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Is a getaway to America’s Southwest calling you?
Tucson is Arizona’s second-largest city, and if you don’t know what to do in Tucson, let me start by saying it offers fantastic year round weather to experience outdoor recreation, plus there’s plenty of history, arts, culture and amazing food!
The city of Tucson contains half a million people, and there’s a ton of cool things to do in Tucson for all ages and interests and down below is my 36 hour itinerary you can replicate (or create your own experience).
Fun Tucson activities include hiking in the wilderness, horseback riding, mountain biking, golfing, scenic drives, snow skiing, exploring fascinating museums and missions, and eating possibly the best Mexican food north of the border to feed your soul.
Being home to the 45,000 strong University of Arizona, there’s also a college-town atmosphere with funky bars and a fun-loving history.
And in the winter months, its location in the Sonoran Desert has created a snowbird destination due to its legendary year-round sunshine.
Set in a flat valley, there are mountain ranges in all directions and swaths of saguaro cactus – a symbol of the American Southwest. Tucson offers a laid-back atmosphere and authentic Southwestern experiences.
It’s like a big little city with freedom to roam or unplug and relax and recharge. From downtown to the mountains, you can free yourself in Tucson!
I loved my recent two night solo getaway to Tucson, Arizona. As you may know, I usually travel as a family of four, but there’s something about going it alone sometimes and having the freedom to roam.
Now we have a base again in Raleigh, North Carolina, and no longer travel full-time like last year, 2020 for us is going to be about short trips to destinations like this, it’s how we love to travel the most!
Be carful in Tucson though, once you immerse yourself in this outdoor mecca, you may never want to leave. I know I’ll be back again with all the family.
Below are my tips on what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and all the fun things to do in Tucson AZ (with or even without kids!)
Day 1 – What to Do in Tucson
Lunch – BOCA Tacos
I’m a taco fan, and from my research on places to eat in Tucson, one taco place that kept showing up with good reviews online was BOCA Tacos.
It also came recommended by former locals and our community online, two resources I always go to for food tips.
After landing at Tucson International Airport around midday, I jumped in a car and headed straight to downtown Tucson for lunch and to this taco restaurant on Historic 4th Avenue.
BOCA is known for its street style gourmet Mexican tacos, serving up over 25 types of tacos, and for its rotating salsas created fresh daily.
But one of the best things about BOCA for me on the menu was the vegetarian and vegan offerings.
Whilst I waited for my order of two Cauliflower tacos (grilled fresh cauliflower tossed in a curry cilantro and orange oil), and Veggie taco (sautéed mix of mushrooms, onions, serrano peppers, cilantro and melted cheese), I was served up four types of salsa to try ranging from least spicy to spicy!
If you’re looking to pair your locally made tacos with local craft beer, BOCA offer up 30 varieties plus 40 tequilas, vodkas, scotches, whiskies, and Mexican beers to enjoy.
Flying in from winter in North Carolina, and sitting in the Tucson sun out on their patio was the perfect start to my Tucson trip!
If you want to try Sonoran tacos in the heart of Tucson, come to BOCA. I found them flavorful and filling.
Besides lunch, consider coming for happy hour or dinner, and you’re right downtown on happening Historic 4th Avene.
Open 11am-10pm Mon-Sat and 11am-8pm Sun
Check-in at Lodge on the Desert
My home for my two-night stay in Tucson was at Lodge on the Desert, a 100-room boutique hotel in mid-town Tucson with the Santa Catalina Mountains providing a majestic backdrop.
Although traveling solo on this trip, I could see this hotel appealing to either business travelers, leisure travelers and families like mine – I know my kids would be hard to drag out of the heated swimming pool and whirlpool spa!
Not too mention the complimentary Sonoran hot breakfast buffet featuring a selection of breakfast meats, potatoes, fresh seasonal fruit, yogurt, and more.
It’s Midtown location on a major thoroughfare (N Alvernon Way) proved to be convenient and central for my visit and getting to and from Tucson Airport (15-20 minute drive), to downtown Tucson (10-minute drive), and if you’re in town to visit the University of Arizona it’s approximately an 8-minute drive away.
- 103 guest rooms and suites
- Fitness Center
- Complimentary self-parking
- Complimentary high-speed and wireless Internet access
Afternoon Drinks – Barrio Brewing Co
If you’re like me, you might be wondering what to do in Tucson on a Sunday afternoon?
Well, considering I arrived on a Sunday, aka NFL Sunday, and I love my football and it’s not often I get to visit a brewery kid free, seeking out a place to watch the game whilst sampling a few local craft brews was hard to resist.
Barrio Brewing came with good recommendations, so I jumped in an Uber for the 10-minute drive from my hotel.
Whilst located in an industrial part of downtown Tucson, don’t let first impressions scare you off and once inside you’ll find a cozy atmosphere and attentive staff at this popular neighborhood brewery.
To go with my cold Copperhead Pale Ale, I had the tastiest spinach and artichoke dip I’ve ever eaten – the cilantro wings sounded great too!
I don’t think you’d be disappointed taking the time to drop in here, with a beer selection to satisfy most palettes.
Dinner – Cielos
From Barrio I headed back to Lodge on the Desert for dinner at Cielos which specializes in Southwest cuisine regionally sourced with innovative twists.
You have a choice of sitting in the outdoor private patio under the stars, or by the four-sided fireplace for optimal year-round al fresco dining, or inside the intimate dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that brings the outside in.
From the menu I started with the house guacamole followed by a mouthwatering prime rib accompanied by grilled asparagus and potatoes.
To complement the food menu you have a list of classic craft cocktails featuring local spirits and an extensive wine list.
Consider Cielos as a setting for a romantic dinner, or a casual happy hour with friends at the bar.
Day 2 – Things to Do in Tucson
Breakfast – Lodge on the Desert
After a tasty and filling Sonoran hot breakfast buffet at Lodge on the Desert, I headed out for a full day of exploring all the unique things to do in Tucson.
Morning – Mission San Xavier Del Bac
Nicknamed “The White Dove of the Desert”, I found Mission San Xavier del Bac one of the most fascinating places to visit in Tucson.
Founded in 1692 by Father Kino and built in 1783, this Catholic mission is considered one of the best preserved examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.
It stands in the center of a Papago Indian settlement along the banks of the Santa Cruz River, about 10 miles south of Tucson.
As a national historical landmark and the only remaining intact mission in Arizona, the Mission remains a working parish for the Tohono O’odlham people, many of whom still live nearby.
I jumped on a free 45-minute docent led tour (donations encouraged) and was blown away by the interior and exterior, and learning about the story of the church offers up a fascinating insight into the history of this region.
This would be one of the best things to do in Tucson for history lovers.
Open: Mondays – Saturdays, 7:00 am – 5:00 pm.
Pima Air & Space Museum
Interested in visiting museums in Tucson? This is one of the most popular Tucson attractions.
Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the largest non-government funded aviation & space museums in the world.
If you are big into aviation, you could probably spend half a day here at this museum that features a display of 360+ aircraft spread out over 80 acres and 6 indoor air-cooled hangers.
It seems there is something here for everyone including 3 hangars of World War II planes, the SR-71, world’s smallest biplane, and many other unique private, military, and commercial air & spacecraft documenting the evolution of flight.
Plus there’s a flight simulator Boeing 720 cockpit, and the Women in Flight Gallery.
If you are short on time like I was, jump on the 45-minute tram tour ($6) that takes you through the museum’s 80 acres on a 1.5 mile circuit to view more than 150 planes in the collection.
These tram tours are narrated by passionate and experienced aviation people, and I found their personal stories about the aircraft on display and the history of the planes very interesting – including “Freedom One” that flew the American hostages home after 444 days in Iran, presidential crafts, and planes that launched astronauts.
Want more aviation history?
Pima Air & Space offers exclusive bus tours of the 2,600-acre “Boneyard”.
This U.S. military and government aircraft storage facility has 4,000+ aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and several federal agencies including NASA in varying degrees of storage, being regenerated or recycled – 16-day advanced reservations required)
Open: 7 Days a Week, 9AM – 5PM. Last Admission at 3PM
Closed Thanksgiving & Christmas Day.
- The Main Hangar (3 hangars combined into 1: Hangar 1, Spirit of Freedom & Flight Central)
- 3 World War II Hangars (Hangars 3, 4 & 5)
- The Dorothy Finley Space Gallery
- The Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame
- The 390th Memorial Museum (a separate museum on our grounds)
- 80 acres with more than 150 airplanes
- 45-minute tram tours extra $6
Lunch – El Charro Café
This café was shortlisted on my itinerary as one of the best Mexican restaurants in Tucson.
As someone who chooses to eat mostly a plant based and gluten free diet about 80% of the time, I was delighted to see that El Charro Café has a dedicated plant-based menu option.
So I jumped at the chance to have lunch here, and it turns out that El Charro is a famous and historical chain in the Tucson area and is The Nation’s Oldest Mexican Restaurant in continuous operation by the same family, founded in 1922.
All the menu options sounded great, but with helpful advice from my server I decided on the Charrovida’s Jackfruit Birria Taquitos (crispy corn GF tortillas stuffed with jackfruit birria, 3 per order with fresh pico and avocado-corn salsa, tomato salsita, arroz planta & frijoles charros).
It hit the spot nicely!
Because of their terrific plant-based menu for vegan and vegetarian diners, plus a kids menu, I look forward to bringing my whole family to dine here next time!
El Charro Tucson has four locations: downtown, Oro valley, Ventana, and the airport.
Afternoon Hiking – Sabino Canyon
As soon as I knew I was visiting this city, some Tucson hikes and nature experiences were high on my wish list.
In case you don’t know, Tucson is well known for its active residents and great hiking opportunities, and one of the best places to go hiking in Tucson is in Sabino Canyon.
On offer is soaring mountains, deep canyons, and the unique plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.
Hiking here is one of the most popular things to do in Tucson AZ. Over a million visitors a year make their way to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Santa Catalina Mountains, and I found it a wonderful place to spend three hours.
I did a 3-mile out and back hike that took in the Esperero Trail (rated moderate) that ascends into the high peaks of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, that then picked up the Rattlesnake Trail (rated moderate) and is a low elevation and rocky desert trail, then onto the Bluff Trail (rated easy) a desert trail with rocky terrain that overlooks Sabino Creek.
Finally I switched onto the Sabino Lake Trail (rated easy) to take me back to the visitors center.
Oh, and how about that Tucson weather in the middle of winter – I was hiking in 72F degree weather in a t-shirt. What’s not to love?
There is plenty to do in Sabino Canyon for a longer visit. It’s filled with hiking trails, saguaro forests, riparian creeks, waterfalls and swimming holes
Another popular thing to do is jump on the tram shuttle service which offers a narrated audio tour along a 3.7 mile route into Sabino Canyon with multiple stops along the route providing access to trailheads for hiking.
Tram routes provide access to Sabino and Bear Canyons. Along the route you are free to get off at one of the nine shuttle stops, do a little hiking, have a picnic, or spend time along one of the many pools and cascades that grace Sabino Creek.
Visitor Center hours are 8:00am to 4:30pm, seven days a week. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Day Use Fee: $8 per vehicle
- Weekly: $10 per vehicle
- Annual: $40 per vehicle
Dinner – Charro Del Ray
Growing up in Australia I have a natural taste and hunger for seafood, and was happy to discover that Charro Del Ray is one of the best restaurants in Tucson that serves up sustainable seafood flown in daily from the Pacific Northwest.
Located in downtown Tucson, it’s set inside a 100-year-old vintage building filled with beautiful local and Mexican art.
A Charro is a traditional horseman from Mexico, and Charro del Rey offers a menú of classic and delicious Charro Family takes on seafood and prime dishes.
On recommendation from my knowledgeable and attentive waiter, I enjoyed a delicious seafood chowder appetizer, and entrée of trout and herb roasted vegetables.
The restaurant comes complete with a raw bar showcasing fresh and seasonal oysters, crab legs, and ceviches. And for drinks you’ll find one of Tucson’s most significant champagne collections, plus a nice selection of spirits and local craft beer.
For those that prefer a ranch to table steakhouse, right next door is Charro Steak!
Other downtown restaurants recommended to me by other travelers, former Tucson residents, and my Uber driver include:
- The Hub Restaurant & Ice Creamery
- Maynards at Hotel Congress (see more on this hotel below)
- Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails
Evening – Things to Do in Downtown Tucson
After dinner I took some time to see what downtown was all about.
As a college town and being the night of the College Football Final between LSU and Clemson, I was looking for a bar to take in the game.
Downtown was quieter than I expected, but it was a Monday night and the students were still coming back to town after the Christmas break, and the University of Arizona is more of a basketball school than football.
But if you’re looking for nightlife, one of the fun things to do in Tucson Arizona on the weekends, or when college is in full swing, is head to Historic 4th Avenue and you’ll find plenty of bars.
But as not all bars were open being a Monday, I didn’t get an in-depth experience to offer too much of an opinion, but I believe the younger college students love it for that fun, funky vibe that it has.
Over the duration of the game I mostly found myself at Hi Fi Kitchen & Cocktails, a popular indoor/outdoor tavern with American pub grub and big screen TVs amid rock-&-roll decor.
I also stuck my head into the historic Hotel Congress for a quick look, the most famous of places in downtown.
Known as an urban, historic, rock ‘n’ roll hotel it was built in 1919 and is the cultural landmark that anchors Downtown Tucson.
Classically renovated and updated, and apparently they serve great bloody Mary’s on Sundays in their restaurant. This hotel is also where John Dillinger was captured – some fascinating history here!
More Tucson bars to consider:
I checked in with a friend who used to call Tucson home, and also asked my Uber driver about what to do in Tucson after dark, this is what they recommend:
- Playground Bar & Lounge
- Saint Charles Tavern downtown
- Che’s Lounge on 4th Ave
- Surly Wench on 4th Ave
- R Bar downtown
- Independent Distillery downtown
The good thing is that Tucson is small and it’s super easy to walk between all of these.
Day 3 – Scenic Drive & Arts
Breakfast – Prep & Pastry
I checked-out of my hotel early to try another offering in town for breakfast that came highly recommended, Prep & Pastry.
From all reports this was another one of the popular places to eat in Tucson, especially busy on the weekends with a wait time – take advantage of the waitlist button on their website.
They describe themselves as a “Modern American Eatery,” serving breakfast, lunch, and brunch. All food and drinks are prepared with fresh ingredients and sourced locally.
Upon entering, the impression is one of a cool and trendy establishment, and luckily for me being a Tuesday morning I was seated immediately
I devoured my chickpea scramble (seasonal veggies, cherry tomatoes, avocado, prep’s potatoes, jalepeno-tomato jam) and coffee, and apparently they have a great selection of mimosas, and the chicken and French toast is said to be a winner.
For those looking for a pastry, the offerings on display looked delish.
Prep & Pastry could be a place to go with friends, family, or even by yourself like I did.
Gates Pass Scenic Drive
A lovely scenic drive along the crest of the Tucson Mountains is Gates Pass, just west of Tucson.
At an elevation of 3,172ft, Gates Pass Road is lined with scenic overlooks with magnificent views of saguaro cacti. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park to the east and west of the city of Tucson.
Gates Pass is well known as one of the best sunset spots in the outer city area.
Definitely put this drive on your Tucson things to do list. It would have to be one of the best free things to do in Tucson!
Old Tucson Studios
Last stop on my trip was a visit to the Old Tucson Studios, en route to the airport after Gates Pass.
It’s been home to more than 300 films and TV shows including some of Hollywood’s biggest Westerns, and as they say, it’s where the spirit of the old west comes alive!
Old Tucson offers historian-guided studio tours, Wild West entertainment, authentic Southwestern BBQ, and shopping for everyone.
You can watch live action stunt shows, musicals, and there’s vintage rides for the kids.
You probably need longer than the two hours I had available to take in all this Tucson attraction has to offer – especially for the wild west movie buffs!
Video: 36 Hours in Tucson, Arizona
Click play to see more of my visit to Tucson
More Things to Do in Tucson
If you have more time to explore than two days, below are some of the other highly recommended places and activities from those in the know:
- Saguaro National Park (East and West sections)
- Mt Lemmon (hiking, biking, rock climbing)
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Kitt Peak National Observatory
- Catalina State Park
- Colossal Cave Mountain Park
- Biosphere 2
- The Franklin Auto Museum
- Titan Missile Museum
More Places to Eat in Tucson
Looking for other Tucson restaurants?
As they like to say, you won’t find better Mexican food in the US than in Tucson, They like to call it the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.
From my research and suggestions from others, also consider:
- Tacos Apson
- BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs
- El Guero Canelo
- Tito and Pep
- Pueblo Vida
- 5 Points Market and Restaurant
- Cup Cafe
- and Time Market