What to Do in Tucson, Arizona

Although it was purely by chance that we ended up in the city of Tucson (the chance of a very cheap and cheerful flight that got us one step closer to ultimately reaching New Orleans), this city just about charmed me to pieces I tell ya! This was in part due to the friendliness of the locals, but also down to the generally chilled-out vibe and interesting desert-themed activities which there were to check out in the area. It also helped that we were staying at the most loveliest hostel I ever set foot in, The Roadrunner, which was only a short walk from Downtown Tucson, and happened to have a whole bunch of intriguing characters staying in it.

Although there’s evidence to suggest people were living in the Tucson area thousands and thousands of years ago, the sprawling city that sits in the Sonora Desert today has officially been around since the very late 1700s, and became an important stop-off point during the California Gold Rush when it’s population began to boom like never before. Not far from the Mexican border, Tucson was also once part of Mexico itself, and therefore has a beaut Mexican influence which I was a real fan of. (Especially on the food front) It’s also the hottest, most driest place I have ever visited, leading me to feel very much like a walking talking Sandman, if there really were such creatures. What a laugh.

Sonoran Desert and Saguaro National Park

First and foremost, Tucson is smack bang right in the middle of a full on amazing natural wonder- the actual real live desert. And when I say ‘real live,’ I mean real live. The Sonoran Desert covers a whole load of land, right the way from California to Arizona and down across the border into Mexico, and is home to a plethora of downright amazing flora and fauna, even though as a desert you’d expect it to be mainly a whole load of sand and nothingness. Let’s hope old Trumperton doesn’t go ahead with his hilarious wall notion as that would really spoil the look of the whole place.

The Saguaro National Park is part of the Sonoran Desert, and lies to the East and West of the city; according to a nice old chap we met at our hostel, it’s ‘The greenest darned desert you’ll ever set foot in’. This is because as well as some highly pretty desert flowers, Saguaro is home to a whole tonne of Saguaro Cacti, which can grow to be 200 years old and around 45 feet tall. Now I’d say that’s pretty spectacular. Let me say that once more pals: a green desert! Sounds like something out of a Dr Seuss book but I’m all for it.

Entry to Saguaro National Park: $15 per car, $5 per person on foot or bike. Camping available year round.

Fourth Avenue shopping

Guys, I’m just going to declare it now once and for all: Tucson is a Really Cool City. Fourth Avenue is at the heart of it all, and even if shopping isn’t your thing, it’s an awesome place to people watch. I would describe it as…arty.  Every now and again you stumble across a random sculpture mid-pavement, or a giant mural across a wall, and it’s filled with thrift stores and bookshops and coffee houses galore.  My personal favourite thrift store was a fancy dress lover’s dream, with vintage stuff categorized into styles and periods, and a great many cowgirl shirts and Southern Belle hats. Also giant clown shoes, very nice.

A banjo-playing busker on the dusty floor outside a bookshop somehow made me feel as if I was in a very jolly Western, and I must say I would definitely rank him as all-time Number 1 in the banjo-playing league. I haven’t really heard that many banjo players in my time but I was pretty darn tootin’ impressed with this guy, he was drawing a right old crowd.  I couldn’t help but do a little dance, even when we’d moved into the shop itself and away from Mr Banjo-Man.

Further up near the University of Arizona campus was the first area I’d really seen chain stores in Tucson.  Urban Outfitters and Starbucks.  Except Starbucks was Tucson-ish as it was in a little adobe building.  I do appreciate a bit of individuality in life, and up until that point we’d spent a lot of time visiting more tourist-filled cities with a Starbucks on every corner and Urban Outfitters and Forever 21s galore. It was nice to visit Tucson and see that it’s streets had their own unique identity.

More information on Fourth Avenue (including the Fourth Avenue Fair) here!

‘Watch the Cactus-Flowers Bloom’

Joyous times, as the first thing we heard about the flowering cacti was from the curious Canadian lad who had greeted us upon our arrival at the hostel. Thomas informed us that although he hailed from Canada he knew a whole lot about Tucson and had come to work at The Roadrunner specifically ‘to watch the cactus-flowers bloom.’ This was something I highly appreciated, especially as the cacti don’t actually stay in flower for very long at all. (In fact, Saguaro cactus flowers last for a mere day, poor old souls) That makes the whole flowering period just extra special to witness in my opinion, and I was fully overjoyed that when we arrived at the beginning of April the flowers were just arriving too.

El Presidio Historic District

El Presidio Historic District is located within walking distance of Downtown Tucson, on what was once Indian land, then later the site of the original Spanish Presidio (meaning fort); and what a delightful district it is too! Nowadays it’s full of adobe and brick buildings complete with colourful shutters and cacti gardens, and is downright lovely to look at and take a stroll around. The whole area really helped to develop my obsession with photographing doors and cacti.

Take in some art

Not having known a lot about the city before we arrived, we ended up relying quite heavily on word of mouth advice from our fellow hostel-dwellers at The Roadrunner, which actually paid off massively. After talking one evening with a Jewish lady in my room, she was mega-excited to hear that we were interested in photography and announced that she’d like to show us the way to a gallery downtown that we might find interesting. What a nice lass!

The gallery in question is called The Etherton Gallery, and they had some very interesting stuff, that’s for sure, specialising in photography right from the dawn of the camera up until nowadays, but particularly work that’s relevant to the area. At the time they were exhibiting the work of a guy called Frank A. Rinehart, who just loved to take photographic portraits of Native American Indians from the turn of the century right through to the late 1920s and it was pretty full on fascinating, that’s all I’m saying. As well as the classic Tucson Museum of Art, another place which looked interesting but we didn’t have time to visit is the DeGrazia Gallery which exhibits a whole load of work outside in the fresh but dry air amongst the adobe buildings and desert flowers.

The Etherton Gallery is open 11am-5pm every day except Mondays.

U of A

The University of Arizona is surely partly to blame for the young and chilled out vibe that can be felt all over the city, and I felt like I was seeing Uni evidence all over the place before I even set foot on the campus. Firstly, I was overjoyed to see my first actual sorority house whilst exploring the streets, which looked just like they look on TV, no surprises there. Secondly, ‘A’ Mountain towers above the distance; this is officially actually called Sentinel Peak, however in 1916 a bunch of students of the University constructed a gigantic A onto the very peak of the peak, and there it has stayed ever since, garnering the name ‘A’ Mountain in addition to its normal one.

The campus itself houses a good bunch of museums (also another photography one), as well as an arboretum which is good for a jolly old stroll and some self-education on trees and cacti.

Entry to the University of Arizona museums varies but is normally around $5 per person. Find the list of museums here.

‘A’ Mountain is within Sentinel Park and can be reached on foot via a steep trail. Wear shoes with a jolly good grip level!

Go bar-hopping

I really appreciated going out in the evening in Tucson, again probably partly because of the university crowd, and partly because although the city is big it still has an air of the small-town about it, and I generally felt safe to stroll around after dark, at least in the areas we were sticking to. Sky Bar was a joyous place to go to, for two reasons: firstly because it was affordable, and secondly because it has a telescope out the back through which you can see the whole night sky up close and personal. My new pal Charlie from The Roadrunner showed me Mars, so good on him, and good on the telescope. Somehow one evening we also ended up in an English-themed place called Frog and Firkin, which wasn’t actually that English at all though I appreciated their efforts. Good on those Arizonans!

There are some other awesome places around the Hotel Congress (and The Hotel Congress itself, the place where gangster John Dillinger stayed just before a fire at the hotel led to his arrest in 1934), and other quieter places like the Shot in the Dark that serve food as well as drinks until late.

Roam the streets and have a conversation with a stranger

This is a truly serious one, pals! Roaming with no idea where you’re going is an all round brilliant activity, and can lead to a whole load of new and intriguing discoveries. In Tucson for me it was an abundance of giant cacti, and a selection of glorious Spanish Colonial Architecture like the Pima County Courthouse below. Awkwardly the day I discovered the most was when my boyf and I had a very strange argument about what we were going to eat for lunch that day…true story. We actually weren’t generally the arguing types but I’ve realised it’s inevitable that when you travel with someone for any great amount of time, squabbles about pointless things like wanting to eat something different for lunch do start to crop up. At this point, our first ridiculous squabble at one month in to our trip, and therefore not really knowing how to deal with the situation, I decided the ideal solution was to literally just walk away in the opposite direction and keep on going. (Which is all well and good but my boyf didn’t realise I’d done that until about ten minutes after I’d vanished, and instantly assumed that I’d been kidnapped by either a wandering John Dillinger type or by a member of the Mexican drug mafia.)

I felt quite bad about that by the time I answered the phone about an hour later, but in fairness after I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself I had a whale of a time exploring all the areas of Tucson I could reach on foot, plus had a lovely conversation with the lady behind the bagel counter which cheered me right up I tell you!

In general, the people of Tucson were a friendly bunch who appreciated a good conversation with a stranger; we were even helped out several times, like when the man at the library offered some much-needed assistance to solve a very complicated problem involving a fax machine, Canada, and my bank account, or when Jimmy from The Roadrunner offered to drive us to Safeway so we could get some actual grocery shopping that included fruit and vegetables but was cheaper than Whole Foods. (Thanks Jimmy)

All in all, I found Tucson to be one of the most welcoming and loveliest cities we visited during my three months in the States, with a vibrant history of Mexican and Spanish roots plus some gangsters and cowboys thrown in for luck, and without a doubt I’d return in an instant if I got the chance. A city that’s growing in size rapidly, but with a small-town heart and the friendliest folks you could ever hope to meet.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS

  • We arrived in Tucson by aeroplane, and found it easy to get into the city by bus. Driving or a taxi takes around 15 minutes.
  • As with every state in America, remember that tax isn’t included on the price tag- they’ll add it on at the till when you pay.
  • The air is so dry here!!! Remember to bring water wherever you go.
  • We left the city by train, leaving the station downtown at around 1am, to head to Houston, Texas. The station is easy to find and we didn’t feel unsafe making the 20 minute walk in the dark at that time; who knows whether that was due to luck, sheer blindness, or the fact that it really is safe compared to other places, but all I’m saying is, I appreciate your streets, Tucson!
  • At the time, The Roadrunner was the only hostel in the city- although hotels and motels are all over the place and not too expensive.
  • Stay within walking distance of Downtown, as you can see pretty much everything on foot.
  • Unless…you get a chance to stay at a ranch or lodge in the desert, in which case I’d say OH EM GEE yes please.

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