When I started my college education in summer 2017 and moved to Tucson, I knew very little about this amazing city. I had been here twice – once for a campus tour and once for registration. On both of those trips, I only visited the university campus and had no idea what else was around here. Having grown up in West Virginia, living in the “big” city of Tucson was a huge change, but despite its urban sprawl and 500,000 inhabitants, once you get to know the area, Tucson starts to feel like a small town, just stretched.
Having graduated from the University of Arizona, I’m now preparing to leave Tucson, and, though I’m excited to go home, I’m also going to miss living here. Tucson has so much to offer, and it’s easily one of my favorite cities in the world (though I do have a strong bias since it’s one of the cities I’m the most familiar with in the world). Really, “A Weekend in Tucson” is not enough time to fully experience the city or the Southern Arizona region, but I get that most people are not going to spend the better part of four years here.
Since I think everyone should come visit this area though, I decided I wanted to write a little travel guide about the city and how to spend a couple days getting to know the area. So, from the historic downtown to the top of Mt. Lemmon, here’s my guide for spending a weekend in Tucson, Arizona!
Of course, I can’t write anything without talking about history, and Tucson has a fascinating, rich past. Human settlement in Southern Arizona actually dates back to the Stone Age, but the continuous and well-documented history really begins with the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui. Though there were, of course, other Native American tribes in the region – such as the Pima/Akimel O’odham and the Apache – the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui have lived in the Tucson area for centuries. Spanish colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries brought massive change to the Native American tribes of the region. Both Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui peoples resisted these changes; in fact, the Yaqui Wars (fought between the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Spanish/Mexican governments) includes conflicts that date from 1533-1929. Today, both tribes endure and make efforts to preserve their history as important parts of Tucson’s culture. The Tohono O’odham tribe is larger than the Pascua Yaqui tribe today and also has a larger reservation, but both have tribal governments and enduring connections to the surrounding Southern Arizona region.
Spanish settlement (and ensuing conflict) date back to the 16th century in this area, but the story really starts with Father Kino who traveled throughout the Pimería Alta (a region which mainly refers to Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora) establishing missions and spreading Catholicism. As 17th century priests go, Kino was pretty good; most people today have a good opinion of him, and his legacy lives on in the twenty-one missions he founded in the Pimería Alta. Though the Spanish were the first non-native people to venture into Southern Arizona, by the 19th century, the Gadsden Purchase and expansion of the United States had turned Tucson into a melting pot. The annual Tucson Meet Yourself Festival continues to bring Tucson’s widely diverse communities together to celebrate the many facets of cultural life in Southern Arizona.
Given that I came to Tucson for college, I have to mention the University of Arizona, which was founded in 1885 as the first university in the Arizona Territory (AZ was the 48th state to join the Union in 1912). Back in the day, the whole university was contained in one building – Old Main – which today has administrative offices and is in a lot of pictures. Another old building in Tucson is the Historic Pima County Courthouse (above), which today is the Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center. The Courthouse was built in 1929 in the Spanish Revival style and has been recently restored, using a lot of original pieces, which makes it really beautiful to walk through!
In visiting Tucson, whether you walk through downtown or drive through the rest of the city, you will not be able to escape the beautiful murals that so many buildings have. I included a picture of “El Tour de Tucson,” (at 177 N. Church Ave) which features desert animals (both real and imagined) biking down the road, but some of my other favorites are the “Whale Mural” (at 1930 E Grant Road) and “Greetings from Tucson” (at E 7th St & N Arizona Ave). One other piece of art that pops up everywhere from bumper stickers to ceramics on the sides of buildings is the “Be Kind” logo (below), which has become a part of Tucson’s identity today. This is part of the work done by nonprofit Ben’s Bells, which has operated since 2002 to spread kindness in the community (Founder’s Story here). This is probably one of my favorite little things about Tucson and one of the many aspects of this city that makes it feel like a connected community.
There’s a lot to do in Tucson, and two days is really just enough to whet your appetite, but for a weekend trip with two full days in the city, here are my (very detailed) recommendations.
- Day 1
- Explore Downtown and 4th Ave area, starting around 9-10 am
- Historic Pima County Courthouse (Now the Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center) – Free entry
- Walking Tour of Downtown
- Continue walking to 4th Ave for assorted shopping and lunch
- Lunch on 4th Ave
- Explore Downtown and 4th Ave area, starting around 9-10 am
- Day 2
- Consider doing an early morning hike at Sagauro National Park or Catalina State Park
- Visit the Desert Museum when they open (7:30-8:30 depending on time of year)
- Breakfast at Baja Cafe
- Do one of the following:
- Lunch at Tucson Tamales
- Drive the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
- Stop by the Cookie Cabin for an afternoon snack (just put this in your GPS as you drive up the mountain)
- On your way down the mountain, pull out at Windy Point to climb on the rocks, take pictures, and enjoy your snacks
- Dinner (my recommendations)
All the Details
Downtown Tucson is not huge, but it has some fun stuff to offer! The newly-renovated Pima County Courthouse is a must in my opinion since it’s absolutely beautiful, but also as a visitor center, they can help with planning other activities in the area. Since the renovations are not fully finished, some exhibits were not yet open when I visited a couple weeks ago, but even just walking through is great. This is also convenient to other parts of the historic downtown, which you can visit with the help of the walking tour I linked in the itinerary. I did this walking tour in 2017 when I first moved out here, and it was a fun introduction to the city, especially since this route takes you to see the Pancho Villa statue that was a tongue-in-cheek gift from Mexico in 1981. Keep in mind though that this walking tour was published in 2006, so the city has changed a bit since then. Leaving downtown, you can take the Streetcar or just walk through the underpass to 4th Ave, which has lots of amazing restaurants and boutique stores to check out. Twice a year (spring and fall), there is a 4th Ave Street Fair, which is definitely worth checking out if you’re in town for it!
It is possible to walk from 4th Ave to the University campus, and I’ve done it several times, but the Streetcar is a faster, air-conditioned option that’s pretty cheap. You can get physical tickets at some stops, but the easiest option, in my opinion, is to download the app and purchase a 1-day ticket for getting around this area. Once at the University, you can of course explore the beautiful campus and get ice cream at The Scoop, but I really recommend visiting a museum or doing a tour – especially since this is a way to still see some of the amazing things in Tucson but indoors and not under the sun. The Arizona State Museum is one of my favorite history museums ever, so that’s my first recommendation, but the UAMA has a nice art collection with a few rotating exhibits. And, because UA is a really cool research university, you can also tour facilities like the Mirror Lab or (my favorite) the Tree Ring Lab and learn about the work being done here. NOTE: Tours are currently suspended due to COVID.
With what remains of the afternoon, I suggest going for a drive up A Mountain for views over the city. Technically, A Mountain is called Sentinel Peak, but the large A on its side has given it a new name. University of Arizona students constructed the A from 1914-1916, and it has stayed up ever since. It’s a fun place to stop by to look at Tucson from above or to watch the sunset. At the end of Day 1 in Tucson, it’s basically a requirement to have dinner at El Charro Café downtown (Make a reservation!!!). El Charro has been in operation since 1921, and it maintains its popularity for a good reason – it’s phenomenal. I have never had a bad meal here, and this is one of the places in Tucson that I will miss the most. So, make a reservation and enjoy!
Tucson is an outdoorsy city; you can’t experience Tucson without experiencing the desert around it. For that reason, I really suggest kicking off Day 2 with a morning hike at Saguaro National Park or Catalina State Park. There are lots of places to hike in Tucson, but these are my favorites for a short 2-4 mile hike around sunrise. You can get into Saguaro for free with a National Parks Pass, but there are a lot of good hikes at the southern part of Saguaro East for which you just park on the road and don’t pass a pay station. Catalina State Park has an $7 per car fee that is waived only with an AZ State Parks pass. For a morning hike, you will have to put your money in an envelope to drop it off, and you’ll attach your proof of payment to the rearview mirror of your car.
Following your early morning hike (or in place of it if you decide to skip that), I really recommend stopping by the Desert Museum right when it opens to have the best chance of seeing animals. However, this may be a bit of a drive, especially from Saguaro East, but if you can make it, the Desert Museum is an amazing place to visit! The prices are a little steep, but this is a very uniquely Tucson experience that is really amazing if you can do it. Whatever your early morning plans though, you’ll probably want a filling, delicious breakfast, and Baja Café is the place to go for that! You can get a delicious southwestern style meal, a specialty Eggs Benedict, or some heavenly pancakes with fresh fruit. It’s all just so, so good.
After breakfast, it’s time for another Tucson adventure! In thinking about my favorite places that I think best showcase Tucson, I had trouble choosing between Mission San Xavier and Tohono Chul, so I’ll provide an introduction to both, and you can pick your favorite! First, Mission San Xavier (below), which was founded by Father Kino and is a stunningly beautiful Baroque-style church that is still in operation today. It’s completely free to visit (though there is a donation box), and you can also join a free docent-led tour to learn about the church, its history, and the story of Spanish missionaries in the Pimería Alta. It’s a really beautiful place to visit and one of Tucson’s landmarks. Inside, the sanctuary is painted in the Baroque style, which is beautiful and amazing and not something you generally expect to see in a church in the United States. So, for a free option with lots of history and art, this is a great pick!
The much more expensive – but still beautiful – option for the morning is a trip to Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens. My favorite part of Tohono Chul is how it embraces the desert environment and uses those plants to create the gardens. It’s a stunning place to walk though and spend a few quiet hours. Plus, you’ll get to see some animals here, especially desert tortoises and hummingbirds! There are also a few art exhibits and educational programs that happen at different times in the year. For a relaxing morning in nature, this is a great place to go to enjoy the beauty of the desert
Though Tohono Chul does have a café, it’s very expensive, and I’ve never eaten there. I have, however, eaten at Tucson Tamales, which is one of my favorite places in Tucson and a perfect place for lunch! And you can’t visit Tucson without eating tamales! Following lunch, it’s time for a drive up Mt. Lemmon, which is another iconic Tucson place. The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway takes you from cacti to pine trees and showcases the rugged allure of the desert. My recommendation is to drive up to the Cookie Cabin and buy some cookies before heading down part way to Windy Point where you can climb around on the rocks, look out over the city, and enjoy your cookies before driving back down to Tucson for dinner. I don’t have a specific recommendation for this meal, but as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Tucson is an easy place to find good food!
Expanding Your Trip
As I’ve said, Tucson is a place with a lot to offer, so I really recommend spending more than just two days here if at all possible. And if you can, I would suggest checking out some of the following! First, Sweetwater Wetlands, a park in Tucson with a couple of miles of easy trails and lots of birds. The real appeal of Sweetwater is that it has water! Here in the desert, you don’t get a lot of marshy places, and my roommates and I have loved being able to visit Sweetwater for evening walks to smell the water and feel some very foreign humidity. Adjacent to Tucson, you can visit Kitt Peak National Observatory, which has some awesome telescopes that you can check out or you can head to Madera Canyon for more hiking. Though there are some great short trails, Madera Canyon is also where you go to hike up Mt. Wrightson, the tallest peak in Southern Arizona.
A bit further afield, you can do some day trips from Tucson to check out Tumacácori or Chiricahua, both of which I’ve written full posts about. These are some of my favorite Arizona NPS sites, and I really recommend checking them out!
Deciding to go to school in Tucson was easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Of course, when I say that, I’m mainly talking about academics and life experience, but the atmosphere of this city and all the amazing things it has to offer have just been the icing on the cake for my college experience. I really loved writing this post and getting to go back through my pictures to choose what to include and what places to discuss. I’m going to be sad to leave Tucson, but I’m so grateful for the time I spent here! So, in conclusion, Tucson is great and everyone should come visit!
But also, I can’t write all this without name-dropping a few books. There’s a lot to read when it comes to Tucson and the Southwest, but here are a few of my favorites (fiction and non-fiction):
- Le desert mauve – Nicole Brossard
- A Border Runs Through It – Jim Griffith (If you read anything about Tucson, read this book!)
- Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader – Tom Miller, editor
- Stories of the Old West – Steven D. Price and Tom McCarthy, editors
- San Xavier: The Spirit Endures – Kathleen Walker
And one final tip for a great time in Tucson: Find a time to get some Eegee’s! Their flavored ices are a Tucson specialty that are especially wonderful in the hot summer. Nothing beats a warm Tucson evening with a cold cup of Eegee’s!