Downtown Tucson's colorful La Placita Village, near E. Congress. (stock photo)
  • Downtown Tucson's colorful La Placita Village, near E. Congress. (stock photo)
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Tucson’s becoming a hipster destination? Get out of town!

Looking out over Tucson, Saguaro cactus in the foreground. (stock photo)

Recently, Tucson was named one of the top up-and-coming "hipster" cities in the U.S. Someone must have stumbled out too deep into the desert and started munching on peyote. After living in Tucson for over five years, I can safely say that the words "hipster" and “Tucson” were never mentioned in the same sentence.

Sure, there was the hip (more hippy than hip, really) 4th Avenue, boasting lots of coffee shops, restaurants and bars, but beyond that, Tucson has always been a college town surrounded by the Catalina Mountains, Saguaro National Park and beautiful Sonoran Desert.

Returning to Tucson after a five-year hiatus, I found some changes – especially the activity surrounding the downtown area. In the past, there was very little reason to venture down there. Besides an occasional show at the Rialto or Club Congress, it was mostly a dead area. It was dark, dirty and surrounded by a bunch of rundown warehouses.

But due to a light rail project running from the University of Arizona campus over to 4th Avenue and into downtown, there's new life being pumped into my old stomping grounds. A large number of new businesses are beginning to fill the old, worn-out spaces, and with the light rail Tucson should continue to make strides in the right direction.

One of the first destinations on my tour of the "new" and "hipper" Tucson was a stop at Tap & Bottle on 6th Avenue. It was exciting to venture beyond the dingy dives that were more often frequented during my college days. Walking in, I was immediately impressed by the welcoming exposed brick, wooden floors and long bar. It was a little upscale, but not to the point of being pretentious or too hipster for this beer enthusiast. Their 20 drafts included a handful of local brews, as well as a nice selection from Colorado, California and Oregon. If the tap selection’s not enough for your taste buds, there's also a great bottle selection.

Our next stop led us directly into the heart of downtown. After parking, we made our way down E. Congress Street, passing a number of trendy restaurants with candlelit interiors, well-dressed clientele and open windows facing out to the street. Previously dark streets now cast a yellow glow, rooftop nightclubs boomed overhead, and there was an exciting vibe in the clear desert air. Concerts were happening at both music venues, creating a stir all along the main drag.

We ventured into World of Beer (I find it important to sample the local libations). Although World of Beers is a chain establishment, they do a nice job of carrying a wide variety, including a decent selection from Arizona. The place was packed with students, professionals, beer enthusiasts, and people like me just looking to experience a different side of Tucson.

Before hopping on a flight back to San Diego, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to head back toward 4th Avenue. "4th Ave" is the funkiest street in town; home to shops like Hippy Gypsy, Che's Lounge, a number of small tattoo shops, bookstores, bars and restaurants like Bison Witches, O'Malley's and The Shanty. I began my day at Epic Cafe, a funky coffee shop at the corner of 4th and University. Its high ceilings, colorful walls, tasty coffee and friendly employees make it a great place to fuel up. From there, it's an easy walk over to the U of A campus, or down 4th into downtown.

Reilly Craft Pizza interior.

I had heard a few people mention Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, located downtown, so I made it one of my last stops before my departure.

Immediately upon entering, I felt like I was in a different city altogether. Boasting rounded archways and hardwood floors, this fancy establishment has been converted from an old mortuary. Since it was early afternoon, it was almost empty inside, but I stayed and ordered their Margherita pizza. It was great: an oval-shaped pie with a puffy, yet crispy crust and a tasty sweet sauce with fresh basil. Outside there's a beer garden with the feel of a converted garage, offering tables and a small area to mingle and soak up some Arizona sun.

Sometimes the word "hipster" is tossed around too often, and it can throw people off when describing a scene. What I experienced from the newer, hipper Tucson wasn't "hipster," exactly; it was more a city responding to a desperate need for a downtown upgrade. Along with the already stunning scenery, great hiking trails and good Mexican food, there’s new life emerging in Southern Arizona.

So whether or not you're hip or un-hip, hipster or un-hipster, Tucson is up and coming and well worth the trip.

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