Let's be honest: Tucson is a great city, but being in the desert takes its toll. The only real seasons are hot and less hot, during monsoons it's hot and humid, and unless cacti and rattlesnakes are your thing, the wildlife is hardly cute and cuddly (there are bunnies, I suppose, but they like to eat your much-labored over garden). As a desert child born and raised, I've discovered my fair share of Tucson gems that make me feel like I'm not actually in Tucson. Disclosed for the first time, for your escapist pleasure, I present to you five things to do in Tucson when you'd really like to feel like you're somewhere else.
1. Botanical Gardens: Butterfly Magic
At first glance, the Tucson Botanical Gardens seem very, well, Tucson. But if you plan your visit during the seasonal Butterfly Magic exhibit, you are instantly transported out of the living-but-dead-looking trees of the desert and into a tropical paradise. A tiny, beach-less tropical paradise, but paradise nonetheless. The butterfly exhibit features plants and gorgeous flowers from around the world, coexisting with equally gorgeous butterflies. After the tour, hit the Café Botanical to sip some prickly pear iced tea—a drink that is surprisingly refreshing for being made from part of a cactus.
2. The Gaslight Theatre
If nature isn't really your thing and you prefer to hide from the desert by huddling inside somewhere with air conditioning, look no further than the Gaslight Theatre. At first glance, the building makes you feel like you're in the wild west, but start the evening off with dinner at Little Anthony's Diner and you'll find that you've jumped out of the hotcakes pan and into classic 1950's America (be one of the first to join the Bunny Hop line dance and get a free goody!). After dinner, head straight next door to the theatre (conveniently attached, so there is no need to step back into the blazing heat) and lose yourself in an always family-friendly, hilarious musical. The Gaslight crew specializes in spoofing popular films and stories, and the performances and live music are always spot-on. Pro-Tip: call a few days (or weeks) in advance if you want more than a couple of tickets, as their shows regularly sell out. Double Pro-Tip: Go on your birthday, and get free ice cream in the diner and the theatre. Ice cream is definitely the anti-desert dessert.
3. Tucson Festival of Books
This book festival might be young compared to others in the country, but it's already the third largest in the nation. It's so popular, in fact, that many authors pay their own way to attend in an effort to meet fans and promote their books. The festival takes place on the University of Arizona's mall every March, and has an extensive selection of events, from adult fiction, to health and wellness, to science. Their children's and teen's area is renowned for it's phenomenal planning and the amazing authors it draws: everyone from R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps fame) to literary legend and multiple Newbery Medal-winner Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins), to Matt de la Peña (Mexican White Boy, The Living). In addition to the plethora of scheduled panels, workshops, and events, Tucson vendors flood the UA's grassy mall to offer their wares and advertise their programs. Bonus: The University of Arizona's campus is beautiful, and surprisingly green for a desert locale.
4. Tucson Greek Festival
If what you're craving isn't just physical escape, but a different culture to lose yourself in, look no further than the Tucson Greek Festival, hosted annually at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. The festival features Greek food (get your gyro on!), music, dancing, and more. Cooking demonstrations teach how to make that flaky and delicious spanakopita at home, and invited authors give lectures to further broaden your knowledge of specific topics. It's only a few dollars to attend, and shuttling services are available to accommodate parking.
5. Mt. Lemmon
This might be the obvious choice, but when it comes to escaping Tucson you can't go wrong. Part of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Mt. Lemmon is just a short drive away, and offers something for everyone. If all you want is a quick break from the city, drive up and pull off at one of the many picnic spots to luxuriate in the green all around you. Or, drive all the way up to Summerhaven and pick up some decadent homemade fudge from the general store, then park it in the Cookie Cabin for pizza and a giant cookie (with ice cream…and whipped topping…and nuts…). Lounging not really your style? Lace up your hiking boots and hit one of the many trails—Romero Pools is a great trail for beginners, but experienced hikers like it as well because it ends in—wait for it—a pool! Go for a swim and wash off any desert-y feelings you might still have, then hang out after dark to stargaze in the crisp, fresh mountain air. Mt. Lemmon also features several campgrounds, so if you don't want to cram everything into one day, take your time and do a little bit of everything—it's truly the one-stop shop for escaping Tucson!
Might I also point out that any of these activities can be enjoyed alone, as a family, or with friends? Next time you're feeling a little dusty, know that a refreshing break from the desert isn't too far away.
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