Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest. With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.
I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.
Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.
There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week especially if you time your visit right with the weather.
Best Time of Year to Visit
Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.
Top Five Things to Do
There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.
Take a Hike
Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.
One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon. The best hikes to do: Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).
If you go: The Visitor Center is open 8-4:30 pm daily and the cost to park is $5 per vehicle. Location: 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750. To learn more visit US Forest Service website for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.
If you really want a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Tucson’s highest peak, Mount Wrightson but be prepared as this is a 5-6 hour challenging hike to almost 10,000 feet.
Spend a day at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
Located in the heart of Saguaro National Park in the outskirts of Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is part living museum, part botanical gardens and part zoo all combined in one great outdoor venue. The Desert Museum is a wonderful way to see all of the Sonoran deserts’ diverse flora and fauna. There are several exhibits featuring Arizona wildlife in its prime, spreading across over 21 acres of beautiful desert and two miles of walking paths. You can see Javalinas, coatis, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, ocelots, wildcats and brown bears, all native species to the Southwest.
If you go: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a wondrous place to see all the flora and fauna of the desert. It is located about 12 miles outside of Tucson and requires at least 3 hours to see all the sights. To learn more, visit their website www.desertmuseum.org. If you bring kids, be sure to pay $1 to buy the animal paw print stamp booklet. It is loads of fun!
Take a scenic drive to Mount Lemmon
Nestled high above the Catalina Foothills lies a spectacular place for a day trip: Mount Lemmon. At 9,157 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains and is part of the Coronado National Forest. It is a special place affording stunning views and a nature lover’s retreat.
Spend the day taking a scenic drive up the Catalina Highway (also known as the Mount Lemmon Highway) to the tiny mountain town of Summerhaven. Known for its spellbinding views along the stunning, windy road you will be amazed by the incredible rock formations and scenic overlooks. Once in Summerhaven, visit a local shop for pie or lunch or better yet pack a picnic lunch and take a hike among the mighty Ponderosa pines and Douglas Furs which are only seen at these high elevations. During Winter months you can actually ski on Mount Lemmon. The Mount Lemmon Ski Area receives about 57 inches of snow annually and its short but steep runs offers “winter on demand” for those living in the desert town below.
Be a cowboy and enjoy a horseback ride through the desert
Tucson is a fantastic place to go horseback riding and thankfully there are many beautiful places to hit the trails and explore the desert on horse. My favorite place to ride is at Hacienda del Sol, a historic ranch resort nestled in the base of the Santa Catalina Mountain. You can enjoy a morning, afternoon or even sunset ride and be prepared to see many amazing things!
Explore the Historic Barrios
For those who love history, culture and architecture, head down to historic Downtown Tucson and check out one of Tucson’s 34 barrios (neighborhoods). To visit the barrios feels like stepping back into time and quite frankly even feels like being in another country all together. From Neoclassical to Spanish Colonial to Tudors, Craftsman Bungalows, Pueblos and Ranches, the rich diversity of architecture and style found in Tucson’s barrios is immense. Print out a map and hit a few of Tucson’s most famous barrios such as the oldest barrio of all, El Presidio barrio, tucked discretely behind the tall buildings of downtown where you check out a few unique shops and visit The Tucson Museum of Art followed by lunch at the delightful, bohemian Café á la C’Art. Another must-visit barrio is Barrio Hollywood, an equally fascinating place not far away. Barrio Hollywood was settled around 1920 by mostly Mexican families and today the neighborhood is filled with vibrant, colorful buildings and family owned restaurants.
Check out the old planes at the Pima Air and Space Museum, one of the largest non-government funded aerospace museums in the world with over 350 historical aircrafts across 80 acres and six indoor exhibit hangars (three which are dedicated to WWII). Take a docent-led walking tour or even enjoy a bus tour of the Aircraft Boneyard of old planes. www.pimaair.org
Visit the Reid Park Zoo, located in the heart of Tucson, the Reid Park Zoo is great for kids! It is beautifully laid out with lots of fun, interactive exhibits and is a great way to spend a few hours outdoors especially with young children.
Where to Stay
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
Ranked #2 of best places to stay in Tucson on TripAdvisor, Hacienda del Sol is a lovely, authentic southwestern resort. Located within the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains on over 34 acres of desert, the resort is luxurious, intimate and central to exploring most sights in Tucson. Book a private casita, a guest room or a suite and enjoy your stay at one of Tucson’s finest resorts. www.haciendadelsol.com
Loews Ventana Canyon
Located in the heart of Ventana Canyon with the Santa Catalina Mountains directly behind, Loews Ventana Canyon is a great place to stay in Tucson especially if you enjoy golfing, hiking and being right at the foothills of the mountains. The resort has a spa, tennis courts, two PGA-designed golf courses, 2 swimming pools and an excellent hike right on its property up the Ventana Canyon Trailhead to Maidens Pool. It is also less than five minutes away from Sabino Canyon Recreation Area which has tons of awesome day hikes. www.loewshotels.com/ventana-canyon
JW Marriott Star Pass
If you want to experience tranquility and pure desert landscape, then the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa is the perfect place for you. Set within the mountains and close to the Sonoran Desert Museum and downtown Tucson, Star Pass is a luxurious resort with three nine-hole desert golf courses, a spa, multi-level swimming pools, waterslides, a lazy river and a fantastic outdoor terrace for dining and live music in the desert. www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tussp-jw-marriott-tucson-starr-pass-resort-and-spa/
Where to Eat and Drink
For gourmet elegance with superb skyline views: Vivace Restaurant (rated #1 on TripAdvisor): Chef Daniel Scordato’s Vivace serves fine Italian cuisine from Northern Italy in a beautiful location set up within the foothills overlooking the city. Night views of Tucson’s lights are magical and the cuisine is delightful in preparation and presentation.
For romance and American cuisine: The Grill at Hacienda del Sol. The views are breathtaking and the resort grounds are beautiful. There is even live music. You can eat in the formal dining room or on the outdoor patio and lounge for more casual fare.
For the happy hour: Flying V Bar & Grill . Sit outside and enjoy the stunning scenery for happy hour along with an order of their famous Tableside Guacamole, a Flying V signature, made fresh tableside with traditional and non-traditional ingredients by there “guacamoliere”. Nearly 70 tequilas and signature cocktails to keep you happy.
For more casual outdoor choices, try the different restaurants at La Encandada. It is an open-air upscale shopping center with lots of nice restaurants and even an awesome grocery store, AJ’s Fine Foods which has an incredible bakery. My favorite place to grab an outdoor lunch is at Blanco’s (I love their Mexican Chop Salad). There is also Italian, Sushi and more.
There are plenty of fun day trips you can take from Tucson including a visit to the artist town of Tubec (located about 45 miles south of Tucson).
Sip local Arizona wine in Sonoita. Believe it or not, Arizona produces wine. In fact, Southeastern Arizona is home to 19 family-owned vineyards some which have been in business for over 25 years. As a true wine-lover I must admit I was a bit skeptical about Arizona wines. But an afternoon spent wine tasting in lovely Sonoita proved my early convictions wrong. Not only is this straw-colored, rugged landscape lovely, the mix of quirky to elegant vineyards are definitely worth a visit. Located about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson, it is a fun outing to check out the various wineries and have lunch.
A visit to Mexico used to be fun and safe but sadly times have changed and it is not recommended. What a pity.
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