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City Smackdown: Phoenix vs. Tucson

September 17, 2015

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which one is the best. 

The Case for Phoenix 

Phoenix is the Goliath in this fight. America’s sixth-largest city and growing fast, it has all the amenities a sizable metropolis offers: both high and low culture, sports, and an almost unimaginable number of things to do.

Population: 1.4 million

emma stone arizona
emma stone arizona

Phoenix’s own Emma Stone (Photo: Getty Images)

Famous faces: Actress Emma Stone grew up in Phoenix. Rocker Alice Cooper, a near-lifelong resident, owns a local restaurant.

spring training arizona
spring training arizona

Dodgers play in a “Cactus League” spring training game (Photo: MjZ Photography/Flickr)

Sports Fever: Three words — Spring training, baby! Major League Baseball’s “Cactus League” convenes every February and March at venues all around Phoenix. About 1.5 million fans each year bask in the sun and professional baseball while the weather is still crap in most of the country. Tucson? It was a venue in the league’s early years, but teams ditched it for the Phoenix area.

diamondbacks phoenix
diamondbacks phoenix

The entrance to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images)

We Built It and They Came:  Phoenix’s major-league cred extends to Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was the first stadium in the world to combine a retractable roof, air conditioning (reducing temps to 30 degrees cooler than outside), and natural turf. All smack in the middle of downtown.

musical instrument museum
musical instrument museum

Visitors explore the opera wing at the Musical Instrument Museum. (Photo: MIM/Facebook)

World-Class Museums: They run the gamut from the classy to the good-way weird, starting with the Phoenix Art Museum, the Arizona Capitol Museum, and the Heard Museum. The latter nicely displays American Indian items, including Barry Goldwater’s collection of Kachina Dolls. Who knew? The top-rated Phoenix attraction on TripAdvisor is the Musical Instrument Museum, the only one of its kind. The collection pays homage to classical, rock, and country music with instruments that once belonged to the likes of John Lennon and Taylor Swift. And it hosts concerts by the likes of the The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Related: City Smackdown: Seattle vs. Vancouver

nobuo teeter house food phoenix
nobuo teeter house food phoenix

Phoenix is a great place for foodies. (Photo: Nobuo at Teeter House/Facebook)

Foodie Paradise: The diversity of cuisine is mind-blowing. There’s braised pork in a caramelized fish sauce reduction at Bonjour Vietnam, jerked Jamaican at The Breadfruit, and Japanese food as art at Nobuo at Teeter House, just to get started.

bbq phoenix
bbq phoenix

It’s too hot to cook indoors in Phoenix, a great place for barbecue (Photo: Raelb/Flickr)

Specialty Cuisine: Phoenix is known for great barbecue, and understandably so. Who wants to heat up the indoors with an oven or stove? Or you could also just skip the food and head straight for one of the city’s many innovative craft cocktails. 

lustre hotel phoenix
lustre hotel phoenix

Enjoy cool cocktails and panoramic views from the Lustre Rooftop Garden. (Photo: Lustre Rooftop Garden/Facebook)

Must-Do Nightlife: Tucson nightlife is basically divided into young and hip versus old and hip-replaced. A terrific diversity of nightlife thrives in Phoenix, starting with its bars. Some, like Lustre Rooftop Garden at Hotel Palomar, perch on rooftops, giving sweeping views of the cityscape below. Oh, and if any big-name band is coming through Arizona, it’ll probably stop in Phoenix. 

scottsdale contemporary art museum
scottsdale contemporary art museum

A visitor walks past the James Marshall mural at The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. (Photo: SMoCA/Facebook)

Art Scene: Act as if you have money by joining the Scottsdale ArtWalk or cruising through the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art pretending it’s all yours.

taliesin west house frank lloyd wright
taliesin west house frank lloyd wright

Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence is all over Phoenix — especially at his former home. (Photo: Artotem/Flickr)

Cool Architecture: Of the dozen Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Arizona, all are in the Phoenix area. The renowned architect made his winter home here for years; now you can tour his former personal home, Taliesin West. Wright’s influence shines in modern buildings and houses all over town; use Modern Phoenix’s interactive map to find them. Drop in at the swank Arizona Biltmore Hotel, which he also helped design.

light rail phoenix
light rail phoenix

The light rail has brought life to downtown. (Photo: Paul Martinez/Flickr)

Rail: The 20 miles of light rail around Phoenix and its suburbs make navigation surprisingly easy for such a sprawling city. Even better, those tracks are helping spur a revival for once-sleepy downtown Phoenix and nearby Tempe, home of Arizona State University. Tucson is just getting around to installing a single streetcar line, and its downtown revival is just beginning.

tonto national monument
tonto national monument

Tonto National Monument (Photo: WikiCommons)

Side Trip: Get a taste of Phoenix’s lawless early days. Drive the narrow, twisty Apache Trail road just east of the city, with its thrilling switchbacks and drop-offs. Climb into the cactus-covered Superstition Mountains, and grab a burger at the Superstition Saloon in the middle of the old Tortilla Flat stagecoach stop. Then make your way very carefully down gravel switchbacks toward the cave dwellings at Tonto National Monument (unless you’re in an RV, in which case you probably didn’t make it up here in the first place). Possible downside: rattlesnakes. Hey, no place is perfect.

Great Outdoors: Mountains around Phoenix are between 2,000 and 3,000 feet — not enough to escape the blazing heat. But at least they give the satisfaction of climbing all the way to the top in a doable day hike. We’ll take our sense of achievement where we can get it.

camelback mountain phoenix
camelback mountain phoenix

Hikers enjoy the view from Camelback Mountain. (Photo: Take A Hike Arizona/Flickr)

The Case for Tucson 

While the city of Phoenix is young and gigantic, Tucson feels more historic and intimate yet vibrant. Not only does the University of Arizona lend the city some intellectual cred, it supports the kind of cheap restaurants, lively bars, and thriving counterculture that make for refreshing travel discoveries. And they’re not spread all over as in Phoenix’s endless suburbs.

Population: 524,000

“Orange Is the New Black” star Taryn Manning is from Tucson. (Photo: Getty Images)

Famous Faces: Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, Garry Shandling, and Taryn Manning have all lived here.

The Home of the Wildcats (Photo: Getty Images Sports)

Sports Fever: The Arizona Wildcats basketball team has a long (since 1904) and proud tradition that helps unite Tucson, especially when March Madness rolls around.

Related: City Smackdown: San Francisco vs. Oakland 

Skiing in Arizona? Yes, at Mt. Lemmon. (Photo: Mt. Lemmon/Facebook)

We Built It, and They Came: Tucson has skiing. Yes, skiing. Mt. Lemmon, just north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains, rises to 9,147 feet and is 30 degrees cooler than downtown Tucson. Drive to the top to see the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.

One of the many planes at the Pima Air & Space Museum (Photo: Kat Barnes/Flickr)

World-Class Museums: The Pima Air & Space Museum is enormous, with 150 indoor and 150 outdoor planes. My favorite old planes are the ones at the “Aircraft Bone Yard” (The Air & Space Museum gives tours.). There’s something eerily beautiful about all those silent metal hulks.

The Tucson food scene is back (Just don’t say it’s rising like a Phoenix). (Photo: Reily’s Pizza/Facebook)

Foodie Paradise: Tucson is going through a foodie renaissance, with a cascade of recent restaurant openings.There are so many new places we haven’t even had a chance to try them all,” says Kathe Lison, a Tucson resident and author of “The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese.

Some of her favorites: “Proper, Saint House, Reilly’s (a craft pizza joint in a former funeral home), Penca (awesome Central Mexico cuisine), to name only a few. And those are the more upscale places. There are also places like Diablo Burger and Gio Taco that are more casual.”

Sonoran hotdogs  (Photo: Alyson Hurt/Flickr)

Specialty Cuisine: Tucson is as close as you’ll get to really authentic Mexican food north of the border. The Mexican here isn’t Southwestern; it’s Sonoran. And it’s often dirt cheap. Try Paco’s, El Sur, El Güero Canelo, BK’s, or Poco & Mom’s. Try Sonoran hot dogs, a local specialty: They’re wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon, grilled, and topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, and condiments ranging from mayonnaise to Jalapeño salsa. Olé!

THESE snow cones are strictly for adults. (Photo: Che’s Lounge/Facebook)

Must-Do Nightlife: Bar-hopping along the Fourth Avenue Historic Shopping District (also home to an eclectic collection of locally owned shops and restaurants) is a time-honored tradition. Grab an “adult snowcone” at Che’s Lounge, pay homage to America’s largest tiki head at The Hut, or see a drag show at IBT’s. If nerd chic is your thing, head to Sky Bar: solar powered by day and an astronomy-themed bar by night, complete with telescopes.

Related: City Smackdown: Cincinnati vs. Covington and Northern Kentucky

Art Scene: While Scottsdale is known for high-end galleries, the Tucson area boasts art normal people can actually afford to buy and take home. Shopping options range from antique stores to cutting-edge clothing boutiques.

Take a trip back in time with a visit to the mission at San Xavier del Bac. (Photo: Scott Hudson/Flickr)

Cool Architecture: Phoenix may be modern, but Tucson appeals more to those with a sense of history. A short drive from town takes you to churches from the Spanish mission era: San Xavier del Bac and Tumacácori National Historic Park are fascinating trips back in time to when Spanish explorers roamed these deserts.

Rail: Sure, the downtown streetcar hasn’t actually fired up yet, but when it does (July 25), it’ll be yet another reason to visit a corridor that’s blooming like a garden in anticipation, with new shops and restaurants springing up along the route.

Side Trip: One of the best spots for Mexican-style pottery and other eclectic creations is the artsy enclave of Tubac, between Tucson and the Mexican border. More than 100 galleries and shops full of color and whimsy are scattered throughout the town, specializing in art that’s unique, appealing, authentic — and often shockingly cheap. (And yes, they ship.)

Great Outdoors: Some of us want real wilderness, and Tucson has a lot of that. While Phoenix is surrounded by suburbs that go on for (literally) miles and miles, it doesn’t take long before you leave Tucson for open desert. I know, sounds hostile! There is plenty of it’ll-kill-you, blast-oven territory out here (and a whole national park full of saguaro cacti as well), but a series of mountain ranges encircling Tucson make for refreshing, high-elevation retreats.

And the more you learn about the desert, the more you’ll love it. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a great place to start, especially with kids. Don’t miss seeing raptors up close during the bird presentations.

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