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Art and history are intertwined in this colorful and rich village along the banks of the Santa Cruz River.  

In an idyllic natural setting just 45 minutes south of Tucson by car, this bustling, if small, artists’ colony was the state’s original colonial garrison, the Spanish crown’s sole outpost in the region for more than 20 years before the Tucson presidio was built. Today, there are more than 100 galleries and every February, the village hosts its Festival of the Arts, the oldest annual art gathering in the country. But for twists of fate and the whims of the Spanish crown, Tubac might’ve become the city Tucson is today. Instead, Tubac is a calm and restorative getaway for Arizonans and outside visitors alike.  

Start a trip to Tubac at The Goods (26A Tubac Road), a juice and smoothie bar that focuses on fresh, local produce. Light yet filling, house specialties like the Green & Blue (spinach, kale, blueberries and banana, blended with almond milk) give an energetic boost to prime an explorer’s day. 

Mission San José de Tumacácori

Mission San José de Tumacácori

The cradle of Arizona’s colonial past, Tubac celebrates its history. Three miles south of the village is Mission San José de Tumacácori, founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1691. The preserved church—dating to the early 1800s—is now at the center of the Tumacácori National Historical Park (1891 I-19 Frontage Road), easily explored on foot. Back in Tubac, the site of the presidio became the first Arizona State Park in 1958. On display at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park (1 Burruel Street) are portions of the presidio’s original foundation and a museum that houses, among many artifacts, Arizona’s first printing press.

Shelby's Bistro, named as one of the state’s 25 best restaurants by Arizona Highways.

Shelby’s Bistro, named as one of the state’s 25 best restaurants by Arizona Highways.

A short walk away on Tubac Road is Shelby’s Bistro (19 Tubac Road), named one of the state’s 25 best restaurants by Arizona Highways. The family-run bistro features Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, with salads, sandwiches, and burgers joining Shelby’s signature pizzas on the lunch menu and fresh pastas, seafood, and steaks rounding out the dinner menu. On the main drag is the venerable Tubac Jack’s Restaurant and Saloon (7 Plaza Road), founded in 1956, serving a Southwestern mix of burgers, barbeque, and Mexican-inspired dishes like the house-specialty, green chili stew.  

La Paloma de Tubac, one of the best Latin American folk art collections in the world.

La Paloma de Tubac, one of the best Latin American folk art collections in the world.

Devote the afternoon to exploring galleries, studios, and shops. The free-admission Tubac Center of the Arts (9 Plaza Road), at the heart of the village, features a master artist gallery with works by world-renowned locals like Bob Vann, Hal Empie, and Tom Hill, as well as rotating exhibits showcasing up-and-coming artists. Nearby is La Paloma de Tubac (1 Presidio Road), one of the best Latin American folk art collections in the world, with more than 10,000 items expertly selected and imported over 35 years. Among the shops at La Entrada de Tubac is the foodie heaven Tumacookery (2221 I-19 Frontage Road, Suite N102), with its dizzying array of cookware, gadgets, and local delicacies.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.

Back down the road in Tumacácori is the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co. (1868 I-19 Frontage Road), dedicated to the region’s rich heritage of flavors, making and selling chili pastes, sauce, and spice mixtures to enliven your cooking. Since 1982, the eco-friendly Tumacacori Mesquite Sawill (2007 I-19 Frontage Road) has been transforming the familiar velvet mesquite trees of the Sonoran Desert in lumber, furniture, fine arts, and their ever-popular cutting boards and crosses.  

For dinner and cocktails, the Tubac area offers plenty of options, like the eclectic Elvira’s (2221 E. Frontage Road), which opened in 1927 in Nogales, Sonora and moved to Tubac in 2009, the longstanding Wisdom’s Café (1931 I-19 Frontage Rd) in Tumacácori and new Wisdom’s ¡DOS! (4 Plaza Road) in Tubac have been serving Mexican favorites for generations. Visit EdibleBajaArizona.com to read more about Elvira’s and Wisdom’s Café. 

From the rustic dining room of the Stables Ranch Grille (1 Otero Road) at the Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, arched picture windows open to a view of the Santa Rita Mountains. From the cocktail menu, the Tin Cup margarita nods to art and history of a different sort (named for the 1996 Kevin Costner movie, which filmed scenes here). Entrees like braised beef short ribs, with garlic mashed potatoes, heirloom carrots, and sautéed spinach display an elegance perfect for a moment of reflection in the fading twilight.


(Originally published in Edible Baja Arizona, Jan/Feb 2016.)  

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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