Casa Rivera's Taco Express in Oracle

Grab some breakfast at Casa Rivera’s Taco Express. Pictured: the breakfast enchiladas and the chorizo plate.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2022 and updated in 2024.

Just 35 miles north of downtown Tucson sits Oracle, the namesake road lined with yuccas on your way to the small town.

Oracle is where lavender blooms at a local farm in the heat of June. It’s where you can step into a rainforest, amid the heat and humidity, at the incredible Biosphere 2. It’s where you can enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich with guava jam alongside a glass of wine on the patio of the Oracle Patio Cafe. It’s a little cooler than Tucson in the summer — and sometimes gets snow in winter.

But Jodi Criser's favorite part about Oracle is the community.

“They band together through everything. Somebody needs help, they take care of each other,” says Criser, who has lived in Oracle for several years and runs social media for Visit Oracle.

If you happen to be in the area to visit Biosphere 2, the lavender farm or to stargaze in Oracle State Park, here are some other spots to visit in Oracle and the nearby town of Catalina while you're there. Most were suggested by area residents — Criser, plus Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm owner Carolyn Blair and ice cream shop Licks Catalina owner Jill Perez.

Licks Catalina is home to rotating ice cream flavors and the option to infuse the treat with cereal. This is the Tucson Double Rainbow, with vanilla and strawberry ice cream, Lucky Charms, gummies, rainbow sprinkles and a sweet cream drizzle.

Where to eat

Licks Catalina — Owned by Perez, Licks is home to ice cream that can be infused with cereal. There are bubble waffle cones, Italian sodas and a whole menu of decadent signature desserts. Check out rotating flavors like maple walnut, strawberry shortcake and honey fig bacon. Blair says the ice cream is amazing — and I agree. It's worth the trip to Catalina.

Oracle Patio Cafe & Market — The Oracle Patio Cafe is home to amazing food, Blair says — breakfast, sandwiches, soups, salads and pizza. She raves about the pies. “They also have a market where you can pick up sandwiches, wine, amazing cheeses,” she says. Criser says the deli is delicious and says their peach pie is dubbed the best in Arizona. 

Nonna Maria’s Ristorante & Pizzeria — Blair says this Italian restaurant is delicious, owned by the “kindest people you will ever meet.” Criser likes their pizza — “We have really great Italian food here,” she says.

Peppersauce Kitchen — Located at Arizona Zipline Adventures, the restaurant boasts the “best darn burgers around.” Criser says it's delicious.

Casa Rivera's Taco Express — This Mexican American restaurant is where former #ThisIsTucson food writer Andi Berlin stopped on her way through Oracle a couple years ago. “The name makes it sound like a fast-food taqueria, but Casa Rivera’s is actually a homey Mexican restaurant with a first-rate breakfast menu,” she wrote.

Ore House Hilltop Tavern — This reader-recommended spot is home to burgers, pizza, street tacos and smoked meats by the pound. There are more than a dozen beers on tap, plus yard games in the outdoor area.

Way of Bean Coffee Club — Two readers recommended this membership-based coffee club, which boasts local events like painting parties and movie nights. Membership is 50 cents for the day or $10 for life! 

SolarSpace, a Tucson-based startup, is using licensed UA solar technology for off-grid applications including electric vehicle charging stations at the UA Center for Innovation at Biosphere 2.

Things to do

Biosphere 2 — Owned by the University of Arizona, Biosphere 2 is dubbed “the world’s largest controlled environment dedicated to understanding the impacts of climate change.” You'll take a self-directed tour, guided by a phone app that teaches you about the scientific research you're walking through. You'll see a room that a Biospherian lived in, the world's largest experimental ocean, a rainforest (yes, humidity and all) and more environmental biomes.

Arizona Zipline Adventures — If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous to add to your itinerary, this is it. Criser says it's the longest zipline in the state and it's “so cool,” she says, also mentioning the scenic views. “They have the Peppersauce Kitchen with it and it's delicious food, so you can go on the zip and go eat.”

Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm — Come June, you can walk amid blooming lavender and take in the earthy scents on open farm days. When lavender season rolls around each summer, Blair hosts a number of events including workshops on how to make lavender wreaths and wands, plus a fairy festival and lavender-inspired dinners. She hosts activities in fall, too.

Oracle State Park — Bask in the outdoors at this park where you can tour the historic Kannally Ranch House, enjoy a picnic and explore 15 trails. It's also an International Dark Sky Park, which makes it a great spot for stargazing. I also imagine it's a picturesque place to watch the sunset. Bonus outdoorsy activity: Peppersauce Campground!

Parradise Ranch — Drive east on American Avenue and on your right, you'll see a giant yard with metal art and quirky fixtures out front. That's Parradise Ranch, formerly called Sue & Jerry’s Trading Post, where you can shop from an explosion of antiques, home goods, clothing, DVDs and more. Blair says it’s “so fun to visit!” 

Golden Goose Thrift Shop — Perez says this thrift shop is often busy and is one of her favorite spots in the area. According to the shop’s website, Golden Goose benefits both Saddlebrooke Community Outreach and Impact of Southern Arizona.

Absolutely Art Gallery & Gifts — “Definitely go see Pam at Absolutely Art! It’s fantastic,” Perez says about the store’s owner. The space is home to artwork by Arizona makers, from paintings to ceramics to jewelry.

Phyllis Christie, left, and Pamela Thompson put the finishing touches on their wreaths at Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm in Oracle on June 1, 2023.

Upcoming events

Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm — There are a ton of events happening at the lavender farm during bloom season, including workshops, tours, yoga and an ode to Frida Kahlo. Check out the farm's events here.

Oracle Farmers Market — Every Wednesday, a local farmers market takes over Parradise Ranch, complete with live music, food and shopping. Both Perez and Criser recommend it. “It is unlike anything I have ever witnessed,” Criser says.

GLOW! — Head to Triangle L Art Ranch for illuminated art experience “GLOW!” Wander through 10 acres of trails filled with glowing artwork. Tickets are $65 per carload and the experience takes place Oct. 18-19.

Oracle Artist Studio Tours — On Nov. 2-3, area artists will open up their studios. Criser says about 40 artists usually participate, allowing guests to drive through town and talk to makers about their creations and their inspiration behind each piece. “We have artists who have shown in museums and if you love art, it's a great thing to check out,” she says.

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