Tucson Top 10

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Travel Issue: October 2015
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PHM1015GE01aA transplant’s highly subjective guide to the best of the Old Pueblo.

I was born in Tucson at the University of Arizona Medical Center, but raised in Phoenix and attended Arizona State University. Cue the “bear down” vs. “fear the fork” battle – just don’t mind me while I roll my eyes and tell you I don’t care about college sports and I love both cities equally.

Despite moving to Phoenix as a first-grader, I’ve visited my hometown so regularly to see family that, in my eyes, I have a kind of desert-city dual citizenship that allows me to appreciate Tucson as both native and tourist. Some things – like Eegee’s ranch dressing – are so familiar they feel like part of my genetic makeup. Others – like the majesty of Tucson’s caves – are newer discoveries from my visits as an adult.

I could name 100 reasons I love Tucson, but in the interest of brevity, I’ve whittled my list down to the Top 10. Well, almost – the real Top 10 would include my Granny and Grandpa.

1. Cultural Preservation
The cultural mix of Tucson pervades its heritage destinations, from ancient Native American petroglyphs at Signal Hill in Saguaro National Park to the Cold War time-warp of the Titan Missile Museum. There’s a sense of living history that makes you feel like part of a meandering lineage, from ancient native peoples to Wild West legends.

“Living history” is literal at my two favorite cultural-preservation havens: Mission San Xavier del Bac and Native Seeds/SEARCH. The mission, dubbed the White Dove of the Desert (1950 W. San Xavier Rd., 520-294-2642, sanxaviermission.org) was founded in 1692 by Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino as a Catholic mission to the Tohono O’odham people. The current church was completed in 1797 and is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, with most of the original murals and statuary. It remains open for mass, prayer and docent-led tours. The gift shop is heaven on earth for Catholic curios and altar objects, from $1 rosary rings to ornate santos statues.

Though it was founded in 1983, Native Seeds/SEARCH’s agricultural history predates the mission. Co-founders Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees established the project to preserve plants grown by the Tohono O’odham for centuries that were on the brink of extinction. NS/S has since expanded to include a conservation farm, educational and research programs, the first seed library in the state, and a retail store (3061 N. Campbell Ave., 520-622-5561, nativeseeds.org).

PHM1015GE042. Mexican Food
Everyone in Tucson speaks Spanish, at least when it comes to food. Even non-hispanohablantes know their machaca, menudo y más, including Tucson’s signature Sonoran hot dog. En mi familia, loyalties are divided among El Güero Canelo (multiple locations, elguerocanelo.com), Aquí Con El Nene (4415 N. Flowing Wells Rd., 520-312-1666), and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs (two locations, bktacos.com).

For fish tacos and thick, scratch-made corn tortillas, we’re devoted to Taqueria Pico de Gallo (2618 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-8775); for breakfast burritos, fresh flour tortillas and masa, Los Jarritos (4832 S. 12th Ave., 520-746-0364, losjarritosmexicanfood.com) can’t be beat; and Café Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington St., 520-622-6400, cafepocacosatucson.com) is the undisputed rey of upscale Mexican cuisine. A newcomer to watch is Penca (50 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-203-7681, pencarestaurante.com), a hip downtown spot specializing in the cuisine of Mexico City. It has a border-hopping bar program and flourishes you won’t find on many Mexican menus, from an artisanal cheese board to roasted bone marrow with chimichurri.

3. Festivals
No matter what time of year you visit, Tucson has a festival or cultural celebration of some sort brewing. Spring brings my Abuelo’s favorite, the Tucson Festival of Books (tucsonfestivalofbooks.org), to be held March 12-13, 2016, on the U of A campus. The Fourth Avenue Street Fair (fourthavenue.org/fairs) is so popular it is held in winter and spring (December 11-13, 2015, and April 1-3, 2016). My personal favorites are the colorful and cross-cultural Tucson Meet Yourself festival (tucsonmeetyourself.org) and the All Souls Procession (allsoulsprocession.org). TMY celebrates folklife, including art, cuisine and more, from Indian henna to Arabic calligraphy. With more than 50 food vendors, it’s a worldly foodie’s wildest dream come true. The All Souls Procession takes the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos (day of the dead) and transforms it into a “ritualistic performance piece” (per the event’s website) with nearly 100,000 participants walking in a costumed parade culminating in a ceremonial urn burning to mourn and celebrate the departed souls.

4. Museums
There’s nothing sterile or snooze-worthy at any of Tucson’s museums. Take the taxidermied predators on display at the International Wildlife Museum (4800 W. Gates Pass Rd., 520-629-0100, thewildlifemuseum.org), which traumatized me during a childhood visit. Less-scary nature encounters can be found at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., 520-883-1380, desertmuseum.org), though I’m partial to human-created art, like the Southwestern tableaux by Ted DeGrazia at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun (6300 N. Swan Rd., 520-299-9191, degrazia.org) and the archaeological treasures displayed at the Arizona State Museum (1013 E. University Blvd., 520-621-6302, statemuseum.arizona.edu), an affiliate of the Smithsonian. Full disclosure: My aunt is associate conservator.

5. Public Art
The preponderance of public art makes even the streets of Tucson feel like an outdoor museum. Nary a bridge or underpass lacks ornamentation of some sort, from Cubist cacti along the Interstate 10 to murals lining the walls of south Tucson. The underpass between Fourth Avenue and Congress Street downtown is covered with the faces of 6,000 Tucsonans in a tiled collage for the Tucson Portrait Project (tucsonportraitproject.com). Just yards away, the wall of the historical Rialto Theatre (318 E. Congress St., 520-740-1000, rialtotheatre.com) bears mercurial murals by Joe Pagac, who paints elaborate images incorporating the next bands coming to the theater (joepagac.com).

Perhaps the most quintessentially Tucson piece of public art is the rattlesnake pedestrian bridge over Broadway Boulevard, designed by Simon Donovan. A huge pointed head juts into the air on one side, a path travels through the “innards,” and a rattle warns at the tail end.

PHM1015GE036. Downtown
Much like Downtown Phoenix, Downtown Tucson has experienced a renaissance in recent decades. Once dicey, it’s now a destination for au courant Tucsonans and tourists, and thanks to the Sun Link streetcar (sunlinkstreetcar.com), it’s more navigable than ever. There are live music, comedy shows and film screenings every night of the week at venues including the Rialto, Hotel Congress (see bottom of page), Fox Tucson Theatre (17 W. Congress St., 520-547-3040, foxtucsontheatre.org), and The Screening Room (127 E. Congress St., 520-882-0204, screeningroomtucson.com).

Downtown is also the best place to eat, shop, and repeat. An ideal day would start with rainbow “quinola” (granola with quinoa) at The Coronet (402 E. Ninth St., 520-444-2830, cafecoronet.com) followed by a book binge at Antigone Books (411 N. Fourth Ave., 520-792-3715, antigonebooks.com); a Ziggy Stardust at Diablo Burger (312 E. Congress St., 520-882-2007, diabloburger.com) followed by treasure hunting at Desert Vintage (636 N. Fourth Ave., 520-620-1570, shopdesertvintage.com); and char siu pork chop with udon at Proper (300 E. Congress St., 520-396-3357, propertucson.com) followed by an ice cream sandwich at HUB Ice Cream Factory (266 E. Congress St., 520-207-8201, hubicecream.com). But that’s just me.

7. Coffee
My relationship with Tucson coffee has come a long way from mugs of Jerry Bob’s (multiple locations) brew with my grandpa. My latest obsession is Exo Roast Co. (403 N. Sixth Ave., 520-777-4709, exocoffee.com), where they roast their beans on a gas-fired, cast-iron, vintage German roaster. Exo cold brew is available in beautiful glass bottles, perfect to grab and go while exploring downtown. They also roast their own beans at Raging Sage Coffee Roasters (2458 N. Campbell Ave., 520-320-5203, ragingsage.com) and Caffe Luce (4205 N. Campbell Ave., 520-395-0266; 943 E. University Blvd., 520-207-5504), both excellent shops for quality local coffee and pastries.

PHM1015GE068. Libations
Lest Phoenix rest on its boozy laurels, Tucson has spawned a thriving craft cocktail and beer culture that could stand up to cities twice its size. Cup Cafe at the Hotel Congress (see sidebar), Proper, Good Oak (316 E. Congress St., 520-882-2007, goodoakbar.com) and Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (135 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-7700, downtownkitchen.com) are all within stumbling distance of each other. And while I’m not a beer gal, my family, friends and colleagues are enamored with Pueblo Vida Brewing (115 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-623-7168, pueblovidabrewing.com), Barrio Brewing Co. (800 E. 16th St., 520-791-2739, barriobrewing.com) and Dragoon Brewing Co. (1859 W. Grant Rd., 520-329-3606, dragoonbrewing.com).   

PHM1015GE029. The Great Outdoors
Admittedly, I’m new to appreciating this facet of Tucson life. I’ve never hiked Sabino Canyon (sabinocanyon.com) or camped in Madera Canyon (friendsofmaderacanyon.com) with my outdoorsy cousins. I have, however, gone underground: I finally explored Kartchner Caverns State Park (3330 Arizona 90, Benson, 520-586-2283, azstateparks.com/parks/kaca/) and Colossal Cave Mountain Park (16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail, 520-647-7275, colossalcave.com). Kartchner is vast and stately, with multiple “rooms” rigorously protected by cleaning crews. The magnitude of the silence in the cool, damp caverns is overwhelming, as are the massive mineral formations, including the hulking, 58-foot Kubla Khan column.

In contrast to the pristine beauty of Kartchner, Colossal has a battle-scarred charm: Several decades ago, its then-owner let visitors remove hunks of formations as souvenirs. Colossal is noisier and more claustrophobic than Kartchner, and “wild cave” tours give visitors an authentic caving experience – crawling and all.

10. Fast Food, Tucson-Style
These chains, exclusive to Tucson, feel like home to me. Eegee’s (multiple locations, eegees.com) serves sub sandwiches, crinkle-cut fries, soft pretzels and its titular drink, a cross between a smoothie and a slushy, crafted with real fruit. True Tucsonans know that Eegee’s creamy, perfectly tangy ranch dressing is the best in the world, bar none. I always swipe extra to squirrel away until my next visit.

At Lucky Wishbone (multiple locations, luckywishbone.com), everything is fried or slathered in garlic butter, from chicken strips to Texas toast. It’s always a grease bomb but, as with the city of my birth, I just can’t quit it – and I don’t want to.


Where to Stay    
Unfortunately, my Granny’s couch is not an option for you. Here are some great alternatives:
Hotel Congress
311 E. Congress St.,
520-622-8848, hotelcongress.com

Loews Ventana Canyon
7000 N. Resort Dr.,
520-204-2154, loewshotels.com/ventana

Azure Gate Bed and Breakfast
9351 E. Morrill Way,
520-749-8157, azuregate.com

Elegantly Rustic
Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 E. Speedway Blvd.,
800-234-3833, tanqueverderanch.com

Arizona Riverpark Inn
777 W. Cushing St.,
520-239-2300, theriverparkinn.com