By Katherine Adomaitis
In downtown Tucson, Sun Link, the new, modern streetcar, whooshes passengers from the University of Arizona to well past the convention center. Pedestrians fill the sidewalks, ducking into cafes for a meal or a latté, or wandering over to the art museum to see what’s new. Farther north in the city’s Foothills neighborhood, hikers challenge themselves on a steep trail into the Santa Catalina Mountains, while not far away, a foursome tees off on a golf course rimmed with cactus, boulders and views of downtown’s high rises in the distance.
Equal parts urban sophistication and unbridled outdoor appeal, Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city, is easily a go-to spot for meetings and events. Add to the mix sunshine and a history in which native American, Spanish, Mexican and cowboy cultures are intertwined, and you’ve got a place where your participants will want to linger and explore.
JUST THE FACTOIDS
With an area population of more than one million, Tucson is the urban hub for southern Arizona, yet it’s surrounded by open desert and five mountain ranges, where saguaro cactus can give way to aspens, pines and occasional dustings of snow. The city is accessible by Interstate 10 and Tucson International Airport, which offers nonstop and connecting flights to hundreds of U.S. Locations. Tucson is also served by Amtrak and offers bus transit in its central core and outskirts.
The metro area has close to 13,000 guest rooms, and venue choices range from the Tucson Convention Center and lavish resorts like the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Loews Ventana Canyon Resort to charming, historic hotels such as Arizona Inn and the recently expanded Hacienda del Sol. Other options include casino resorts, destination spas like the fabled Miraval and Canyon Ranch, or classic dude ranches, such as Tanque Verde Ranch, offering a taste of cowboy culture. By next year, two new Marriott properties will add some 350 rooms to downtown Tucson.
BACK IN THE DAY
Much of Tucson’s appeal starts with its history–an agrarian Tohono O’odham settlement when Spanish missionaries and soldiers found it in the late 1600s. You can see remnants of the 1775 Spanish fort and a modern-day reconstruction at downtown’s Presidio san Augustin del Tucson, a small museum with living history events. To get a feel for what Tucson was like when it later became part of Mexico, stroll the sidewalks of Barrio Historico, just south of the convention center, where brightly colored, thick-walled adobe homes and business date back to the 1800s. The Arizona history museum, located at the edge of the University of Arizona’s palm-lined campus, traces the entire timeline of Tucson and southern Arizona (one display includes Wyatt Earp’s rifle) and is available as an event venue. The crown jewel of Tucson’s historical attractions is Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded by Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino in 1692. The landmark, whitewashed church, open to the public, was built in the late 1700s and is an exquisite example of Spanish Colonial architecture.
The city’s other major cultural attractions meld history, art and nature. Tucson Museum of Art includes a soaring, modern building that houses many galleries and the museum store, a sculpture courtyard and five restored, historic homes now used as galleries, classrooms and a restaurant–a great place for happy hour after an art fix. West of downtown, the 90-plus-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert museum combines indoor and outdoor exhibits that explain the natural history of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Trails wind past a grassland exhibit where prairie dogs pop up, a cat canyon populated by bobcats and a porcupine, and a hummingbird aviary. Wear comfy shoes. In the Foothills neighborhood, Tohono Chul Park is a 49-acre mash-up of botanical garden, art gallery, tea room and more. All three attractions double as only-in-Tucson event venues.
Science geeks, too, can have their day in Tucson. It’s an astronomy center, with clear skies and facilities such as Kitt Peak National Observatory, Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, and Mt. Lemmon Skycenter open to the public for stargazing. At Pima Air and Space Museum, you can get dwarfed by a Boeing Dreamliner, check out a Sikorsky rescue helicopter or walk through an older Air Force One. They’re just some of the 300 aircraft (and spacecraft) on display at this sprawling facility. You can also get tours of the military aircraft “boneyard” at adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The museum is available for groups and events. Just south of Tucson, learn just how close we were to a Cold War missile launch at the titan missile museum. You’ll go underground to see the titan II ICBM itself, the control room and more.
Want more cultural immersion? Plan your meeting or event to coincide with one of the city’s signature events, such as winter’s Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the rodeo; spring’s Tucson International Mariachi Conference or fall’s film festivals, street fairs and the All Souls Procession, a celebration of remembrance inspired by Dia de los Muertos.
350 DAYS OF SUNSHINE A YEAR
Being in Tucson, culture sometimes takes a back seat to the allure of the outdoors and the sunny climate. When the stars and the climate gods align, it is literally possible to loll poolside in the morning, then drive up to Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley 9,000 feet above the city for an afternoon of schussing down multiple slopes through the pines at the southernmost ski area in the country.
Tucson’s mountain ranges and the millions of acres of surrounding Coronado National Forest provide plenty of places to picnic, hike and mountain bike. Trails range from short strolls in the desert to lung-busting ascents high above the city. Popular sites include Sabino Canyon, where you can catch a shuttle if you get fatigued hiking past the canyon’s seasonal pools and waterfalls; and saguaro national Park, where you can hike amidst Arizona’s iconic, towering cacti.
Get your cowboy on with a trail ride at one of several public stables or at Old Tucson, a one-time movie studio that’s now an old West attraction, complete with shootouts, saloon girls, gold-panning and more (and, yes, it’s available for events). For something more genteel, get out on one of the city’s dozens of golf courses, which range from desert to links-style courses, municipal spots to spectacular courses that are the star attractions at resorts.
Of course, there are those who prefer their exercise indoors, in the form of shopping. Tucson has the requisite fashion malls, where you can find national and international labels. For something a little more local, head to the Lost Barrio, a historic warehouse district near downtown to find Mexican, southwestern, old world, tribal and antique furniture, rugs and accessories (yes, they ship); or to the Fourth Avenue shops, where the scent of the sixties still lingers. Score candles, incense, beads and posters, plus vintage togs and art. The district also boasts a solar-powered, indie bookstore. La Encantada, the yin to Fourth Avenue’s funky yang, is an elegant open-air shopping center in the Foothills, where you’ll find high-end national brands (think Kate Spade and tiffany), plus restaurants.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
When it comes to restaurants, Tucson’s food scene is booming. Being just an hour north of the Mexican border, you’ll want to sample traditional and not-so-traditional dishes at places like downtown’s El Charro Cafe, owned by the same family since 1922 and said to be the birthplace of Arizona’s signature dish, the chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito; or at Cafe Poca Cosa, where chef and owner Suzana Davila creates a changing, innovative menu, inspired by Mexico’s varied cuisines. Head to the City of South Tucson to find dozens of mom-and-pop eateries serving up bean- and bacon-topped Sonoran hot dogs, tacos and respados, flavorful shaved-ice concoctions.
Want something with a different sense of place? James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder serves up an urban menu, inspired by local ingredients at his Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. At Maynards Market & Kitchen, located in downtown’s historic train depot, you’ll get views of Amtrak trains rumbling by along with your pan-roasted duck and martinis. Can’t decide? Stroll downtown Tucson and peer at the posted menus of dozens of chef-driven restaurants.
If you’re not quite ready to end your day in Tucson with a nightcap at your hotel bar, stay up later than is prudent by listening to cool jazz at Cushing street Bar & Restaurant, housed in a 19th-century adobe building, or at Reilly Craft Pizza’s lively basement cocktail lounge, dubbed the Tough Luck Club, because it once was the casket showroom for a funeral parlor upstairs. Club Congress and the Rialto Theatre, two historic downtown venues, feature everything from “geek burlesque” and standup comedy performances to alt-country, doom metal and roots music concerts. The restored 1930 Fox Tucson Theatre, spotlights more mainstream music and performances, plus classic films. Hotel Congress (home of Club Congress), the Rialto and the Fox are all available for events, too.
Visit our directory page or go to visittucson.org/meetings to plan your next meeting in Tucson.