Exploring Historic Downtown Tucson: Two Square Miles


Exploring Historic Downtown Tucson
by Eva Eldridge


Driving on Interstate 10 through Tucson, Arizona, the view isn’t inspiring. But if you take the Congress Street exit downtown, there is a lot of history packed into a small area.

Tucson’s beginnings lie at the base of what we now know as A Mountain or Sentinel Peak. The O’odham’s village was known as Ts-iuk-shan, or Chuk Shon—Black Base because the bottom of the mountain is composed of basaltic andesite, and above the basalt is tuff. Located west of the Santa Cruz River, through one of the neighborhoods, Sentinel Peak Park has limited hours for auto access, but there is a parking lot located mid-way up where you can leave your car and walk to the top. From the top, you can clearly see across the ephemeral Santa Cruz River and a 360-degree view around the valley including the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Rincon Mountains, the Tucson Mountains, and the Santa Rita Mountains.

Once you drive down Sentinel Peak and head east on West Congress to Avenida del Convento, you will find Mercado San Agustin. This is part of the Rio Nuevo development which includes shopping and housing. The Mercado has restaurants, a bakery, and several shops. Tables are scattered about the courtyard where you can enjoy a cup of coffee, pastry, tacos, and other wonderful fare. Across the street from the Mercado is the west terminus of the Sun Link Streetcar.

The modern streetcar, Sun Link, runs from the Mercado area through downtown, to 4th Avenue, onto the Main Gate area of the University of Arizona, and terminates near the University Medical Center. If you want to park your car and venture on foot, this is a great way to get around. Currently, the fare for riding Sun Link is free.

Three or four blocks north of the Congress or Broadway Sun Link stops is the historic footprint of the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson established in 1775. The fort was built to protect the San Xavier Mission and settlers of the area. The original fort was made of wood but was quickly replaced by adobe walls. The Presidio San Agustin Del Tucson Museum provides cultural information, reenactments, children’s programs, and walking tours of the Tucson area. You can see the recreated adobe walls of the fort and a row house which is typical of the barrio areas of old Tucson. From North Church Avenue and along West Washington Street there are plaques embedded in the ground explaining the timeline of the inhabitants of the area going back more than 4,100 years.

Within the area of the old presidio are many buildings and businesses including law offices, engineering firms, shops, and restaurants. Old Town Artisans, located at 201 N. Court Avenue, is a collection of shops featuring local and area-specific arts and crafts, wine, old records, and food. The buildings are 19th-century adobe with an open courtyard with large shady trees where you can enjoy lunch and listen to occasional entertainment.

Less than a block away is the Tucson Museum of Art which holds a large exhibit of Colonial Latin American artwork and changing exhibitions of historical, modern, and area-specific art. Check their website to see what is currently showing.https://www.tucsonmuseumofart.org/

Head a block south and you can see Tucson’s historic courthouse, built in 1929 with its blue tiled dome. It’s a beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival building that gained its historic designation in 1978.

All over downtown Tucson are murals and artistic bus and streetcar stops. In fact, there are murals all over Tucson. Some depict the nature of the area and others are whimsical, like the bike-riding creatures on North Church Avenue. This mural celebrates the El Tour de Tucson bike race held each year in November where more than 7,000 bikes hit the road on a 100-plus mile loop around Tucson. Tucson has 131 miles of bike path including set aside areas downtown for bikers. Please keep an eye out for them. https://maps.pagregion.com/PAGBikePed/BikewaysMap.aspx

From the historic courthouse heading south and east, you come into the heart of downtown. Congress Street, Broadway Boulevard, Pennington, Stone Avenue, and 6th Avenue are filled with restaurants. So many cuisines to choose from, that you’ll need to come back many times to try another eatery. In 2015, Tucson was named by UNESCO as a city of gastronomy because of its rich heritage and variety of food. If you can’t find what you are looking for downtown, you’ll find it elsewhere in Tucson.

Check out Hotel Congress during your visit to downtown. This establishment has been here since 1919. It has a wonderful history that you can read about on their website or inside the hotel. In January 1934, John Dillinger the famous bank robber, stayed at the hotel. Subsequently, a fire broke out and events led to Dillinger’s arrest a few days later in Tucson. https://hotelcongress.com/

Heading south on Stone Avenue you can see the beautiful architecture of Saint Augustine Cathedral. The church building began in the late 1800s and stands today as the center of the Catholic diocese in Tucson. The structures were updated, restored, and rededicated in 2011. It is a beautiful building and well worth a visit.

The neon sign on top of Hotel Congress goes hand in hand with the mid-century neon sign project implemented in 2012. Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and Pima Community College joined forces to restore and reinstall many of the old neon signs along the Miracle Mile vicinity. Other signs in town were restored and glow proudly in the Tucson nights. https://www.ignitemuseum.com/

A person could easily spend a couple of days exploring the downtown area. If you have time check out the University of Arizona or the historic 4th Avenue which is next to downtown. Both locations can be reached using the Sun Link Streetcar. https://fourthavenue.org/

Going a bit further you can visit the Saguaro National Monuments, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Colossal Cave, San Xavier Mission, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and many more places. Come enjoy the history, culture, and beauty the area has to offer.

Eva Eldridge is a contributing writer for Big Blend Magazines. Along with travel and lifestyle articles, she also writes fiction and poetry. She was editor of the Tucson Sisters in Crime anthology, “Trouble in Tucson.” Visit her at www.EvaEldridge.com

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