As a result of its rich history, Tucson’s character today reflects a combination of Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American cultures. Its downtown is known for its excellent Mexican cuisine (it’s a UNESCO City of Gastronomy), Saguaro cacti, variety of architectural styles, Sentinel Peak Hill, and status as the home of the University of Arizona. Our route from Canada to Baja took us right through Tucson, so after spending weeks exploring small towns, wilderness, and beaches, we decided that it was time for a big-city adventure. Based on our experience in downtown Tucson, we think that it makes an ideal urban vanlife adventure destination and in this post, we’re sharing our top 5 reasons why.
#1 – 6 Downtown Districts to Explore
Downtown Tucson is divided into six, easy to explore districts – all connected by a streetcar system. Each district is unique and has its own identity. We loved this about Tucson because we were only visiting for a short time, and it meant we could explore the downtown in bite-sized pieces. With the time we had available, we managed to visit parts of the Sentinel, Presidio, Congress Street, and Fourth Avenue districts.
We rolled out of bed early in the morning on our first day of sightseeing and headed straight to the Sentinel District, planning a short climb to Sentinel Peak to overlook the city, before heading downtown for breakfast. We didn’t realize that they close the road to Sentinel peak on certain days of the week to give priority to pedestrians… and this was one of those days. The closure made for a longer hike than we had planned and although totally worth it for the views to the city, the mountains, and the hundreds of Saguaro cacti (my new favorite), we were starved… and a little cranky… by the time we got back to the van.
The Presidio District was the second destination on our list and we parked in the lot directly across from the famous El Charro restaurant for $5/day. It was an ideal spot to park the van for a day while exploring as many districts as possible – more about that in #2 and 3 below!
#2 – Unique Architecture & Streetscapes
Architectural styles in Tucson span everything from Spanish Colonial and Sonoran to Modern. We spent much of our day wandering through the districts, admiring the architecture and streetscapes. Old adobe buildings in Presidio, modern glass skyscrapers and public buildings along Congress Street, an outdoor food court made of shipping containers on Fourth Avenue, and street art/graffiti throughout, were some of our favourite things. We didn’t have time to fully visit all of the districts and their unique styles; we would have needed several days, if not weeks in the city to truly “see it all”. But, we certainly got a good taste of the local flavour.
#3 – Delicious Food & Coffee + Dog-Friendly Patios
Speaking of local flavour… Tucson is known for its cuisine and after a quick Google search, there were so many highly rated restaurants downtown, it was difficult to choose… so we ended up choosing a few!
Our late breakfast after the long hike up Sentinel was at Tall Boys. Due to the pandemic and travelling with Walter, it had been ages since we ate breakfast out. Tall Boys had a beautiful patio – nestled beside the Art House Centro – and a delicious breakfast. They were more than happy to accommodate Walter on the patio and brought him a huge bowl of water. The breakfast tacos were probably the best I’ve ever had.
Although we had several cups of coffee for breakfast, it didn’t stop us from testing a latte at Exo Roast Co. It was deep in the warehouse district, which is currently under construction. Despite our patio seating being almost in the construction area, it was the best latte we’ve had since leaving home (and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know we’ve tried many!).
We finished the day with dinner at El Charro – the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson and operated by the same family since 1922. According to sources, El Charro is the birthplace of the Chimichanga. We could not believe that they let Walter into the interior courtyard with us – we were thrilled, to say the least. Of course, we ordered chimichangas (when you’re in Rome…) but were stuffed with so many complimentary tortilla chips and salsa that we brought home half of the chimichangas for next-day lunch.
#4 – Free Camping Nearby on BLM Lands
After a day of eating, drinking coffee, hiking and sightseeing, we were exhausted after dinner and ready to find somewhere to park the van for the night. Our preference for urban vanlife adventures is always to park overnight downtown – on the street, in a Walmart, or in a paid parking lot – but overnight parking seems to be very restricted in Tucson. We do have some friends who managed to park overnight in various commercial lots throughout the city, so it’s doable, but our personal rule is no overnight parking if there’s a sign, so we looked for an alternative.
BLM (Federal Bureau of Land Management) Lands to the rescue! There are BLM Lands where you can camp for free for up to 14 days, less than 20 minutes west of downtown. It’s a perfect option if you’re looking for camping that’s free and doesn’t need to be booked ahead of time. We arrived to discover a super eclectic mix of campers. Everything from new-ish sprinter vans that appeared to be stopped for 1-2 days like us, to old barely functioning schoolies (converted school buses) housing a large number of interesting characters. It was anything but a serene camping experience (lots of engines and yelling) but it was in nature, close to the city, and a good option for a night or two. We would stay there again.
#5 – Vanlife Conveniences at Reid Park
I’m cheating with this one because technically Reid Park isn’t downtown, but it’s right next door and shouldn’t be missed if you’re travelling in a van or RV. It’s a 131-acre park in the middle of the city. It has a zoo, a swimming complex (perfect opportunity for a $2 shower as long as you’re not there on a Sunday or holiday like we were – ugh we have bad timing sometimes!), and a park. The park contains a dog park, a pond with a waterfall, numerous play structures, and palapas with AC power if you want to work on your laptop. It also has several open-air bathroom structures – great for emptying your pee-bucket if like us, you have a composting toilet in your van.
We spent an afternoon here but if you have kids, you could spend days. Our friends Justin and Christina are travelling with their 2-year old son and dog and they loved this spot.
If you’re passing through this area in your van or RV, Tucson is absolutely worth visiting. With the 2 days we spent in the city, we only scratched the surface. We didn’t make it to some of the downtown districts and we missed the San Xavier de Bac Mission Church – a highly-rated tourist site. There are also numerous trails, campgrounds, national parks/forests, and climbing areas surrounding the city that we would like to have visited if we’d had more time. But, there’s always next year!