How is it that Tucson has managed to maintain that ideal degree of just-below-the-radar for all these years? True, wellness seekers have found refuge at standard-bearer spas like Canyon Ranch and Ventana for decades. And design lovers from around the country, tired of Palm Springs, have claimed midcentury houses in the foothills and cactus-roofed adobe gems in the Barrio Viejo. But Arizona’s second-largest city still retains a cultured, almost-small-town feel. When you combine that with UNESCO-recognized Sonoran cuisine, life-changing hikes and winter temperatures that can touch the 90s, Tucson feels like the perfect-for-right-now retreat.
We asked Salima Boufelfel and Roberto Cowan, the duo behind the clothing boutique Desert Vintage — an Instagram darling whose brilliantly curated pieces disappear faster than you can say ‘80s Beene — to share their hometown’s superpowers. Here they are, in their own words.
The landscape is so unique and so specific that it has its own energy and aura that people are drawn to for different reasons. Here, you can live or stay in the middle of the city but be quickly immersed in one of our local parks, which have the highest concentration of saguaro cactus in the U.S. It’s been really good for our creativity, and it’s part of why so many New Yorkers have been buying places here. The quality of life is fantastic!
When we think of wellness, we immediately think of air quality. You just don’t get the air quality in big cities that you can have in a place like Tucson, where you also don’t see tall buildings. All you see is sky. That in itself is a big perk for sure. There have been hippies here since the ‘70s, drawn by the desert’s powerful aura. And, of course, Navajo culture is essential to the region.
There are really fantastic spas here, like Canyon Ranch. Ventana has multiple mineral pools and fantastic teachers ranging from sports to yoga. There’s a lot of that here, and it feels like Tucson is also becoming a center for that stuff. (Our favorite is Yoga Oasis, a locally owned studio where classes are $5. They’ve adapted beautifully to our times, offering open-air classes at different places, such as on the rooftop of Playground, which used to be a bar.)
We’re looking forward to trying Kaelen Harwell Organic Day Spa, which opened recently and has strict safety protocols. And we also stock up on handmade skincare and oils at the Tucson Herb Store. The owner makes an oil from creosote, a local bush that has the most incredible fragrance when it rains. It’s evocative of our hikes, so we always take it with us when we travel. (It has lots of healing properties, too!)
We are in the desert but, believe it or not, we do have water! So there are tons of hikes where you can see waterfalls or bodies of water. We love one called Seven Falls in the Sabino Canyon mountain range. It’s really beautiful and therapeutic just to be immersed in that water that’s flowing through all the rocks.
We recently did a breathwork workshop on the David Yetman trail, which takes you to this Victorian rock structure that was most likely his home. It doesn’t have a roof, so you basically sit in this rock structure looking up at the sky, which can take you many places.
And Gates Pass is such a beautiful hike, especially during sunset. The view is literally breathtaking.
Very Local Food
In 2015, Tucson was the first U.S. city to be named the UNESCO Capital of Gastronomy. The food here is known as Sonoran cuisine—we’re 45 minutes from the Mexican border, and culturally it’s such an interesting mix.
Even if you go to a local farmers’ market, like St. Philip’s Plaza (we love the woman who makes socks on a turn-of-the-century machine!), you’ll find handmade tortillas, dried chiles and nopales, which are indigenous.
Sonoran cuisine is a lot of tacos and a lot of steak. There’s also the Sonoran dog, which is wrapped in bacon and topped with beans, onion and salsa and served on this amazing, brioche-like roll. Our favorite place is El Guero Canelo, which started as a food truck and now has several locations. For tacos, we love Taqueria Pico de Gallo, which started in like the ‘90s and is still owned by the same family. (Sadly, our favorite restaurant, Cafe Poca Cosa, recently closed.)
South Tucson — which is like its own city — is home to the largest Latin community. It’s where the most authentic restaurants are. It’s very specific to three streets: Fourth Ave., Sixth Ave. and Twelfth Ave. Fourth has more of the sit-down restaurants, Twelfth has more of the tacos and hot dogs, and Sixth is a mix of both. There’s a new place that opened a couple of years ago called the American Eat Co. that’s an open-air market, where you can find young chefs trying new things.
For fine dining, the Coronet is a really local French bistro, with creative food and an incredible adobe building from the 1800s. It’s also in an incredibly beautiful neighborhood that’s worth exploring. We also like Agustin Kitchen, an American restaurant with great decor.
Design for Miles
Tucson is wonderfully preserved without feeling like a museum. The Barrio Viejo is the oldest neighborhood, with adobe Sonoran row houses from the 1800s. Diane Keaton has a house here. The El Encanto neighborhood is more late 1940s/early ‘50s: It was designed to be a Palm Springs-like getaway town — a kind of sleepy resort. With the resurrection of wellness spas, it’s an interesting ode to what the area was originally designed for.
Then you have these very prominent architects that are more like midcentury builders and designers that came and did a lot of really great old ranch houses in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s up in the northern foothills. A lot of our friends from New York have purchased these midcentury ranch homes in the middle of the desert, and they all have this very minimal, sprawling look to them. And there’s a lot of glass incorporated, so you have these panoramic views of the desert.
Once a year in spring, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation does fantastic home tours. They pick different neighborhoods and the most spectacular homes. It’s worth timing a visit to! (Better yet, book a night in the historic 1952 Ball-Paylore house.)
Salima Boufelfel and Roberto Cowan are the co-owners of Desert Vintage in Tuscon, Arizona.