You don’t even have to leave Tucson to enjoy this half-day trip of Historic downtown Tucson. In fact, you can easily break up the following attractions, restaurants, and historical sites into multiple half-day trips.
There are so many things to see & do in the 4 distinctly different downtown districts: (1) Presidio, (2)Congress, (3) FourthAvenue, & (4) University. And, you can now take our new Modern Streetcar to within a block or three of every place of interest we recommend here.Read More
1. Presidio District
Today, Tucson is a vibrant metropolitan city of a million souls. We don’t have an Empire State Building, a Space Needle, or an Arch. We do have a rich and complex history, plus the heritages of several distinctly different cultures: American Indian (Yaqui, Tohono O’odham, Apache), European (Spanish) & modern North American (Hispanic and Anglo).
In 1776, as our Founding Fathers were busy founding, 2400 miles to the west a small Spanish military force was hastily building a fort near the east bank of the Santa Cruz River to protect their Mission San Xavier & settlers. They were almost entirely cut off from civilization and surrounded by an unforgiving desert and hostile Apaches, both of which almost destroyed them.
We recommend you visit the partially restored Presidio San Agustin de Tucson, check out their gift shop, and acquire a free, self-guided walking tour map of historic downtown Tucson. Bring walking shoes.
Unbeknownst to the Spanish, they build their fort on the same site occupied hundreds of year earlier by a Hohokam village. In one area of the fort you can look down into a pit and see what a fairly recent archeological dig revealed.
Also in the Presidio District are the Tucson Museum of Art & Historic Block, including Café A La C’art; and Old Town Artisans, including 9 galleries and La Cocina Cantina in the courtyard. La Cocina has good food, a full bar, and on most evenings, live music. All are highly recommended.
Tucson Museum of Art
The Art Museum’s Historic Block includes 5 historic homes that were built between 1850 and 1907. Take a guided tour of the J. Knox Corbett residence; stop in at the Romero House to make pottery; and see the amazing Nacimiento Christmas display in La Casa Cordova. The Stevens/Duffield House exhibits the Museums fine collection of pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and contemporary Hispanic art.
Dining In The Presidio District
- Café A La C’art in the courtyard of the Tucson Museum of Art.
- El Charro Café about 2 blocks north of the Presidio on Court Street
- La Cocina Cantina in the courtyard of the Old Town Artisans Spanish-era buildings.
Should you have an interest in staying overnight in this, the oldest part of Tucson, we recommend El Presidio Bed & Breakfast Inn. Patti will be your innkeeper and she’s a good one.
2. Congress District
This historic downtown section is named for it’s main thoroughfare, Congress Street. Surprisingly, Congress Street was not named to honor that august legislative body so well-known for its high ideals, civil discourse, practical efficiency. It was named for the Congress Hall Saloon, built in 1868 and located on the corner of Calle de Alegria (Happy Street) & Meyer Avenue.
In the late 1900’s the Congress was a respectable bar, gambling house, and dance hall. Miners and ranchers held meeting here, as did the legislature when Tucson was the capital of Arizona Territory.
The Congress Hall Saloon was demolished in 1912 just as Arizona was becoming the 48 th state in the Union.
From the Presidio District, walk east along Congress Street for several blocks and you will come to the heart of Tucson’s business district. For vehicles, Congress Street is one-way going west.
Given downtown traffic, parking issues, and one-way streets, we recommend you walk from the Presidio District to the Congress District. It is just a little over a half mile each way.
As you approach Stone Avenue, you will see the Fox Theater marquee. The Fox was built in 1931 and was THE entertainment venue for four decades. Then it declined over the next two decades as television became more popular and city dwellers and downtown businesses moved out to the suburbs.
Today, the Fox is beautifully restored to its art deco splendor. They show movies but also host big name live performances. Click HERE for their schedule of upcoming performances. When we go to the Fox Theater, we usually enjoy dinner at Caffe Milano just a few steps from the ticket window. Definitely make reservations well in advance for show nights.
Arizona History Museum – Downtown Tucson
From the Fox Theater, continue east on Congress for a block and a half. Then turn left (north) on Stone Avenue for another block and a half. There you will find the Wells Fargo Bank building, which houses the splendid little museum about life in Tucson between the 1880’s and the 1950’s.
When I made the video for the Downtown Tucson History Museum, Bette Richards was the docent. The lady was an administrative law judge in a former life. And she really knows Tucson's history.
Southern Arizona Transportation Museum
Retrace your steps for half a block and turn left (east) on Pennington Street. In about two and a half blocks you will come to Toole Avenue. Cross the street and you have arrived at our restored train depot. At the north end is the small museum about the history of Southern Arizona transportation in general and the huge impact the railroad had on this little Mexican village in particular.
Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, & Locomotive #1673
As you leave the Transportation Museum, walk toward the train tracks. The first thing you will notice is a large steam locomotive. If there is no docent there, ask someone in the Transportation Museum to open the gate and let you climb up inside the restored cab. And yes, you can ring the bell.
This is the spot where Frank Stillwell’s bullet riddled body was discovered one early morning in 1882. Mr. Stillwell was the first of several men whom Wyatt would track down and kill during his now famous Earp Vendetta Ride that followed the shootout near the OK Corral in Tombstone.
At the south end of the train depot is Maynard’s Market & Kitchen. They have good food and a lot of variety, including wines. The market stocks mainly locally grown items. You can dine in or on the patio. If you take a table on the patio, be prepared to suspend conversation occasionally as freight trains rumble by only a few yards away. It’s a different kind of ambiance.
Each Saturday between 8 AM & 12 PM, Maynard’s hosts a Farmers’ Market.
Across Toole Street from the train depot is the Hotel Congress, build in 1919 to cater mostly to travelers coming from the east and continuing on west to California. Definitely go inside and take a look around the lobby. Wander down the hall toward the restrooms and read framed newspaper account of it’s history, including the 1934 fire & capture of the Dillinger gang, along with Public Enemy #1.
Dining & Entertainment at Hotel Congress
At the Cup Café you can dine in or on the patio. Here too is the Tap Room, one of the oldest bars in Tucson. Club Congress is where young adults gather for live music and dancing.
Lodging In The Congress District
The Congress Hotel rooms are furnished and decorated in vintage 1930. And you could hardly ask for a better location for exploring Tucson. The Congress is usually a busy place, especially on the weekends. It’s lots of fun, but often not peace & quiet. They don't call it a Rock 'N Roll hotel for nothing.
Dining In the Congress District
You have at least 4 very good dining options:
- Cup Café in the Hotel Congress.
- Maynard’s Kitchen at the south end of the train depot.
- Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails a block or so south of Congress Street on 6th Avenue. Upstairs from the Downtown Kitchen is Terry Etherton's Gallery, certainly one of our finest.
- Café Poca Cosa on Pennington.
3. Fourth Avenue
Just north of the Congress District and under the RR overpass is our 4th Avenue shopping and dining experience. Perhaps the best description of this 6-block neighborhood is “eclectic”. Here you will see hippies in tie-dyes, bikers in leathers, U of A students with textbooks in their backpacks, businessmen in expensive suits, ladies in cowgirl boots … everyone from small children in strollers to retirees on scooters.
It’s kinda like an old fashioned small town Main Street stuck in the 60’s: rare, antique, & used books, art from weird to fine, unique gifts, vintage clothing, custom furniture, tattoos, exotic tobaccos; even a hydroponic & indoor garden shop to mention a few. Fourth Ave. also has several good restaurants, none of which you would describe as “upscale”. If anything, 4th Avenue is what passes for “counter-culture” in Tucson.
During one of their annual weekend street fairs (Spring & Fall) is the best, or worst, time to visit 4th Avenue depending on how much you like crowds enjoying an outdoor block party.
Recommended Dining on 4th Avenue
- B-Line: especially good breakfasts & desserts.
- Magpies Gourmet Pizza: one of the best in Tucson.
Delectables: dined there many times with friends & family. Always a good experience.
4. University District
From 4th Avenue travel east on University Blvd several blocks to the shopping & dining neighborhood just before you enter the gates to the University of Arizona. This is Main Gate Square where you will find shops, restaurants, and pubs that mostly cater to our University students and faculty.
Beyond The Shops
The University campus has many worthwhile attractions, including UA Presents (performing arts); Arizona State Museum (Southwest Indian collections); Arizona History Museum; Flandreau Science Center; Stewart Mirror Lab; U of A Art Museum; & Center for Creative Photography.
The U of A Visitor Center, located at University & Euclid, offers guided tours of the campus. Check their online campus guide for a map & more information.
U of A athletic events are VERY well attended, so get your tickets early. The most popular are football & basketball of course, but also men’s baseball & women’s fast-pitch softball.
Recommended Dining At Main Gate Square