Wildcat Weekend

Getting the most out of a college-town vacation in Tucson, AZ

|By Mish DeCarlo

|Photos by Brielle Farmer

Immediately after landing at Tucson International Airport, a sign welcomes you with the words “Welcome to Tucson. Home of the Wildcats.” On my first trip to the city, I giddily pointed the sign out to my mom, excited for adventures I had yet to imagine.

Fast-forward four years, and I still get that giddiness every time I see the welcome sign. I smile when I see the giant “A” on top of Sentinel Peak, the Wildcat paraphernalia hanging on restaurant and coffee-shop walls, and the street signs that point to the University of Arizona campus. It’s a reminder of the community that the UA has established in Tucson over the past 100-plus years. Yet, whether you’re a Wildcat or not, it’s hard to miss the bustling energy around the university. After all, Tucson is one of the largest college towns in America. So, next time you’re in Southern Arizona, step into the shoes—or paws—of a Wildcat to get the most out of your Tucson vacation.

Eat, drink & be merry in Main Gate Square

Kick off your weekend as a Wildcat by discovering the sights and smells of University Boulevard. Depending on when you visit, you can experience Bear Down Fridays—a pep-rally with a taste of Arizona spirit. The celebration features the UA cheerleaders, pommies, and twirlers, as well as The Pride of Arizona marching band and UA athletic coaches.

Frog & Firkin at Main Gate Square in Tucson, AZ

Sing your heart out during karaoke at Espresso Art Café or dance until dawn to an ensemble of DJs, some of which are students, at No Anchovies. Cheer on the Wildcats during away games from the patio of Frog and Firkin with a pitcher of beer (they have more than 30 on draft) and some Frog Bites—a University Boulevard delicacy of carefully sliced baguette smothered with garlic, pesto, and mozzarella cheese. Enjoy happy hour with a prickly pear margarita that mirrors the color of the desert sunset on the rooftop of a student-favorite restaurant, Illegal Pete’s. Shop at boutiques unique to Tucson, and when you’re done, hop on the Sun Link Streetcar to explore Historic Fourth Avenue, downtown Tucson, and beyond.

Illegal Pete's on Main Gate Square in Tucson, AZ

A genuine Wildcat experience is incomplete without a late-night trip to Dirtbags—a college Neverland. Nestled at the northeast corner of campus and adjacent to Greek Row, it has been a student hot spot since 1982, known for instigating wild nights and some of the best memories. Its sticky green carpet and chipped tiles have withstood the test of time, and the signed Arizona sports jerseys hanging on the walls reveal bits about the legends that have visited the bar. Even my dad has stories at Dirtbag’s from visiting friends at UA during his college days, which he told me about as we celebrated my 21st birthday in between the sing-a-long oldies playing from the jukebox at the end of the bar. To guarantee a night at Dirtbags, get there as early in the night as possible, as lines are often long and wrap down the street. But, after all, good things come to those who wait.

Attend a game at McKale Center

One of the quickest ways to get into the Wildcat spirit is to attend a game at one of college basketball’s most intimidating arenas, McKale Center. The unmistakable “Sea of Red”—otherwise known as the UA student section, the ZonaZoo—is a force to be reckoned with, considering that they maintain a position among the largest, fiercest student sections in the PAC-12.

The University of Arizona Wildcats remain a dominant team in the NCAA’s basketball scene, providing more NBA draft picks since 1989 than any other school. For the past 25 years, it’s been known as one of the best basketball programs in the country. Watching a game in McKale Center doubles as an ode to basketball history and the future of the NBA. I’ll say it now, and you’ll hear it around campus and far beyond the Sonoran Desert: the University of Arizona is a basketball school.

Support the arts

In between classes, it’s common for students to walk through one of the nine museums on campus to soak up the culture and relax for a while. Every museum calls to a different niche. Visit the Center for Creative Photography, a one-of-a-kind archive of more than 80,000 images. The UA Campus Arboretum, which integrates a unique collection of trees, shrubs, and other plants with the otherwise manmade setting, is the oldest continually maintained green space in the state.

Get a taste of Broadway as touring shows make stops at Centennial Hall, including big-name shows such as Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, and Hello, Dolly! If you’d prefer a local production, you can soak in the talent of students in the University of Arizona School of Dance at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, a building that doubles as an amazing feat of architectural design.

Spring Fling

If your visit happens to fall during the UA Spring Fling week, it’s a must-attend event for the whole family. For the past 40-plus years, Spring Fling has been a momentous University of Arizona tradition that now attracts more than 32,000 guests annually. It’s the largest student-run carnival in the US. Carnival rides, games, food booths, and entertainment line the University Mall for students and the Tucson community alike. During concert nights, it is vital to get to campus early, as the Mall quickly floods with eager attendants. Best of all, the event is free for all students, while community members can pay a small fee to enter.

Whether you’re a Wildcat by blood or honorary for the weekend, the University of Arizona community will always welcome you home. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.

Need more ideas for a Southern Arizona getaway? Check out these 10 reasons Marana is on the rise.