Tucson and the Southwest might not come to mind when you think about walkability. Sunbelt cities are famous for their devotion to the automobile. Consequently, an avid walker might balk at the idea of a walkable city in Southern Arizona. No doubt the choices are limited compared to the older, denser, more dynamic cities of the East Coast or Europe.
But Tucson is changing. CultureMap Austin even said “don’t be surprised if you start seeing Tucson popping up more frequently on lists of unique places to live and visit” (Source). The fact that people in Austin are recognizing Tucson speaks volumes. Here are seven places to get out and walk around in (and near) Tucson.
Did you know there are more saguaro cacti within driving distance of Tucson than any other city in the world? Source
The University of Arizona
Tucson’s top walking destination is also Tucson’s most famous landmark: the University of Arizona. No place in the city is geared more fully towards the walking experience.
It starts with the car-free UA mall, lined with some of the university’s most important buildings, including the grandfather of them all, Old Main. Nestled comfortably in between these buildings is a welcoming expanse of grass for recreation, trees for shading under, and public art for gawking at.
If you are exploring the university on one of Tucson’s famously hot days, consider stopping by the excellent Arizona State Museum on University Boulevard west of Old Main. The museum captivates with an extensive collection of photographs, pottery, masks and more that colorfully illustrate the history of the Southwest.
The museum also serves as a springboard to the vibrant stretch of University Boulevard between Park Avenue and Euclid Avenue. This area is lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes that are the heart of student social life at the U of A.
Slightly farther to the west, you will find Fourth Avenue, which acts as a bridge between the university and downtown. Given its proximity to the university, Fourth Avenue is a major haunt of U of A students and is particularly lively on Friday and Saturday nights during the school year. And if you are in the mood for some of Tucson’s best Italian food, consider stopping by Caruso’s. The pizza, pasta and desserts never disappoint.
Tucson’s long dormant downtown has finally roared back to life. Tucson had a thriving downtown in the 1940s and 1950s. It was the place to go see and be seen. Then, like so many other cities, downtown businesses shuttered their windows thanks to the indoor shopping mall. In such a hot place as Tucson, an air-conditioned shopping mall was no doubt particularly attractive.
Fortunately, downtown Tucson has always had good bones; it just needed proper physical therapy. For many years, starting in the 1990s, the Rio Nuevo Project aimed to turn downtown Tucson into a destination. For many years, Rio Nuevo failed to affect the intended change.
Finally, starting in the last 10 years, the project bore fruit. In particular, Congress Street has truly become the Main Street that Tucson lacked since the 1950s. Restaurants, coffee shops, stores and bars line the street.
The remodeled train station provides a unique focal point. Hotel Congress is a great place for brunch or admiring its immaculate interior. Condos are springing up all over, giving the downtown a lived-in feel that any good walk-able neighborhood needs.Embed from Getty Images
For a lower key alternative to Congress Street, explore the well-maintained, charming historic homes that line Granada Street and Main Avenue north of Alameda Street. If you get hungry, swing over to El Charro Cafe, who proclaims to have invented the chimichanga (a deep-fried burrito).
Sam Hughes Neighborhood National Historic District
East of the University of Arizona, you will find the charming Sam Hughes Neighborhood. In 1994, the neighborhood officially gained the designation of “national historic district”. The neighborhood initially experienced a boom of house building between 1923 and 1932, so many of the neighborhood’s houses date from this area.
Watch cyclists race to and from the university, residents walk their enthusiastic dogs, and birds chirp cheerfully high among the many trees. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is lovely Himmel Park located on Tucson Boulevard south of Speedway.
The park features a small library, multiple play areas for children and large grassy areas for games and sports. To the south and west of Himmel Park are well-maintained and engaging historic homes welcome exploration. The neighborhood is Tucson’s best mix of the genteel and the modern. For more information about the neighborhood, take a look at its official website here.
If you are looking to experience the Sonoran Desert that awaits on Tucson’s doorstep, Gates Pass should be at the top of any list. Gates Pass sits in the Tucson Mountains nine miles to the west of downtown. The mountain pass peaks at over 3,000 feet and offers excellent views of Saguaro National Park, Old Tucson and Kit Peak (the site of a world-renowned observatory).
The mountains that surround Tucson and enfold Gates Pass sit in stark contrast to the mostly flat valley in which Tucson is located. Gates Pass’ main viewpoint seduces you go get out of your car and ramble up craggy slopes for new and ever-more promising vistas.Embed from Getty Images
Even if you are not looking for a full-fledged hike, Gates Pass offers an unforgettable experience of walking (and climbing) in the unique and precious Sonoran Desert near Tucson.
Gates Pass is one of the best places in the Tucson area to view a famous Arizona sunset. A list of the five best Tucson sunset views is here.
Barrio ViejoEmbed from Getty Images
Barrio Viejo is immediately to the south of downtown, but deserves to be mentioned separately. This neighborhood is home to some of Tucson’s oldest houses, many dating back to the 1800s. The area includes the United States’ largest collection of adobe houses.
Sadly, a large part of the neighborhood was razed to make way for the nearby Tucson Convention Center, But what is left will charm you instantly. Highlights of Barrio Viejo include the Tucson Children’s Museum on south 6th Ave and the homes of Convent Avenue. For a photo tour of Barrio Viejo, check out this link.
Seasonal Walking Escapes
The Tucson area also offers seasonal havens for stretching your legs. If the summer heat is just too much, consider driving 25 miles up the Sabino Canyon highway to the top of Mount Lemmon.
There the quaint village of Summerhaven awaits you. The village straddles the highway, but if you want to walk among mighty pines in relative comfort during the summer, Summerhaven delivers.Embed from Getty Images
Diversions within the village are limited, but still worth a quick stroll. The Cookie Cabin beckons you to come in and indulge your sweet tooth. The Living Rainbow and the Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop are small shops that reward thoughtful browsing.
And after the village’s built environment has been thoroughly explored, enjoy the mountain’s serene natural environment. At the end of the Sabino Canyon Highway, you will find the Marshall Gulch Trailhead and Picnic Area; this a great place to hike, clamber over imposing boulders or just amble aimlessly amongst the cool pines.
During the winter holidays, one Tucson neighborhood turns on the lights and welcomes pedestrians to enjoy the show. For three weeks in December, residents of the Winterhaven neighborhood decorate their homes with elaborate light displays. After night falls, the roads are closed to outside traffic and walkers of all ages are encouraged to admire the creativity and ingenuity of the Winterhaven community.
Winterhaven is located near Fort Lowell Road and Country Club Boulevard. Finding a place to park can be a challenge, especially closer to Christmas. But don’t let this deter you. A stroll through Winterhaven is the perfect way to experience Tucson’s excellent winter weather and get in the Christmas spirit at the same time.
Despite recent developments, Tucson is still an automobile city. Fortunately Tucson’s old core anchored by the University of Arizona gives the city a walkable heart. Arizona’s famous heat might make walking difficult at times, but Tucson is still worth exploring on foot.
Experience Tucson at a slower pace. Take in sights and smells that you would miss speeding by in an automobile. Get out there and Tucson’s walkable heart will reveal itself to you.