So, you've only got a few days to spend in Tucson—where to begin? We've put together a trip that gives you a taste of (nearly) everything this desert town has to offer. Between the famous Chimichangas, the remote mountain hiking, and the Western movie sets, Tucson makes for one exceptionally balanced weekend.
Surrounding the city of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west. In the west you've got the Tucson Mountain District, and in the east you've got the Rincon Mountain District. And while both regions are full of towering saguaro cacti, there are some unique and special aspects to each. In the east, we suggest hiking the two-mile, round-trip Mica View Loop—you'll be rewarded with up-close views of the saguaros. And in the west, the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a popular way of exploring the foothills. While the road may be unpaved, it offers plenty of scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and hiking trailheads, all within a convenient 6-mile loop. Entry into Saguaro National Park costs $20 per car, $15 per motorcycle, and $10 per person/bicycle.
Don't be fooled by the name—the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum isn't your typical museum. This place is a world-renowned zoo, aquarium, natural history museum, botanical garden, and art gallery all in one! Located to the west of downtown Tucson, visitors can walk through the desert gardens, touch stingrays, observe mountain lions, and take a hike along the Desert Loop trail. A great place to bring kids, admission costs $21.95 for adults and $9.95 for kids. You'll definitely want to spend a few hours here, so try to stop by before 4 p.m. (the museum closes at 5 p.m. every day).
Sure, you can go to Hollywood and check out the movie studios, but can you witness a live action stunt show, enjoy musical entertainment, and experience vintage rides while you're there? At Old Tucson, you can do all of this and more. Built in 1939 for the movie Arizona, Old Tucson is home to more than 400 film, television, and commercial productions. For a little more than $20, visitors can walk through the Western town and watch trained stuntmen fly through the air in epic showdowns. Or head underground to a hidden mine shaft full of crumbling rocks and some rumored ghostly patrons. Once you've explored to your heart's content, stop by Big Jake's BBQ for some smokey ribs and a side of coleslaw.
Founded in 1692, Mission San Xavier Del Bac is the oldest, intact European structure in Arizona. Originally built as a Catholic church, the mission still retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious needs of its parishioners. The sprawling desert grounds and peach-colored buildings are considered to be some of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. Inside you'll find one of the most elaborate and ornate altars, filled with finely detailed sculptures, golden pillars, and classic frescos. Be sure to check out the free museum, which explains more about the mission's history and features plenty of interesting artifacts. You can even attend mass at Mission San Xavier. Services are held every Saturday night at 5:30 p.m. and every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Nestled right in the heart of downtown Tucson, Hotel Congress is considered to be an "urban, historic rock 'n' roll hotel." Built in 1918, this Tucson landmark is not only home to a few different bars and performance stages, but it also housed famous ganger John Dillinger before he was arrested in 1934. Historians and music lovers alike will love staying at Hotel Congress, but we should warn you—it does get noisy. If you do choose to stay in one of the 40 rooms, you'll be rewarded with charming features authentic to that of the 1920s (think iron beds, vintage radios, and no TVs). Or if you prefer to just stop by for a drink and some mellow music, Hotel Congress has a great, art-filled patio and a happy hour every weekday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
You can't spend a weekend in Tucson and not eat at El Charro Cafe. Plain and simple. The birthplace of the chimichanga, El Charro also happens to be one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in the country. With three locations scattered throughout the city and one small shop in the Tucson airport, you'll likely never be far from an unforgettable meal. Utilizing both Sonoran and local ingredients, El Charro is truly a "taste explosion." Yes, you should absolutely try the chimichanga, but don't be afraid to try some of their other classics, like the carne seca—marinated Angus beef that is shredded and grilled with green chiles, tomatoes, and onions.
Pop Cycle's motto is "when you live in an environment of scarcity, you quickly learn to rethink usage." Founded in 2008 with the goal of promoting desert art made from recycled material, Pop Cycle has become a must-stop along Tucson's Historic Fourth Avenue. A long street lined with interesting shops, galleries, and eateries, you can find Pop Cycle right in the middle of 4th avenue between 6th and 7th street. Step inside and find shelves filled with handcrafted saguaro-shaped necklaces, organic pet products, vintage serving trays, and robot-shaped desk organizers. If you've been looking for a place to buy someone a special Tucson souvenir, this is it.
Mount Lemmon is the perfect place to add some nature to your bustling weekend. A favorite hiking spot among locals, there are plenty of different trails on Mount Lemmon ranging from easy to very difficult. The Meadow Loop trail is one of the easier hikes. Just 1.5-miles roundtrip, this relatively flat path is perfect for beginners who still want some gorgeous views of the surrounding hills. Or, if you want something a bit more challenging, you could try the 13-mile Mount Lemmon Trail. While steep and rocky in parts, this path does offer some of the best panoramic views of the city. Regardless of which trail you end of taking, be sure to pack lots of water! This is still the desert, after all...
Foodies, historians, and adventurers will find much to like in this southern Arizona city. A true oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, Tucson offers plenty of opportunities to explore, unplug, and relax—you just might need to make another trip to enjoy it all!
Banner Photo Credit: Lee McLaughlin (MTCVB Marketing)
Tucson (pronounced TOO-sawn) is the second-largest city in the state of Arizona, with nearly one million residents in the metro area.