Tucson has an exceptionally long and rich history. From the Hohokam Indians, who called the area home until 1450, to the Jesuit missionaries, who founded the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1700, to the Americans who came after the U.S. purchased Tucson from Mexico in 1854—a wide range of people have made their mark here. Today, the desert city lives up to its reputation as a cultural and arts hub. There are plenty of spots where you can experience authentic parts of Tucson's past. Keep your eyes peeled for gorgeous churches, Western movie locations, hotels where notorious outlaws slept, mysterious caves, and the country's oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family.
Old Tucson is an iconic Western movie set turned theme park that lets you immerse yourself in the Wild West. Make that the Hollywood version of the Wild West. Watch re-enactments of gunfights, stunts, and living history presentations. Get in touch with your inner sheriff or outlaw, or watch a can-can show in a rowdy saloon. There are lots of characters for visitors to meet, along with historians eager to share a wealth of info on the period. Other activities include rides, shooting galleries, gold panning, horseback riding, and shops and restaurants. Fans of old Hollywood especially will appreciate the unique history of Old Tucson. Bing Crosby, Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Martin, Sharon Stone, and, of course, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among those who starred in movies filmed here.
Come face to face with the past at the Arizona State Museum, the Southwest's largest and oldest anthropology museum. The collection is comprised of 3 million artifacts relating to ethnology and archaeology, which combine to tell the story of the native cultures in the area. Here, you'll find the world's largest collections of Southwest Indian pottery and American Indian basketry, among tons of other objects both ancient and modern. Since it's run by Arizona State University, the museum is also home to a massive research library, and puts on tons of lectures and events for those who want to go even deeper into the past.
Pay tribute to Tucson's heritage with a stop at El Charro Cafe; the same family has been running it and serving up authentic Northern Mexican fare since 1922, making it the oldest family-run Mexican eatery in the country. As if that didn't make it iconic enough, this restaurant is where the first chimichanga (essentially a deep-fried burrito) was served. El Charro offers mini chimis as appetizers, so there's no excuse to not try one. The menu also features all-day breakfast, signature "Charro-style" tacos, a variety of vegan and veggie-friendly options, and, of course, some smashing signature margaritas.
There's no better place to let the past inspire you than the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. The Museum itself maintains an impressive collection of pieces from across time and space, with focuses on Latin America, the American West, American folk art, Europe, Asia, and modern and contemporary works. The coolest part of the museum is that, in addition to the contemporary building that houses the main galleries, there's a whole city block of historic homes to explore. Some of these have been turned into galleries, studios, and even a restaurant. It makes discovering all the museum has to offer an even more memorable experience.
While the American Revolution raged on thousands of miles away on the other side of the continent in 1775, a fort called the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson was quietly founded on the New Spain frontier. Originally, the Presidio was a simple earthen fort that housed a garrison of Spanish soldiers, but as time went on, it became one of the largest on the frontier. It remained in use until the Americans came to Tucson in 1856; then it was gradually disassembled. Today, thanks to archaeologists and historians, interest in the site has been renewed, and you can visit to see artifacts and remains of the fort, as well as living history presentations and recreated walls and buildings. This is the perfect place to see how and where Spanish, Mexican, Native American and American cultures melded together to make Tucson so unique.
Tucson wasn't just a popular filming location for Westerns... it has plenty of real-life Wild West history of its own. The Hotel Congress is where famed bank robber John Dillinger was captured. He and his gang were hiding in the hotel under assumed names after a series of hold-ups, when a fire started on the upper floors, where they were staying. The gang escaped by aerial ladders, but made a fatal mistake in asking the firemen on the scene to go back upstairs to retrieve their bags, which revealed their true identities. Ultimately, Dillinger and his crew were taken to a jail in Indiana; famously, Dillinger escaped, but was shot in Chicago shortly after. Stay the night in one of The Congress’ rooms, which are a perfect blend of historic charm and modern convenience, or just stop by to enjoy the nightlife. Their onsite music venue, Club Congress, hosts some of the best acts in town, and there are several bars inside the hotel as well, including the famed Tap Room, a historic cowboy-watering-hole type joint.
Another great place to get a sense of Tucson's unique blended culture is at Mission San Xavier Del Bac, the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and a National Historic Landmark. The Catholic church here was founded in 1692, and the building itself was completed in 1797. The Spanish Colonial architecture (complete with Moorish domes and white stucco) and ornately detailed decorations (including paintings, carvings, frescoes, and statues) speak to the Spanish, Mexican, Tohono O'odham, and American influences Tucson has felt throughout its history. The mission is still run by the Franciscans, and is open for tours when it isn't being used by the community for services or events.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park is not just a stunning place filled with activities... it's also rumored to be the site of a lost treasure. Back in the day, bandits and outlaws on the lam would hide out in the cavern tunnels here. One group in particular used the caves as a home base after a string of train robberies; even though most of the gang was eventually captured, the whereabouts of their stolen money was never discovered. Today, there are different tours you can take to explore the caves, ranging from classic cave tours and excursions geared toward smaller children, to nighttime ladder tours and more intense "wild" tours. And since the rest of the park offers gold panning, horseback riding, camping, hiking, and more, you can really get in touch with your inner Wild West outlaw.
Tucson's culture is powerful. It's in the food, the architecture, the art, and the local residents’ sense of identity. You can taste it, see it, hear it, smell it, and even sort of feel it as you explore. Learning about the cultures and stories that combined to create this unique atmosphere is the perfect way to better understand and fully appreciate how special Tucson is.
Banner Photo Credit: Flickr/Cindy Devin
Tucson (pronounced TOO-sawn) is the second-largest city in the state of Arizona, with nearly one million residents in the metro area.