Tucson - Attractions
Tucson grew up around a large presidio (walled fort) that was built by the Spanish in 1775 to house a garrison charged with protecting settlers from the Indians. This piece of military architecture, dubbed Old Pueblo by later Anglo arrivals, is no longer standing, but the easily walkable Presidio Historic District is nonetheless home to a number of other interesting historic buildings. The oldest structure in the area, raised up from the ground over 150 years ago, is thought to be La Casa Cordova. You can check out its aged interior via the adjacent Tucson Museum of Art, which has some worthwhile permanent exhibits of contemporary art, attention-getting multimedia displays and pre-Columbian artefacts exhumed from the archaeologically rich soils of Latin America. The museum displays more of its collection in nearby Fish House, built in 1868 by politician Edward Fish, and in the similar-vintage Stevens House- both were seminal establishments for the late-19th century Tucson social scene.
South of the presidio district is the distracting modernistic bulk of the Tucson Convention Centre. At the centre's northwestern end you'll find the Sosa-Carillo-Frémont House Museum, a restored 1880s period home run by the Arizona Historical Society. The house's triple-barrelled moniker is a tribute to its first three owners, namely the families Sosa and Carillo, followed by one-time Arizona governor John Frémont. Further south is the Barrio Historico District, the city's centre of commerce in the late 1800s and still a neighbourhood with business on its mind. Just off Cushing St is El Tiradito, a weird and fairly decrepit little shrine piously devoted to a man who was murdered here by his father-in-law after being caught having an affair with his mother-in-law. Paradoxically, people burn candles here in an effort to make their wishes come true.
University of Arizona
The U of A has over 35,000 students, who collectively help keep the local economy ticking over nicely. A handful of these allegedly learned folk are also responsible for the annual whitewashing of the enormously prominent letter 'A' on nearby Sentinel Peak (colloquially known as 'A Mountain'), a freshmen practice ongoing since 1915. But visitors to Tucson will be far more interested in the several excellent museums and sundry outdoor sculptures scattered across the university's sprawling inner-city campus.
If you're seriously interested in American photography, make an appointment to ransack the archives of the Center for Creative Photography, where you can blink reverently at images taken by celebrated snappers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Those who are less camera-savvy can just take in one of the regular exhibits of famous photographic works in the centre's small but highly esteemed gallery. Across Olive Rd from the photography centre is the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where students are able to gauge the general public's reaction to their artistic ambitions; the museum also has a nice collection of sculpture and European art.
For anthropological insights into the Indian tribes of southwestern USA, head for the Arizona State Museum. Those interested in a holistic view of Tucson's past should consider the Spanish colonial, Mexican and American urban insights provided by the Arizona Historical Society Museum. At the Flandrau Science Center, Planetarium & Mineral Museum, kids will get a kick out of the hands-on science displays, while stranded extra-terrestrials can get homesick over meteorite fragments and laser-lit distant worlds.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
The 5.5-acre (2.2-hectare) landscaped and wheelchair-accessible terrain of the Tucson Botanical Gardens is located roughly 3mi (5km) northeast of the University of Arizona campus. It's in a reasonably busy part of the city, yet man-made noise fails to penetrate very far into the garden's pleasant groves of native dry-land plants. The organic highlights of a slow, day-dreamy meander through the grounds include a tropical greenhouse and a small herb garden. About 2.5mi (4km) south of the botanical gardens is their environmental sibling, the small but highly recommended Reid Park Zoo. This well-looked-after zoological community yields a captivating array of captive animals from all over the globe, including giant anteaters and pygmy hippos, and the surrounding parkland is enticingly outfitted with playgrounds, picnic areas and a paddleboat-trafficked duck pond.
Set up near the Catalina Foothills, just beyond the shopping malls and other suburban developments on the northern outskirts of Tucson, is Tohono Chul Park. This Arizona-Sonora Desert habitat has a variety of gardens, a plant shop, an exhibition room and knowledgeable guides who regularly lead tours among the unique flora and fauna.
Pima Air & Space Museum
Aviation nuts should head southeast down the I-10 to the Pima Air & Space Museum, a 150-acre (60-hectare) site that qualifies as one of the world's largest collections of aircraft, with over 250 carefully restored flying machines on display. Pride of place goes to the WWII memorial hangars, which house items like the B-24 Liberator and the bombastically named B-29 Superfortress bomber. It's not just planes that are on show here, though, as you can also stare at the engineered dimensions of helicopters, hang gliders, ultra-lights and even home-built experimental vehicles.
Pima also runs the Titan Missile Museum, the only remaining underground Titan missile silo in the US, which can be found on the I-19 south of Tucson in the retirement community of Green Valley. Propeller-heads should also book themselves onto a bus tour next door to the air/space museum at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where a staggering 5000 aircraft are stored.