Catalina State Park, Tucson, AZ

How to Vacation Like A Local in Southern Arizona

By: Jill Sturgeon

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September 17, 2017

Where to go and stay to experience the local culture in and around Tucson

About the author

Jill Sturgeon

Tucson is definitely the hub of activity in Southern Arizona, whether you're looking for outdoor freedom, dining explorations, or a cultural escape. This city also takes pride in being easy-going and welcoming, making it a sun-soaked, laid-back, gem of the Southwest that is a gateway to history, culture, and creativity.

I lived in Tucson for twelve years, so when I visit now, it's a vacation and a homecoming. I always try to squeeze in my favorite places, but there's usually something new I can't resist trying as well. Before you start booking tours, let me share my favorite spots in and around Tucson that will surely give you a taste of the local culture.

Tucson's expansive outdoors

Fall and winter in Tucson provide perfect weather for almost any outdoor activity. Watching the sun rise over the city from the top of Tumamoc Hill was how I started some of my days in Tucson. However, I still made it a point to dig my toes into a new trail to see the city from a fresh vantage point. The surrounding mountains provide plenty of opportunities to look at the world in a new way, and every time I stood on top of a summit, I felt a sense of limitlessness as I looked out over the desert. Just in time to get a glimpse of the sky turning incandescent rouge as the sun dips into the horizon.

Comfortable outdoor excursions are possible during the summer with elevation: The Santa Catalina Mountains, located on Tucson's north side, feature elevations up to a cool 9,000 that feel and look like Canada. Take a drive, ride or hike to Catalina's better-known areas like Mt. Lemmon, Cathedral Rock, Pusch Ridge, Sabino and Ventana Canyons or discover Catalina's lesser-known but equally impressive ridges and canyons.

Tucson's food culture

When Tucson became the first city in the U.S. to be designated as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, I wasn't surprised. I've always found the local culinary scene to be a world ripe for exploration. Whenever I visit, I always eat lunch somewhere along the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food, a stretch of funky-to-fine dining options where you'll taste the best Mexican cuisine north of the border. Happy hour on the patio at Hotel Congress is another must. I like to order the tofu street tacos and Ghost Orchid cocktail while I watch the sunset over a downtown that has become more vibrant with each visit.

For dinner, Tucson always provides me new territory to traverse with creative chef-driven restaurants, like Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, which features multicultural fare dreamed up by chef Janos Wilder. There's also Signature Grill, which has an inventive menu of American Indian, Mexican, and cowboy cuisine, and Primo, which serves handcrafted Italian dishes from the mind of chef Melissa Kelly. Both are at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa and boast scenic views filled with nature and big skies. If I'm in the mood for a late night snack, Batch Café & Bar is a guilty pleasure stop for a surprisingly delicious combination of whiskey and donuts.

The Old West

Save a day for some true-blue Old West history. Tombstone is a hamlet southeast of Tucson whose streets are still thick with the dust that clung to boots worn by renegades like Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp. Visitors can walk the streets of the Wild West in Old Tombstone, or ride a stagecoach to see exhibits and learn the true story of the O.K. Corral. Take a wrong turn and you may find yourself in the presence of a gunfight, and then just watch, as a pair of rough-and-ready outlaws face off, ten-gallon hats shielding steely eyes and the sleeves of long leather dusters pulled out of the way of itchy trigger fingers. The town's explosive celebration of its infamous past and the haunted tours given just after dusk propel you back into a one-of-a-kind Old West experience.

Where to stay

With all of the things to do in and around Tucson, finding a place to stay close to what you want to do is a good idea.

When I lived in Tucson, my favorite staycation place was the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. It had everything I needed on-property to treat myself to some R&R. When I visit now, I like to take a morning nature walk up the hills behind the hotel past pale green cacti and nubby bushes on the Starr Pass trailhead. I've seen plenty of wildlife on the trail too. Last time I was there, I saw a bird emerging from a nest in a saguaro, and came across a family of javelinas. Then, I always save a day for a round of golf. A midmorning tee time at the resort's world-class course gives me plenty of time to enjoy the game and the picturesque view of the cactus-dotted hills in the distance. When I need to refuel, there are several on-site restaurants to choose from including a poolside bar and barbeque spot.

My recommendations will get you started, but there's plenty more to see. Discover the wines, mines, and cactus spines of Southern Arizona.

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