If you’re a Goldilocks kind of traveler like we are, you may at first glance be turned off by Phoenix’s enormous sprawl. Meanwhile, there’s mystical Sedona and charming Flagstaff, both pretty—but also kinda petite. But, wait. Tucked into the state’s southeast corner is enchanting Tucson. A multi-culti blend of Native American, Mexican and European influence with a population of a half million chill peeps and a harmonious blend of city and nature, Tucson is juuust right. Sunny, funky and always buzzing, we’re darn near in love with the place and predict you will be too. Here’s why…

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…The Saguaro cacti are easily as amazing as California’s Redwoods
The Saguaro cactus, you know it…tall, skinny and deep green with gangly arms and forever looming large in popular culture. But have you ever actually seen one in person? They are littered across Tucson and its surrounding area by the tens of thousands and, no joke, you will want to stare at them for hours. Did you know they can grow up to 40-feet tall and live up to 150 years? The best way to see them is via hiking Saguaro National Park. We trekked the 1.8-mile Tanque Verde Falls Trail, but any number of trails will bring their majesty to the fore.

Photo courtesy of Congress Hotel

…It’s got the coolest historic hotel in the country
You know how esteemed hotels like the Plaza in NYC and Chicago’s Drake are these twee and mannered places where one percenters host their lavish weddings? Not so at the Congress Hotel, a Tucson legend that’s the very opposite of dusty. (In fact, it’s a place where you go to kick up some dust.) Live bands crank out tunes seven nights a week and the sprawling outdoor patio is always humming. We hear there are 40 rooms, but how anybody ever sleeps we’ll never know!

…You can booze it up inside a funeral parlor
Hipsters will reclaim anything. An old service station? Try Milktooth, a diner in Indianapolis. A former laundromat? See Augustine’s Bar and Bakery in St. Paul, Minnesota. A one-time funeral parlor? Simply turn a few pews so that they face each other, light some candles, add a liquor license and voilá!—welcome to Owls’ Club. We thought it was a gimmicky idea, too, until we spent hours there discussing rock ‘n’ roll, Los Angeles and English literature over one too many Old Fashioneds.

Flickr CC: Anna Irene

…They got a museum that’s a sight for soar eyes
Woosh! Swoop! Glide! Nestled in the heart of Sonoran National Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo and gardens that’s perfectly integrated into its natural surroundings and an excellent Tucson attraction. Stroll the pretty grounds, feed a friendly sting ray, see river otters play and definitely visit Raptor Free Flight, a seasonal show (daily, October through April) featuring hawks, owls and other birds of prey who soar so close you may feel their passing breeze.

…They make ice cream that will haunt your dreams
Tucson’s food scene is pretty rad. Craving a divine breakfast sandwich? Hit 5 Points Market & Restaurant where they literally slap an entire cheese omelet and hearty sausage patty atop a thick piece of fluffy bread. Al fresco French? Try the chicken thigh Fricassee and live music at pretty Agustín Kitchen. Then there’s Mexican food. From creative street fare at BOCA Tacos Y Tequila to upscale eats at romantic Penca, Tucson deserves its status as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Oh, and the Corn Bread & Honey ice cream at HUB? We still dream of the taste in our mouths to this day.

Flickr CC: Intergem

…The city contains the highest concentration of quirky, cool gift shops
Shame on anyone who settles for an “I love Tucson” t-shirt or a generic key chain at the airport gift shop. In a city shaped by artists and artisans, Tucson boasts Arizona’s coolest gift boutiques. On historic and bustling 4th Avenue alone, snatch up citrus-scented candles made from vintage Coke bottles or desert-inspired onesies at Pop Cycle, browse handcrafted treasures at Everest Souvenirs or bring home kitschy kitchen gadgets from Mabel’s on 4th that would make even mom jealous.

Flickr CC: Daniel Ramirez

…Laying your eyes on the enchanting Mission San Xavier del Bac is like experiencing love at first sight
Centuries ago, Catholic missionaries barnstormed the American West, establishing missions in an attempt to convert the natives to Christianity. The oldest European structure in Arizona, the Mission San Xavier del Bac is one of them. A stunning example of Spanish-Colonial architecture and a lively place to spend a few hours, there is much to do here. Tour the church, peruse handcrafted goods from local artisans, attend a Sunday mass or wander up the hill to the nearby cemetery for stunning desert vistas.

Photo courtesy of Downtown Clifton

…The low-key Downtown Clifton is our new favorite hotel
Remember when Don Draper would go on one of his flights of fancy? If he passed through Tucson, the Downtown Clifton is surely where he’d end up. An old motel that was gut-rehabbed to resemble an artsy mid-century fantasy land, this seductive budget charmer sits just a stone’s throw from downtown and teases the savvy traveler with Instagrammable murals, chic vintage furnishings, insider access to the coolest bars and eateries around town and a chill energy perfectly suited to Tucson.

Bisbee

…Hold it right there, pardner! The city is a stone’s throw from two Wild West legends
One’s a gimmicky gunslinger’s paradise, the other an offbeat charmer. Both should be at the top of your Arizona bucket list. We’re talking about Tombstone and Bisbee. The former is famously home to the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theatre and the residence of Wyatt Earp, but its ersatz recreation of the era admittedly feels pretty forced. Meanwhile, there’s artsy Bisbee, an old mining town that ditches Wild West tourism in favor of tattoo parlors, noodle shops and quirky locals.

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