Tucson, Arizona, is one of the most diverse places to explore in the U.S. To get a real feel for this city, here are some top spots to visit.
If you want to embark on a cultural treasure hunt, make it a point to visit Tucson, Arizona. There’s no place quite like this bastion of diversity tucked into the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by five mountain ranges. As the oldest constantly inhabited settlement in the U.S., Tucson offers a blend of cultures that date back as far as 12,000 years. As Visit Tucson describes it, “Native American culture meets Mexican and Spanish colonial history.”
When exploring traditional Tucson culture, it might be challenging to determine where one culture ends and another begins. Surrounded by Native American homelands, several national parks, and mountain ranges in every direction, Tucson truly does merge the essence of the Wild West with a New Age vibe, with no shortage of memorable stops along the way.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
1950 W. San Xavier Road
Dan Gibson, director of communications for Visit Tucson, points to Mission San Xavier del Bac as an example of the collision of cultures that defines the city. Founded by Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino in 1692, the mission is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona.
Throughout the years, the lands surrounding the mission have been claimed by a number of different cultures. Native Americans called it home before the Spanish took control, only to be usurped by the Mexicans. Later, Americans claimed the southwestern region of the country and absorbed the customs and flavors of its predecessors.
Through it all, the mission continued to grow and minister to its parishioners. Today, more than 200,000 people come from around the world each year to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, but it continues to operate as a church, meeting the spiritual needs of local Catholics.
Tucson became part of the U.S. through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, but it remained a rough and tumble frontier town for many years. Anyone traveling through the area was far more likely to hear Spanish spoken than English, and Mexican silver was the default currency.
According to Gibson, the spirit of frontier Tucson is still found downtown. Diversity is embraced in the city, and it’s not unusual to hear several languages spoken within a single city block. All types of music fill the air, including Native American pop music called Chicken Scratch. Immigrants from around the globe operate restaurants in the area, and a streetcar takes you through the newly revitalized downtown area to a farmers’ market, one of several art galleries, Fox Tucson Theatre, Solar Culture Gallery, and various other uniquely Tucson sites. Plenty of parking is available if you drive your own vehicle.
929 W. Mission Lane
If you have a Saturday afternoon free, a visit to Mission Garden offers a fascinating glimpse into Tucson’s ancient past. In the early 1900s, archaeologists began to excavate at the foot of Sentinel Peak and the results of their work surprised them. Evidence showed that the spot next to the Santa Cruz River had been used for agricultural purposes for more than 4,100 years, the longest known history of cultivation in the country.
As a living tribute to those early farmers, Mission Garden recreated the Spanish Colonial walled garden that was once part of San Agustin Mission and interpreted a timeline of how the land was used, including plantings that represent Hohokam, O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Territorial and Statehood Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo, and Afro-American farmers.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was ranked by TripAdvisor as one of the “Top 10 Museums in the Country” and the “No.1 Tucson Attraction.” With a mission to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world, the museum hosts 85 percent of its activities outdoors. Referred to as a “fusion experience,” the 98-acre museum includes a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium. The goal of the innovative museum is to help you interpret the complete natural history of the Sonoran Desert and adjacent ecosystems by engaging all of your senses and capturing your imagination.
Franklin Auto Museum
1405 East Kleindale Road
According to Gibson, The Franklin Auto Museum is “the most Tucson thing” you can experience thanks to its charm and quirkiness. In a town that embraces and celebrates diversity and uniqueness, it makes sense that so many people enjoy the labor of love that built this museum.
Located within a series of adobe buildings, the collection is devoted to the air-cooled Franklin automobile manufactured by the H. H. Franklin Co. of Syracuse, New York from 1902 to 1934. The Great Depression put the company out of business, but it didn’t kill the ardor many felt for this luxury car brand. The late Thomas Hubbard, who was a leading authority on the car, collected and restored the cars and ultimately opened The Franklin Auto Museum. In addition to Hubbard’s entire automobile collection, the museum features a research library on the Franklin Company, an extensive collection of Native American artifacts, and a historical adobe home and buildings.
Do you have some Tucson favorites of your own? Share your photos and insight with us on Facebook.