A weekend in Tucson, Arizona took me by surprise with an abundance of Southwest culture, hip eats, and a large dose of nature. One thing is for sure, the city packs a punch for visitors with so many things to do in Tucson.
A great Tucson itinerary includes plenty of time in the great outdoors with hiking and horseback riding followed by a healthy serving of delicious food. Tucson is a wonderful city in the American Southwest well worth exploring. Whether you are spending a week here or just stopping by on an Arizona road trip here are the best things to do in Tucson.
The Best Things to do in Tucson
Mission Xavier Del Bac
In search of some excellent photos, Mission San Xavier Del Bac is one of the most photogenic spots in Tucson. On my first day with a cup of coffee in hand and some brisk winter winds, I set out for the church. The church exterior is wonderful and one of the best examples of Spanish architecture in America.
Based on the exterior, it’s easy to understand where the church received its name “The White Dove of the Desert.” It’s a Roman Catholic church that still has mass every week and is open to visitors. It’s not just the exterior that’s well worth the visit as the interior is adorned with beautiful frescos.
Visitors can enjoy a guided tour with Patronato San Xavier, a non-profit that is designed to raise money for the restoration of the church. Tours are available from Monday to Saturday ten times a day. They’re totally free and you’re only encouraged to leave a donation or visit the shop in support of the church.
Stroll Congress Street
Downtown Tucson has plenty to draw in visitors so I went in search of some more fresh coffee. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to a place to grab a drink on Congress Street and the neighboring area of Historic Fourth Avenue.
There are a number of hotels such as the famous and historic Hotel Congress. The hotel was a hideout for John Dillinger and it’s now an eclectic boutique hotel with a cafe, bar, nightclub, and restaurant. If you’re in search of something sweet, head into their Cup Cafe for a massive slice of homemade cake and coffee.
At its heart, the neighborhood operates as an entertainment district with bars, restaurants, and theatres. If you’re looking for nightlife or restaurants, Congress Street is one of the best things to do in Tucson this weekend.
Enjoy Mexican Cuisine
No trip to Tucson is complete without having a taco or two. Mexican cuisine is my all-time favorite so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to gorge. I made my way in search of some authentic double corn tortilla tacos with a hefty dose of salsa picante.
You can find awesome tacos at the hip BOCA Tacos Y Tequila and Seis Kitchen, or classic spots like Los Tacos Apson and El Güero Canelo. It all depends on the mood because they serve up completely different atmospheres.
Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is one of the most stunning drives in Arizona. It’s nearly 30 miles one way and ends near the summit of Mount Lemmon in the small town of Summerhaven.
On the scenic drive, visitors cross the sprawling canyons, rocky peaks, and scenic forests. The drive winds through the Coronado National Forest and peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountain Range.
The biggest takeback is the diversity of the vegetation as the start of the drive begins in the Sonoran Desert life zone full of saguaro cacti, and ends in an Alpine forest with Ponderosa pine trees that line the valley walls.
It’s popularly said that it feels like a drive from Mexico to Canada in terms of vegetation and landscape.
As the drive climbs nearly 7,000 feet from 3,000 ft in elevation to over 10,000 ft, temperature changes can be extreme and in the winter months, it’s common to find snow on the mountain peaks. Snow is common enough, that it is home to America’s southernmost ski resort in operation when there is enough snow. In the hotter months, it makes for a welcome reprieve from the desert heat.
Coronado National Forest
Tucson is surrounded and blessed by some fantastic wilderness areas that are great for recreation. While you enjoy the drive up the scenic Mount Lemmon Byway try to enjoy at least one desert hike. There are some tremendous trails in the region.
While hiking in the forest I used one of my favorite apps Alltrails. The app works well for trip planning and uses your phone’s GPS on the trail. A hike is a perfect way to spend a few hours or a whole day while driving the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway.
Catch Sunset at Windy Point
The most famous spot to enjoy a sunset on the East side of town is at Windy Point. It’s a rest stop and viewpoint on the byway and offers tremendous views over Tucson and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. A range of interesting rock formations and the amazing evening light makes it wonderful for photographers.
It’s about 18 miles from the start of the scenic byway and it’s a good hour-long drive from Tucson up to the viewpoint. You can find the location here on Google Maps. It was probably some of the best photos from my weekend in Tucson.
Located within the Coronado National Forest is the popular Canyon Recreation Area. It’s a large valley that cuts into the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers plenty of trails, sights, and even swimming holes.
The neighboring valley, Bear Canyon, offers one of Tucson’s most popular hikes. The great Seven Falls hike that has plenty of pools to cool off and some possibilities for cliff jumping (always practice safety and check pool bottoms for debris).
The recreation area is also served by a shuttle service that can transport visitors roundtrip up Sabina Canyon. Or save yourself a bit of walking by traveling one way through the canyon. It’s easiest to take the shuttle in and walk out downhill.
Saddle Up a Tanque Verde Ranch
I was fortunate enough to spend my time at the Tanque Verde Ranch which is one of the best places to stay in Tucson. You can’t find a better or more suited activity at a dude ranch than saddling up for a horseback ride. For me, it was a great opportunity to progress as a rider as they offer lessons as an included activity for guests. After our horseback safari in South Africa, I was eager to get back on a horse and develop my skills.
They offer an advanced ride on evenings almost every day in which riders take off at a lope through the Sonoran Desert. However, the cowboys need to clear riders first with a Lope Check that evaluates the skills of the rider. This means maneuvering the horse and controlling the gaits between walk, trot, and lope.
I gave it a shot and was able to pass the check after my lesson. It’s a great goal for beginners who plan to learn how to ride at the ranch. They offer some tremendous rides through the Sonoran Desert that are able to handle any rider’s ability — you can take an easy walk. This is easily one of the best things to do in Tucson!
Saguaro National Park
Tucson is surrounded by some sublime wilderness areas that include the Saguaro National Park which flanks the city to the East and West. The park is one of the best places in Arizona to find the famed icon of the Southwest, the saguaro. The saguaro is a massive cactus that can reach heights of up to 50 ft tall and they dominate the landscape in the national park.
It’s a prime spot to reconnect with nature and explore an interesting biome with unique flora and fauna.
The parks are prime areas for recreation with plenty of opportunities for biking, running, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. After horseback riding at the Tanque Verde Ranch, I thought it’d be appropriate to catch some fantastic evening light with a view from the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park East.
It was only pure coincidence that the best hike for views happened to be the Tanque Verde Ridge, more info here.
With the temperatures dropping and some beautiful evening light, I found myself on the trail alone. It was a wonderful opportunity to take in the breathtaking views of Tucson and listen to birds dart in and out of the cactuses.
As I climbed, I watched the desert landscape and mountains dominate what once appeared to be a large city. It was a lovely way to end the day and my weekend in Tucson.
Pima Air Space Museum
One of the best things to do in Tucson with kids is see the Pima Air & Space Museum. It’s not far from the airport and houses more than 350 aircraft and spacecraft! Which makes it one of the largest air and space museums in the world. It houses some historic and record-breaking aircraft and unique designs developed to push aviation.
You can also tour the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). It’s most well known as the “Boneyard” and it houses hundreds of decommissioned aircraft that sit in the desert.
The Boneyard tour costs extra and requires a reservation, but it’s well worth the price. Museum opening hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. If you want more information head to the Museum website.
- Adult (13+): $16.50
- Children (5-12): $10
- Young Ones (0-4): Free
- Boneyard Tour: $10
Tucson Mountain Park
Tucson Mountain Park is a large area of over 20,000 acres with 62 miles of trails! These parks offer some of the best hiking in Tucson, as well as place to mountain bike and horseback ride. If you don’t have much time it’s also a beautiful park to drive through and enjoy the views as well! There are picnic opportunities throughout the park, so grab some snacks and hit the road!
Admire The Tucson Murals
Tucson is one of the most colorful places we have traveled and there is indeed a cultural legacy displayed through their contemporary street art. At just about every corner you’ll find a bright and beautiful mural by local, national, and international artists.
Throughout these works the region’s heritage and landscape shine. You’ll be able to see them just by driving around Tucson, but if you want to stop and admire longer we highly recommend following this mural map.
Where to Stay in Tucson?
As mentioned, I stayed at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson. It’s won awards for one of the best resorts in the American Southwest by Conde Nast Traveler, and it’s easy to see why it’s widely considered the best dude ranch in Arizona.
The resort is an old cattle and guest ranch that was originally established in 1868. They offer a wide range of comfortable rooms, delicious food, and enough activities that you’d never need to leave the property. Pretty much the perfect spot to spend a weekend in Tucson.
More than its core of horseback riding they have activities like mountain biking, nature walks, fishing, hiking, and more. It’s a luxurious outpost in the American Southwest that leaves you without a need. I found the grounds to be meticulously maintained and the staff to be personable and helpful. It was a true pleasure.
Most importantly, the food never failed to deliver! They provide a great southwestern inspired menu with healthy food options and everything beautifully cooked. It was tough to say no to more food here as everything was so good.
This includes their weekly “Cowboy Cookout” where they have a BBQ by the fire with the live entertainment and all the traditional fixings like cornbread, beans, brisket, and mac & cheese. To make it even easier they offer all-inclusive packages that include three meals a day and activities.
There is a wide variety of rooms here with traditional guest rooms, and luxury homes. The ranch spreads out across the property amongst saguaros and a mixture of adobe buildings inspired by Sante Fe architecture.
Rooms are modern, but the resort never loses itself and remains true to a ranch with no TVs in the guest rooms and roaring fireplaces in the cooler months. It’s the ideal setting to experience the Southwest and enjoy the desert scenery via horseback.