Have you been to Tucson lately?

At a population of half a million people, you’d think the city of Tucson could feel large and anonymous. It’s anything but. With a compact city center, the place comes across as a small town with vintage buildings and businesses intermixed with new.

City Center

Lunch at Street Taco & Beer on West Congress Street is a treat. Small, stuffed-full tacos were $2.50 each with a side of tasty guacamole near the same price. Chips for scooping that and spicy salsa are included and available for refilling your bowl from a heated supply near the soda machine. Another not to be missed downtown dining experience is Cafe Poca Cosa, which easily explains how this was the first United States city to win the “City of Gastronomy” designation from UNESCO.* Food is delicious, the atmosphere easy, and the ever-changing menu varied and scrumptious. The portions are sizable, so come hungry or plan on sharing.

*Since another city on the UNESCO list is Parma, Italy, Tucson is in decidedly excellent company. Our first night in Parma, we asked the hotel front desk manager where we could get a good meal. He stood puzzled for a moment and brightening, replied: “You cannot get bad food in Parma.” So we suspect it is in the center of Tucson.

St. Augustine Cathedral

The St. Augustine Cathedral on South Stone rivals any church we’ve seen in Europe with its grand main worship area, side altars, and elaborate wooden ceiling. Somehow the huge church still conveys intimacy with God and quiet contemplation.

More than 100 years old, the church underwent major repairs in 1966 with exterior work currently taking place. Next door, Marist College is experiencing a revival and renovation to turn it into senior living units—it’s currently in sad shape. If you don’t make it to Tucson until 2019, you’ll see this building completed along with the $45 million construction of a four-story office building, community center and affordable housing for seniors in Cathedral Square.

Docent tours are available, simply email them ahead of time. This would be a wonderful way to learn about the incredible artwork. The church entrance has intriguing paintings as does the church proper. Above the outside doors is a wood carving and the phrase, “Be Doers of the Word,” a perfect bit of inspiration before leaving after mass.

Presidio District

In the Presidio District, we walked through the maze of shops and galleries in the Old Town Artisans – a house that’s 150 years old. Presidio refers to the original Hohokam Indian location and the first Spanish fort built in the 1700s. There’s a piece or two of it standing, marked with bronze plaques.

Within the walls of this sprawling Artisan’s structure are various galleries: Pink Door specializing in southwest items, Tolteca Nacuilo which includes worldwide items, Art House Centro provides locally made arts, Shelago’s Artwerks USA are items of lapidary and silversmith, The Gypsy’s Emporium contains a vintage collection of objects, and La Zia also has world imports.

There’s a Presidio District History Tour that includes the Tucson Museum of Art, the Historic Block and lunch at La Cocina. Sounds like a deal at $40 per person. The houses, built by millionaires in the late eighteen hundreds to early nineteen hundred are: The J. Knox Corbett House, La Casa Cordova, The Edward Nye Fish House, The Romero House and the Stevens/Duffield House. You must make reservations.

The Art Museum is closed on Mondays and features a free evening (5:00-8:00) on the first Thursday of the month.

Tucson has sprawled since our 2011 visit, the sun—so welcome in winter to a western Pennsylvanian— is relentless and the lack of deciduous trees can make an easterner miss home yet Tucson is full of smiles from random people in random places, making tourists feel welcome. Don’t skip visiting if you find yourself traveling in the Grand Canyon State.

*Read a quality Smithsonian article about this designation by clicking here.

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