A Local's Guide to Tucson
August 18, 2019
by Laurel Kremer
Although I only lived in Tucson for a decade, I consider myself a “T-loc” (Tucson local). Tucson is a desert city of transplants. From the South, there is a strong Sonoran Mexican influence reflected in the architecture and the food. From the West, there are Californians who desired a slower pace and more affordable way of life.
From the North, Northern Arizonans and Utahns come for same amount of hiking and biking in much better weather. From the East…well, there isn’t much east between here and the 300 mile journey to El Paso.
The common thread that weaves together all one million of these people crazy enough to live in a desert is the University of Arizona. The city rallies behind the university’s sports teams, enhances the academics of this world-class university, and supports the surrounding economy of the downtown area. Although the city is 230 square miles and home to over a million, the U of A makes Tucson feel like a small town.
Hiking and Biking
Tucson has 286 days of sunshine a year (80 days above the United States’ average) so it is a haven for outdoor activities. The city is bookended on both sides by Saguaro National park, providing hiking trails that usually end at natural waterfalls and pools to swim in. Yes, it is hot, but the weather is only unbearable from June to August. If you want to be a true local you must embrace the term, “It’s a dry heat!” Additionally, the city cools down as low as 20 degrees cooler after sunset. When the mountains turn pink, it’s time for a drink! Make sure to grab a prickly pear margarita and watch the mountain air create a stunning sunset of orange, pink, purple, and blue. In addition to hiking, Tucson is also one of the 50 most bike-friendly cities in the US, proudly hosting the 100-mile race around the city, El Tour de Tucson.
Basketball at McKale
If you are not the outdoorsy type, I recommend spending time at the University. The energy is tangibly electric. One of my favorite times of year is November to April: basketball season. The residents of Tucson sell out the 14,655 seats available in McKale stadium. If you sit behind the basket on the South end of the stadium, you get a view of the “Zona Zoo” student section in addition to the game. See if you can match all the players to their fatheads, or if you can see the students always dressed up as saguaro cacti or tacos. The stadium recently started to sell beer and wine in 2018, so even if our Wildcats let us down, you are guaranteed to have a good time.
The University of Arizona is surrounded by a newly renovated downtown area. Stroll down 4th Avenue to experience a hipster culture that rivals Portland. Biannually, the street shuts down for a weekend to host over 400 booths of crafts, food, and clothes at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair. Just a few blocks over, take a tour down Congress Street at dusk to watch the nightlife come alive. Stop in at any downtown restaurant, which leads me to my favorite thing about Tucson…
Tucson is the only United States city designated with a UNESCO Certification of Gastronomy. Phoenix gets a lot of coverage for Arizona’s food scene, but true foodies know Tucson has much more to offer. There is an amazing mix of truly authentic Mexican food (none of this “Tex-Mex” nonsense or distorted “Mexi-Cali” flair) and other original restaurants. Two-thirds of restaurants in the city are locally owned, opposed to the national average of 40%.
My favorite Mexican restaurant is Guadalajara Grill. My go-to order is the mini-chimis, but you cannot go wrong with anything on the menu. Women come to the table and make a fresh bowl of salsa for the party, which taught my 12-year old palate to love tomatoes. They also have a mariachi band at night to further liven up the place.
El Charro Mexican Restaurant
You cannot go to Tucson and only eat Mexican food once, so you must also check out the original El Charro Mexican Restaurant; inventor of the chimichanga. This is hotly contested by Macayo’s in Phoenix, but true Tucsonans side with El Charro
If you find yourself getting tired of salsa and fresh tortillas (a difficult task), La Encantada in the Catalina Foothills is home to many original Sam Fox restaurants. Sit on the patio at North Italia and enjoy the sparkling city lights below.
Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink // Tough Luck Club
Another place I love, Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, has a funeral-home turned speakeasy downstairs called the “Tough Luck Club.” If you look closely to the left of the bar, you can see where the oven was covered in bricks. Creepy, but after one or two of their craft cocktails you will think it’s the Bee’s Knees (my favorite cocktail).
Although there are many convenient and affordable hotels downtown, I recommend splurging when it comes to choosing a place to stay. Tucson is home to many world-renowned spa getaways tucked into the surrounding mountains. These luxurious resorts are relatively inexpensive compared to other places in the United States.
The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa
My favorite resort is the Westin La Paloma in the Catalina Mountains. The views of the city from Contigo Latin Kitchen are magnificent and you are within a 30 minute drive to hiking trails, the downtown area, and the University of Arizona. Due to the desert weather, you can take a dip in the four outdoor pools almost year-round.
Tucson is an underrated metropolis. Years ago, it wanted to be comparable to Phoenix or Los Angeles. In the last 10 years it has truly assumed its own identity. The beauty of the desert and the uniqueness of the cuisine to entices University of Arizona graduates to stay and continue to establish Tucson’s distinctiveness. Tucson cannot compare, and that is the beauty of it.