Editor’s note: In my Ultimate Guide to Southern Arizona, I called Tucson more of just a place to stay rather than a place to see. Sam, our wandering rabbi here at The Royal Tour, proves me wrong in this terrific look at the city and region. For more of his stories, click here to visit his index page.

It is fall, which means I am thinking ahead to spring travel, and despite my love of international travel, the truth is that one of my favorite places to visit in the late winter and early spring is Arizona. While I could write an entire article on Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, I will save that for another time, because the place where I enjoy going to warm up is Arizona’s southern city, Tucson. Tucson is largely known as Arizona’s second city behind the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, but it differs in that it has a laidback feel to it and also, despite being south of Phoenix, it is a bit cooler given that it is at 1200 feet higher elevation. I have been to Tucson as a child, as a college student, and as a full adult, and it is a place that I have enjoyed at each stage of life. If you are looking to party as a young adult, the beautiful University of Arizona campus with its 40,000 students and the surrounding bars and nightclubs always have something for you. If you are traveling with kids, make sure you go to the old western town of Tombstone, founded in 1877, which has preserved, albeit in a tourist-trap amusement park way, the way that it was in the wild west when shootouts and saloon fights were commonplace. If you are looking more for a relaxing adult trip of exploring art galleries, appreciating nature and perhaps taking in a round of golf, Tucson is one of the premier destinations in America for that too.

Me with the symbol of the desert, a huge saguaro cactus!

In Tucson, a must for all ages is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. While I went into the museum with low expectations, I was shocked to discover one of the best, most interactive museums that I have been to anywhere in the country. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is more than just a museum; it is also a zoo of creatures that one would find specifically in Arizona and the Sonora Desert. Get up close with black bears, mule deer, coyotes, wolves, pumas, and other creatures, many of whom live just beyond the fence of the museum (I saw wild coyotes in the parking lot and have seen packs of javelinas roaming the suburbs of Tucson and Phoenix). With the zoo portion of the museum fencing in parts of the desert, the animal inhabitants of the museum get to live and visitors get to witness them essentially in their natural habitat. The exhibits snake through the grounds of the museum with a loop trail that takes visitors not just from one enclosure to the next, but rather on a nature hike itself. Along the way, there are fun facts about the animals and the desert. At this museum, you will also learn about the history of the Sonora Desert, the groups of people who call it home, the geology, and flora, including the variety of cacti, that you can find in the desert. I arrived at the museum two hours before closing and had to be kicked out when they were closing before I had fully explored it, so arrive early and allow plenty of time and you will also get to see various shows that the staff put on for visitors. Regardless of your age, this experience will be one that you will greatly enjoy!

Bighorn sheep at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

After visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, with your newfound knowledge of your surroundings, you should visit some of Tucson’s natural beauty. Many take trams into Sabino Canyon for hiking in the spectacular Catalina Mountains with their streams and trails. However, the most famous natural beauty spot in the Tucson area is the nearby Saguaro National Park, located only 15 miles from downtown Tucson. Here, this national park, created in 1994, features 25 species of cacti and nearly 2 million of the famous saguaro cacti that the park’s name boasts. The white and yellow flower of the saguaro cactus is the official flower of Arizona, and candies and other cactus flavored treats are a must-try in Arizona. While in the park, there are several simple and beautiful trails that families can hike to take in the beauty of the desert and its mammoth cacti, which can grow up to 50 feet in height, weigh 10 tons, and live up to 200 years. What nearly every visitor to the park does is drives or bikes along the 8-mile Desert Road Loop to see these giant cacti in abundance in a way you cannot find anywhere else. Another place where one can go for a similar view is the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain Resort, which is surrounded by saguaro cacti. If you have the money and want to splurge on a spa experience, this is the place to do it, and often in the evening, local indigenous tribal members will come and do native musical performances for guests.

Saguaro National Park under cloudy skies

Historic downtown Tucson has a hipster, trendy feel to it with many great stores, restaurants, and artisan ice creameries. It has plenty to do without the chaos of a big city. Yet what I love about Tucson also is the Spanish and Mexican influence south of the city near the Mexican border. Tucson is only an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border town of Nogales. Though there is not much beyond duty free and saying that you went to Mexico in Nogales, a neat place for lunch and a margarita is the La Roca restaurant, which is built into a cliff, with the cliff making up parts of the wall and ceiling of the restaurant. Back in Tucson, my favorite restaurant is the Mexican joint Mariscos Chihuahua, a seafood Mexican restaurant that is affordable, has kind service, and a few locations around town. There, I had easily the best fish tacos of my life; while they have many varieties to choose from, I went with the meaty and flavorful marlin tacos, and I will do so again every time I return to Tucson. For a bit of culture and history that relates to the Spanish influence, do a trip south of Tucson to Mission San Xavier del Bac, which was founded in 1692 and has stood in its current incarnation since 1797. The mission has beautiful gardens and an ornate sanctuary, but the real appeal is just seeing the white stone against the desert backdrop, giving this site, which has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of faithful Catholics each year, the nickname, “The White Dove of the Desert.” Across from the mission are shops owned by local natives selling indigenous crafts as well as Catholic artifacts.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Finally, if you visit Arizona in late February or in March, another must do, and my personal highlight, is to attend a spring training baseball game. Prior to the start of the regular season, half of baseball’s teams head to Florida, and the other half to Arizona to prepare for the upcoming season. On one hand, these games are intense opportunities for rising stars and baseball hopefuls to prove their worth to earn a spot on the team at the highest level of play. On the other hand, spring training takes on a more relaxed vibe with players, excited to return from the offseason, happily signing autographs for, and interacting with, fans and doing various hijinks (I still remember as a kid watching Ken Griffey Jr., the best player of the 1990’s, ride off the field on a Harley Davidson motorcycle midgame).

A Dodgers player signing autographs at spring training

No matter what stage in life you are in, a trip to Tucson this spring will give you the rest and relaxation that you need, as well as a fun time to go along with it.

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