Tuscon Thrives With Arts

A stroll along the Presidio Trail reveals Tucson’s rowdy, artsy past and spicy new downtown twists.


East End anchor Hotel Congress


The Hotel Congress has seen plenty of cowboys, gangsters, artists, and speculators in its long history, and these days it’s not easy to tell them apart. The most notable stands out, though: photos of John Dillinger—captured here in 1934—glare down at the penny-paved floor of Cup Cafe in Tucson, Ariz.

The Congress has welcomed travelers since 1919 and is now a national historic landmark. Guests will find their rooms filled with antiques and historic touches, as well as music from one of the country’s, best rock clubs, downstairs at the Club Congress. Rooms away from the club noise are available, but an occasional bump in the night may be heard from the ghost in Room 242.

The hotel is now one of many highlights along Tucson’s Presidio Trail, a 2 1/2-mile walking tour that highlights some of the town’s 4,000-year history and an arts community that rivals Santa Fe’s.

Hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade of art therapy have rejuvenated the Old Pueblo, and the Congress now anchors the emerging East End neighborhood.

Big colorful maps of the Presidio Trail are available in the hotel lobby, downtown businesses, and online. The turquoise line swings around the East End, loops through the city’s downtown neighborhoods, and pulls them together like a blue lasso.

Marjorie Cunningham created the route for the Presidio Trail, modeling it after Boston’s Freedom Trail. “We have a great history combining Spain, Mexico, the United States, and Native American tribes,” she says. “We also have great stories—explorers, cowboys, Indians, soldiers, and gangsters.”

The trail on the map is easy to follow—just outside the door of the Congress, the turquoise line painted on the sidewalk leads across the street to the railroad station. Near the station’s remodeled lobby, statues of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday cast bronze gazes over the spot where Frank Stillwell was killed in revenge for the O.K. Corral shootout.

Down the tracks, white tablecloths and fresh zinnias greet diners on the plaza at Maynard’s Market & Kitchen. The elegant setting draws Westerners eager to spark their own romantic visions.

In between the numbered dots on the Presidio Trail map are dozens of restaurants and amazing public art. Beyond the streetscapes are glimpses of the rugged, saguaro-covered hills

In the old neighborhood of Barrio Viejo, the route passes Sonoran row houses painted mango and cinnabar and apple green. Bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus soak up heat from the street walls, while acacia and palo verde branches shade tiled courtyards. Gentrification has wedged its snakeskin boot in the door here, and while some homes are now offices for lawyers and architects, old landmarks are being saved.

At the barrio’s little museum, La Pilita, photos tell the stories of Apache and Hohokam families, Spanish soldiers, and prospectors. The gallery and gift shop are filled with local art. Outside, the Wishing Shrine, El Tiradito (The Castaway), is crowded with crosses and prayer candles left for a murdered lover buried in unconsecrated ground. Pilgrims often stick written messages into crannies in the wall.

The trail winds north, across a couple of footbridges, past Pancho Villa’s statue, and the huge pink Mission and Spanish Colonial courthouse with its ceramic tile dome. Inside the Presidio San Augustin’s reconstructed courtyard, a large mural depicting local life in 1775 makes a perfect backdrop for weekend “living history” demonstrations.

Further along, the art-filled adobe row houses at the Old Town Artisans, and the Museum of Modern Art and the Historic Block offer an afternoon filled with tours of early Tucson homes, Western paintings, and international works of art.

Dinner at the Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails celebrates Southern Arizona’s rich cultural history. James Beard Award winner Janos Wilder uses local ingredients like mesquite flour, chilies, and beans to give his French-Southwestern fusion fare a native touch. Hot and spicy, with flavors and textures as rich as Tucson, each dish will leave Presidio Trail explorers yearning for more.


Attractions and Accommodations

Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., 520-622-8848, www.HotelCongress.com

Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, 400 N. Toole Ave., 520-545-0577, www.MaynardsTucson.com

Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, 140 N. Main Ave., 520-624-2333, www.TucsonMuseumOfArt.org

Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails, 135 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-7700, DowntownKitchen.com

Presidio Trail, www.tucsonaz.gov/sites/default/files/imported/resources/publications/turquoisetrail.pdf

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