warhead 700 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Of the 54 built in the 1960s, it is the only silo that has not been filled in or demolished. The museum tour lasts an hour. Much of it is underground, behind eight-foot-thick blast walls, and ends with a peek at the 103-foot weapon, with its warhead removed.
Instead of flying into Tucson, frequent visitors often land at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and drive for two hours along scenic Interstate 10. Phoenix offers more nonstop flights and is often cheaper. A round-trip flight on US Airways from Kennedy Airport in January starts at $351, according to a recent search.
The Ritz Carlton, Dove Mountain (15000 North Secret Springs Drive; 520-572-3000) opened this month with a 27-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a luxurious spa and 253 rooms starting at $299.
The Arizona Inn (2200 East Elm Street; 800-933-1093) is the granddaddy of Tucson luxury hotels and still family-owned. Spacious standard rooms start at $259.
Budget travelers should be more than happy with the Best Western Royal Sun Inn & Suites (1015 North Stone Avenue; 520-622-8871. Convenient to downtown and the mountains, the hotel offers free Wi-Fi, a small pool and rates starting at $110.