Yes, it can be done — if you live in one of the walkable neighborhoods — and if you don’t have to commute to work. I work on my laptop in local coffee shops, so as long as there are plenty nearby (with free Wi-Fi), I’m happy.
I’m living near downtown Tucson, also near the University of Arizona. I’ve been here since January 1 and I’m leaving on June 1. I bought a bike to use here, but I could have easily gone everywhere I need to without one, because it’s all very walkable. There is also a streetcar that I rarely use because it’s quicker to hop on my bike.
When I was deciding where to live for the winter, I looked into New Orleans, Playa del Carmen Mexico, and Tucson. Tucson won out because of cheaper rents, great winter weather, and a walkable neighborhood near the university. I have no regrets — I’m really glad I came, Tucson is great!
I can walk or bike to several different interesting neighborhoods: West University, Downtown, Armory Park, and a few other places. Each neighborhood has a slightly different character, and all are walkable or bike-able — and interesting. The roads are wide and there are good bike lanes. Compared to biking in Boston (where I lived and biked during my whole adult life), it’s a breeze! There are a lot of potholes here, but it’s easy to avoid them on the wide streets.
Compared to cities like Seattle (where I lived last summer), Tucson is small (and flat). The downtown is really small, with not very many tall buildings. The rest of the city is spread out and very flat, surrounded by mountains. There are plenty of ugly strip malls and divided highways, but there are also some interesting neighborhoods, each with a different kind of history and charm.
The downtown area was only recently developed and now it’s no longer a run-down wasteland. It has a streetcar, lots of upscale foodie restaurants, co-working spaces, coffee shops, bars, two major music and theater venues, musical instrument stores, vintage clothing stores, government buildings, banks, and a big public library. It’s interesting to me that downtown has no major department stores like Macy’s. It doesn’t even have the big drugstore chains like Walgreens or CVS. All of that is in the car-oriented areas of town.
I’m in a neighborhood called “Iron Horse” (because of the railroad) and it’s only a 5 minute walk to downtown in one direction and a 5 minute walk to “4th ave” in the other direction. “4th ave” is a neighborhood near the university, filled with little stores that sell candles, incense, hippie clothing, and that sort of thing. There are also quite a few good coffee shops and restaurants, a food coop, authentic Mexican food places, and a very good indie bookstore. If you go closer to the university campus, there is another neighborhood that seems designed for students and visiting parents – with Urban Outfitters, Starbucks, a bunch of restaurants, clothing store, art supplies, CVS, and that sort of thing. On the campus itself there are several museums and a planetarium — I’ve been to two of those so far.
There is another neighborhood I hang out in sometimes — called Armory Park. It’s south of downtown and has some interesting houses because it’s where the bosses of the railroad workers lived in the old days. That’s where I stayed in the Airbnb back in November.
I like that it’s so easy to bike or walk to these neighborhoods. Everything is so close and I can hang out in a different neighborhood every day.
When you look towards the horizon you see a different mountain range in each direction. I never get tired of looking at those mountains. I have a couple of friends here, one has a car, and one has a motor scooter that holds two people, so I’ve been lucky to see some places in and around Tucson that are too far to easily bike to. Every time I move to a new location, I make some new friends — and people like to show off the place that they live in. New local friends are the perfect tour guides!
Here are some of my favorite places in Tucson so far:
- The food co-op where I get all my groceries: Food Conspiracy Co-op (great name).
- Exo Roast – a coffee shop where the smell of fresh roasted beans is lovely (and I don’t even drink coffee!), and the Wi-Fi is faster than most other places around here.
- Antigone Books – a really great indie bookstore, powered by solar energy.
- La Indita – a little place with really good Mexican food.
- B-Line – local coffee shop/bistro with good food, reliable Wi-Fi, lots of free iced-tea refills, and a friendly staff.
- Cafe Passé – another good coffee shop with a nice patio out back.
- Epic Cafe – a coffee shop that reminds me of old hippie hangouts in the sixties, with a few outdoor tables – good place to meet friends for conversation.
- Sparkroot – downtown coffee shop with interesting modern decor and very tasty food.
- The Screening Room – independent movie theater downtown — with lots of interesting special events, including the Arizona International Film Festival.
- The Loft Cinema – well-known independent cinema that shows all kinds of indie films and has some great series. Only downside is that it’s in a car-oriented neighborhood — not fun to bike to. Best to go with a friend who has a car or motor scooter.
- 5 Points Market & Restaurant – fantastic food and a small market at Five Points in Armory Park. Good Wi-Fi, great atmosphere, great food — can’t be beat.
- Goodwill store on 4th Ave — a large thrift store with ever-changing inventory — one of the best thrift shops around.
- St. Vincent De Paul near 5 Points in Armory Park – another great thrift store, even bigger than Goodwill, with lots of great stuff including furniture, records and CDs, and all kinds of retro southwest stuff.
A bit farther out (requiring a car), here’s what I’ve visited so far:
- Mt. Hopkins scenic drive in the Santa Rita mountains – south of Tucson. Beautiful views on the drive up to where the Fred Whipple Observatory (Smithsonian) is located (wasn’t open when we were there).
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – A beautiful outdoor place with all kinds of desert animals and plants — the hawk demo is especially fun.
- Sabino Canyon – We rode to the top in a tram with a narrated tour and walked back down, stopping at beautiful vistas and pools of water that we waded in.
- Nogales, Mexico – just across the border, a one-hour drive from Tucson. I went with a local friend who gets cheap, quality dental care at Dental Laser. We had lunch at La Roca before walking back across the border to the parking lot on the U.S. side.
- Sentinel Peak – also called “A” mountain in reference to the huge University of Arizona “A” on the side. Fantastic views of Tucson. See my Periscope video made at the top.
- Tanque Verde swap meet – a huge maze of tables and stands selling everything under the sun. Fun browsing.
And I’m sure I’ll visit more interesting places before I leave at the end of May.
If you are thinking of moving to Tucson and you want to be car-free, I suggest living in one of these neighborhoods near downtown. There are plenty of fun and interesting art, music, and cultural activities to keep you busy, too.
So if you are thinking of spending a winter here, and you want to live without a car (perhaps you are also a digital nomad?), I recommend one of these walkable neighborhoods in Tucson, from November through May.
The image below is from the Weatherline app for iOS. Look at the highs and lows from January through May in this chart. It’s late April now and still quite comfortable. The high of 85 only happens for a little while — mostly it’s in the upper 70s and low 80s. You can set up several locations in this app and then swipe between them, for easy comparison when you are deciding where to live at different times of the year.
For more photos and impressions of Tucson, see my post, “From Seattle to Tucson,” about the two weeks I spent here back in November when I was looking for an apartment.
And just for fun, I made a board on Pinterest (with a map), of my favorite Wi-Fi hangouts in Tucson.