A long weekend in Tucson, AZ

Arizona’s “second city,” makes a great snowbird weekend getaway for adventure and food. It is often overlooked for spa retreats in Scottsdale or the landscape of bucket list destinations such as Flagstaff,  Sedona, or the Grand Canyon. Tucson, which is surrounded by desert and mountains, is the best place to see the large Saguaro cactus. In 2015, Tucson was named a UNESCO city of Gastronomy, for the Mexican and Native American food that dates back 4,000 years. The saguaro freckled city has delicious and inventive food. Home to the picturesque University of Arizona, don’t be surprised to see many wildcat clad young adults. The local community is active and friendly, you will see people out for walks, hikes, and bike rides most days.

Since most of the sights are national parks or mountains, I created an itinerary based on geographical location. A day seeing the western sites, a day dedicated to the northern/eastern sites and a half day downtown. Here is my itinerary which each day can be changed up to your liking and interests.

Day 1: West

Depending on the time of year that you arrive and your level of ambition, start your day off with a sunrise hike up Sentinel Peak (or “A” Mountain for the University of Arizona) or Tumamoc Mountain. Tumamoc mountain has a free audio guide you can download as you walk up! Afterwards you can grab a breakfast pastry from La Estrella Bakery or breakfast burritos from Seis Kitchen both located in the Mercado San Agustin. 

Next up, hop in your car and head to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which includes a zoo, botanical garden, and natural history museum. You can easily spend two hours walking a loop of the premise and learning about the desert animals and plants. My favorite part was the humming bird exhibit. The museum is a quick ten minute drive to the The Red Hills Visitors Center of Saguaro National Park West. An easy way to orient yourself is driving the Bajada Loop Drive and getting off for brief walks around on the Desert Discovery Nature Trail (0.4 miles), Signal Hill Trail (0.5 miles +picnic area), Cactus Garden Trail (0.2), and Valley View Overlook. For those looking for a more rigorous workout, I recommend either the 3.5 mile King Canyon Trail or 4.9 mile Hugh Norris Trail.

Sunset at Gates Pass Scenic Road

Coordinate your return to Tucson with sunset at Gates Pass Scenic Road (use the google maps location: Gates Pass Trailhead).

Grab some dinner and drinks at Mercado San Agustin, the site of Tucson’s first public market, or nearby MSA Annex, outdoor mall and food court in tastefully refurbished shipping containers. Tacos at Seis and Japanese food from Kukai are delicious. 

Day 2: East

Start your day driving the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive at Saguaro National Park East. For those who are into biking, it makes for a terrific and hilly 8 mile loop! Take a brief detour for the quarter mile Desert Ecology Trail or 1 mile Freeman Homestead Trail. For those who are more interested in a long hike, I recommend the Verde Ridge Trail.

Next up on the docket is Sabino Canyon (shuttle or hike up). For those who are into hiking, consider the longer: Blackett’s Ridge, Phoneline Trail, or Cardiac Gap. In the early evening, drive up Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, which is most interesting to watch the topography change as you drive. By the time we got to the top, we were looking at snow capped mountains with pine trees! Try to find the line where the cactus end and the pine trees begin!

If your Mt. Lemmon drive coincides with sunset, aptly named Windy Point Vista is a great spot to watch sunset. Pack layers accordingly.

Day 3: Downtown

Downtown Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, Artisan Shops in old Adobe buildings, the museum and the Southern Arizona Welcome Center. I recommend starting with breakfast or brunch at Cup Cafe (open hours: 8-3, 4-9pm) at the Hotel Congress, which was founded in 1919 and is the location of where the FBI arrested John Dillinger in 1934. It has live music in the evenings and both indoor and outdoor seating. They only take dinner reservations, so at times the brunch can have a wait.

Hotel Congress is adjacent to the funky 4th avenue which leads up to the university. I recommend taking a walk, and checking out the different murals.  Most of the murals are on 4th Avenue, Congress St and Broadway. Here is a map of them

For those who are interested, they can check out the University of Arizona campus. Or even see if a basketball game is playing! If you happen to get hungry near the U of A, Lindy’s on 4th has great burgers and Carusos and Ermanos all have great food. 

After a walk, you can loop back (walking or with a cheap uber) to Congress Street. I recommend checking out the Southern Arizona Welcome Center, which is housed in the iconic county courthouse, with a brightly tiled dome! 

For those looking for more food options, I recommend Penca (awesome Mexican City style food), Senai Thai, El Charro, or Coronet Restaurant. 

If you are looking for some nightlife, see if anything is playing at Fox theater or Arizona Theater company, both small historic theaters. For drinks I recommend Pothole for inventive cocktails, unpretentious Revel Wine Bar, and Cobra Arcade for a fun bar atmosphere with vintage video games! 

While it’s listed on most of the guidebooks, I find the Mission San Xavier del Bac underwhelming, albeit it’s free!

Our trip happened to coincide with the Tucson Rodeo, La Fiesta de Vaqueros. We went to the iconic parade and the Rodeo itself. Nearby we got a hot dog from El Guero Canelo Restaurant (they also have amazing burritos, too!)

If you are looking for more weekends away, check out my weekend itinerary for other college town of Ann Arbor, MI, Madison, WI, and Columbus, OH. Or a few warm weather California destinations, check out my weekend itinerary for San Diego, Santa Barbara, Napa Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and San Luis Obispo.

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