Tucson is a college town with a youthful exuberance. It's also a city with wide-ranging appeal. Adventure seekers and nature lovers can venture into the Sonoran Desert or up to Mt. Lemmon. Foodies can indulge in a singular food culture that's long been put on a pedestal. Art lovers can amble through high-brow galleries or stroll past astonishing murals by local creatives. And history buffs have historic ranches and missions to inspect. This weekend itinerary checks all these boxes.
Downtown Tucson's six districts are eminently walkable and subtly different. Fourth Avenue is one such district. It isn't polished, but that's part of the charm, and the Tucson Portrait Project features scores of local faces to add to the authentic, down-to-earth feel. You can travel from one district to the other on a streetcar. Between University Blvd and 9th Street, lively bistros, watering holes, bookshops, and eclectic stores double down on the college town vibes. 19th-century buildings lend the Old Pueblo a sense of character.
Tucson has a big culinary reputation to uphold these days. It was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy at the end of 2015, in honor of its extensive food heritage dating back millennia. Mexican and Native American traditions and unique local ingredients like edible cacti permeate the cuisine. Carnivores can sample the Sonoran hot dog with toppings like pinto beans and jalapeño salsa, and plant-based folks can try BATA's flavorful fare.
Saguaro National Park is a jewel in Tucson's crown and is split into a western side and an eastern side which is best to explore over two days. Have a picnic at Signal Hill before viewing the wonderful petroglyphs or Native American stone carvings. Watch out for rattlesnakes if you're hiking, listen for howling coyotes, and if you're driving, the wild boars or javelinas can pop up on the road in front of you, so keep your wits about you. The saguaro concentrations differ in various parts of the park, but no matter where you see them, the heights they reach and the fact that many are centuries old is impressive.
Humans have lived in what is now Tucson for approximately 12,000 years, which beats out other areas in the U.S for continuous inhabitation. If we consider more recent history though, San Xavier del Bac demands a visit. This historic Catholic Mission in the Tohono O'odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation is 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. It is an excellent example of Spanish colonial architecture and dates back to 1783, although the Mission was founded in 1692. San Xavier del Bac is still run by Franciscans and serves as a pilgrimage site. You can light a candle, support the food vendors, and walk up Grotto Hill for the views.
How about coffee or a drink with a side of astronomy? At Sky Bar Tucson, you can peer through telescopes in between sips of your preferred beverage. Live music lifts the energy in the space. Go line dancing at Maverick King of Clubs, freestyle your moves at Club Congress, or make your way to the Loft Cinema, an independent theatre showing late-night screenings of cult classics.
Tucson Museum of Art's permanent exhibition features artifacts from a time before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the New World, and a lot more besides. The museum's gift shop is pretty cool, with an assortment of handmade items for sale. Not far from the museum, you'll come across various historic homes. The city is also known for its gorgeous and thought-provoking murals by artists like Ignacio Garcia, Jessica Gonzales, and Robbie Lee Harris. You'll find some along the Loop multi-use trail.
Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, and Mt. Lemmon are some of our favorite spots for birdwatching, but sticking around in the city's parks will afford you plenty of birding opportunities. Greater roadrunners, cactus wrens, and curve-billed thrashers are just some of the birds to look out for. If you're a mountain biker, then intermediate routes like the Starr Pass Rail System should be on your radar. Road cyclists must pencil El Tour de Tucson into their diaries.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum could be a whole-day family affair. There's plenty to pique the interest of different ages, from hands-on exhibits to a huge toddler play area. It's right next to Saguaro National Park, so you're in for a fun-filled day. Biosphere 2, a futuristic experiment conducted in the 90s, is nearby too, and makes for a fascinating tour.
Tucson's spas use ingredients like aloe, which are abundant in the desert, to moisturize skin and facilitate healing, and native Tucson herbs and flowers allow for "farm-to-body" pampering. Miraval and Canyon Ranch are lauded destination spas, but they're not the only ones. You can even do yoga in a craft brewery in Tucson!
It's always a good time to visit Tucson, but it depends on your interests. The city has two summers: a dry summer between the middle of May and July which is hot but not unpleasant because humidity is low, and the wet summer or monsoon season between July and September. Hiking is optimal during fall and spring when you can see unique cacti wildflowers. But you can hike in summer too if you get an early start, and go museum hopping in rooms cooled by ACs. The heat means fewer tourists and lower rates. Splurge on a destination spa or book a tasteful Airbnb.