TUCSON, Ariz. — As a kid growing up in Tucson, Eddie Gallego remembers “when everything was downtown.” Then businesses began to move out to the malls, and downtown suffered. Now, he says, the neighborhood has come full circle.
“Downtown has gotten so much better,” said Gallego from behind the counter of his gift and craft shop, Tolteca Tlacuilo. “We’re revitalizing.”
Tolteca Tlacuilo is located at Old Town Artisans, a restored 19th-century marketplace in Tucson’s El Presidio historic district. The Presidio is one of several distinct areas downtown that can make for a terrific afternoon of shopping, dining and enjoying Tucson’s historic sites and the arts, whether you’re a local or an out-of-towner. Here are some recommendations.
El Presidio’s historic district is where the 18th-century walled settlement that grew into Tucson was originally located. Today you’ll see a reconstructed Spanish fort at 196 N. Court St., adobe and brick homes on side streets, and the mosaic dome of the Old Pima County Courthouse at 115 N. Church Ave., surrounded by a lovely park.
Across the street from the courthouse is the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. In addition to notable Latin American, pre-Columbian and American West collections, the museum is hosting a Day of the Dead-themed installation called “Banda Calaca,” with a large-scale seven-piece skeleton band marching toward a community memorial altar. Tucson is known for its Day of the Dead celebration, the All Souls Procession, scheduled for Nov. 8, which typically attracts 100,000 people.
If you’re shopping for gifts or souvenirs, be sure to sift through the treasures at Old Town Artisans, 201 N. Court Ave. Nearby at 311 N. Court Ave., the fun and charming El Charro Cafe, run by the same family since 1922, serves tasty old-school Mexican food and great sangria.
Another historic area is Barrio Viejo. Leave an offering at El Tiradito, 420 S. Main Ave., a shrine covered with candles and flowers. Around the corner, a colorful mural decorates the site of an old spring, El Ojito, which supplied early settlers with water.
Congress Street is hopping with venues both classic and new. The historic Hotel Congress has a real working pay phone in the lobby — yes, with a dial! — but there’s nothing old-fashioned about its bloody mary bar, offered Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., where options for your drink range from artichokes to goat cheese. The Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., has hosted everyone from The Lumineers to Merle Haggard.
For some innovative treats, try the Hub Ice Cream Factory, 245 E. Congress St., where flavors include bourbon almond brittle, Mexican wedding cookie, vanilla lavender and brandied cherry goat cheese. Cafe Poca Cosa, 100 E. Pennington St., is known for its “plato poca cosa,” which includes samples of three entrees from the day’s menu.
An underpass leads from Congress Street to funky Fourth Avenue. Storefronts house a food co-op, the Hippie Gypsy, vintage clothing stores, shops selling books, gifts, crafts and art, and The Hut, where a 35-foot-high tiki head draws folks for tropical drinks and live music. Tucson’s streetcar, the Sun Link, runs along Fourth Avenue and is popular with students from the nearby University of Arizona campus.
If you need a classy end to a busy day, head for Agustin Kitchen. The restaurant is located at Mercado San Agustin, an open-air courtyard located west of Interstate 10 in the Menlo Park neighborhood at the very edge of downtown, at the last stop of the Sun Link. It’s a great spot for cocktails, small plates and other fresh, flavorful food.