Four days in Tucson, AZ

Bugsy in historic downtown Tucson
christmas cacti

J and I have a past relationship with Tucson: J’s brother lived there for many years, through grad school and marriage and first real job and the birth of both of his kids, so we’ve visited a bunch. However, the Tucson family moved back East several years ago, so it had been awhile since we really explored the city that we always liked, but were never overly enthused about. It turns out Tucson is super cool! It’s now a foodie destination, having been awarded the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy honor in the US. Its brewery scene is exploding. And of course, there’s plenty to do in the warm desert sun, from hiking in the mountains to exploring the historic city.

Campground

sunset Airstream in Tucson

Sentinel Peak RV Park is the closest RV campground to downtown, and that’s our main criterion when evaluating parks in a new (urban) location. We walked home from downtown one night (a bit of a hike, but refreshing after a huge Mexican meal), and another afternoon we walked Bugsy over to the fun and funky Mercado San Agustin. You can pick up the Tucson Sun Link light rail, with stops all over downtown, the 4th Ave commercial district, and the University of Arizona, about a half mile from the campground.

The campground staff went out of their way to help us out when we wanted to stay an extra night and they were fully reserved. The only slight negatives about the place were the wifi was weak to non-existent, and the laundry room only has a single washer and dryer. We’d definitely stay there again.

Eating

Mexican/Southwestern Food

That heading is a joke, because all the food we ate in Tucson was of the Mexican/Southwestern variety. And we ate a TON of food. When you’re in a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, you have to eat as much as possible, right?

Cafe Poca Cosa and The Little One

lunch at The Little One in Tucson
Lunch at The Little One

Back when we would visit J’s brother, we’d always try to eat a meal at Little Cafe Poca Cosa (now called The Little One), and so our first activity in Tucson this trip was lunch there. The wee cash-only cafe has an intimate patio and the fresh Mexican food never disappoints.

Cafe Poca Cosa is the more sophisticated sibling of The Little One. It’s larger, with a swankier vibe and mouth-watering Mexican dishes (and cocktails!) that are similar to but different from The Little One. So of course we had to visit both restaurants.

Tacos and hot dogs

El Guero Canelo in Tucson

El Güero Canelo is another favorite from the old days that we knew we had to hit this trip. J got one of their famous Sonoran-style hot dogs and a torta, and he was surprised he preferred the torta. I was mostly along to enjoy the atmosphere and watching J stuff his face, but couldn’t resist an order of guacamole and chips. Their guac has cheese in it! Blasphemy! But it works… it was really delicious. Who said you can’t just eat a bowl of guac for lunch.

fish tacos at Boca Tacos in Tucson

If you know me, you know I asked Google about the best fish tacos in Tucson, and the internet practically screamed Boca Tacos at me. They’ve been featured on the Travel Channel, New York Times Travel, and the Food Network, and for good reason: the tacos and homemade salsas (and margaritas) are SO GOOD. If you’re a taco person like me, go there.

fish tacos at Seis in MSA

What, we ate more fish tacos? Of course! The uber-hip Mercado San Agustin is walking-distance from Sentinel Peak campground, and is home to Seis Kitchen, serving Mexican street food in an open-air alcove just off the Mercado’s bustling plaza. Our tacos were delicious, and the non-taco snacks we eyeballed on other tables also looked fantastic.

Slightly less notable Mexican food

prickly pear margarita and Bugsy at La Cocina in Tucson

La Cocina has a shady dog-friendly patio; we stopped for lunch with Bugsy while exploring El Presidio Historic District downtown. The patio, with its fountain and live music, was great, the food was ok.

dinner at Charro in Tucson

Our last dinner in town was at El Charro Café, a cheesy (literally and figuratively) Mexican restaurant that’s been in downtown Tucson forever. It’s the oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family in the US, and the old family home housing the restaurant is charming… but it’s touristy and the food is so heavy. We welcomed the mile walk back to the campground after stuffing our faces.

Drinking

Breweries

There are in the neighborhood of 25 breweries in the Tucson area, but we unfortunately only made it to seven. The seven we chose were based on a combination of location–generally, pretty close to downtown–and appeal to us based on the web research we did ahead of our visit. While we had some good beers along our little tour, we were perhaps more impressed by the settings, as many of them occupied some really cool old Tucson buildings.

Ho'oponopono beer in Tucson
L’s favorite beer in the Southwest

Our favorite brewery among the ones we visited was Pueblo Vida Brewing Company. Pueblo Vida is housed in a sweet, old downtown building with a tall, open wooden-trussed ceiling. They had some exotic stouts –a mixed berry barrel-aged and a pecan pie–but the real gems, for us at least, were there IPAs and Pales and their really subtle and refreshing mango-pineapple IPA (pictured above). We liked the beer so much that we went twice, the second time taking some beer to enjoy in Big Bend National Park, our post-Tucson destination. 

The others breweries we visited:

Thunder Canyon Brewery

Thunder Canyon brewing in Tucson

We enjoyed Thunder Canyon’s big, cool downtown location, and J liked their carnitas tacos more than their beer. Alas, we have subsequently read that they will stop serving food to focus on that beer. 

Public Brewhouse

Once you step through the two large sliding barn doors into Public Brewhouse you feel like you’re in the country, not in some alley in downtown Tucson. The building is an absolute gem with a massive wooden open-truss roof. Unfortunately, the beer didn’t quite cut it for us, but I would recommend a visit all the same as the atmosphere is tough to top.

Iron John’s Brewing Company

Iron John’s East Congress Street tap room (they have two) is set in an old strip mall in downtown Tucson. It’s a pretty cool little bar that was apparently originally part of an alley. We didn’t like the beer. 

Crooked Tooth Brewing Co.

Crooked Tooth Brewing in Tucson

We absolutely loved the feel of Crooked Tooth: cool location, great staff, and, when we were there, an awesome little guitar-xylophone duo. They had some interesting sours, but no good IPA or Pale for us.

Borderlands Brewing Company

Guardians of the Galaxy-themed band at Borderlands brewing in Tucson

We had a fabulous time at Borderlands, which is a little bit north of downtown. The general atmosphere helped, but so did their band at the time–the band members were painted and costumed as Guardians of the Galaxy characters and played music from that movie’s soundtrack. Borderlands also had a really solid hazy IPA. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Barrio Brewing Co.

Barrio is basically a massive restaurant/sports bar in an old warehouse and transfer station on the eastern edge of the Barrio Viejo neighborhood. We sat on the patio one afternoon and sipped on their “Citrazona” and grapefruit IPAs. The beer was ok, but the flavors pretty basic.

Non-breweries

Coffee

We targeted Crave Coffee Bar specifically because it’s close to Jiffy Lube, and we were very pleasantly surprised. It’s a bright and friendly spot to get organic coffee with hormone-free milk and do some work. (PSA: if you’re hauling a trailer you’ll need oil changes more often than usual!)

Cafe Passe fits right in with the eclectic establishments along 4th Avenue, and we stopped for coffee and wifi while exploring the neighborhood. It’s not just a good spot to get a coffee and work, it’s also a good spot to get a beer and work, or get a beer and sit on the patio and not work.

Cocktails

Our mothers like to question how we’re able fit in so much drinking research in such a short visit. We take our studies and experiments very seriously for you, dear readers! You’re welcome.

Our favorite cocktails in town were at the bar at Scott & Co, the little speakeasy adjacent to 47 Scott downtown. The ingredients were creative, and the bartenders knowledgeable–and they gave us good brewery tips, too.

cocktails at Cup Cafe in Hotel Congress

The Hotel Congress is an important part of Tucson’s history: it was built behind the train station in 1918, and was the site of the capture of John Dillinger’s gang of bank robbers in 1934. To properly soak up the hotel’s history, we had a fancy (but mine was rather tasteless) cocktail at the bar a the Cup Café. Go to see the penny-covered floor, enjoy the patio on a nice day, and maybe just order a beer.

We also sat at the bar for a cocktail at Downtown Kitchen, a big restaurant with sort of the feel of a modern bistro crossed with a hotel steakhouse. The bar was a fine place to sit for a drink or two, but we didn’t really dig the vibe of dining room.

del bac whiskey in the MSA Annex

And finally, we walked Bugsy over to the Annex at Mercado San Agustin (remember, it’s close to the campground), a gorgeous outdoor shopping and eating area. It’s home to a collection of small local businesses housed in shipping containers, and we had a cocktail (and bought a bottle of local Del Bac whiskey) at Westbound, a bar and bottle shop.

Hiking

hiking in Saguaro National Park

There are so many natural areas in the Tucson area to explore, how can one choose where to spend valuable hiking time? After many, many days of mostly hiking and very little cultural activities, we opted to focus our time in Tucson on urban activities rather than driving to hikes. Next trip we’ll do more hiking, but until then…

saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park

This trip, we spent several hours exploring the eastern side of Saguaro National Park; read those details on our Saguaro NP post.

In the past, we’ve loved hiking in Sabino Canyon. Note that dogs are not allowed in either the National Park or Sabino Canyon.

Exploring Tucson

Bugsy in historic downtown Tucson

Neighborhood adventures

Bugsy walking the Presidio historic walk in Tucson

We love architectural and historic walking tours, and look for them in any town we visit. Tucson has a wonderful historic walk around the oldest part of the city, surrounding the Presidio, the Spanish fort established in 1775. The “turquoise trail” loops downtown for a couple miles, with lots of options for food and drink stops. (Note for next time: Maynards, at the train station, looked like a delightful place for lunch.)

After downtown, in our opinion, the other must-hit neighborhood in Tucson is Historic Fourth Avenue. It’s full of funky shops, cafes, and bars (please eat a fish taco for me at Boca Tacos).

neon signs on Tucson's Miracle Mile
tucson's neon cactus

Seeking another historic outing, we read about the Miracle Mile driving tour, and off we went to check it out. Alas, as it’s basically a strip of highway, it’s not a good walk, but it’s kind of a neat drive to see the handful of neon signs and mid-century buildings that remain from the old motels and restaurants lining the old primary entrance corridor into Tucson from the north. I even drove back to see the iconic neon cactus after dark… it made me smile, but not sure I’d recommend a special trip to see it.

Shopping

farmers market at Mercado San Agustin in Tucson

Every Thursday afternoon there’s a farmers’ market at our favorite neighborhood spot Mercado San Agustin, with local treats, meats, produce, snacks, and crafts. We bought a little bit from each of those categories, and enjoyed the live music.

We didn’t realize that the Saturday morning market at St. Philip’s Plaza is an artisan market, so we were disappointed to find mostly crafts–disappointed, because we were hungry and planning to eat some food at the market. We did pick up some yummy seasoning mixes from Señor Cilantro. The regular farmers’ market at St. Philip’s is on Sundays.

Fourth Schmourth craft market in Tucson

A fantastic place to give your holiday shopping dollars to talented local vendors is the Fourth Schmourth Handmade Market. We were lucky to be in town for the annual market across the front and backyards of two houses in a quiet neighborhood east of downtown. We didn’t just enjoy the array of goods–there was also a keg of Crooked Tooth beer in one backyard!

I’ve already mentioned the MSA Annex as a neat cocktail destination, but the shops there are worth checking out too. I love a repurposed shipping container, and these containers and the paths and plants connecting them are lovely. We especially enjoyed browsing the gorgeous housewares at Avenue Boutique.

Other cool stuff we’ve done before but didn’t do this trip

Christmas cacti

If you’re a Tucson lover, you’ll notice some glaring omissions from our list of activities. We can’t do it all! Here are some we’ve done over the years of visiting that we would recommend to new visitors to Tucson–please leave a note in the comments if we’ve missed your favorites!

Hike in Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is gorgeous and convenient. Don’t be turned off by the tram (or take advantage of the tram!); there are plenty of hiking options away from the crowds. Here are some great suggestions. No dogs are allowed in Sabino Canyon. 🙁

Explore the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Not a museum in the traditional sense, the Desert Museum is more like a nature walk along a path that takes you past exhibits on ecology, geology, history, and art. You can explore an aquarium, botanical garden, zoo, and acres of desert habitat. We highly recommend a couple hours there.

Visit Mission San Xavier del Bac

This beautiful church from the late 1700s is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, and considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US. It’s just south of Tucson and free to visit.

Watch the gunfight reenactment in Tombstone

Tombstone is a totally cheeseball and totally fun Wild West experience. It’s just over an hour from Tucson; I suggest returning to Tucson via Sonoita and stopping at some of the vineyards in the surprisingly lush (pun not intended) Arizona Wine Country!

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