In our experience, most people haven’t even heard of Bisbee, Arizona. It’s not one of the state’s major cities, it’s not near any of the three (!) national parks, and it doesn’t have any particularly well-known attractions.
But Bisbee’s been at the top of my road trip destinations list for years now. Ever since I discovered this hippie mountain town, which must surely be one of the most interesting places in Arizona, I knew a trip there would be an experience – and when we finally made it to Bisbee, it did not disappoint.
- Things to Know about Bisbee, Arizona
- Things to Do in Bisbee, AZ
- Where to Drink in Bisbee: Bars & Breweries
- Where to Eat in Bisbee: Restaurants & Cafes
- Where to Stay in Bisbee: Hotels & Room Rentals
Things to Know about Bisbee, Arizona
What is Bisbee, AZ?
Bisbee has graciously adopted the moniker of “Mayberry on Acid,” a name that seems to get kicked around by all sorts of funky small towns and alternative communities. But in this case, I’d say it’s more catchy than it is accurate.
From the nickname, you might think Bisbee once resembled the sleepy and conservative home of Opie and Sheriff Taylor, until all those hippies brought in their drugs and crazy ideals. But that’s not quite how the town’s story goes.
Like many of Arizona’s early settlements, Bisbee was built on mining – mostly copper, but also gold, silver, and turquoise. It was never a peaceful little Mayberry, certainly not with all the drinking, gambling, and violence that was going on.
Bisbee was also a hotbed of political activity long before any hippies showed up. In the early 20th century, hundreds of the town’s miners joined the Industrial Workers of the World union, whose decidedly socialist philosophy didn’t exactly jibe with the mine owners’ profits.
Those who joined the union met the same fate as unionizers in the fellow Arizona mining town of Jerome; they were kidnapped by mine guards, loaded onto a train, and hauled off to the deserts of New Mexico. Sheriff Taylor would not be happy…
In the latter half of the 20th century, the profitability of mining and the number of jobs available in Bisbee both took a dramatic slide. It didn’t turn into a ghost town like many of Arizona’s mining communities, but it did lose half its population. The residents who remained shifted their focus toward tourism, restoring the opulent mining barons’ hotels and setting up tours of the subterranean tunnels.
As often happens in cities in decline, artists and creative types eventually moved into Bisbee to take advantage of the lower property values and enjoy the cooler weather (Bisbee’s elevation is 5,500 feet above sea level, making it a respite from Arizona’s desert heat).
Galleries opened up, the Bisbee Royale Theater was refurbished, and artists took to the streets to create murals throughout the town. By the early ’90s, Bisbee was reestablishing itself as a thriving artsy community and quirky tourist destination.
Where is Bisbee, AZ?
Bisbee sits in Cochise County in the southeastern corner of Arizona, just north of the Mexican border and high up in the Mule Mountains. The vast majority of Bisbee’s tourists come on day trips from Tucson, which is only about an hour and a half away.
The road from Tucson to Bisbee also passes through the historic town of Tombstone, famous for the O.K. Corral shootout, Sheriff Wyatt Earp, and a certain Kurt Russell movie. After so many people in Phoenix and Tucson had told us Tombstone is a must-see destination, we decided to stop there on the way.
It’s one of the state’s biggest tourist draws, but the kitschy attractions appealing to cowboy fantasies weren’t really our cup of tea.
But once you’re on the other side of Tombstone, tall peaks come into view, and the air cools as you climb into the mountains.
Things to Do in Bisbee, AZ
We came to Bisbee without much of an agenda; it’s a place to experience rather than to tick items off a checklist. There’s not one attraction that I would say is must-visit, but taken together, it’s an amazing place to explore.
One thing to note is that, because Bisbee relies heavily on day trips from Tucson, many of the stores and restaurants close during the week (a lesson we learned the hard way!). If you can, time your visit for a weekend.
Stroll through downtown Bisbee.
Wandering around the funky downtown is one of the best things to do in Bisbee. The area is home to over a dozen art galleries, antique shops, and used bookstores, and we spent a whole afternoon looking through all of them (at least, the ones that weren’t closed mid-week when we visited). The most memorable gallery was definitely one with portraits of all the U.S. presidents, including some very accurate depictions of Trump.
Take the Queen Mine Tour.
This town’s mining roots run deep, literally! One of the most popular attractions in Bisbee is the Queen Mine Tour, led by former employees of the mining company.
The tours take hardhat-clad visitors 1,500 feet underground to see what it’s like to work in the dark and dusty subterranean world. The hour-long tours only cost $13, which seems like a pretty good deal for an adventure so far below the surface.
Gaze down into the Lavender Pit.
Back in 1950, the Phelps Dodge Corporation’s profitability was in decline; subterranean mining was costly, dangerous, and didn’t produce enough ore. Their solution? Excavate a massive open-pit copper mine just outside of Bisbee that was large enough to consume most of the adjacent town of Lowell. It took up over 300 acres worth of real estate and dug down 900 feet.
The step-sided hole looks like the remnants of some kind of ancient civilization – that is, until you notice the iridescent pool of water at the bottom and remember that it’s an environmental disaster.
Nothing shocks the system quite like an open-pit mine, and you can’t help but feel a mix of shock, horror, disgust, and amazement looking down into it. The Lavender Pit is not a pretty sight, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the environmental destruction humans are capable of.
Visit the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum.
The Mining & Historical Museum ($8 admission) gives a more complete, if not quite as striking, picture of turn-of-the-century mining life in Bisbee. The museum’s self-guided tour is incredibly informative (it’s a Smithsonian affiliate), covering everything from labor strikes and immigration to the technological advancements in mining over the past hundred years.
One of the more jarring exhibits is the wall of brass ID tags that miners would pick up before their shift, which would then be used to identify their corpse in the event of an accident. A more uplifting display showcases high school diplomas from the first half of the 20th century, when Bisbee High School printed them on thin sheets of copper.
Wander the lost city of Lowell.
Remember that suburb that I said got swallowed up by the Lavender Pit? Lowell wasn’t completely engulfed by the pit, but the couple streets’ worth of buildings that still stand have become a ghost town. Today, most of it looks just like it did when the pit was dug in the 1950s.
Erie Street, just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Bisbee, is the main road that’s left in Lowell. Today, it’s sort of like a living museum, with vintage cars and perfectly-preserved storefronts lining its main street in a way that looks positively post-apocalyptic. Among other oddities, there’s a shuttered Harley shop and a defunct department store where you can peer through the window to see a stockpile of mannequins lounging on the floor.
The one business still operating in Lowell is Bisbee Breakfast Club, which is something of an institution. With big portions and low prices, it’s one of the best spots to get your morning meal.
Climb the Bisbee stairs.
If you want to get in a workout in Bisbee, you can skip the gym – just climb the staircases! And even if you’re not looking for a workout, climbing some stairs is pretty much inevitable.
Like many mining towns developed before the mass production of cars, Bisbee is built on a steep hillside with no roads going straight to the top. I’m guessing because horse-drawn carriages wouldn’t have been able to make the climb?
Instead, dozens of metal and concrete staircases connect the homes and businesses along Bisbee’s hillside. Where do all these stairs go? It’s something of a mystery – sometimes you’ll hit another road, other times you’ll end up in someone’s backyard.
One of the staircases starting at Brewery Gulch is covered in unusual drawings and paintings of aliens, cats, abstract nonsense, and some aesthetically displeasing portraits. Never knowing what you’ll find is part of the fun of visiting Bisbee.
Every October, the town puts on a 5K race called the Bisbee 1000. This is not your average 5K, though; most of the race takes place on those steep staircases, gaining almost 1,200 feet of elevation. You’d best have legs of steel if you want to win (or even complete!) this one.
Spot all the street art.
Bisbee is an artists’ community, and while there are plenty of great galleries to peruse, some of the town’s best works are found on the sides of buildings and in abandoned lots.
One of our favorite pieces was definitely the “Hill Car,” a 1989 Toyota painted in brilliant colors and featuring a massive portrait of Hillary Clinton on the hood. We found out later that it was created by Gretchen Baer, a Bisbee resident and founder of the “Border Bedazzlers,” a group that paints mile-long murals on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
There’s also the FreeCycle Donation Center, housed inside the skeleton of a crumbling two-story building that serves as the largest canvas in town. While many decaying structures get covered in graffiti tags, most of this concrete facade is decorated with elaborate murals and symbols.
While it might not exactly be street art, you’ll also notice large plastic flies mounted on random buildings throughout town. They’re a call back to the fly-killing contests held around the turn of the 20th century, when flies were spreading Typhoid Fever in the area. Desperate to get rid of them, the city offered a reward to the person who could kill the most flies (the winner collected a few thousand).
But to the unknowing tourist, the sculptures just look really weird and confusing – that is to say, they fit right in.
Take a yoga class.
Given Bisbee’s artsy vibe, we figured there’d be lots of yoga classes to choose from. Our online research turned up almost nothing, but fortunately, our Airbnb host directed us toward some donation-based classes held at St. Patrick Catholic Church. It was a little bit hard to find, but it was a nice reprieve after spending so many hours in the car.
Catch a flick at the Royale.
Seeing a movie might feel like I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel for Bisbee attractions, until you see how cool this theater is! With its intimate dinner theater-style seating and beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture, the Royale has been rated as one of the best event spaces in southern Arizona. While Jen was at yoga one night, I went to a screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the acclaimed Mr. Rodgers documentary.
The movie was free, and there was craft beer and high-end popcorn for sale in the lobby. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and it was pretty cool to see the whole community come together to watch everyone’s favorite cardigan-clad TV personality.
The Royale also hosts plays, concerts, educational lectures, and events, so check their Facebook page for updates.
Where to Drink in Bisbee: Bars & Breweries
Back in Bisbee’s mining days, over 50 saloons (and likely as many brothels) lined the street known as “Brewery Gulch.” Whether the mine was pulling in record profits or on its last leg, the bars of Bisbee were always booming.
On one of our first nights in town, we hit up St. Elmo Bar. It’s the longest operating bar in Arizona and one of the top-rated dive bars in America. In a town built on tourism, I was pleased to see there was still a place where PBR is drunk unironically and local bands take the stage every Saturday night.
A few steps from St. Elmo is the Silver King Hotel, home to the Room 4 Bar. Reportedly Arizona’s smallest bar, it has just four stools at the bar and standing room for two. On a weekend, it can be hard to squeeze in, but seats rotate out enough that almost everyone will get their turn at the miniature counter.
If you’re looking for great tasting beer in town, the Old Bisbee Brewing Company is the obvious choice. It doesn’t have a lot of seating, with most of the interior taken up by massive brewing tanks, but there’s an outdoor patio where you can do some people watching on Brewery Gulch. We ducked inside during a storm and crowded around the six or so seats at the bar.
There was free popcorn, and the woman sitting next to us was a local celebrating her dog’s birthday, who seemed to be having a great time.
Where to Eat in Bisbee: Restaurants & Cafes
We cooked most of our own meals during our stay in Bisbee, but we hit up a few standout restaurants that are worth mentioning.
On our first night, we had dinner at Contessa’s Cantina on the west end of town. We ordered burritos, which had quickly become our go-to meal on this trip, and ate way too many fresh tortilla chips, which were delicious. Much like at the brewery, we happened to sit next to a table with three tiny dogs, one of which was a “toodle” (poodle and Tibetan terrier mix), so that was obviously the highlight.
While wandering around the next day, we stopped at Bisbee Coffee Company for caffeine and snacks. It’s inside the Copper Queen Plaza, a cool little shopping area that’s also home to a bookstore, gift shop, and the Bisbee Table restaurant. The coffee was excellent and the cranberry scones mouthwatering.
If there’s one can’t-miss restaurant in the area, it’s Bisbee Breakfast Club in Lowell.
This is the place to go for a big stack of pancakes and a good cup of coffee. Staying true to its surroundings on Erie Street, BBC has bright green linoleum floors and classic Formica counterparts that’ll transport you back to the 1950s. And the prices, while not stuck in the ‘50s, are still lower than many other restaurants in Bisbee.
Where to Stay in Bisbee: Hotels & Room Rentals
Bisbee is an easy day trip from Tucson, but if you want to spend more time there (which we definitely recommend!), the town has accommodations for all tastes.
We used Airbnb to book a room in a shared house about ten minutes outside of Bisbee, in the suburb of Warren. We picked this place – appropriately titled the Bisbee House of Art and Mirrors – precisely because it was all kinds of unusual, making it perfect for a visit to this funky town.
The whole house was decked out with brightly colored walls, vintage furniture, and artwork that would offend the sensibilities of more conservative visitors. We were hoping to meet the owner who created this unconventional homestay, who’s surely one of Bisbee’s most fascinating residents, but she was unfortunately out of town during our visit.
If that’s a little too quirky for your tastes, there are plenty of other places for rent in Bisbee with more historical character and less erotic artwork.
For a nice change of pace, you could also try glamping at a yurt overlooking the city, complete with a fireplace, full kitchen, and shower.
A few minutes down the road from our Airbnb was the Shady Dell Vintage Trailer Court – but no, it’s not actually a trailer park. Shady Dell is a collection of remodeled buses and refurbished Airstream trailers available for nightly rentals. Each one is unique and furnished with appliances befitting a 1950s Route 66 vacation.
For a more classic stay, there’s the Copper Queen Hotel, conveniently located at the end of Brewery Ave. In Bisbee’s mining heyday, this is where the mining companies put up visiting dignitaries and investors, but the historic hotel has also played host to the likes of John Wayne, Julia Roberts, and John McCain.
The Copper Queen is the longest continuously operated hotel in Arizona, which is readily apparent when you see the room’s Victorian furnishings and aging wallpaper patterns. The lobby has one of the classiest looking bars in town, though.
Another classic in Bisbee is the historic Bisbee Grand Hotel. It’s just up the street from the Copper Queen, and has a similar vintage aesthetic with slightly cheaper rates.
A more modern option is the Hotel San Ramon, which is adjacent to the Copper Queen on Brewery Ave. While it retains a classic exterior, all the rooms have beautiful modern hardwood floors, chic bedding, and expansive views of the downtown area.
If you’re as into quirky and out-of-the-way places as we are, you’ll love Bisbee for its hippie charm and fascinating history. It’s also a great example of how a town can be reborn from the ashes of deindustrialization to become a center of culture and creativity. And if nothing else, its mountain setting is a welcome escape from Tucson’s oppressive summer heat.
What’s the most offbeat place you’ve visited?
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