Phoenix Versus Tucson — Which Arizona City is Better

It’s been a long time since I wrote the original Phoenix Versus Tucson post. I’m planning an update soon.

People from Phoenix love to shit all over Tucson by saying things like “It’s dirty” and “the roads are terrible.”

(Disclaimer: I am an Arizona State University graduate. But I also have little regard for silly-ass tribalism. I also like Tucson more and more with every visit.)

While those who bash Tucson run their mouths, downtown Tucson gets steadily more interesting. I’m not ready to proclaim it Portland in the Desert.

Phoenix versus Tucson -- A little street art to make the case for Tucson.
A fun bit of Tucson funk.

But that day could come.

During my most-recent visit to Tucson (May 2014, as of this blog post), here’s what I did:

  • I visited a museum that is literally a one-of-a-kind in the entire world. I didn’t visit the Pima Air Museum this time, but that’s also a better museum than anything in Phoenix. And yes, that includes the Musical Instrument Museum. That gives Tucson two museums that are better than anything the Phoenix area can offer.
  • I walked — and saw interesting things. Yeah, Tucson is a sprawling desert city kind of like Phoenix. But it has more pockets of densely packed interesting stuff like art studios and  independent restaurants than you’ll see in Phoenix. Scottsdale is by far the worst offender of useless space – you can walk for miles in that city without seeing anything interesting. And no, Old Town Scottsdale and its rubber tomahawk shops don’t count. Sadly, downtown Mesa currently out-cools downtown Scottsdale, and would comprehensively throttle its snooty neighbor to the north if it could convince businesses to stay open later.
Downtown Tucson is gaining ground in the Phoenix versus Tucson feud.
A look at the tidy-but-cool downtown Tucson area.

Shopping in Phoenix is Overrated

My perception of Phoenix is that it erroneously believes everything has to be fancy and “high end” to be interesting and viable. It only embraces the funky and weird – like the 5th Street and Roosevelt area – under duress and as a last resort. Tucson mixes it up nicely, especially downtown and near the university.

It’s kind of funny to me, also, that Phoenix and its stepchildren position themselves as great places to shop. I scratch my head over this. I see the same old stuff here, with few alternatives. Let’s put it this way: A few years ago, I was in a band and looking for a new amp. I couldn’t find the one I wanted in Phoenix. I drove to Tucson and found it at one of the several independent music stores down there. Tucson also has Miller’s Surplus, which appeals to my love for surplus stores. Right now, it’s hard to find a decent surplus store in Phoenix.

Inside a cool Tucson coffeehouse.

Tucson is Full of Great Food (So is Phoenix, to be Fair)

And let’s talk food. Phoenix gets overlooked nationwide, and I absolutely hate listening to people from Chicago overrate its greasy, cheesy artery-clogging fare. And Tucson is no slouch, either. For the past few years, I haven’t considered a visit to Tucson complete without a visit to the Time Market. And during my last visit, my friend and former co-worker Will introduced me to 47 Scott and its accompanying speakeasy Scott & Co.

We started out at the speakeasy, where I had a cocktail made with a whole egg and hoisin sauce — it came off a bit like an aggressive White Russian, which means completely delicious. I don’t always drink cocktails — but when I do, I prefer for them to be like that!

As for 47 Scott, we slid in just about 15 minutes before it closed and had a stuffed bell pepper, a burger of ridiculously high quality and a crusty bread & olive oil appetizer with some fresh mozzarella. And yeah, I made my ritual visit to the Time Market. I started off with a slice of pizza made with locally sourced lamb sausage, and took a few chocolate bars to go. Yeah, Tucson sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Look, I can understand giving Tucson a hard time. It’s our neighbor to the south, and smaller, to boot. And I laugh every time someone calls the University of Arizona Nogales Tech. But I can’t honestly say much bad about Tucson. Phoenix is losing its edge over Tucson.

Outdoor, Travel and Culinary Options to Rival Bigger Cities

Here’s how I see it: Tucson has awesome mountain bike trails. It has caving. It has shopping, a viable art/music scene. Personality through independent businesses. Great scenery. It’s even a few degrees cooler. Phoenix offers a few more culinary options, sure. Employment might even be a wash. And the airports? Hell, every international trip I take requires a stop at LAX before I can get anywhere cool – so Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has little more than Tucson International Airport to offer.

So, can someone remind me why Phoenix is that much better than Tucson?

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By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.


  1. Well put. I’m from Massachusetts and have lived in Arizona for 10 years. The thing that Phoenix doesn’t do that Tucson does (and does well) is that PHX doesn’t have a specific cultural center. A place where locals go and can be. Just be. And the Nogales Tech thing is HILARIOUS. I have never heard that, but it is funny. Almost as funny as when I imagine a party in PHX and tattooed bros wearing MMA gear and wraparound Oakley’s and blasting butt-rock at 110dbs.

    Running out of steam here…I’ll leave with this; it’s a tie for hot coeds and dumb Californians who couldn’t get in to a state school. That has to count for something.

  2. Thanks for reading, Corey. Yeah, Phoenix is weak on a center. My best guess is that with a bunch of smaller cities flanking it, each one of them wants to be the cultural center. And well, that just can’t work. Of course, downtown would make a great center. But Phoenix seems to have a “price it way high and keep the riff-raff out” philosophy. The Roosevelt area could be a start, but it just hasn’t gone far enough.

  3. Great article Justin, I’m from Tucson (currently living in Chicago) and I have to say, there’s nothing like home. The next time you visit, stop by Hotel Congress for brunch, it will be an experience you never forget. Be sure to order a bloody marry from Dustin, he makes the best around. Next, entertain the idea of having great sea food in the Desert, King Fisher is a great place to start. Defiantly a local favorite, especially the bar and live Jazz on Thursdays. If you’re wandering around the university area, Pasco Kitchen and Frog and Firkin are both a great places to eat lunch especially on the patio’s. If your in the need for relaxed atmosphere and a brew go to Trident, it really is a tucson staple, especially on games days. Living in Tucson most of my life has allowed me the opportunity to experience not only the great restaurant culture, but the amazing outdoor activities. Sabino Canyon and Mount Lemon offer some of the best, especially if you love hiking, swimming, fishing, camping, etc. Before I go I want to mention one more place. If you ever take a date to Tucson or want to blow some coin, The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol is a real hidden gem that not many locals know about, it offers some of the most breath taking views in the city, five star service, a menu even a foodie could love, and probably the largest selection of wine on hand in Tucson. Happy trails Justin.

  4. I’m from Tucson. I spent the last 3-4 years working in Phoenix/valley, because work in Tucson dried up. I have a brother that lives in the east Chandler area, and stayed with him during the week as I worked, and went home on the weekends to Tucson. Every chance I got, I explored ‘The Valley’. At first, I was impressed – the traffic infrastructure is just decades ahead of anything that’s in Tucson. The speed limits are nice and fast; you feel like you’re getting somewhere. And unlike Tucson, people actually drive above the posted speed limit – hurray! But.. there’s something really wrong with the city. Everything was new-ish; commercial and corporate. Lots of major chains in these big mega centers. I wanted small business; those mom ‘n pop places. I wanted real atmosphere. I found some, but they’re far and few between.

    The mentality of the city seems to be, destroy the old and rebuild with new. Chandler is losing its farming area to these pop-up suburbs (all shine-y and new). It feels fakes. I spent three years looking for its soul, and I couldn’t find it. Maybe a few fragments here and there. There’s no character, no soul. No culture. Downtown, 4th, and UofA area in Tucson, are filled with all kinds of people, rich and poor. The young and the old. I went to the ‘art’ district of Scottsdale, only to be saddened that it was upper class only. Since when did art have this privileged attachment to it? In Tucson, there are lots of bars, cafes, and shops where local artists are able to put their work on display (on the walls) and sell them.

    I went down to the ASU area multiple times; it’s nothing like UofA laid back atmosphere. Even the ASU art museum felt pretentious, in comparison. I didn’t know ASU and the ilk, looked down upon the UofA. I’ll be transferring to a university after my two years at CC; I’ll move out of state before I attend ASU.

    Tucson has its share of problems; it’s a city that’s clinging to it’s small town mentality (infrastructure wise). Things are slow to improve. The job market is slow to recover. People will drive under the speed limit (ugh!). But Phoenix is just fake, commercial, over crowded, and caters to sheeple.

  5. Rich, I definitely like Tucson. It has a lot about it that I like better than Phoenix. I’m not willing to go so far as to say there’s no culture in Phoenix, though. The live theater here is actually pretty good and varied … and that’s culture. There’s some interesting national diversity here, too – pockets of neighborhoods with Russian, Asian and African people. There’s an outstanding homebrewer community in Phoenix. Maybe that’s not what we think of as “culture,” but it’s people getting together and diving deep into something they love. I’m sure a few people who are interested in other sorts of culture can pitch in here. I remain, though, pretty disgusted by live music here. Too many good venues have shut down in the past few years.

    The looking-down-on works both ways where the universities are concerned, too. Wildcats aren’t fond of Sun Devils.

    And you’re right about “destroy the old and rebuild with the new.” Even worse is when some developer plows an area, and then names the subdivision after what used to be there. Or worse yet, give it a faux-Spanish name. (Can someone tell me what the hell a “Verrado” is?!)

  6. While I agree with much of the article – and most of the comments, I believe the realities of Phoenix are taken to an extreme. Phoenix is a much larger city. There are many more areas of intrigue: restaurants, sports, events, sites, etc. Tucson is a medium sized city. Much culture revolves around the UofA and the ideology that youth carries with it. This is a creative and rewarding aspect. On one side you can say that this culture is a vision of the future. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Phoenix is at the forefront of the desert living war. The front involves living in an environ that is not meant to sustain such growth. A populace in need of electricity, water, food, and transit. For a city to be at need can be seen as a vulnerability. For Phoenix to be the leader of our pack, it must not grow in size, but maturity within the ever evolving desert landscape.

  7. Thanks for your comment, James. Based on square mileage alone, Phoenix is bound to have more restaurants. But, you know, I disagree about events and sites. Pound-for-pound, Tucson outpunches Phoenix in events and sites. The music scene is much more concentrated, and its museums and outdoor opportunities are just as varied … and I’d argue that the quality is better. Sports? I don’t gauge cities based on spectator sports, but rather by participant sports (I prefer playing sports to sitting in a chair and watching others play sports). Tucson has an edge there, too.

    I really don’t follow you on the “desert living war.” Tucson needs electricity, etc. just as much as Phoenix, correct? So what puts Phoenix at the forefront?

  8. Good points. I definitely think Tucson has more quality restaurants, events, museums, parks, per person. However, there are more in Phoenix. More opportunities to explore.
    Sports are subjective, but the majority of people watch sports rather than play.
    Phoenix is at the forefront of the urban sprawl issue we are faced with. non-sustainable growth, unchecked development, poor city planning. All factors that will come to the forefront in the future of the city. It will happen to phoenix first, and Tucson will follow. By saying this, I was offering up the notion that Tucson can still learn from the mistakes made in PHX before it is too late.

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