The land of Wild West artisans. Maybe it's because the Sonoran Desert, in all of its spiny, dust-laden, sun-drenched wonder, is still so interwoven with the city, but Tucson still has the intimacy of a small cow town. One with an edge, anyway, as residents of the southern Arizona city dig through its past and celebrate its landscape to create vibrant urban attractions from restaurants and distilleries to street art and museums.
When to Go
Tucson is a true desert climate, so weather is ideal from autumn through spring, but summers can be scorching. For a taste of the monsoon, try August.
Gem shows dazzle crowds in the fall and winter, but the crown jewel is February's Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase, the largest rock and gem event in the world. For a week in May, the Agave Heritage Festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, highlights the cultural and culinary importance of agave in the region.
What to Eat
In late 2015, UNESCO designated Tucson a Capital of Gastronomy because of the desert's abundance of heritage ingredients and Tucson chefs' willingness to use them. Find cholla bud-laced salads at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, and chiltepin-topped pizzas at Anello. Don Guerra of Barrio Bread uses Sonoran white wheat and other heritage grains that have grown in the region for hundreds of years in his artisan breads.
Souvenir to Take Home
Arizona souvenir shops love to sell cacti, which make a surprisingly easy-to-transport and long-lasting keepsake. Foodies should keep their eyes out for some of the region's heritage ingredients, such as cholla buds, chiltepin pepper, or tepary beans.
Sustainable Travel Tip
The Sonoran Desert is a more fragile ecosystem than its thorny plants and venomous inhabitants would suggest, so it's important to follow a "leave no trace" ethos when hiking. This means staying on trails and disturbing plants and wildlife as little as possible.
The Sonoran Desert is home to some of the wildest looking flora on the planet. Saguaros seem to dance, cholla look fuzzy, and when in bloom, ocotillo burst like red sparklers from the earth. But getting the perfect Instagram shot of the desert means taking advantage of the ever-changing light. Sunrise and sunset bring soft shadows and colorful backdrops.