Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, I’m happy to introduce Chance Agrella, a media designer and photographer and former client of mine who knows Tucson inside and out. He’s one of the fantastic interviewees in my latest guidebook. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say about the sunny, saguaro-filled south.
I’m originally from Prescott in Northern Arizona and now I live in Tucson. I’m a media designer and photographer in both my work and free time. I created the websites freerangestock.com and vintagestockphotos.com, among others, to give away photos for free.
What to do in Tucson (the Basics)
Tucson is a modern city in the middle of a desert, but it’s one of oldest continually inhabited areas in the United States. Both the Native American and Mexican cultures still have influence. So I suggest you start by exploring the nature and culture unique to this area.
I always recommend the Mission San Xavier del Bac, which was founded in the 1790s and has been a central part of life on the Tohono O’odham reservation for 300 years. I’m not a religious person, but the mission makes me feel reverential and the historical aura is powerful. It’s a short trip from downtown, but feels totally isolated from the modern world.
I also love the barrio areas around downtown where adobe buildings still stand. These were the historic neighborhoods of the mostly Mexican population of the late 1800s. Some are restored, some are crumbling. There’s a lot of gentrification and infill, but a lot of the modern infill is environmentally responsible and architecturally appropriate to the historic area, and a lot of the restorations are quite lovely. These are great places to explore on foot, so find a place to park and wander around taking in the colors and details of various barrios…
My favorite outdoor area is Saguaro National Park East. Even if you just do the Cactus Forest Loop drive, it’s totally worth it. And you don’t even have to get out of your car if you don’t want to.
If you do get out of the car (and you should), there are a bunch of places to stop and take short hikes or just enjoy the view. There’s no other place on earth where you’ll see a similar Saguaro forest.
Sabino Canyon is an amazing hike, as well; there’s even a tram to the top (though, honestly, I think that’s a bit silly). The trams are noisy little motorized bus/cart things with speakers for the driver to talk during the trip and they’re packed with people. But it’s a way to cover a lot of ground. The main road is a four-mile paved path over nine stone bridges into the canyon. There are quite a few walkers (and the trams) on this road, but it’s very scenic and follows flowing water the whole way. More adventurous hikers can follow miles of paths elsewhere through the park and even connect with other nearby recreational areas.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a world-class wildlife facility. It’s basically a zoo, but specific to the region in a way that’s unlike anything else. It’s an amazing institution with a lot to see, especially in the cooler months when the animals are more likely to be out during the day. During the hot summers they host a lot of nighttime events, like blacklight scorpion searches.
Finally, one newer attraction is the Mini Time Machine, an incredible museum of miniatures. The building is new, was built for the collection, and is very well done.
Hidden Gems for Seasoned Travelers
There are a lot of amazing hikes that don’t get a lot of publicity. The Pima Canyon Trail is beautiful. Tohono Chul Park is a treasure, as is the Tucson Botanical Garden, both of which are mostly outdoor and delve into the botany of the region.
For a real hidden gem, take young kids to Valley of the Moon, which is a volunteer-run fairyland, originally built by one man on a few acres in the middle of town. It’s quite charming.
If you can be in town for Tucson’s All Souls Procession, it’s a must-see event celebrating the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) and it’s otherworldly. Many in the community spend all year preparing, and many locals dress up and march in the procession either to honor a departed relative or a cause. Tens of thousands of people, many also made up as skeletons, pack the processional route, which culminates in a huge celebration and the burning of a giant urn full of prayers gathered along the route.
Where to Stay
Stay downtown or midtown if you can. Accommodations get less interesting as you travel east. If you’re looking for a resort stay, there are many world-class resorts north of the city in the Catalina Foothills and you’ll still have easy access to the city.
Tucson is completely surrounded by mountain and wilderness areas. To the north are the Catalina Mountains with Mt. Lemmon as the main peak. The village on top of Mt. Lemmon is Summerhaven, with a ski area that’s open during much of the winter. West is Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park West. East is Saguaro National Park East and further east is Chiricahua National Monument, another amazing wilderness area with large rock formations. There are several mountain ranges to the south and a highlight is Madera Canyon, a hiker and birdwatcher paradise.
My favorite day trip is to Bisbee, a mining town to the south-west that’s built into a canyon. It’s become a destination for artists and gallery owners with good food and a lot of western mining history.
Where to Walk
Around the city is The Loop, which is 130 miles of connected paths and river parks that circle the entire city.
What & Where to Eat & Drink
Tucson is the first city in the United States to be named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy for our approach to local food and our food heritage. From innovative Mexican food at Cafe Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington Street; phone: 520.622. 6400) to great traditional food at El Charro (311 N. Court Avenue; phone: 520.622.1922) to amazing street corner Sonoran Hot Dogs (try one, trust me), there’s a huge range.
We have truly amazing local bread from Don Guerra at Barrio Bread (order and find multiple pickup locations at barriobread.com) and amazing local breakfast gems like Baja Café (7002 E. Broadway Boulevard; phone: 520.495.4772), Mother Hubbard’s (14 W. Grant Road in the Grantstone Supermarket; phone: 520.623.7976), and Bobos (2938 E. Grant Road; phone: 520.326.6163).
My favorite local lunches are at small, hidden Mexican places near downtown, like Anita Street Market (849 N. Anita Avenue), which has the best tortillas on earth, The Little One (also known as the Little Poca Cosa, at 151 N. Stone Avenue), and Tania’s 33 (614 N. Grande Avenue)…
How to Fit In
Wear sunblock and drink water. It’s often quite dry.
Tucson is a very casual city, so it’s nearly impossible to find yourself underdressed, even in nicer restaurants. If your shirt has buttons on it, you’re set for an outing, unless you are in the trendier campus area, in which case you’re overdressed.
How to Meet Locals & Make Friends
Much of the city is very spread out, but there’s a lot going on in the city core. Ride the SunLink streetcar, talk to people, hop off on Fourth Avenue, and hang out. Walk or ride the SunLink further downtown and hang out some more. When you’re ready for a break, get back on the streetcar and ride to the Mercado San Augustin, which is the end of the line, for a snack or drink. You’ll meet people.
If you happen to be in town for one of Tucson’s many fairs and festivals—The Fourth Avenue Street Fair, Festival of Books, Tucson Meet Yourself, etc.—go to those to meet locals. Downtown also hosts a big event with a lot of live music and tons of food on the second Saturday of every month.
Best Places to Take a Photo
Head to Saguaro National Park East (the cactus forest) for iconic saguaro cactus photos or Sabino Canyon for saguaros and canyons/mountains. From the top of A Mountain, near downtown, you can shoot the iconic view over the city.