As the holidays draw near, Arizona artist Maria Luisa Teña assembles hundreds of terra-cotta figures at the Tucson Museum of Art to create El Nacimiento, a room-size installation that depicts the Nativity and scenes of Mexican religious and village life.
It's the highlight of a visit to Tucson's historic El Presidio District, where bougainvillea, cactus, and brightly painted walls preserve a village atmosphere even as offices have set up shop.
With the museum's diverse collection and the galleries at Old Town Artisans, the 15-square-block district is a prime stop for art lovers looking for a soulful shopping experience. Like El Nacimiento, the neighborhood celebrates art and tradition in the shadow of a rapidly changing city.
El Presidio District is east of I-10 on the northern end of downtown Tucson. It's bounded by Granada and Stone Avenues and Alameda and Sixth Streets.
The Presidio Trail Take the 2.5-mile self-guided walking tour, which winds past 23 historic downtown sites. INFO: A map is available online and at the Tucson Visitor Center; 100 S. Church Ave.; 800/638-8350.
Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block This art showcase incorporates five historic homes that now serve as galleries. Its shop is a good bet for holiday gifts. INFO: Closed Mon; $8, free ages 12 and under; 140 N. Main Ave.; 520/624-2333.EAT
Cafe a la C'Art Sandwiches, salads, and desserts in the museum's 19th-century Stevens/Duffield House. INFO: $; closed Sat-Sun; 150 N. Main Ave.; 520/628-8533.
El Charro Café A Tucson classic for Mexican cuisine, with a store that sells the restaurant's salsas and other gift items. INFO: $; 311 N. Court Ave.; 520/622-1922.
Old Town Artisans Shops and galleries arrayed around a courtyard in buildings dating to the 1850s, with ceilings made from saguaro ribs. The Old Town Pot Shop's wares include handblown ornaments by Arizona glass artist George Averbeck. A good spot for folk art is colorful Tolteca Tlacuilo. INFO: 201 N. Court Ave.; 800/782-8072.
HAPPENING IN DECEMBER
A neighborhood highlight, El Nacimiento is displayed in the city's oldest building, La Casa Cordova, on the Tucson Museum of Art's campus (through Mar 30; closed Mon; free; 140 N. Main Ave; 520/624-2333)
MAKE IT AN OVERNIGHT
Within a short walk of the district's attractions and restaurants, El Presidio Bed & Breakfast Inn (4 rooms from $120; 800/349-6151) is set in an 1886 structure that started as a simple adobe and expanded into a more elaborate building with Victorian flourishes. The house, filled with antiques, opens to a lush cobblestone courtyard.