Having been regular visitors to Tucson for many years, my husband and I had seen most of its well known attractions. So on our most recent trip, we decided to check out what might be called "the other Tucson": less well known places whose charm makes them worth seeing. Now that winter residents and travelers -- some arriving for spring-training baseball -- are plentiful in Arizona, it's a good time to offer a guide to some off-the-beaten-path places, plus a few longtime favorites.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
Although we found the garden grounds pleasant, they seemed unremarkable. But we loved the butterfly exhibit, which is continuing through April and showcases insects imported from around the world. After receiving a stern lecture from a docent, who admonished us to watch where we stepped lest we crush one of the delicate creatures, we were ushered into a small building as steamy as a sauna and filled with vegetation. All around us fluttered the variously colored butterflies, alighting on leaves, feeding stations and visitors' shoulders and hands. Other garden features include a cafe with a small but inventive menu; a children's railway; Native American crops and cactus, and succulent gardens. (General admission $3-$7; 1-520-326-9686; www.tucsonbotanical.org).
The Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures
The magic in this place cannot be overstated. Even if you are no connoisseur of miniatures (and I'm not), you're immediately drawn by the detail, color, refinement and imagination in virtually every display. The museum is one of Tucson's newest attractions, having opened in September, and a spokeswoman said it's the first U.S. museum built exclusively to house miniatures. The museum contains more than 275 miniature houses and room boxes, and an undetermined number of other miniature collectible items. (Admission is $5-$7, ages 3 and under admitted free; 1-520-881-0606; www.theminitimemachine.org).
Old Town Artisans
We love to visit this enclave in the middle of downtown Tucson. The collection of historic buildings houses artisan shops around a pleasant courtyard with a small restaurant that serves lunch and drinks. In the buildings, some of which date to the mid-1800s, are shops and galleries selling pottery, jewelry, artwork, crafts and other items, many created by Native Americans.
The day we visited musicians were performing in the sun-dappled courtyard. We left, as usual, with wallets lighter and one-of-a-kind handcrafted gifts (1-800-782-8072).
Tohono Chul Park
This park on the north side of Tucson charmed us with its brick courtyard and tearoom, where we lunched with friends; its sunny, airy art gallery, and the beautifully arranged tableaux of Southwestern foliage. We stopped to admire a circle formed of a low stone wall topped with cactuses, the Sundial Plaza and many huge, gnarly saguaro cactuses. Other park features include activities for children and demonstration gardens. (Admission is $2-$7, ages 4 and under free; 1-520-742-6455; www.tohonochulpark.org).
Create Cafe and Catering
We happened across this funky restaurant/catering service and were attracted by the tagline posted outside: You Are What You Create Cafe and Catering. Inside we encountered an eclectic array of dining furniture; a long, copper counter adorned with colorful pottery shards and a huge menu on the wall. The healthy-leaning offerings included hot and cold sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups, quesadillas, burritos and omelets. The cafe serves breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday and plans to start serving dinner this month (1-520-298-3421; www.createcafe.com).
Blue Willow Restaurant, Bakery and Gift Shop
This Tucson mainstay and its wide-ranging menu never fail to please. But its uniqueness derives from its unusual gift shop. This time I couldn't resist a small book containing English translations -- or rather, mistranslations -- of common phrases on signs in another country (1-520-327-7577; www.bluewillowtucson.com).