Our 10th-ranked city offers a taste of the authentic Southwest in a desert setting that's ideal for a warm winter getaway.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer
February 13, 2007
Douglas Merriam

Tucson earned the 10th spot on our top 20 list of Cooking Light Cities because it ranked highly in the following categories: Farmers' markets, access to gourmet ingredients, chef wages, dollars spent per person on parkland, percentage of residents in good health, and low percentage of overweight residents.


Best farmers market: Fresh produce, while available year round in Tucson, is at its best for flavor and color during the spring months, making this a city where great farmers' markets become destinations. Local food lovers flock to the

Community Food Bank Farmers' Market (520-622-0525) on Tuesday mornings. Although it contains just a dozen or so vendors, this is the only place in the city where desert-adapted red garlic and a native herb called verdolagas is available. For such efforts in preserving native foods and inspiring the local food community, representatives of the Food Bank were honored at the Slow Food's Terra Madre meeting in Turin, Italy last year.

Best local food organization: Area restaurant owners formed Tucson Originals in 1998 to promote the virtues of the city's independently owned restaurants. Since then, the group has become the hub of a national trade organization called Dine Originals, which aims to promote local foods and independently owned restaurants around the country. The group has grown to 16 cities, but the 37 members of Tucson Originals continue to set the bar for distinctive dining experiences and diverse cuisine.

Best light bite: The food at Zivaz Mexican Bistro (520-325-1234) is a result of Chef Don Felipe Valenzuela's quest to create light, healthful dishes for his vegetarian wife and diabetic son. In addition to traditional regional dishes at the popular lunchtime eatery, you'll find intriguing offerings, such as pescado ajillo, salmon marinated in achiote (the colorful seeds of a tropical plant commonly used in Mexican foods), or Mexican sushi: finely chopped vegetables rolled into colorful tortillas and served with a chile-soy dipping sauce. Valenzuela's vermillion Hibiscus Margarita was voted Most Original Margarita at the 2006 Tucson Culinary Festival.

Best indulgent treat: The El Charro Café (520-622-1922) in business since 1922, is credited with creating the chimichanga, a burrito stuffed with meat or vegetables, then deep-fried and topped with cheese and mild sauce. While it's not the most healthful dish (although the café does use heart-healthy canola oil), it has become a can't-miss bite. Order yours with carne seca, lean beef loin which has been marinated in garlic, lime juice, and spices, then sun dried and shredded.


Best for bikers: Tucson is consistently ranked among the top five bicycling cities in the country with more than 325 miles of well-marked bike lanes and trails in the metropolitan area. The two-lane asphalt Rillito River Park Trail (520-877-6120) winds 11 miles alongside a mostly-dry riverbed on the north side of town. You'll find easy access to parks, shopping areas, and public services without crossing busy streets. 

Best place to putt: More than 40 public and private courses (888-465-3125) provide golfers of all levels numerous challenges and unsurpassed panoramic views of the desert valley. One course is noted for design efforts that use the desert's natural terrain to create challenging and enjoyable play: Golf Club at Vistoso (520-797-9900), where two saguaro cacti guard the 11th hole.

Best way to travel: Maybe it's the Old West image or the ranching heritage, but horseback riding has remained a mainstay in Tucson. It's not uncommon to see entire families out for an afternoon ride from any of the city's six public stables. Arizona Horseback Experience (from $85; 520-455-5696), a short drive south of the city, makes learning the sport easy for beginners with daylong, guided trail rides. Start with their Horsemanship 101 class, then traverse the desert.


Best parks: Throughout Tucson and the surrounding areas, you'll notice enormous cacti called saguaro, often considered the unofficial symbol of the American west. Found only in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, these majestic plants live to be several hundred years old and blossom each spring. To best see them, explore Tucson Mountain Park (520-877-6000), just west of town. Stop at its scenic overlooks and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (520-883-1380), a 21-acre natural habitat for desert wildlife and plants. Or travel a few miles farther to Saguaro National Park West (520-733-5158), where flowers, such as the wild zinnia and desert verbena, bloom beneath the cacti each March. Abundant rainfall (for the desert) in the autumn of 2006 promises a good wildflower season this spring,and the King Canyon Trail offers one of the best places to enjoy them. The seven-mile round trip trail follows an old mining road and ends atop Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains.

Best bird-watching: Just 45 miles south of Tucson lies Tubac Presidio State Historic Park (520-398-2252), part of Arizona's impressive state park system, which is often compared to the national park system in its size and services. At Tubac, birders can enjoy an early morning hike along the eight-mile Anza Trailhead. Burrowing owls are among the unique creatures that make their homes here.

Best stargazing: Tucson becomes even more spectacular at night. With cloudless skies an average of 350 days a year, it is considered one of the best stargazing settings in the country. Steward Observatory on the University of Arizona Campus (520-621-2288) designs some of the most advanced telescope mirrors used by astronomers today. Tours must be scheduled in advance, but plan for the Monday evening lecture series, which is followed by stargazing through a 21-inch telescope. Kitt Peak National Observatory (520-318-8726), about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, is well worth the drive to see the universe through 24 optical telescopes that provide information for dozens of research institutions.

Where to Stay

Best bed and breakfast: Stargazers who prefer the intimacy of a bed and breakfast may enjoy chatting with owner Dave Malmquist at the Casa Tierra Adobe Bed and Breakfast (from $135, two-night minimum; 520-578-3058). Malmquist has telescopes available for guests and provides a vegetarian breakfast each morning.

Best active stay: Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (from $179; 520-299-2020) is home to two golf courses, a spa, tennis center, and pools. Access the 12.8-mile Ventana Canyon trailhead on site for an early morning walk into the Catalina Mountains. For stargazers, this resort offers a Celestial Stay package, which includes guided night hikes into the desert, a stargazing booklet at check-in, and Saturday evening stargazing with telescopes and discussion provided by University of Arizona students.

Best healthful indulgence: Located on 150 acres on the northeast side of the city, Canyon Ranch (from $4,020 for a four-night, all-inclusive; 800-742-9000) is a place where cell phones are discouraged and health and healing are enhanced through cooking classes, exercise and fitness programs, and numerous opportunities for quiet and reflection-all included in the price of your stay.