I have been visiting Tucson, Arizona for over 20 years and have always adored her gorgeous desert landscape, rugged mountains, and lovely southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The sun shines down across the city for over 350 days a year making Tucson a gorgeous place to visit especially in the heart of a Minnesota winter.
For years I’ve been enjoying Tucson’s many hiking trails, restaurants and shopping areas surrounding the luxurious Foothills part of town yet during a recent visit I decided it was time to branch out and explore. A local art store provided my inspiration. There I saw a painting of one of Tucson’s many barrios (neighborhoods) and realized that there was an entire part of Tucson that I had never seen before and it looked fascinating.
On a beautiful Saturday morning instead of putting on my hiking shoes, I grabbed my camera, a map and launched off in pursuit of my curiosity and wanderlust. I headed down the valley to the heart of Tucson’s past, to the old, historic Downtown Tucson and her neighboring barrios (neighborhoods) which in recent years have been undergoing a major regentrification and rebirth of their own right. A few hours exploring and I was convinced that during my next trip to Tucson I’m headed back to the barrios.
For a place known for its golf courses, gorgeous spas and resorts and cactus, who would have ever believed that an entire fascinating old historical part of town not only existed but thrived? Yet this is where the city of Tucson, one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in the United States, all began.
To visit Downtown Tucson feels like taking a step back into time and quite frankly, another country. The brightly hued buildings that sprinkled the various barrios often reminded me of homes I saw in Central America and brought me right back to lovely Xela, Guatemala at times. Although I only had time to explore the tip of the iceberg, I will certainly be back to visit the rest soon. There are too many hidden treasures awaiting to be discovered.
Currently there are 34 National Register Historic Districts in Tucson and 6 more that are pending. During my first visit to Tucson’s historic past, I was instantly hooked by the charm and the uniqueness of each barrio. Every step of the way felt like I was taking a trip back to another era. It was certainly hard to believe I was still in Tucson. The Tucson I knew for so many years felt thousands of miles away.
First stop: Historic Downtown Tucson at the masterpiece, The Congress Hotel.
Built in 1919 as a three-story railroad hotel, The Congress Hotel has been a key Tucson landmark for years. Perhaps what the Congress Hotel is most famous for is being the hideout of the notorious John Dillinger gang. John Dillinger was an American bank robber during the Depression era who became one of America’s most wanted outlaws. In 1934, Dillenger and his gang were hiding inside The Congress Hotel when a fire broke out on the third floor and lead to his capture after months on the run. When you walk outside the front of the hotel, you can see a darkened figure up in the window made out of cardboard to remind you where Dillinger once roamed.
Today, the Congress Hotel has 40 vintage guest rooms, a swank restaurant with sidewalk seating, nightclub, an old fashioned salon, and a formal banquet room. What makes The Congress Hotel a must-see is its unique Southwest décor and charm. Even the saloon still has an eerie smell of booze from hard days past.
Other notable sites: The Rialto Theater
One of my favorite buildings to see was The Rialto Theater. Located nearby The Congress Hotel, the Rialto has a fascinating history as well.
Per the Downtown Tucson Parnership (a non-profit organization focused on the re-development and tourism of historic Tucson):
“The Rialto had the largest stage west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1919, and Ginger Rogers once danced there. The Rialto became the Paramount Theater in 1948; it closed in 1963, reopened, closed again in 1984, and was brought back to life as a concert hall in the 1990s. Restored in 2005, the Rialto hosts a variety of live shows, and is an important anchor in the Congress Street Entertainment District”.
What I loved best about the Rialto Theater was the enormous mural painted along the outside of the building as a gift to all performing musicians. Here is a little history on the murals:
For some reason, I just love murals and there were plenty of murals to see in downtown Tucson as well as the neighboring barrios. This mural below was located right next to the Rialto Theater (the brown building in the lefthand side). I found it interesting and also got a few laughs (check out the man riding the shark).
Many murals depict themes of Tucson’s early heritage. This one below shows a Native American up against presumably a Spanish invader. Tucson was settled over 4,000 years ago by the Hohokam Indians who lived and farmed there peacefully for thousands of years before Spanish missionaries and soldiers arrived in the late 1600s.
The last site I saw before heading over to the neighboring barrios was the lovely Old Pima County Courthouse. The building is a striking rose color which is uncommon in the area and my only regret is that the sky was not a brilliant blue for the photo. I can only imagine how brilliant the courthouse must be on a typical sunny day.
Here is a little history on the building from Downtown Tucson Partnership:
“Built in 1929, the Spanish Colonial Revival courthouse is one of Tucson’s most beloved landmarks. Its mosaic dome is one of the Old Pueblo’s most recognizable structures. A portion of the east wall of the original Presidio of Tucson runs through the courtyard and is marked with a strip of granite. The building is still in use with courts and county offices.”
Stay tuned….Next stop on my walking tour of historic Tucson is El Presidio, the barrio where Tucson began as a Spanish outpost.
When researching this post, I found two sites particularly useful in gathering the historical information used within this post. If you love history and want to read more, check these two sites out below.
The history of Tucson is fascinating. To read a nice short summary, click here on The Downtown Tucson Parnership, a non-profit focused on the re-development of downtown Tucson. This site also gives you a great list of events, nightlife, dining, historical sites and other pertinent information for planning your visit.
I also found this brief summary of Tucson’s history on Visit Tucson:
“Located in the Southwest United States, in Southern Arizona, Tucson is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in North America. Hohokam Indians lived and farmed here for 4,000 years before Spanish missionaries and soldiers arrived in the late 1600s. In the 1700s, these “newcomers” established the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson and the Mission San Xavier del Bac — the two most iconic and historic structures in the region. “The Old Pueblo,” as the adobe-walled Tucson Presidio became known, is Tucson’s nickname to this day.
Tucson officially was founded on August 20, 1776 — an event celebrated annually at Tucson’s birthday party, La Fiesta de San Agustín. Though once part of Mexico, Tucson officially became part of the United States in 1854. Soon after, cattle ranchers, settlers, miners, and Apache Indians began to clash, thus beginning the Wild West era of 1860-1880. With the Southern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in 1880, Tucson’s multicultural roots grew as new residents adopted customs of the Tohono O’odham Indians and Mexicans living here. In 1877, the city was incorporated, making Tucson the oldest incorporated city in Arizona.
Tucson is now the second-largest city in Arizona after the state capital Phoenix; it is also the county seat of Pima County, which includes the towns of Marana, Oro Valley, Catalina, South Tucson, Sahuarita, Vail, and Green Valley. Metropolitan Tucson’s population is more than 1 million; this includes roughly 50,000 students and employees at the University of Arizona, the first university in Arizona, founded in 1885″.