Help me explore downtown Tucson!
February 3, 2014 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I am interviewing for a U of AZ grad program, and the fella will be joining me in Tucson for a few days afterward so we can evaluate whether we like it there. We need suggestions for an awesome visit!

First: a place to stay someplace near downtown. If at all possible we'd like to avoid renting a car, and I've heard the public transport is good. Where can we stay that is accessible and hopefully affordable? Is there a hostel a couple of thirtysomething nerds won't hate?

Second: where to get some nice hippy food? He is vegan, I am gluten intolerant (why yes we are the most annoying dinner guests ever). We freaking love tacos, is there a place that can accommodate us? Where do we get brunch?

Third: fun walks in town, sights to see, watering holes, and other sundry activities. We will be in town this month from a Wednesday night through a Saturday morning with nothing to do but explore and get a feel for the place. Live music, coffee shops, how in general do we have fun there?

Bookstores, punk rock, weird/quirky sights, and any other unusual or mundane suggestions much appreciated.
posted by vortex genie 2 to Travel & Transportation around Tucson, AZ (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's the hostel near downtown (maybe the only one in town?): Roadrunner Hostel and Inn. I don't have any personal experience with it but it sounds pleasant enough.

Also definitely check out airbnb, there are lots of very cute Tucson listings. Neighborhoods to stick to are around the university especially west and south, ironhorse, downtown, armory park, five points, lost barrio, barrio historico... You don't mention when you're coming but watch out for the Gem and Mineral show Feb. 13-16, lodging gets really booked up, and the week after is the Rodeo and Southwest Indian Art Fair (separate events, all with regional draw). If you're coming during that time you might already be out of luck for some places. (Also ask your department to see if any students could offer you a place to stay, this is usually a possibility.)

Hotel Congress is the go-to cool lodging downtown (historic hotel, rock club, bar, restaurant) but pricier than hostels or airbnb. Definitely worth a stop even if you don't stay there and a great place to catch a good show. The Rialto theater across the street has good shows, the fox down the street generally has less hip but sometimes good stuff on the schedule.

Hippy food: you're in luck, they just opened this IMO overpriced vegan restaurant called food for ascension, on 4th ave. I betcha they can handle gluten free too. For mexican that might be able to accommodate you, maybe Martin's Comida Chingona on 4th ave.

Fun walks/cool areas: The above-mentioned 4th ave, the stretch between downtown and University Ave. is a classic hip tucson street with shoppies, food co-op, restaurants, bars. Cafe Passe is a great coffee shop and restaurant on this stretch. Antigone books is one of the best in town.

Strolling around Armory park is nice to see the old houses. Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (MOCA) is in an old firehouse near the Barrio Historico and is cool. They are opening a new show Feb 15. It's a very small, scrappy and young institution so don't go in expecting a big city MOCA, they only usually have two artists or shows on display at a time. They have yoga on wed. and sunday amidst the art.

La Cocina is a nice place to relax, especially in the patio in the evenings when there is live music. It shares a large historic adobe complex with the Old Town Artisans, a collections of vintage/art/southwest-ish shoppies. Also, it is next the the Tucson Museum of Art, the bigger more established art museum in town.

El Tiradito shrine is a quirky Tucson sight down near the convention center/downtown. It's in the historic part of town and there a little park next door.

This is great town for punk rock stuff but unfortunately I'm not an expert in this area. Here is something I found by googling tucson punk: Toxic Ranch Records

Check out the new and exciting Maker House downtown.

Additional tips: poke around on yelp for decent info about what and where (though don't always trust the reviews), check out our local publications Tucson Weekly and Zocalo. It is admirable of you to go without a car and you could probably do it just fine sticking to the area around downtown and the university BUT one of the really most important parts about living in Tucson is being able to drive 15-30 minutes and get out in the desert. It's really breathtaking. Gates Pass or Sentinel Peak are very easy to get to from the area you're looking to stay, with a car though.

Hopefully the other Tucsonans of MeFi will chime in because I'm still pretty new here!
posted by dahliachewswell at 6:35 PM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cartel has the best coffee in Tucson. SparkRoot is 2nd best. I like Plush for live music. Rialto is the big music venue, and Hotel Congress is the local "institution." Scott & Co has the best cocktails.

The public transportation is not great. It's a good place for biking, though. I'd suggest renting bikes and checking out the Santa Cruz and Rillito River trails. Much of the interesting stuff in Tucson is outdoorsy and on the outskirts of town: Sabino Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, etc.

I'd suggest an AirBNB in a neighborhood like Armory Park or Sam Hughes. There are a lot of guest houses or "casasitas" in Tucson.

Something like this looks nice and would be convenient:
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2014

We will be in town this month

I'm not that familiar with Tuscon, but in the first half of February, you may find it difficult to find a place to stay. Don't show up then without a reservation and expect to find something.

If you are there during the gem and mineral shows, there will be lots to see. There's at least one music festival during the shows as well.

Saguaro National Park is worth renting a car for a day to go see.
posted by yohko at 6:48 PM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hopefully the grad program recruiting you is smart enough not to schedule a visit during the height of Gem Show.

Check out the Roadrunner Hostel - it's downtown and close to campus as well.

This UA page has hotels, motels, and B&Bs near campus. The Best Western, Sahara and the University Inn are all at the corner of Stone and Speedway, which is just west of campus and north of downtown. Depending on where you hail from, the neighborhood around this intersection could be kinda shady or completely harmless. The Best Western has a cafe and there's an Ethiopian restaurant right there as well.

The areas you'll be within walking or biking distance of are the UA campus/University Square, Campbell Avenue, Fourth Avenue, and downtown.

I'm no expert on gluten free, but from this list of vegan/vegetarian restaurants, I'd recommend Lovin' Spoonfuls, Falora, and Sparkroot. You can get vegan sushi and Japanese food at Yoshimatsu.

My vegan friend likes the tacos at Sir Veza's but there isn't one close to campus. You might try Penca or Gio Taco downtown or Boca on Speedway and Euclid.

It's a college town, so there's watering holes aplenty - my absolute favorite is just north of downtown - Tap & Bottle. There's also a hipster coffee shop next door, Exo, that's pretty good. Also check out the Hotel Congress, Sky Bar, Scott & Co, the Shanty, Good Oak, and premiere dive bar, The Buffet.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:56 PM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hotel Congress would be the best option it seems. I could list a million suggestions for activities, but maybe just check out Yelp Tucson and search for vegetarian/vegan to see if anything strikes you? Lots of new places have opened up downtown over the past couple of years. New place that opened up (but would require a car to get to) is Mexico In Season. Really delicious food, vegan and gluten-free options, and very nice people.

I will say that you should reconsider not renting a car. Rental cars in Tucson are cheap, public transportation will limit you quite a lot and I think you'd be surprised as it is not great at all. They did just put in the streetcar downtown but it's not running yet as it is still very new. Check out some rental car sites (search for Hertz CDP discount codes even) and you might find it to be more affordable than you think.

So if you have a car - lots of amazing places you could check out in addition to what is close to downtown. For example, it's absolutely worth taking the tram up Sabino Canyon, even if it's on the other side of town.

This is tourist season so everything is more expensive than usual, but honestly it's all still so cheap. Enjoy the amazing weather and hope you decide to stay!
posted by belau at 7:35 PM on February 3, 2014

If you're considering driving over to Saguaro anyway, I'd highly highly recommend the Sonora Desert Museum (it's more of a zoo). I really loved it when passing through Tucson. It's on the western side of town on the same road as part of Saguaro.

Note: I am from the Northeast, so I may have been more easily impressed with some of the botanical bits of the museum since I'm not used to cacti. That said, Saguaro was freaking amazing. It never occurred to me that you could have a forest of those giant cacti. Our day driving from the AZ-NM border to through Tuscon and then up to Phoenix was one of the most memorable days of my cross-country trip in 2010. (I didn't get to go in to Tuscon itself, but I still recommend the Desert Museum.)
posted by maryr at 7:45 PM on February 3, 2014

Best answer: La Indita on Fourth Ave can hook you up with vegetarian (and I think, vegan) and Gluten-free options. It's delicious Mexican. I recommend browsing through this guide, and save some money on tickets to attractions by buying the Tucson Attractions "passport". Here are some merchant websites to whet your appetite about things to do:

Fourth Ave
Main Gate Square (near the University)
posted by parilous at 8:46 PM on February 3, 2014

Best answer: I stayed at the Roadrunner hostel when I was making my visit to a UA grad program (where I am now enrolled). I liked it as a twentysomething nerd. You can walk to downtown and 4th Avenue from there, which is helpful because the transit is not really that good in my opinion. You could even walk to campus from the Roadrunner, but it'd be about 30-40 minutes each way.

I suspect everyone will tell you different things about where the best coffee is. I'd go for Exo over Cartel and Sparkroot personally, but you won't go wrong with any of the three. All are downtown or a short walk away. The best coffee in the immediate vicinity of the UA campus is Caffe Luce. Scott & Co. indeed has the best cocktails, but Wilko, next to campus, is very good as well these days.

There's live music at Cafe Passe weekly: blues on Friday, country on Saturday, probably something else too.

As for bookstores, I like Antigone Books on 4th; if poring through shelves of old/used books is more your speed, check out the Book Stop (also 4th) as well.
posted by Aquinas at 8:46 PM on February 3, 2014

Best answer: Hope that you enjoy your stay in Tucson - I've been here 18 months (moved here for medicine residency) and love it here! There is so much natural beauty, and the community is really great. Tons of community events downtown - lots of street fairs on the main drag throughout the year, and things like Tucson Meet Yourself

Great hiking is everywhere in Tucson! If you're semi-experienced hikers, there are tons of great trails at Sabino Canyon, as well as the Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro NP. If you only have a little bit of time, I'd suggest Brown Mountain, which is in Tucson Mountain Park (right next door to Saguaro). If you're willing to give it the afternoon, I'd recommend King's Canyon with the short trail to take you up to the top of Wasson Peak. I'm also really partial to the drive through Saguaro on Picture Rocks and Golden Gate. We also have lovely botanical gardens!

Bar-wise, there are tons of great places downtown - Tap and Bottle, Hotel Congress (and their Cup Cafe, which has great Bloody Marys and the best brunch in Tucson, bar none), Scott & Co (speakeasy-style), Downtown Kitchen, Borderlands Brewery, and Good Oak Bar (which just opened, haven't been yet).

I can't help much with the coffee and the eats, except to say that Tucson has a great dining scene with tons of new restaurants opening all the time. Several of the places that we frequent have gluten-free menus or are able to adapt. Blanco has a roasted mushroom taco that appears to be dairy-free, and you can choose corn tortillas. They have rice cooked in a ton of butter than I have dreams about.

Housing is wonderfully cheap. To put it in perspective, I moved here from Chicago, where the total rent for our two-bedroom, two-bath apartment was $2000/month + utilities and parking. In Tucson, I live alone in a bigger apartment for $900/month + utilities. The AC can get expensive in the summer, but is totally manageable with budget billing.
posted by honeybee413 at 8:56 PM on February 3, 2014

I used to live in Tucson and still visit every year.

Seconding Club Congress as a potential place to stay (its a bit of a hike to the U though). Also check out Bookmans Used Books on Grant and Campbell. Tanias in Barrio Hollywood has the best Mexican food in town. The menu is huge and could accomadate both of you. 4th Ave has some ok shopping, nothing special. The Loft Cinema on Speedway is a good place to see a movie. If you get a chance to drive try a trip out to see San Xavier Del Bac. Not as many tourists out there and it is truly breathtaking.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:21 PM on February 3, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your fine suggestions. We will be staying at the Roadrunner, checking out all the bookstores, and I look forward to evaluating your many bar and restaurant ideas!

My free time does coincide exactly with the gem show, which will either make it more fun or extra annoying. Or perhaps I won't be able to tell because I've never been to Tucson before. I am being taken hiking and to the desert museum by my prospective department, so that's covered.

Looks like my couple of days tooling around in Tucson are going to be great!
posted by vortex genie 2 at 1:38 PM on February 6, 2014

Response by poster: Update, for future reference:
We had a fantastic time in Tucson! We did not get a car, but if we had been there longer than 2.5 days having access to one would have been good. We stayed at The Roadrunner which is in a good location, super friendly, and a little bit noisy at night. Our explorations of the downtown and university west neighborhoods were essentially a walking tour of all the coolest patios to hang out in. Plenty of things for a GF gal and her vegan date to eat and drink.
Where we went:
Cafe Passe was a favorite for breakfast/coffee. Great patio.
SparkRoot- the coffee was not to my taste, was overall a little too hip for me.
Cafe Lucce- excellent fancy coffee
Espresso Art Cafe- got served caffeine instead of decaf
Martin's Comida Chingona- the best food. A little hole-in-the-wall mexican joint. Horchata, Tostada recommended.
La Indita- The fella liked this one better than I did.
La Poca Cosa- delicious and fancy mexican, expensive but really good.
La Cocina- the BEST patio! Great place to hang out for drinks and tacos.
Delectables- found this with a desperate google maps search for GF options during interviews. Lots of options, and another good patio.
Scott & Co served us fancy cocktails
Hotel Congress- we stopped by multiple times for coffee or drinks.
The District- an awesome jukebox and a liver-destroying drink special.

Went to Antigone Books which is a lovely independent bookstore, as well as the Book Stop, which is a good place to get lost in a random corner and read a fantasy novel with a sexy ginger centaur on the cover.

Thanks for your suggestions. Time wandering around Tucson was time well-spent.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 10:13 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

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