Tucson’s web site tells the visitor to “Free Yourself,” that “Tucson inspires a sense of freedom among all who visit. Freedom of thought and expression. Freedom to discover and explore. And the freedom to be yourself … Tucson is calling you, the free thinker and the free at heart, to explore without boundaries.” It continues to describe Tucson as “authentic and comfortable,” with an “unapologetic passion for food that inspires Tucson’s cuisine.” As “an oasis from the unoriginal and pretentious, Tucson is a place that you want to be. Let Tucson inspire the free spirit in you.”
There you have it.
I can’t compete with that, but I will try to elaborate.
Throughout all of my countless visits to and years living in Arizona, I never ventured to Tucson. Scot had visited once for some hiking and mountain biking, but over the five years we spent together in Scottsdale and Phoenix, we never went to Tucson either. So what’s the deal with Tucson?
Well, although we had not considered Tucson in the terms outlined in the visitor web site, what we had heard about was the killer hiking throughout the Sonoran Desert and the various mountains — Mount Lemmon, the region’s highest peak, for example — that are Tucson’s cloak. What we had envsioned were the sunrises and sunsets that natives speak of as though it were part of their religion. What we desired was to tap into the flora and fauna unique to the Sonoran desert, particularly the giant saguaro cactus, and to simply return to the desert — albeit a not so urban one. All of these things we experienced, and Tucson aesthetically is an enticing place. The Sonoran desert is stunning, calming, quiet; the mountains are strong and grounding; and the flora and fauna are like nothing else on Earth. It is marvelous to be immersed in the quietude and beauty native to this region.
What we learned is that Tucsonians march to a different beat in the most curious of ways. Tucson is the little sister city to Phoenix, both of which anchor the Sun Corridor. But the population of Tucson is half that of Phoenix. Although there is typical urban sprawl, unlike Phoenix, Tucson has retained its unique, accessible, mixed bag urban core, a blend of arts and academics, cultural diversity, music, theatre, finance and food. The vibe downtown is reminiscent of walking through Savannah: It knows who it is, all histories and identities combined.
Although today “Tuscon” is pronounced as though it were spelled only with an ‘s,’ its original pronunciation came from the Spanish “Tucsón” [tuk’son], which itself came from the O’odham (formerly Papago) “Cuk Ṣon,” referring to the basalt-covered hill now known as Sentinel Peak. The O’odham language, an Uto-Aztecan language native to southern Arizona and northern Mexico, is the third- and fourth-most spoken languages after English and Spanish in Pima and Pinal Counties respectively, both of which embrace greater Tucson. (Wikipedia)
Tucson is very proud of its cultural heritage. Paleo-Indians lived near the Santa Cruz River 12,000 years ago. The well known Hohokam inhabited the region from AD 600 to 1450. Between these two groups, early desert agriculture was established and is integral to modern Tucson’s approach to food, community, conservation and sustainability. It is believed that the Hohokam — one of the four major cultures of Southwestern archaelogy and masters of irrigation — were the first to build the original canal system in present-day Phoenix, as well as carry on and strengthen the use of red clay pots for cooking and storage. (Wikipedia)
By 1692, Italian Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino established the San Xavier de Bac Mission near Tucson. Later, the founding father of Tucson proper, Hugo O’Connor, established a military fort, the Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, in 1775. For a time, the Spanish occupied the presidio, but Tucson became part of Sonora after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. It even saw brief Mormon occupation, but fell back into Mexican control as interested parties continued to head west. Despite being caught up in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, Tucson caught a break as it was excluded in the Mexican Cession in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Once the Gila River was purchased from Mexico, Tucson became part of the United States in 1856. Free from Spain, Mexico and Mormons, Tucson was open for Americans en route west toward Gold Rush country. (Wikipedia)
Over time, Tucson was included as part of the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line, and was the capital of the Arizona Confederate Territory from 1881 to 1882. It also endured its share of famous stagecoach robberies. In 1885, the University of Arizona was established through a land grant, and in 1912 Arizona became a State. All the while, Tucson was Arizona’s largest city and commercial center. Today, Tucson’s population exceeds 500,000, and the Tucson-Nogales metropolitan area consists of almost one million people. (Wikipedia)
This unique blend of Mexican, Indian, American, Sonoran, Western, Southern, academic and borderland/frontera makes for colorful, deep, earthy mixes of ideas, foods, identities, art, religion, architecture and pride. Surprises include all of the various churches at every corner and buildings of various hues and architecture. They include public art — murals, highway overpasses and bridges, neighborhood walls, street corner mosaics and sculpture made from steel or scrap. Parks and green spaces are on this list, too, oases in the middle of the desert where families picnic and play, where smells of soul food and barbacoa mingle and make us turn our heads, and where a humble zoo offers insights and education about our animal friends, particularly endangered ones.
There is also an abundance of libraries in greater Tucson, and they do amazing things. The Pima County Public Library maintains an heirloom seed library, a culmination of 4,000 years of seed cultivation acclimated to the desert environment. Community members can borrow seeds to grow at home. Seeds are available from donations and by seasonability. There are other seed banks and seed stores in Tucson whose sole purpose is to conserve genetic crop resources from the Southwest and Northereastern Mexico. It is a super cool endeavor, linking cultures and histories, telling stories, providing education and awareness of how we grow our food.
Among our favorite things to do were visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, downtown Tucson and enjoying Tucson’s food, arts and tech culture. Nature provides all that the Desert Museum needs to make it a special place, showcasing the beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Downtown seems new and fresh, a totally hip, modern, integrated vibe of college town, southern desert culture, modern and ancient, music and art. It is very alive. Tech is playing a big role in Tucson’s evolving makeup, too. Coworking spaces are available and making their mark, highlighting that the city is putting emphasis on keeping talent, build businesses and create jobs. The feeling is young and inviting, full of growth and collaboration.
And the food — well, the food is amazing. There are great restaurants everywhere. It would take some time to reach them all. We spent time at Elvira’s, a new place focusing on Sonoran cuisine, incorporating all things Southwest American and Northern Mexico. Another place we missed, but is next on our list and highly recommended among residents is Cafe Poca Cosa, where authentic, creative, local and fresh Mexican cuisine is prepared and changes every meal. All along our southern route, we have experienced wonderful and unique local foods. The food scene in Tucson stands at the top of that list for us. Forget anything you know about “Mexican” food. Food trucks, fine dining, small eateries — it’s all there, Sonoran style in Tucson.
So, we loved this community. We imagine spending more time in the desert, or hanging out downtown for a month or two doing the urban thing. With all the complaining we’ve heard recently about how giant and busy Phoenix has become, Tucson is a wonderful alternative. Considering its emphasis on cultural, historical and environmental preservation and integration, Tucson is a no-brainer. We hope you get a chance to check it out.