This one goes to all my PCW-bound colleagues who have asked me “where was that place we went to that one time”
This year’s PCW is in Downtown Tucson Here’s my advice to visitors who haven’t seen much of the town before - for a less idiosyncratic source of information do visit the PCW official website: The Area | Project & Community Workshop 2023
The Tucson Streetcar (aka Sunlink - Sun Link Streetcar - Sun Tran) links the UA Campus Area to Downtown. During the pandemic the City of Tucson suspended collection of public transport fares, and this has remained the case at the time of writing. This means that you can just hop on and off at any stop with no process, removing the smallest barrier to moving around without a car in air-conditioned comfort, through what has become the highest density of bars, restaurants, shops and places of interest in the Tucson metro area.
Service does stop relatively early (10pm on most days, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays).
Despite being only 4 miles long, the Streetcar route goes through a number of areas with distinct character.
- “University / Main Gate Square” is the area where the PCW hotel is. This area is more geared towards students and skews young.
- “4th Av” is the more hipster-leaning district with a variety of coffee shops, thrift stores and a range of bars from the “sure” to “I wouldn’t go there myself” [not gonna name names, but let’s say this isn’t the time to reconnect with your Irish roots]
- “Downtown” aka “Congress” is home to our major performance venues and some of the best restaurants and bars of the Streetcar route and in fact the city
- “Mercado” is an up and coming area at the end of the line, with the Streetcar trying to extend the urban core past the blight that is I-10
The Streetcar goes along one route except in the Downtown/Congress area where it diverges to follow the one-way system on Congress (Westbound) and Broadway (Eastbound). Unless a train is about to go out of service, it does loop right back the way it came.
The streetcar may sail past stops if nobody is waiting, so make sure to pull the cord / push the button indicating you want to get off at the next stop.
You can bring a bike on the Streetcar. You have to stand with your bike in a designated area.
You can take food in closed containers (no eating), but drinking non-alcoholic beverages in closed containers (like say, coffee aka the water of life) is fine.
We might get this over and said, before we get to the good stuff. June, July and August are the worst months to visit.
It’s hot. Yes, it’s a dry heat and quite tolerable outside of direct sunlight once you get over the shock, but under the Big Fusion Reaction In The Sky, it’s a whole different ballgame. Besides the obvious risks (sunburn, dehydration), exercise extreme care to avoid contact with metal surfaces (eg cars) and supervise creatures who come with unprotected contact with the ground (tumbling toddlers, dogs, etc).
The lifeblood of Tucson is the UA student population and the snowbirds (residents who overwinter here but leave town in the summer). Without these the town goes into a reverse hibernation (is there a word for that) and in fact some restaurants will just close for vacation in July rather than run empty. Things start to turn when UA term stars in mid-August.
Paradoxically, June is the hottest month of the year (the peak of the “dry summer”). Monsoon season is (generally) August and December. Pray for rain. It cools the place down and makes humans happy, but respect flood zones and seemingly dry riverbeds. They ain’t dry once the rain comes.
Anyways, back to the Streetcar route.
For beter advice than mine, consult Tucson Foodie
There are a number of excellent dining options around the Streetcar route, but bear in mind that Tucson is a very cozy city of a million people: most places cannot accommodate a really large group, certainly not without notice. If there’s more than 6 of you definitely ring/book ahead.
Some good spots (IMHO, YMMV):
University/Main Gate: Not my favorite area to be honest. Kababeque is decent Indian takeout. Time Market is a good lunch spot and boutique market with inside and cooled (mister) outside seating. Gentle Ben’s is the best of the student-friendly pubs, and your best bet for a large group near the PCW hotel.
4th Avenue: I am still lamenting some of the pandemic casualties but showing signs of recovery as a whole. Check out Ermano’s and Boca Tacos y Tequila. If you are vegan or have one in your party, you can’t do better than the award-winning Tumerico. Anello is great neapolitan-style fusion pizza only a little beyond the Streetcar route but it’s a very small dining room.
Downtown: Can’t throw a stone without hitting a good restaurant. Probably your best choice for a large party you haven’t booked ahead for is The Monica (the kid describes this as “a cafeteria for grownups” but that doesn’t do it justice, and the bar is very good too). For the pizza fans, Reilly Pizza. For something more upscale, Maynard’s (though I have not been since the new chef took over), for its courtyard The Coronet. For brunch Nook (I prefer Five Points Market but it’s 0.8 miles from the streetcar route or a short - also free - bus ride from the downtown bus station). If coffee is your priority but still want a snack Caffe Luce, if you don’t want food but want a place to work Cartel. Kids want a quesadilla that won’t break the bank? Street Tacos and Beer. This isn’t the best area for Asian food though - the best of the lot is Obon Sushi and Ramen.
Mercado: The Mercado St Augustin itself is a courtyard with some avoidable options and the excellent Seis Kitchen; across and down the road is the MSA annex (constructed out of old shipping containers) which has in the same courtyard a home-style Japanese hole-in-the-wall (Kukai) and a bar/bottle shop which add up to a pleasant evening out, though not a quick one.
That barely scratches the surface but hope it’s a start.
Bear in mind that like in many places, Monday tends to be a restaurant off-day, and again check schedules during the summer as places tend to reduce days or close completely. Also, if you have visited previously and we went somewhere you liked, the following of my favourite haunts along the root did not survive the pandemic so don’t go looking for them: B-Line, 47 Scott (and its Scott & Co speakeasy), Cafe Poca Cosa, LaCo (formerly La Cocina y Cantina).
Tucson has a vibrant cocktail scene and (not co-incidentally) many of restaurants I named above can make a seriously good drink. Breweries I like along the Streetcar (or very close to that) include Pueblo Vida (also hosting US Women’s World Cup viewing parties), Borderland’s, Crooked Tooth (Crooked Tooth) and more (I have yet to check out Voltron Brewing). Also check out the whiskey and donut (!) bar The Batch. If you drink at R Bar you are helping support a key non-profit music venue. My current favorite spot is Nightjar and you can get food from the Market Cafe that shares the same courtyard. Close to the PCW hotel I have heard good things about the The Moonstone rooftop but I haven’t made it there yet. If you don’t have enough astronomy in your life, drop by for Sky Bar for a drink.
If alcohol is not your thing, and/or if you just want dessert, The Screamery does a decent milkshake, or try an Agua Fresca or Horchata in any Mexican eatery.
Attentive readers (if there are any left) may remember that summer is a bit of a dead zone in this town. The (excellent) Tucson Symphony, the (decent) Arizona Opera and the theater companies generally run their seasons from late September/October to April/May.
Some of the venues that soldier on despite the tumbleweeds are:
The Rialto - the best rock/amplified venue in Tucson (either sitting or standing depnding on the band) - some of you will remember this from a previous PCW outing - and its sister venue 191 Toole
There’s a bunch of dance clubs downtown, and I mean what do I know about that? nothing! but the Playground has a nice rooftop so I’d star there.
Note that many venues now have a clear bag policy for anything over a clutch bag.
Okay granted the Streetcar route isn’t where the area’s bucket list destinations are. That said:
If you’re bringing kids and you want to let them blow off steam inside some air conditioning, check out The Children’s Museum - more of an educational play area than museum which is totally fine in this context - and the climbing wall Rocks and Ropes
As anyone who has tried to get a hotel room in Tucson in February knows, we host the world-famous Gem Show around here and on the back of that enthusiasm we now have a Gem Museum in the historic Presidio building. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, so let me know if you do
For more opportunities for an airconditioned constitutional, try Tucson Museum of Art - particularly if you happen to be here for their First Thursday of the month evening party.
If you forgot to bring something to read or need some locally inspired greeting cards, Antigone Books has all of that and a comfy sofa
There are a number of museums on the UA campus, including the substantial Arizona State Museum.
The streetcar Cushing / Frontage stop will give you easy access to The Loop but again, beware the summer heat, and by summer we mean the “100 days over 100 F” we get over here.
If you can rent, borrow or steal (it’s a metaphor!) a car, the real stars of the show in the wider metro are (ranked!)
- The Titan Missile Museum
- Biosphere 2
- Kartchner Caverns
Pima Air & Space Museum
(you will need to show an ID or passport for the Boneyard portion)
Locals let me know what I missed. Visitors ask questions. Welcome to the Old Pueblo.