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Southwest city centers

Courtesy Chapel of the Holy Cross

You visit the Southwest for the desert scenery, the pioneer history and the cowboy heritage. But you should also visit for the variety of vibrant city centers.

Cities from Texas to Nevada have downtowns and other distinctive neighborhoods that make great stops for group tours. From revitalized warehouse districts to beautiful main streets set inside scenic mountain ranges, these areas each have their own flavor and offer visitors a different way to experience Southwestern destinations.

Some downtown areas have several options for group tours and other activities, and all of them offer time for group members to disperse and explore at their own pace. Here are some downtowns that you should consider for your group’s next visit to the Southwest.

Sedona, Arizona
High desert scenery and a wealth of authentic Southwestern architecture make uptown Sedona a great destination for groups traveling in Arizona.

“Uptown encompasses about 250 businesses in a three-quarter-mile stretch in the heart of Sedona,” said Holly Epright, executive of the Sedona Main Street Program. “Sedona is in the heart of the Verde Valley, and the uptown area is in the middle of our Red Rock Country, with red mountains, buttes and canyons all around. The architectural environment blends in and reflects the natural environment — the plazas, courtyards and rock walls all reflect the background.”

When you bring a group to uptown Sedona, you can turn them loose to explore the shops, galleries and restaurants in the area, or keep them together for a tour on one of three Sedona History Paths that meander through the neighborhood. Highlights of the tours include the Sedona Heritage Museum, a historic building that tells the story of Sedona from its early days as a pioneer outpost through its heyday as a Hollywood filming location in the mid-1900s. Visitors can even visit some of the buildings that appeared in films such as “Angel and the Badman,” “Rounders” and Elvis Presley’s “Stay Away Joe.”

Another highlight of uptown is Tlaquepaque, an arts district modeled to look like a typical Mexican village.

“Tlaquepaque was built by a local fellow who wanted to create a living artist community,” Epright said. “He had a vision for a place that was a Mexican arts-and-crafts village. The architecture there and the sense of time and place are unlike any other place I’ve ever been.”

Austin, Texas

A blend of local business, state government and university culture makes downtown Austin one of the most distinctive spots in Texas. Visitors can explore Texas history, sample food truck flavors and get their fill of live music in this funky downtown.

“One of the great things about downtown Austin is that it’s very walkable,” said Julie Chase, vice president of marketing and tourism for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can take historic walking tours downtown or take groups on a boat tour on Town Lake, which runs through the city.”

History-lovers will find plenty of spots to explore in the area. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum gives visitors a great overview of the history and culture of the Lone Star State, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library tells stories of American government from the mid-20th century. Groups can also make arrangements to tour the Texas governor’s mansion or the Texas State Cemetery, the final resting place of many notable Texans.

Whole Foods Market originated in Austin, and foodies will enjoy hands-on culinary experiences at the company’s flagship store downtown. The South Congress Avenue area is also a culinary destination, lined with dozens of food trucks and other vendors.

Church groups can mix cuisine with Austin’s legendary live music at restaurants such as Stubb’s Barbecue and Threadgills.

“These restaurants have great Sunday gospel brunches,” Chase sad. “They bring in local choirs and gospel groups from around town.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.