Taste of Tucson: A Weekend Guide for the Curious Traveler - Gastro Obscura

Weekend Guides for the Curious Traveler
Taste of Tucson

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The people of Tucson have been eating off the land for 4,100 years. From grains to livestock to produce introduced by missionaries in the 1600s, this UNESCO City of Gastronomy is home to some of the oldest farmland in North America. What once was old is new again in The Old Pueblo where ancient flavors are found in nearly every dish — trendy to traditional.

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Day 1
Sonoran Influence

Today, see history come alive in modern gardens replicating Tucson's ancient farms and experience the city's traditional foods that have stood the test of time.

Tacos al pastor at Polos Taqueria's stand sell out every morning.
Secret Tacos

1. Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Those who hit snooze will likely miss out on this non-traditional breakfast, because most restaurants at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet sell out by 9 in the morning. While you won’t find a website for this weekend-only event, the actual swap meet, which boasts dozens of stands, is only about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Tucson. Family restaurants are peppered throughout the permanent flea market where used appliances and bikes are for sale next to barber shops and local honey. Work your way through the maze to Polo’s Taqueria for some of the only al pastor cooked on a trompo in all of Tucson. Be sure to bring cash and don’t rely on finding an ATM, but do be prepared to eat tacos and sopes al pastor for breakfast.  

521 S Westover Ave, Tucson, AZ 85746

The gardens at Mission Garden sit on the same land that has been farmed for more than 4,000 years.
Living History

2. Mission Garden

Mission Garden could be called a living museum. This community garden sits on the same plot of land that has been continuously farmed for more than 4,000 years on the San Agustin Mission. Visitors are greeted by volunteers who guide them through 10 gardens, each re-creating the foods grown by settlers over the centuries in the heirloom Sonoran Desert-adapted gardens and orchards. The tour is like a timeline, beginning with the earliest agricultural gardens and moving through a Spanish Colonial garden to Mexican and Chinese gardens, and on to the children’s garden of today. Not only does the Mission Garden Project serve as a historical experience, but it also provides the opportunity to touch and taste native plants and fruits like agave, Chinese gourds, and Mexican sweet limes. 

946 W Mission Ln, Tucson, AZ 85745

The carne seca platter comes with tortillas on the side.
Paper-thin Tortillas

3. St. Mary’s Mexican Food

In most restaurants, main courses take the spotlight while bread falls into a supporting role. But at St. Mary’s on Tucson's west side, the vehicle for meats and beans and rice is the star. Order a burrito, or tacos, or a plate of rice and beans, but whatever you do, go for the prized tortillas. These giant 15-inch paper-thin disks are thin enough to shine a light through and served fresh with each order. Unlike most Mexican restaurants, the staff at St. Mary's still makes their tortillas the traditional way, stretching and pulling the dough by hand. Take home a dozen of the handmade tortillas and work your way through the stack as you take in Tucson.

1030 W St Mary’s Rd, Tucson, AZ 85745

This Arizona staple has been made in Tucson for over 50 years.
Arizona Cheese Crisps

4. El Minuto Cafe

It’s not a quesadilla, not a pizza, and not grilled cheese. But an Arizona cheese crisp holds its own among all great carbohydrate and cheese combos. This regional specialty, prepared by local restaurants for more than 50 years, is simply an open-faced tortilla covered in cheese and fried in a pan. Unlike a quesadilla, it is served light and crispy on the bottom. 

The dish was originally made with only butter—no cheese—but today restaurants across Tucson have sections of their menus dedicated to cheese crisps. El Minuto Cafe is an area favorite, known for giant crisps served pizza style on a large stand for sharing. Get one with the works — carne seca, guacamole, tomatoes, green onions, and chiles, or opt for a classic. Fresh, fried-crisp tortillas are combined with blends of melty cheese to create this Southwestern specialty.

354 S Main Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701

Exo Roast Co infuses its cold brew with chiletepin peppers.
Kicked-up Cold Brew

5. Exo Roast Co

The Tucson area’s unique topography yields a number of singular culinary treasures—including prickly pear cactus (hello margaritas!), mesquite honey, and more. One regional favorite is the chiltepín pepper, a tiny red chile that packs a punch of heat. A local coffee shop, Exo Roast Co., has combined the indigenous pepper with its signature cold brew coffee and bottled it for sale. The bottle contains simple ingredients: coffee, cream, dark chocolate, and chiltepín chiles for a well-balanced flavor. In the mood for something less spicy? The coffeehouse also serves a cold brew made with smoky mesquite syrup.

403 N 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705

Order the carne seca platter at El Charro.
Carne Seca

6. El Charro Cafe

Carne seca first came about as a convenient meal for cowboys to eat on the go. Today, the jerky-like meat is a staple of Tucson’s food culture. Local restaurants each have their own recipe, but the most legendary is El Charro Cafe which opened in 1922 and is currently the oldest operating Mexican restaurant continuously owned by the same family. The savory dish relies on the unique climate of the Sonoran Desert, perfect for drying the beef to a crispy bite. Aside from its seasoning blend, El Charro is particularly known for employing traditional techniques when making their carne seca by drying the meat in metal cages while suspended from the trees outside the restaurant. 

311 N Court Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705


Day 2
Unexpectedly New Again

Explore Tucson through the lens of foods using ancient traditions in updated ways.

The Barrio Bread signature loaf is easily identified by the saguaro stenciled in flour.
Milled for Perfection

1. Barrio Bread

Artisanal baker Don Guerra, owner of Barrio Bread, has been on a mission to create a grain-based business in Tucson. His journey started when he read about a Spanish priest who helped start more than 20 bakeries in the late 1600s. Guerra set out to follow in his footsteps, using heritage grains indigenous to Tucson’s arid landscape. What started as a garage bakery officially opened as a full-fledged small business in 2009 and has since earned a James Beard Award nomination. Local growers provide the grain milled specifically for the bakery’s breads. Get in line early on Saturday mornings to get one of the highly sought-after Barrio Mesquite loaves, made from locally harvested and milled mesquite flour.

18 S Eastbourne Ave, Tucson, AZ 85716

Seeds of all types are available for purchase at the Native Seeds store.
Seeds for Sale

2. Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native Seeds preserves and offers more than 2,000 native seed varieties to the region, making this nonprofit a key resource for locals, co-ops, and community gardens. However, one thing that’s gotten much less attention is the free Seed Library of Pima County Public Library, a collection of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that people can have to plant and grow in their own gardens. In addition to saving seeds as a community, the organization also runs a store near the Catalina Foothills that sells seeds and grains native to the local desert climate. Visitors can explore the farm just south of town, or purchase dried goods in town including a vast array of the region’s Tepary beans, one of the most drought and heat-tolerant crops in the world. 

3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719

A Sonoran hotdog is wrapped in bacon and covered with tomatoes, onions, beans, mayo, mustard and jalapeño sauce.
Iconic Dogs

3. El Guero Canelo

One of Tucson's most known culinary inventions is the Sonoran Hot Dog, aptly named for the region where the city sits. While there’s some debate about how the delicacy was created (some say it was first sold at a baseball game in Mexico in the 1940s and others think a traveling circus brought it to the area), one of the establishments that’s helped shape the modern interpretation is El Guero Canelo. The dog is a classic example of Mexican-American street food fusion and blends the best of both cultures into one beloved bite. While you'll find them being sold from vendors across the city, the most iconic take can be found at El Guero Canelo. When you go, get the Sonoran Style, a bacon-wrapped dog topped with pinto beans, grilled and fresh onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and jalapeño sauce, all stuffed into a slightly sweet and fluffy bun. 

5201 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706

Mexican Snow Cones

4. Raspados Rio Sonora

Tucson’s desert temperatures can be hot even for locals, so it’s no surprise that icy treats are easy to come by. Street vendors, raspados stands, and full-service restaurants alike all serve up their take on this local treat. Raspados, derived from the Spanish word meaning scraped, are Mexican snow cones—but better. Walk up to any raspado counter and find white pails brimming with sugary juice and freshly chopped fruit, ready to become one of the dozens of fruity concoctions a person might dream up. And the rainbow doesn’t end with juicy flavors. Tucson locals know that the best raspados add in the creaminess of sweetened condensed milk, and sometimes ice cream. Stop by any of the local favorites like Oasis Fruit Cones or Sonoran Delights, or pay a visit to Raspados Rio Sonora after having a Sonoran hot dog just a few blocks away at El Guero Canelo. 

5015 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706

The Trash Can is a crowd favorite at The Buffet.
Happy Minute

5. Buffet Bar & Crockpot

You might feel studious having a drink at The Buffet, since the dive bar - built in 1934 - can double as a historical stop. Located in Tucson’s resurgent Ironhorse neighborhood, the city’s oldest bar has been in the same spot since it opened in 1934, right after the repeal of prohibition. Today, it proudly holds the record for serving more draft Coors beer than any other establishment in the country — a title confirmed by the custom neon sign that hangs on the wall: "Coors thanks, Ted." Ted Bair's granddaughter now owns and runs the bar that was once her grandfather's and maintains many of the traditions he instituted including the Happy Minute in which patrons with a drink in hand at 6 pm receive a token for a second one on the house. Be sure to order the house specialty, the Trash Can, a pitcher of Blue Curacao and Red Bull — crushed can included. Or, keep traditions alive and ask for a Coors. 

538 E 9th St, Tucson, AZ 85705


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Forbidden Caverns, ready for its closeup.

7 Underground Thrills Only Found in Tennessee

Famous for country music and hot chicken, Tennessee is also filled with natural wonders. Across the state, caverns beckon. Venturing into some of Tennessee's strangest subterranean haunts is a great way to experience the depths of the state's spell-binding charm. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Watch out for any chimp-gator hybrids lurking in the tea-colored water of Honey Island Swamp.

Sink Into 7 of Louisiana's Swampiest Secrets

Louisiana has long had a complex relationship with the wet world. Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Atakapa peoples built communities among the knobby knees of bald cypress trees; French fur traders and pirates eventually made their own marks. Later still, modern engineers attempted to corral waters with levees and dams, or to reclaim land where there had been none. Across the 50,000-odd square miles that make up the state, troves of special places are becoming concealed by rising water. Here are seven places water has revealed or covered up. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Diego Rivera's mural sprawls across a light-flooded room in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7 Mechanical Marvels in Michigan

Michigan is famous for its steep, sweeping sand dunes, freckling of lakes, and unique fossils—but across the state, you'll find slews of automated wonders, past and present. From old animatronic toys to the ruins of early assembly lines, here are seven places to be dazzled by industry. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Who doesn't love an old tree?

11 Wholesome Spots in Nevada

Here at Atlas Obscura, we have a fondness for the forbidden, a hunger for the hidden, a gusto for the grim. (You get the point.) But it wouldn’t be so intrepid to simply highlight Nevada’s underbelly, would it? There’s more to the state than extraterrestrial-themed brothels and nuclear bomb test sites. Kids and grandparents might enjoy enormous Ferris wheels, unusual geysers, or pristine parklands. Even Nevada—home to Sin City—has a family-friendly side. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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All aboard for a plate of pancakes.

7 Places to Glimpse Maine's Rich Railroad History

Maine is widely known for its mottled red crustaceans and stony-faced lighthouses, as well as bucolic towns and the top-notch hiking outside of them. But before all that, Maine was all about one thing: trains. As America industrialized in the 19th century, there was an insatiable demand to build and a hunger for lumber. Maine had plenty of it, and the state’s rivers became swollen with the fallen bodies of pine and spruce, much of which was hauled by rail. Trains did the heavy lifting to coastal hubs including Bangor and Ellsworth, and by 1924, there was enough railroad mileage in Maine to get from London’s King's Cross station to Mosul, Iraq. Over the years, some of the old cars were fashioned into eateries, but many were simply abandoned in the woods. Now, relics of Maine’s railroad history are scattered in museums, restaurants, and more. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

11 Places Where Alaska Bursts Into Color

Picture Alaska. You might see in your mind's eye the granite and stark white snowcaps of Denali National Park, or the dark seas that surround 6,000-plus miles of coastline, or the muted olive of its tundra in the summer. But as anyone who's been there knows, the country's largest, most sparsely populated state can absolutely burst with color, from the luminous green of the Northern Lights, to the deep aqua of its glaciers, to the flourish of wildflowers fed by its long summer days. Here are some places to see the full spectrum of The Last Frontier. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

9 Places in D.C. That You're Probably Never Allowed to Go

The District of Columbia is home to a number of places that you need to flash the right ID to access. From restricted rooftops to government storage facilities and underground tunnels, the city is filled with places that are off-limits to the average visitor. What’s more, many of them are hidden within popular tourist destinations and densely populated neighborhoods—so you might catch a glimpse of them, but never get any closer. These are a few of our favorite restricted spots in D.C., and the stories behind them. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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2 Perfect Days in Pensacola

If you thought Pensacola, Florida—with its powder-white sand beaches, near-perfect weather, and fresh seafood—was just a place to soak up the sun, think again. In fact, the city and beach of the same name is the site of the first European settlement in the continental United States. Established by Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna in 1559, it was christened Panzacola, a name of Native American origin and the precursor to the city’s modern name. The destination is also the birthplace of U.S. naval aviation and is still home to a naval air station and the thousands of service members stationed there, as well as the Blue Angels, the flight squadron famous for their death-defying fighter plane stunts. This delightful coastal city is an ideal, if somewhat quirky, blend of historical sites (on land and underwater) and activities to get your adrenaline flowing.

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North Iceland’s Untamed Coast

Any travel enthusiast would be hard-pressed to open any social media channel and not see photos of Iceland, with its jaw-dropping peaks, natural hot springs, pure glaciers, northern lights and snow-covered landscapes. But the island nation’s appeal goes well beyond the well-worn paths of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the southern region's countryside. Travel to the untamed north along the Arctic Coast Way to discover otherworldly beauty—sans crowds—around every bend.

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Look closely and wander widely: Parliament Square is full of charm.

Hidden Edinburgh

Crowds clog Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the main artery between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The road is dotted with stores selling Nessie trinkets and lined with bagpipers and street performers pulling off dazzling tricks. But look beyond the tartan tourist traps, and you’ll discover tucked-away gardens, remnants of the city’s medieval past, and much more.

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Hidden Haight-Ashbury

In 1967, 100,000 artists, activists, and hippies gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix played free concerts for fields of college dropouts, and San Francisco established itself as a countercultural capital. More than 50 years later, in a city increasingly known for Twitter and tech rather than art and activism, travelers who come on a pilgrimage are often disappointed to find expensive, skin-deep psychedelia. But if you know where to look, you’ll find a walk down Haight Street to be wonderfully weird, full of historic links to hippiedom and modern takes on the vibe.

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The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

More than eight million diverse individuals call New York City home, and many of them share their heritage through food. Whether it’s a billiards hall that serves stellar Bhutanese fare or a mosque where Malian vendors sell snacks for just a few hours each Friday, the city offers a vast culinary landscape for those willing to explore it. Venture beyond the flashy hotspots with months-long waiting lists and you’ll find New York’s true flavor lies within the small restaurants and stands rooted in its thriving immigrant communities.

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Musical instruments in the courtyard of SecondLine Arts and Antiques in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history. With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

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The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross &amp; the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

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The heart of Venice.

Venice

Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

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Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

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An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

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Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

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View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

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A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

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Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'

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Amsterdam

Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.

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Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.

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Chicago

Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.

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Detroit

Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

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The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.

Lisbon

In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.

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Miami

Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.

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Queens

New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.

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San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.

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Savannah

Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.

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