Tucson is the city in which my wife was born in—a city she and I both love to return to—and it now has a new special place in our hearts, tacky as the expression is, given that it was also the city where our son started walking. Yes, he took a few clumsy steps before we checked into our fifth-floor Airbnb. But they did not take him very far. It was only in Tucson, in the craggly desert, overlooking dirt parking lots and faraway mountains, that he actually started walking with any real stability and intention. Maybe the arid air inspired something in him. Or maybe it was the children’s museum.
And, actually, let’s start there, because it’s as good a place to start as any in Tucson for parents travelling with their toddlers. The Children’s Museum in Tucson is so charmingly different from other children’s museums, precisely because it maintains that wonderfully rugged, gently downtrodden vibe that seems to emanate from every corner of Tucson. I’m not calling it ramshackle, per se. But we’ve been to children’s museums in other cities, and Tucson’s is the only one with a supermarket packed with real grocery boxes heavy-duty wrapped in box tape; where half the toys look like used donations; where there’s a wall of freakishly large sensory body parts (an eye, lungs, snotty nose, etc.) with little to no context provided. It all feels cheap, random and funny—and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
Tucson, much like other largely Latino urban areas of Arizona, seems to have thrived as something of an independent anomaly in the ever-changing state. Long a blood-red Republican stronghold that’s become a more visibly purple mixture of gun-toting Christians, Latino immigrants, Navajo nations and crunchy environmentalists, the state has transformed into something much less clearly defined than it ever was. Tucson, the state’s “second city” near the southern border with Mexico, boasting a large university and progressive arts scene, has always been a bit of an outlier. Head north on 4th Ave and you’ll find a grungy punk scene that’s fuelled more by students than gentrifiers. Slip down to Congress/6th Ave to find a modern light rail slicing through a glitzy late-night atmosphere, packed with live music and dancing. It’s all very hip, very slap-dash, and not at all condusive to travelling with a toddler.
Which brings me back to the Children’s Museum. If you could distill Tucson’s essence into a space for children, the Children’s Museum would be it. There is a small, free park outside—replete with foam blocks, trikes, a water fountain and a mini-playground; it’s all sunburnt and washed-out, roughed up and well used—that distracted us for 30 minutes before we actually entered the building. Inside, our son gravitated most intensely to the supermarket and kitchen areas, where he diligently grabbed pots and pans, threw a rubber egg inside and started mashing it with any utensil he could find.
Our home base was an Airbnb in what appeared to be a student residence. The location and view were excellent, near the downtown but far away from the nightlife noise. We would have been more concerned about going out at night if we were even able to go out at night—one of the drawbacks of a studio Airbnb is, of course, the inability to turn a light on in a 400-sq-ft room after 8 pm.
But while that room was the first place my son really started walking, it wasn’t the place we spent the most time in. Tucson is a food city—a “City of Gastronomy,” according to UNESCO—and I was lucky enough to be married to someone who lived there for four years, albeit over a decade ago.
One of our first stops was a perennial favourite, Five Points Market and Restaurant, at which, in a previous life, we’d enjoyed enormous and delicious pancakes. Today it was simpler fare: an audaciously thick slice of toast topped with pemeal bacon and an omelet and a hefty handful of arugula. The kid enjoyed probably the best meal we could buy at a restaurant: a side order of a scrambled egg with a bowl of beautifully sliced fruit. The excellent coffee, attentive service and sunny wall of windows made it the perfect introductory meal for us. (They also have a whole spiel about paying a liveable wage to their employees and only sourcing sustainable / local ingredients, yadda yadda—all good stuff, but it’s the food that matters at the end of the day, and the food is excellent.)
We of course ate elsewhere too—at the storied Hotel Congress, the chic Mercado San Agustin, the low-key Guadalajara Grill—but Five Points remains our favourite restaurant outing in Tucson.
Beyond the walls of the Children’s Museum, Tucson boasts a few grand parks, including the Gene C. Reid Park, part of a sprawling span of greenery that includes a zoo, a golf course, a rec centre, tennis courts, an amphitheatre, a dog park and, of course, a playground. Our kid, having only just learned to walk, was pretty shaky compared to the bigger kids running around; he stuck to the smaller slides and grabbed onto the large chipped-paint pink turtles that didn’t really do anything but offer some unconventional seating options. Vee drove off to grab dinner supplies from a nearby supermarket, leaving the boy and I to toddle around as the sun set, at which point the park got busier, to my surprise. It struck me that more families came after working hours, after the hot sun sunk behind the horizon, having prepared picnics for a more comfortable dinner en plein air.
Gene C. Reid wasn’t the only playground we visited in Tucson, but it was the nicest. The Limberlost Family Park sits just south of the Rillito River, which forms a natural northern border to the city. Its tall playground is a small fraction of the sizeable square of green space, mostly with picnic tables and a lengthy paved trail that circles around the park’s circumference. It may not be worth going out of your way for, but if you, like us, need a place to let your kid stretch their legs en route back north to Phoenix, you could do worse.
For example: the Tucson Petting Zoo and Funny Foot Farm. Found in a dusty industrial area surrounded by a gas company, a landscape-supply store and numerous auto repair and parts shops, right next to a train track and the I-10, the Funny Foot Farm is not especially fun. To preface this, I’m willing to concede that our son, famously into trucks, was more entranced by the next-door collection of diggers and loaders than the animals on display. But we nonetheless walked down the long dirt driveway to see a few unhappy animals beseiged by kids. After maybe five minutes, a 20-something kid ran out of a trailer and asked for $10 per person. Now, I’m not saying the place should be free, but they should at least post a price somewhere—on their website, at the entrance, anything—instead of coming up from behind us after we’ve been petting animals for five minutes already.
Given that we didn’t have the time to spare, or the inclination to show our kid more sad-looking donkeys, we decided to let him cling to the chain-wire fence of the neighbouring heavy machinery parking lot instead, where he gaped at the mighty excavators and marvelled at every pebble he picked up, until he inevitably pooped himself, and we spent longer changing his diaper than we did petting the miserable goats.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Tucson. This experience was not a disappointment. I think, rather, it proves the thesis of Tucson as a city, especially for travellers with kids. Relax. Don’t overthink it. Don’t aim for perfection. Enjoy the makeshift infrastructure, the ramshackle parks, the ad hoc museum, the grunge, the vibe. Kids don’t need much more than some dirt, rocks and a view of construction machines to have a good time.