Friday, August 17, 2018 / by Traci Jones
Congrats! You're living in one of the oldest cities in the United States. People have been "bearing down" here for more than 4,000 years, even before you got in the Chipotle line! Tucson has a ton of history ... and guess what, it's pretty freaking cool in 2018.
Like you, we spent our first year here in and out of the Student Union. Italian food meant Three Cheeses and a Noodle (old millennial nostalgia joke ??). Sometimes we would go to the mall and eat at the Olive Garden, it was that bad. It took almost a decade to really see what we were missing. But we appreciate it now: Tucson is an incredibly special place. Don't waste your opportunity to get to know it.
Below, we've put together a list of special Tucson places. These stores, restaurants and attractions all have culture that you can't find anywhere besides the Old Pueblo. To make it easier, we've organized the selections by distance from the University of Arizona. We have places you can walk to, spots you can see on your bike or the street car, and of course, good old fashioned cars. We hope you take the time to branch out and see what Tucson has to offer. Also, there are no raspados on campus. Remember that.
Eclectic spots within walking distance
Buffalo Exchange is a haven for the thrifty shopper. This isn't just any ole thrift store, though. EVERYTHING is nice. You won't find low quality, torn or stained clothing here.
Plus, if you need a few bucks or a cute dress to go out in, you can exchange your old clothes, as long as they're in excellent shape and a good brand, for cash or credit.
Buffalo Exchange is a Tucson original. Its first store opened here 40 years ago and its headquarters are still here, but the company has expanded into 20 states.
Check it out at 2001 E. Speedway, just east of Campbell Ave. across from the university.
Insider's tip: Make sure and go to Buffalo's $1 sale at 9 a.m. Sept. 15 at Tucson Habistore, 935 W. Grant Road. You'll find all kinds of men's and women's clothing for just a buck and it benefits Habitat for Humanity. Bring cash.
• Saigon Pho is Main Gate Square's best-kept-secret. This eclectic Vietnamese restaurant is tucked back behind Caffe Luce (which is also amazing) on Park Avenue. The rice vermicelli dishes are worth seeking out. Also boba! / address: 943 E. University Blvd.
• Two noteworthy Chinese restaurants, Panda House and China Pasta House, are both around Sixth Street and Park Avenue. Panda House has a wider menu with spicy Sichuan food, while China Pasta House does homey Chinese noodle dishes. / addresses: Panda House, 1118 E. Sixth St. and China Pasta House, 5339. N. Park Ave.
• For a trendy coffee experience, check out Exo Roast Co. on Sixth Avenue. This third-wave shop uses local ingredients like mesquite beans and chiltepin peppers in its special brews. / address: 403 N. Sixth Ave.
Places you can take the street car to
Follow Congress under the freeway and you'll soon arrive at the Mercado San Agustin, a trendy market hall on Tucson's west side. There's a reason it's the last stop on the street car line: It's easy to spend a couple hours here sipping nitro cold brew coffee at Presta and strolling through the boutiques. (Raspados at Sonoran Sno-Cones!) Although, most people head straight to Seis Kitchen for its colorful tacos like the Yucatan cochinita pibil with handmade corn tortillas. Down the street from the property is the new MSA Annex, a shipping container space with highbrow shopping, veggie burgers, a bike shop and a bar. Insider's tip: Head over here during the Santa Cruz Farmers Market 4-7 p.m. Thursdays for produce and a party. / address: 100 South Avenida del Convento
More options along the streetcar line:
• Time Market has a little bit of everything: fresh produce from local farms, artisanal pizza by the slice, coffee in the mornings, beer in the evenings, etc. Also, best croissants in town. / address: 444 E. University Blvd.
• Cafe Passe on Fourth Avenue has a bohemian vibe and one of Tucson's best patios, where you can meet folks from all walks of life. Check out their eclectic selection of European cafe faire. / address: 415 N. Fourth Ave.
• Even if you're not old enough to drink, you can still catch a show at Hotel Congress. Or grab some baked eggs for breakfast at its restaurant, the Cup. Also, you know John Dillinger and stuff ... / address: 311 E. Congress St.
• Forget Baskin-Robbins and head downtown for some of best ice cream you'll ever taste, at The Screamery. They pasteurize their own milk, which means it's totally fresh and so much more flavorful than your chain store stuff. Get the sweet cream honeycomb! / downtown address: 250 E. Congress St.
All sort of things you can ride your bike to
Spiffy new food hall American Eat Co. is located at the beginning of Tucson's most iconic restaurant district, South Fourth Avenue. (Further down the street you'll get to Mi Nidito, where Bill Clinton mopped up a massive President's Plate of Mexican food.) American Eat Co. has one of those contemporary industrial vibes with 10 different food counters including Greek food, sliders, a poke bowl place, ice cream and the Chicano "hood eats" stall Avenues. Get the weenie flautas! Seriously. This place is a fun spot to spend an afternoon. Check out our food guide for more info on what to order. / address: 1439 S. Fourth Ave.
• You can't be considered a real Tucsonan until you've eaten the hot dog creation that is bacon, pinto beans, mayo and more. BK Tacos even has a veggie version of the Sonoran dog, so there's no excuse. ?? Grab some mesquite grilled tacos while you're at it. / midtown address: 2680 N. First Ave.
• The southside taco shop Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a Tucson classic. It's known for its homey atmosphere and handmade corn tortillas, which do a great job of soaking up that sweaty orange salsa. / address: 2618 S. Sixth Ave.
• If you love art and want to learn some local history, check out the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block downtown. Encompassing an entire block, it has a variety of permanent collections including Art of the American West, Latin American Art, Contemporary Art, European Art and more, plus traveling exhibitions, educational programs and an awesome gift shop. Insider's tip: Go for free from 5-8 p.m. the first Thursday of the month. Visit the museum at 140 N. Main Ave.
• Just south of downtown Tucson, Barrio Viejo will transport you back in time. The rows of brightly-colored, historic adobe buildings make up one of Tucson's oldest neighborhoods and reflect the city's Mexican-American heritage. You'll definitely want your camera for this excursion. Start at West Cushing Street and South Convent Avenue to begin your wanderings.
• Reid Park is the biggest park in Tucson and offers something to do for everyone. There are two ponds, where you'll spot turtles, fish and ducks, a waterfall, playgrounds, grills, baseball fields and more. There's also a beautiful rose garden that contains 800 individual plants. It's the perfect spot to, ahem, stop and smell the roses. Insider's tip: There's a lighted and patrolled 4-mile paved multi-use path that circles Reid Park and Randolph Golf Course, if you're looking for places to run. The park is located at 900 S. Randolph Way.
• The Loop is a bicyclist's dream. The 131-mile paved pathway encircles Tucson. It's a car-free ride (or walk or jog) and will take you along river washes and through parks. Take bike-friendly Mountain Avenue north from campus and you'll find the path just beyond Limberlost. Head east on The Loop from there and you'll pass Caffe Luce's Campbell location and a Trader Joe's. Insider's tip: Pick up some picnic dinner supplies and keep riding. Just past the Campbell underpass you'll find Tucson Village Farm which is always open to the public (although the parking lot isn't). Take your snacks into the gardens around sunset and watch the bats that live under the Campbell bridge stream out for their evening adventures.
Get in the car (or Lyft)!
Tumamoc Hill is way better than any fancy gym. The trail rises about 700 feet in elevation and will kick your butt and inspire you at the same time. The 1.5-mile trail (3 miles round trip) is steep — the kind of steep that makes your calves burn and your heart pound. But the reward at the top is so worth it. Once you catch your breath, take in views of all of Tucson. Tumamoc is open 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Take lots of water!
• Bookman's is a treasure hunt for book lovers. You'll find books, movies, video games, musical instruments electronics and other kitschy finds throughout the store. You can also turn in your old stuff for cash or Bookmans credit. / addresses: 6230 E. Speedway, 3733 W. Ina Road and 3330 E. Speedway.
• Gates Pass is a scenic route in the Tucson Mountains, west of the city. Drive along here to enjoy the splendor of the desert and stop at Tucson Mountain Park where you can hike, mountain bike, picnic and view wildlife. Insider's tip: This is a fantastic spot for photos at sunset.
• You'll soon learn that Mount Lemmon is where you go to cool off in the summer. When it's 100 degrees here, it's about 70-80 degrees up there at 9,000 feet. It's also where we go to see snow in the winter. During the 26-mile drive, the landscape changes from desert to aspens to pines. It's magical. You can hike, ride a ski lift, eat giant cookies covered in mountains of ice cream, buy fudge at the general store or just sit by the creek and soak up the cool mountain air. To get there, head east on Tanque Verde Road until you get to Catalina Highway, then take that all the way up. Insider's tip: Stop at Windy Point on the way up. The views are spectacular.
• Saguaro National Park East is where you want to go to see cactus. Lots of it. There's an 8-mile loop you can drive through to see rolling hills covered in majestic saguaros and other desert landscape. There are spots along the way to stop and take it all in, take pictures or go hiking. If you're lucky, maybe you'll see some quail, javelina or bobcats. There's also a nice visitor's center to buy swag and learn about the Sonoran Desert. The park is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail.
• Sabino Canyon is the kind of place where you go to take a deep breath and appreciate the beauty of the desert. Yes, beauty. Spend a day picnicking by the dam and splashing in the creek or lace up your hiking shoes to tackle the 8-mile round trip hike to Seven Falls. It's glorious. / address: 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road
• Go on a taco tour of South Twelfth Avenue. This vibrant food district is home to more than a dozen food spots, including the smokey Tacos Apson. This Sonoran style taco joint has a mesquite grill that cooks up all manner of carne, including Flintstones-style beef ribs that dwarf the little flour tortillas they sit on. / address: 3501 S. 12th Ave.
• On weekend evenings, the Tanque Verde Swap Meet is a site to behold. Everyone and their grandma seems to be here; It's the only place where you can get a buzz cut and shop for blankets at the same time. / address: 4100 S. Palo Verde Road
• Just 15 minutes south of town, Mission San Xavier del Bac is the perfect getaway. The White Dove of the Desert is "a must-see" for art lovers and history buffs who want to know more about the Tohono O'odham and the Spanish colonial legacy of this region. Take a stroll up the adjacent Grotto Hill for a nice view, and grab a fry bread before you leave. / address: 1950 San Xavier Road