TUCSON, Ariz. —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
Though 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, above. The room was hushed; we all were keenly aware of the insects' beauty and fragility.
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 (children 3 and younger free); admission to butterfly exhibit, which includes general admission, $6.50-12; 520-326-9686; 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. (OK, I had to check: A spokesman for the American Association of Museums in Washington confirmed that he has no record of another such museum, though not every museum in the country belongs to that group.)
The museum contains more than 275 miniature houses and room boxes, and an undetermined number of other miniature collectible items.
In the lobby sits a three-story Scottish Regency house of faux yellow brick, the facade of which swings slowly open to reveal nine rooms. In one, a woman wearing a shawl, apron and cap sits working at a spinning wheel; in another, a woman wearing a blue satin, empire-waisted dress stands near a keyboard instrument.
The museum is the brainchild of Tucson residents Patricia and Walter Arnell; the entire collection was assembled by them over many years. It is divided into three areas: Exploring the World, which contains miniatures from other countries and cultures from the 1400s to modern times; The History Gallery, antique miniatures from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s; and The Enchanted Realm, with fantasy-based miniatures and collectibles. Admission $5-$7 (children 3 and younger free); 520-881-0606; theminitimemachine.org
• Old Town Artisans
We love 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. 800-782-8072; oldtownartisans.com
• 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 children's, performance, ethno-botanical and demonstration gardens. $2-$7 (children younger than 5 free); 520-742-6455; 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 in March. 520-298-3421; createcafe.com
• Blue Willow Restaurant, Bakery and Gift Shop
This Tucson mainstay, with its wide-ranging menu (examples: omelets, entree salads, pasta, chicken, meatloaf and seafood), never fails 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. The book had me at "Your careful step keeps tiny grass invariably green." 520-327-7577; bluewillowtucson.com
Among the highlights:
A full-size violin, whose front has been removed to reveal a violin-making workshop, complete with a workbench, tools, seven tiny violins and a cello.
An elaborate house constructed circa 1900 in Malden, Mass., largely out of wooden cigar boxes.
A collection of music boxes, some with tiny costumed mice that move and play when visitors press nearby buttons.