Invigorated by edgy art, a craft-cocktail scene, and a modern streetcar, the heart of this desert city has never been more exciting. Edie Jarolim tours us around Downtown Tucson.
The state-of-the-art streetcar
Tucson got a lot greener, thanks to the sleek streetcars that glide from the University of Arizona Medical Center to Mercado San Agustín through a revitalized downtown. Twenty-one eyecatching art pieces dot the 4-mile Sun Link route, including Nancyplants Island, a psychedelic rainbow-colored cactus mosaic, and Calabashes, a pair of bold yellow gourds locals have lovingly nicknamed “The Sperm Whale.” Poet, a gigantic silvery head composed of more than 3,000 steel-cut letters, glows indigo at night, while sonnets and haiku flash on LED reader boards at streetcar shelters across the city.
Back when Tucson was literally a cow town, all the cattle were free-range—not to mention antibiotic-free. Savor a taste of the past on downtown’s main drag, East Congress Street, at a pair of restaurants that cater to conscientious carnivores. Diners flock to Diablo Burger—the second outpost of the beloved Flagstaff eatery—to chow down on The Blake, a beef patty smothered with roasted Hatch chiles and melted cheddar. Two doors down, at retrochic Proper, meat lovers can feast on steak frites or perfectly pan-seared duck breast.
Viciously delicious cocktails
Drink in downtown’s craft-cocktail scene at spots like Scott & Co., where mustachioed mixologists concoct libations with rosemary tincture and egg whites, or Penca, a sophisticated Mexican spot with a deep mezcal roster.
A heady ride
With cooler weather, now’s an ideal time to explore on two wheels or two feet. Bike racks front many downtown businesses, and every Monday locals gather at the Hotel Congress for the Meet Me at Maynards walk and run. A favorite destination for pedestrians and cyclists is Diamondback Bridge, a striking highway overpass at downtown’s eastern edge. Riders and runners enter through the snake’s 28-foot-high head and continue through its body, en route to the motion-sensing tail, which rattles as they pass. Didn’t bring your own wheels? Stop by BICAS to rent a bike, or just pick up a free bicycle route map.
With its whitewashed walls, red-tiled roof, and grassy central patio, Mercado San Agustín harks back to an earlier era. Appropriately, many of the market’s shops feature handmade goods. At San Agustin Trading Company, owner Jesse Aguiar sells his handcrafted leather moccasins to Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni dancers for traditional ceremonies. Eclectic MAST stocks whimsical items, such as bedside lamps fashioned from shellacked ostrich eggshells, and earrings made with decorative tassels. La Cabaña is an art lover’s paradise, with everything from traditional serapes to intricately painted Talavera pottery. For a break from browsing, grab a pan dulce at La Estrella Bakery.