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Take a Few Days to Really Enjoy Tucson

Take a Few Days to Really Enjoy Tucson

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Getaway Staff
Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Where once there were gunslingers and saloons, now sits modern Tucson - a dynamic desert city. Immortalized in countless Westerns like the 3:10 to Yuma and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it's no wonder Tucson is associated with the rise of the American West. But Tucson's appeal goes far beyond Mission architecture, dramatic cacti, and rustic pueblos. Tucson is the very definition of a well-rounded getaway from science and the arts to food, history, and adventure. As one of the sunniest places in America, there's no better place to soak up the sun while seeking some fun.

If you've got five days to spend in Arizona, we've got some great ideas on how to fill them.

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01Explore Tucson's Celebrated Food History

Nowhere in America does food history run as deeply as in Tucson, where agriculture was established over 4,000 years ago. Dubbed America's first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, Tucson's food scene is one defined by that deep agricultural tradition and the ties to the Indigenous people who've called this desert plain home for 12,000 years.

Until 1853, Tucson was still part of Mexico. The Gadsden Purchase may have made it American, but the traditions and foodways of Northern Mexico and the Sonoran Desert prevail even today. Mexican eateries abound in Tucson, but one is an institution like no other. El Charro Café has four locations, but visit the one between El Presidio and Historic Fourth Avenue because it's America's oldest Mexican restaurant, serving up traditional foods since 1922. Locals swear by the carne seca or dried beef. Time and technique set El Charro's carne seca apart. Sun-dried for three to four days, the dried aged beef is then reconstituted with chilies, onions, and tomatoes for tasty alchemy to be enjoyed in a variety of ways.

But Tucson is a taco-loving city, and the best thing about tacos is that no one ever eats just one. So why not explore several of the much-loved taco joints on offer in Tucson via the Taco Bike Tour with Tucson Bike Tours? The popular 10-mile taco quest includes cycling the South Side for the real-deal tacos the locals love. Bring extra cash if you crave cervezas. Or simply follow your tortilla fiesta with a walk through the brewery district, just a short stroll from where the bike tour ends.

Food history in Tucson goes far beyond Mexican influences. Lard-fried bread has deep roots in Indigenous history, but it's now a tasty vehicle for toppings of all kinds. You'll find it served straight-up as a bready delight, as a base for tacos and burgers, and even as a dessert reminiscent of funnel cake. Frybread is popular throughout southern Arizona on numerous menus around town. Worth checking out, though, is Café Santa Rosa - beloved for their fry bread and bill themselves as a modern Native American café.

Be sure you try prickly pear in all its various iterations, from ice creams to drinks. This much-loved local fruit has fed Indigenous people in these parts for thousands of years and tastes something like a hybrid of watermelon and bubblegum.

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02Tucson Loves Biking - Learn Why

If you want the local biking experience, ride the Chuck Huckelberry Loop. But call it "the Loop," like everyone else does. The Loop began life as a network of access roads built to maintain the Rillito, Pantano, and Santa Cruz riverbeds after a catastrophic flood in 1983. Since then, it's slowly been expanded into a 137-mile cycling network and is an amazing way to see the region.

The Loop takes you all over Pima County, from malls to galleries to parks and restaurants. But if you're looking for a different experience, download the "Artwork Along the Loop" pamphlet showing 60 public works of art found along the trails. Before you set out, visit Fortunato's Italian Deli on Tanque Verde for a picnic lunch to enjoy along the way.

Adobe home, Tucson historic district. Claude LeTien / Getty Images

But with landscapes like this, why stay urban? Tucson's proud of its mountain-biking community, and they've been working hard to develop their network of trails in Pima County. Single-track trails of all difficulty levels stretch throughout the region - carving up rocky slopes, following dried-out riverbeds, and meandering through prickly cacti. With cactus everywhere, be sure you pack tweezers and a tire-patching kit. And don't push your luck with trails - there's a hardcore community here, so stick to trails that match your abilities.

Mountain Biking outside of Tucson

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03Get Dusty: Hiking Day Trips

An early spring Arizona landscape in morning light with saguaro cactus reflected in a large puddle at the bottom of the frame. A man hikes in the distance. Shot in Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona. Some copy space in the sky. JannHuizenga / Getty Images

Just outside city limits to the northwest, Saguaro National Park is a must-see, particularly at dawn or dusk, when the sky is alight in color, and saguaro cacti cast dramatic silhouettes. The saguaro is native to the Sonoran Desert and is the nation's largest cactus, some growing as high as 40 feet tall. Any cactus with at least one sidearm is already 75 to 100 years old. The more arms, typically, the older it is. On average, these beloved cacti live 150 to 200 years and are protected in Arizona.

May through early June is the peak cactus bloom season. The saguaro's melon-scented blossoms live only for a day, opening after sunset and closing by mid-afternoon, ending that blossom's literal day in the sun. Strolling through can be a magical early-morning experience. Even without the blooms, you'll find it worth the time to hike or bike in Saguaro National Park, as it's a captivating landscape unrivaled outside the Sonoran Desert and is unique to this part of the world.

A majestic Saguaro cactus towers above the colorful Sonoran desert landscape beneath a canopy of white clouds. Woodkern / Getty Images

Locals love Sabino Canyon, in the Santa Catalina Foothills, at the north end of the city. There, a 3.8-mile paved road makes this canyon fully accessible for walkers and runners of all abilities. Those looking for an easier day can ride the $10 tram, which has guided narration. Good thing, too, because there's much to learn about this stunning landscape. If you're packing water and good shoes, get off the main stretch and explore trails that'll take you to places like Bear Canyon and the swimming holes of Seven Falls.

The Seven Falls Trail, Santa Catalina Mountains,Tuscon, Arizona, North America

Hiking abounds in Tucson, and Visit Tucson has you covered with a list of the best hikes and trails.

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04Explore the Abandoned Wild West

Through a thick layer of gunsmoke, Tombstone marshals blow away 'Mexican' banditos, as actors sprawl across the ground during a western scene performed in Tombstone, Arizona, 2005. Cathy Murphy / Getty Images

If Tucson is the epitome of the American Old West, Tombstone is its still-beating heart, just over an hour from the city. Being where the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral unfolded, Tombstone is a hot spot for visitors looking to see reenactments, displays, and curios of that time. Tombstone has preserved its Old West heritage so well that you might think you hear Doc Holliday's spurs clapping on the boardwalk behind you. Elsewhere, though, the Western story is being lost to time as ghost towns crumble and decay.

Rent a car and explore remnants of derelict towns forgotten by time. The best-preserved ghost town is Ruby, about 70 miles south of Tucson. A mining town born with the discovery of quartz in the 1870s, the mine closed in 1940, forcing out-of-work townsfolk to cut their losses and head for work elsewhere. Today, Ruby is privately owned, and you'll pay admission to step into history here.

Ruby is a mining ghost town in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, United States. Mining started around 1877, when the Montana Mine produced gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper. At its peak in the mid-1930s, Ruby had a population of about 1,200. The most prosperous period for Ruby was in the late 1920s and 30s. From 1934 to 1937, the Montana mine was the leading lead and zinc producer in Arizona. In 1936, it was third in silver production. The mine closed in 1940, and by the end of 1941 Ruby was abandoned. GeoStock / Getty Images

If you'd rather ghost towns au naturel, they're all around Southern Arizona. Keep your eyes open and your boots on, and you'll stumble upon bunkhouses, saloons, jails, and other relics of the old frontier all around Tucson.

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05For Arts Lovers: A Day in Tubac

Just 45 minutes south of Tucson sits the small town of Tubac. With just 1,400 residents, you'll be shocked by how prolific this community is. Art galleries, festivals, and even live performances abound. Spend a day wandering galleries, but take in the morning and evening light if you can, as it's what compels so many artists to create here. Start at the Tubac Center of the Arts, then wander the private galleries that fill the town.

When hunger strikes, visit Elvira's on Frontage Road. Though pricey, it's a one-of-a-kind dining experience any art lover will enjoy. You'll be spellbound as you dine, marveling over the thousands of pieces of ethereal blown glass dangling from the ceiling. (Try their various mole-based dishes, but don't skip the flan - it's worth the calories.)

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06Get Your Science Geek On

TUCSON, AZ - AUGUST 2008: Here a technician looks over the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope's 8.4 meter mirror for any major flaws, beneath the University of Arizona football stadium. This glass of the mirror, made from ten pound glass chunks, will be polished within one millionth of an inch of the precise concave shape that is required. The reflective surface will be created by a thin coating of aluminum. LSST Mirror construction in Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona Mirror Lab. Joe McNally / Getty Images

The University of Arizona is at the center of scientific advances in Tucson. On their campus, you'll find the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, renowned in optics as makers of some of the largest and most advanced telescopes in the world, which allow scientists to study the furthest edges of our universe. (Inquire in advance if they're doing tours during your visit.)

But their most remarkable lab is 40 minutes north of the city. For over 30 years, U of A scientists have nurtured a manmade ecosystem with seven distinct habitats, including rain forests, ocean, mangrove forests, and more. The 75-minute Biosphere 2 Experience must be booked online in advance, as tours are extremely limited. If you've ever struggled to keep a plant alive, you'll be stunned at the enormity of this revolutionary science experience that may serve as the blueprint for urban life in the future.

ORACLE, TUCSON, AZ - ARPIL 12: Biosphere 2 is an Earth systems science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona. It has been owned by the University of Arizona since 2011. Its mission is to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching, and lifelong learning about Earth, its living systems April 12, 1990 Oracle, Tucson, Arizona Paul Harris / Getty Images

Tucson also has deep roots in aviation and space exploration, and few places on Earth offer celebrate aeronautic engineering like the legendary Aircraft Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The largest airplane boneyard in the world, it holds some 4,400 planes, thanks to the unique climate and surface qualities that make it ideal for preserving the planes' condition. As this is a working Air Force base, it's off-limits for visitors beyond the guided 90-minute bus tour. For a closer look at planes, visit the Pima Air & Space Museum, where more than 400 aircraft on their 80-acre site can be wandered amongst and admired.

Field of B-52 Stratofortresses Jim Sugar / Getty Images

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07Need Ideas? Research on Instagram

The @visittucson Instagram account is a wealth of travel inspiration. Loaded with natural landscapes, tasty local food, arts, and culture, the account is a wealth of Tucson sights and experiences. Get great ideas on new places to eat and where to photograph the best sunsets. It's a great spot to see fascinating experiences that may require advanced booking, like the aforementioned Biosphere 2 Experiment.

Explore accounts tagged by @visittucson and check out the hashtags too. You may find yourself in some rewarding travel rabbit holes with adventure ideas only the locals know about.

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08Don't Miss Historic Fourth Avenue

What Tusconans call the "Fourth" is where the local counter-culture beat unfolds. Hip for a half-century now, it's home to the much-loved Fourth Avenue Street Fair, held early winter and mid-spring annually. Loaded with eclectic shops from bookstores to artisans, you'd be remiss if you didn't stay for the after-hours scene. Nestled between the university and downtown, Fourth's where you'll find some of the best bars and evening spots to have a cocktail and people-watch or wear yourself out on a dance floor.

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09Congregate on Congress Street

If Fourth's too bohemian for your taste, try Congress Street. This once-thriving street became a shadow of itself but was reinvented through creative urban planning. The city reduced traffic by removing a lane, then widened sidewalks, brought in a streetcar, and even planted trees for abundant shade for pedestrians. Over two decades later, Congress Street is a thriving economic and cultural hub.

It's here you'll find events loved by locals, like "Second Saturday," a monthly street festival that brings vendors, artisans, food trucks, open galleries, and even live performances.

Easily make a day of it along this 1.63-mile street of contrasts, where you'll find vivid barrios and historic sites, bustling shops and live venues, plenty of restaurants, and even craft breweries. Plan stops at the Tucson Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art to round out your day. Photography lovers cannot miss the free exhibits at the compelling Etherton Gallery, which feels like a museum, but which is one of the country's most renowned photography dealers.

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10Explore Your Tucson Your Way

A photo of a waitress holding a giant platter of salad. Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, chicken, cilantro, cheese and tortilla strips Jackie Alpers / Getty Images

From golfers and cyclists to shopping fanatics and foodies, there's something for everyone in Tucson. Be sure you pore over the VisitTucson.org site, where they've got trip ideas that'll be perfect for you, no matter what your interests are.

There's no question that Tucson has plenty to fill your days with. The only question now is, how many trips will you need before you've seen all this dynamic city has on offer?

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