We have been to Tucson twice now and spent a month there during each visit. Even though both times we visited it was during one of the hottest months, June, with temperatures regularly reaching around 110F, we managed to sightsee quite a bit, took day trips to nearby destination, found restaurants and coffee shops we liked and fell in love with the Sonoran Desert which surrounds Tucson.
If you visit Tucson without a car, we recommend renting a car at least for a day or two, since many of our favorite places can only be reached by car. The center is rather small, and the city is very spread out, and some of the best things we’ve done were actually outside of the city center.
Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona and sits at an elevation of 2,400. The Sonoran Desert makes for a favorable climate during the winter months, while it can get unbearably hot in the summer. The city itself has a moderate population of 486,700 people, but the entire metropolitan area counts over 1 million people.
Tucson is also known as ‘The Old Pueblo’, built upon a foundation of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Old West roots. Especially the city’s Spanish and Mexican influences are still visible everywhere on a stroll through town, especially the historic center.
What to do
Stroll through the historic downtown
Tucson’s historic downtown is known for its colorful adobe houses which have all been restored and are well maintained by its owners. The Spanish Colonial Revival courthouse with its mosaic dome is one of downtown’s most recognizable buildings. Make sure to also visit the beautiful courtyard. Just a few blocks south you find the Cathedral of Saint Augustine, a beautiful church built in Mexican-baroque form.
Old Tucson Studios
The Old Tucson Studios, just outside of town, are a must visit for all fans of old Wild West movies. They were the backdrop for the gun-slinging Old Western heros such as John Wayne, Clint East Wood and Paul Newman. A visit to the studios is like a journey back in time, with many of the film sets still intact. There are also daily stunt shows and shootouts.
The Desert Museum is just around the corner from the Old Tucson Studios and is more like a biosphere than a museum. Part zoo, part botanical garden and part natural history museum, you can learn everything about life in the Sonoran Desert, see many of its inhabitants such as coyotes, scorpions, snakes and tarantulas, and the incredibly diverse flora and fauna.
While you are at the Desert Museum, you might consider combining the trip with a visit to the Saguaro National Park, just a few miles down the road. There are hiking paths or a road through the park with several lookouts. It is the most dense forest of Saguaro cacti in the U.S., with over one million Saguaros.
The park is actually separated in two parts, the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East), which can be both visited with the $10 vehicle permit which is good for 7 days.
4th Avenue is a popular road with a large number of restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs. At the time of our last visit, the historic 4th Avenue tram line was in the process of being restored, and a stroll along this road, which is popular with university students, can be combined with lunch or a coffee in one of the many independent restaurants.
The Pima Air & Space Museum features almost 300 historic air planes and helicopters, some of which are stored in a hanger, and some of which are lined up in a large outside area. It is one of the biggest aircraft museums in the world. Even though we are not huge plane geeks, we thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the historic military planes, drones and helicopters.
Mount Lemmon is a short drive northeast of the city, and was a welcome cool off from the summer heat for us. On the way up the mountain, you will pass through some of the Sonoran Desert with stunning views over Tucson, and when you finally reach the top, you will find yourself surrounded by pine forests. At 9,157 feet (2,791 m), it is the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and you can enjoy a hike along one of the many paths or just enjoy the several scenic lookouts along the winding mountain road.
Sabino Canyon is a desert canyon that is cut into the Santa Catalina Mountains, just north of Tucson. There is a tram with 9 stops which will take visitors into the Canyon, and you can choose on which trailhead to exit. The most popular hike is the Seven Falls Trail. Sabino Canyon can be visited with a National Park Pass ($5 per day.)
Mission San Xavier Del Bac
This gorgeous mission, nicknamed ‘White Dove of the desert’, is a white little mission, set in the middle of the desert, which is one of the best preserved missions in the area. Founded in 1692 when Arizona was still New Spain, the mission is the oldest Catholic church in the United States. The mission combines elements of Spanish, Moorish and baroque styles, and inside you can see a selection of statues and frescoes. Only a short 20-minute drive south of downtown Tucson, it is well worth a visit.
A little further away, Tombstone and Bisbee can still be visited in a day trip, and you can easily fit in both towns. The 70 miles from Tucson to Tombstone will take you around 1 hour and 20 minutes, and it takes another 30 minutes to get from Tombstone to Bisbee. Tombstone is known for its old Western image, having been the home of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and many other Wild West heroes. The little Western town still looks like in its heyday 130 years ago, with several saloons, cowboys roaming the town and of course the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral which is re-enacted daily.
Bisbee, a former mining town, has now transformed in a creative community of artists and is a pleasant little town to spend an afternoon in. There are plenty of art galleries, restaurants and cafes, specialty shops and the Copper Mine which can be toured. The charming little town of only 6,200 people is perched on the hillsides of the surrounding mountains and features some beautiful Victorian-style houses and an art-deco courthouse.
Café Poca Cosa
Café Poca Cosa is famous for its Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. The Plato Poca Cosa comes with three entrees to sample for $20.
The Cup Café belongs to the historic Hotel Congress in the center of Tucson, just opposite the train station. It is a great spot to have breakfast at.
Maynards is basically right inside the train station and offers great views over the trains that pass through Tucson while you have lunch. It is a great place for cocktails or drinks, and also has delicious brunch options.
Rosa’s Mexican Food
Rosa’s is a small family-owned restaurant, with classic Mexican dishes for little money. All the dishes are made using Rosa’s family recipes and entrees are $7 -$10.
Not only for bread lovers, this bakery and restaurant offers a full lunch menu as well, but you will love the selection of baked goods as well. They have a wide selection of international breakfasts, lunch includes salads, soups and mac’n’cheese in several forms.
The Epic Café on 4th Avenue is a little coffee house that serves organic food and is popular with the independent crowd. You can get inexpensive breakfasts, sandwiches and pastries.
This Mexican restaurant, located in Tucson’s historic Old Pueblo, was made famous by celebrity visits such as Bill Clinton’s or Julio Iglesias. They offer classic Mexican dishes and you can even the President’s Plate, the dish Bill Clinton ate on his visit in 1999.
Govinda’s is an unpretentious Indian restaurant that serves a vegetarian natural foods buffet. The restaurant has a large outdoor area and we enjoyed the selection of Indian dishes, salads and home-made bread. The lunch buffet (Wed – Sat) is $7.95, and dinner is (Tues – Sat) is $9.95, including drinks.
Cartel Coffee Lab
This spacious independent coffee shop has three locations in Tucson and is one of the best coffee shops, offering a selection of specialty coffees. The knowledgeable baristas serve coffee in a brewing technique of your choice and was recently named one of America’s best coffee bars by Food & Wine.
The Roadrunner Hostel & Inn offers small 6-bed dorm rooms ($20) as well as private rooms ($40). There is a nice communal sitting area outside and a spacious kitchen that can be used by guests.
Located just outside of Tucson, it is a secluded B&B with scenic mountain views, close to the Saguaro National Park, with trails starting right on the property. The owners Harvey and Betty Ross take pride in maintaining the historic feeling of the house and serve a delightful gourmet breakfast every morning. Price: $125 – $145.
If you would like to stay right downtown, the historic Hotel Congress is the perfect place for you. The hotel was the site of John Dillinger’s arrest and still has the old time feel of the Wild West. The rooms have all been renovated and updated, but there is a still a story in every detail, like the colorful murals on the wall or the classic Tap Room Bar. Price: $89-149
This historic B&B is set in a fantastic location right in the Old Pueblo in downtown Tucson and has four guest suites. All rooms are filled with antique furnishings and artwork, come with a kitchenette, TV, wifi, fluffy bathrobes and a hot country breakfast. Price: $129 – $160.
The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa
Tucson’s Westin sits in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and is a spacious resort with several swimming pools, 10 tennis courts, five swimming pools, an Elizabeth Arden® day spa, a Jack Nicklaus golf course, and various restaurants. All rooms have either balconies or courtyards from which guests can enjoy the superb mountain vistas. Price: Starting at $149.
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort
Set right by Sabino Canyon, also in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is another large resort, complete with two 18-hole golf courses, a health spa, two swimming pools, tennis courts and various waterfall-dotted nature trails. The spacious guest rooms all feature views over Tucson and the Sonoran Desert or the Catalina Mountains and have private patios or balconies. Price: Starting at $151.