Though it’s less than half the size of Phoenix, Tucson (pop. 531,641) is perhaps twice as nice a place to visit. With a lively university community, some of the most beautiful desert landscapes anywhere on earth, and more palpable history than anywhere in the Southwest outside New Mexico, Tucson is well worth taking the time to get to know. It also makes an excellent jumping-off point for visiting the Wild West towns of Tombstone and Bisbee in the state’s southeast corner.

However, with daytime temperatures averaging over 100°F, Tucson is hotter than heck during the summer months (early May-late Sept.), so try to visit during the rest of the year. Spring is especially nice, with wildflowers blooming and spring training baseball bashing away, but this is also the most expensive time to be here—room rates in March are easily double those the rest of the year.

Many of Tucson’s biggest attractions are outside the city limits and covered under various road trips: Biosphere 2 and Mission San Xavier del Bac are north and south of Tucson along US-93, while the two-part Saguaro National Park is east and west of downtown (and covered with the US-80 Southern Pacific route). But unlike many modern desert cities, downtown Tucson is worth a wander for the many historic buildings that have been spared the redeveloper’s wrecking ball, including a wonderfully restored Roaring 1920s movie palace, the Fox Tucson Theatre on Congress Street, which has frequent movies and great live concerts.

The other center of activity is two miles north and east from downtown, where the nicely landscaped 380-acre University of Arizona campus spreads between Speedway Boulevard and 6th Street. The campus holds the engaging historical exhibits of the Arizona State Museum (520/621-6302, Mon.-Sat., $5) and one of the country’s preeminent photography collections in the Center for Creative Photography (1030 N. Olive Rd., 520/621-7968, donation).

On the southeast side of Tucson, off I-10 at the Kolb Road exit, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base holds one of the strangest sights in the entire Southwest desert: rows and rows and rows of surplus military aircraft, lined up for what seems like miles. The official name for this desert facility is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), but it’s best known as The Boneyard because of its role as a salvage yard for aircraft long past their production era. You can glimpse dozens of the planes from the highway, but for the full experience you have to sign up for one of the popular tours (520/574-0462, Mon.-Fri., $15 and up, reserve online or by phone). The tours are offered by the Pima Air and Space Museum, which has another extensive exhibit of aircraft, including JFK’s Air Force One, nearby, and also operates the unique Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson.

The foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which rise north of Tucson, are blessed by Sabino Canyon (520/749-2327, daily), 12 miles east of downtown (take Tanque Verde Road to Sabino Canyon Road). With its seasonal waterfalls and a nearly year-round creek, Sabino Canyon is a great place to stretch your legs while getting a sense of how pretty and vibrant the desert can be.

West of Tucson, beyond where Speedway Boulevard climbs over Gates Pass, Tucson Mountain is home to a section of Saguaro National Park and the excellent Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (520/883-2702, daily, $21). Apart from spending a lifetime in the desert, there’s no better place to get a sense of the abundant flora and fauna of the Sonora Desert than this creatively presented zoological park.

Tucson Practicalities

The main I-10 freeway runs diagonally from northwest to southeast along the usually dry Santa Cruz River at the western edge of town. Tucson stretches east from here for over 10 miles, and north toward the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The main east-west route across town is Speedway Boulevard, along with numerous parallel roads.

In addition to the usual highway motels, Tucson has some characterful places to stay, from restored downtown hotels to luxurious vacation resorts. One of the latter is the Hacienda del Sol (5501 N. Hacienda del Sol Rd., 520/299-1501, $250 and up), a historic guest ranch built as a posh girls’ school in the 1920s and now a quiet, intimate getaway with a pool, great sunset views, and one of Tucson’s best restaurants (The Grill). Another historic property, the Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St., 520/325-1541 or 800/933-1093, $129 and up), is perhaps the classic Arizona resort, little changed since the 1930s, when it was a favorite winter haunt of the Rockefellers and other elites. The Arizona Inn offers comfortable accommodations on lovingly landscaped grounds near the university campus.

One of the most enjoyable places to eat in Tucson is the quirky Café Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington St., 520/622-6400), right downtown. Adventurously creative Mexican food, served up in large portions at reasonable prices, is the specialty here—try anything in a mole sauce, and you won’t be disappointed. Nearby, the Little Café Poca Cosa (151 N. Stone St.) is open for breakfast and lunch versions of the same delicious stuff. On the west side of downtown, El Charro (311 N. Court Ave., 520/622-1922) is “the oldest family-operated Mexican restaurant in the USA,” so they say, serving up inexpensive food and margaritas since 1922 in a turn-of-the-20th-century house.