Tucson has long been seen as a tourist town.
Our abundance of sunshine and cultural attractions have been a draw for out-of-town guests, both famous and not-so-famous, for decades.
In recent years, modern hotels have been popping up all over to welcome the throngs of visitors looking for that slice of the Southwest.
Then there are the classics — Tucson hotels with some history behind them that, like a fine wine, have only gotten better with age.
Whether you are reading this in your midtown kitchen, on the hunt for a solid staycation, or looking for places to stay from across the ocean, here are some of Tucson’s most historic hotels.
2200 E. Elm St., 325-1541; arizonainn.com
First opened: 1930
The Arizona Inn rests upon three principles: quiet, privacy and sunshine. Ninety-one years later, this desert oasis continues to follow the tradition of its founder Isabella Greenway.
Surrounded by pink walls matching the color of low adobe casita-style buildings, the Arizona Inn’s 14 acres and 89 rooms hold fast to the traditions that make it a Tucson icon.
Over its history, the inn has watched Tucson’s evolution, but in 2021 it is still possible to be transported to the same experience sought after by Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and John F. Kennedy.
“All along the way, we live in the present. It’s a really beautiful spot and a really quiet, civil 14 acres in the middle of Tucson,” said Will Conroy, president of the Arizona Inn and great-grandson of Isabella Greenway.
Conroy isn’t sure if Greenway could have ever imagined the inn continuing her legacy for nearly a century now. Still, he is confident that the inn adheres to her timeless principles.
Inspired by her travels to North Africa, Conroy said Greenway was intrigued by the low adobe style that provides natural cooling long before air conditioning was an amenity. Oleander hedges, patios ideally situated to get maximum sunlight, and two-layer brick walls reflect how the hotel’s design put Greenway’s tenets of quiet and privacy into action.
“I think that’s what’s quietly let us last as long as we have, because those things really manifested,” Conroy said.
Each room at the inn is unique and different, ranging from single bedrooms with a patio to House Six, an entire home for rent on the property. Personality and history permeate the different rooms, and returning guests frequently request specific rooms because of what makes them unique; such as the nicknamed Treehouse room, which has an elevated patio for gazing out onto the grounds.
The inn features two hard clay tennis courts and a pool which, when added in 1937, signaled a significant step in the inn’s history. Relaxing by the pool with a beverage is a long-honored tradition at the Arizona Inn. Modern amenities such as a sauna and a fitness center are also on the property.
Grandeur is a word conjured by the high ceilinged library room that boasts a roaring fireplace, extensive book collection, and towering trees brought in from Oregon at Christmas time.
The Audubon bar located close to the library room has a feeling of sipping a prickly pear margarita in a setting out of Casablanca. According to legend, Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have been especially fond of the environment in the bar with its white tile and view of the courtyard, deciding it was the nicest room he had been in west of the Mississippi.
311 E. Congress St., 622-8848; hotelcongress.com
First opened: 1919
If Tucson has a heartbeat, it radiates out from Hotel Congress. The most significant amenity the hotel boasts is Tucson itself, and it is far from just a museum. It is a historic building full of life.
David Slutes, Hotel Congress’s entertainment director and self-proclaimed protector of the soul of Hotel Congress, has a joyful warning for those looking to stay at the hotel.
“If you’re coming here for sleep and a quiet vacation, don’t come here,” he said. “You’re coming here for the cultural community. You come down; you get a hotel right in the thick of it with a great restaurant downstairs. You know there’s going to be live music, you know there’s going to be dancing. There’s going to be activity here.”
For Slutes, it is all about people watching, cultural activities and musical performances. One of his favorite photos is of John McCain sitting at a table with his group adjacent to a table full of punk rockers with mohawks, showing that everyone comes to Hotel Congress.
“Our amenities are the cultural activities and the nightlife that we have here every single day,” Slutes said.
Built in 1919, the hotel was a luxurious destination being able to boast of having individual bathrooms and running hot and cold water.
The fire in 1934 that raced from the hotel’s basement to the third floor led to the capture of John Dillinger. The fire was a seminal moment in the hotel’s history. Not only because it reduced the number of rooms the hotel had to offer, but it also allowed the Tucson Police Department to arrest Dillinger without firing a single shot. On the night of the fire, Dillinger’s gang offered a payment of $13 to the firefighters to help carry bags down from the inferno in an attempt to exit out of the third story. In these bags was $20,000 cash and a collection of Tommy guns.
Despite its history, Slutes says Hotel Congress is about the present. Hotel Congress functions as a vessel to get out and explore the nightlife of Club Congress and the Rialto and Fox theaters.
“You’re here to enjoy being alive,” Slutes said. “And you see people getting out into it. And then you wake up to the best breakfast in town.”
The hotel has 39 rooms, and not a single one since its beginning has had a television in it. The rooms are simplistic but comfortable with modern bedding, and the decor is a striking Southwestern style art deco design.
If you want to be a part of the action without even leaving your bed, Slutes says the club rooms directly above Club Congress will provide constant immersion in the action.
A long-standing tradition — 62 years of tradition — is having a cocktail poured by Tom Ziegler, who goes by the nickname Tiger. Since 1959, Tiger has worked behind the taproom bar now marked in glowing neon as Tiger’s Tap Room.
Slutes can’t be sure if he is the longest-tenured bartender around, but he said he would put him up against anyone in the world for that title.
“If you want to be Tucson, if you want to feel Tucson, this is it,” Slutes said of Hotel Congress. “There’s nothing more real, more Tucson than this crazy place.”
Lodge on the Desert
306 N. Alvernon Way, 320-2000; lodgeonthedesert.com
First opened: 1936
Blending tradition and modernity, the Lodge on the Desert has been a Tucson destination since it opened its doors as a lodge in 1936. Thirty-two historic casita-style rooms mingle among 69 modern deluxe rooms catering to southwestern resort seekers or business travelers.
The lodge has undergone massive renovations since John Wayne walked through the lobby doors, but the property continues to provide the feel of a hotel you would only find in Tucson.
“To me, it has always felt like the epitome of Tucson,” Michael Reyes, the lodge’s senior sales manager, said. “Downtown is blowing up with hotels coming up left and right, then right in the middle of this expansion, there are the beautiful historic neighborhoods that are preserving their feel. The Lodge on the Desert is the modern side and the old side.”
Adobe style architecture combines with exposed beam roof ceilings, saltillo tile, beehive fireplaces and sunset-hued Ed Mell paintings. All of the surroundings, from the interior to the exterior, guarantee that you will know you are in the Sonoran desert.
To take a step back in time, look to the casita style rooms that are distinctly different from one another and boast styles from different renovation periods over the decades. Or choose to opt for the more modern amenities with all the benefits of what the lodge offers.
Adding to the southwestern immersion, Cielo’s — the restaurant at the lodge — boasts locally inspired dishes created by Chef Miguel Angel Heredia. Weekly specials are on the menu highlighting seasonal ingredients.
The hotel offers a hot lodge breakfast, fitness center and a saltwater pool with two waterfall features. There is also a hot-tub area, a grass lawn for event spaces, and the hotel is pet-friendly, so furry companions are welcome.
Taking a stroll through the property’s casita cactus garden is like walking through the Sonoran desert without leaving the lodge’s walls. You might be right off Alvernon but walking through the lodge feels like stumbling upon an adobe village in the middle of town.
The cactus garden of the hotel is a mature developed garden with a variety of species, including cacti that only bloom at night, providing vibrancy to the landscaping that is genuinely Tucson.
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
5501 N. Hacienda del Sol Road, 299-1501; haciendadelsol.com
First opened: 1943
Situated in the foothills, just south of the Santa Catalinas, Hacienda del Sol exemplifies a classic Tucson resort with a history that predates its opening as a guest ranch in 1943.
The property started as an all-girls ranch boarding school in 1929, attended by daughters from families with elite names like Westinghouse, Vanderbilt and Pillsbury.
“One of the reasons the owners built the school was to attract wealthy families from the Midwest and the East,” said Jeff Timan, one of Hacienda del Sol’s current owners. “The hope was during the year, they would come and visit, fall in love with Tucson and want to buy a lot to build a house. By and large, it was a good idea.”
Dorm rooms from the school have since been converted and expanded into guest rooms. They open up to the school’s old courtyard, a grassy retreat known as the inner courtyard, and are offered to visitors as a way to connect people with the property’s past.
The historic rooms make up some of the 97 rooms available for overnights at the resort, which was built in Spanish Colonial style with contributions from none other than Josias Joesler.
Go all out with a night in Hacienda’s Tracy-Hepburn Casita Grande, a 1,500-square-foot home away from home with a full-sized kitchen, fireplace, two bedrooms and two patios, that once served as a love nest for silver screen couple Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Dine on-property at the elegant Grill at Hacienda Del Sol or Terraza Garden Patio and Lounge, or walk among the resort’s fountains and courtyards. While you are exploring, take in the sculptures, framed images, pottery and paintings created by local artists. Art is a focus at the resort, says Timan, who is a sculptor himself.
“Some works are site specific and others are pieces that come to our attention,” Timan said. “We know tons of local artists. We try to support them as much as we can.”
Hacienda del Sol has expanded significantly since Timan and his partners purchased it in 1995; that includes the addition of 32 guest rooms, a lap pool, hot tub and fitness center in 2020. Any upgrades have been made with the resort’s history and origins in mind, Timan said.
“You can tell what’s new and what’s not but they blend together,” he said. “There is a nice spiritual rhythm from one space to the next.”