As the heart of the Southwest, Tucson, Arizona is an adventurous weekend escape. Nestled in a valley, surrounded by towering mountains and speckled with saguaros, the city has a long history. Frequently it is known as a college town, but recently, it’s home to Arizona’s second-largest city and a trending food scene. In 2015, Tucson became the first American city to be designated as a “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO. So it should come with no surprise when the list of recommended restaurants is long.
Tucson may have an exciting and trending food scene, but in addition to that, there is a sense of place. You’re inescapably in the desert. The desert shapes much of Tucson you see today. From historic architecture like adobe homes to regional cuisine influenced by Sonoran traditions, the desert has had some hand in it. It’s an eco-system that reaches far beyond the frequent cactuses you’ll see.
Whether you come to hike the rolling hills of Saguaro National Park or sit poolside at a chic, design hotel in the desert, Tucson is an ideal destination for those looking for a change of pace. An opportunity to appreciate that good things come slowly. And amidst it all, open to finding that the desert is home to wondrous discoveries.
Here’s how to spend a weekend in Tucson, Arizona
Before You Go
When to Visit Tucson: This is a very personal question of how much heat can you take. The summer months can be hot, requiring earlier starts to the day. In contrast, the winter months can be quite cold. The sweet spot would be mid-fall and early Spring (plus you’ll see the blooming cactuses).
Amount of Time in Tucson: Three nights and two full days is a good amount of time to do a deep-dive, no-rush experience of the city and surrounding area.
Getting to Tucson: Tucson Airport has daily flights to multiple destinations across the U.S. Alternatively, Phoenix airport is an hour and a half away and could fly into there.
Getting around in Tucson: A car is necessary for Tucson to explore the area. The city is spread out and to visit the nearby sights you’ll want a car.
Where to Stay in Tucson, Arizona
Posada by The Joshua Tree House: Reason alone to visit, this 5-suite inn by the dynamic duo, Sara and Rich Combs (the Joshua Tree House founders) is a dream. They restored and renovated a stunning inn that is only five minutes from the western entrance of Saguaro National Park (about 30 minutes from downtown Tucson). It’s hard to put into words how beautiful and restorative a stay is at this inn. Set with spacious suites decked out with tasteful design and wonderfully blended in with its surroundings, you’ll want to reserve a suite here far in advance.
Best Restaurants in Tucson, Arizona
Dining in Tucson can range from local taquerias to exquisite and upscale food. This range of food makes it exciting to get a taste of both when there. Here’s a curated list of restaurants in Tucson to try. (* indicate places personally tried, the rest come recommended from our friends who live locally).
*Seis Kitchen (Mercado San Agustin location): Some of the best fresh tacos and Mexican cuisine had in Tucson. I’d come back twice for their quesadilla that was cooked extra crispy.
Agustin Kitchen: Came highly recommended for a more upscale dining experience for dinner, with a French take on American classics.
*Penca: Another favorite for their happy hour (or dinner) as their flavorful and more modern tacos were amazing as was the sangria.
*Welcome Diner: If you’re looking for classic comfort food with a modern twist, head here. Their fried chicken is incredible, popcorn cauliflower, and mac & cheese is a must.
Time Market: A great local market to pick up provisions and sandwiches or pizza.
Five Points Market & Restaurant: A more casual market that also offers a great brunch menu.
*Taquería Juanitos: We looked all over for a local taco shop and this one came highly recommended. It exceeded our expectations and was some of the best tacos had in the past years.
Maynards Market & Kitchen: An upscale restaurant known for French cuisine and set in the historic train station.
*Exo Bar: If you’re looking to try the local mezcal or cocktail bar, come here. We did a mezcal tasting one night and had a wonderful introduction to the local Sonoran varieties plus the cocktails were great.
*Get coffee at: Presta Coffee Roasters, Cartel Coffee, and Exo.
Things To Do in Tucson, Arizona
Spend a day in Saguaro National Park.
You could easily spend the majority of a day exploring the beautiful Saguaro National Park. I’d kick it off with a scenic hike through King’s Canyon in the western section, just outside the park. Other trails include Hugh Norris, Signal Hill, and the Desert Discovery Trail. Afterward, I’d drive the dirt, Bajada Loop Drive to get back further into the park. You’ll come across some of the tallest saguaros in the park here and gives you a chance to get some great views. You can stop as well along the way at different pullouts and explore.
Explore the Desert Museum.
One of the more wonderful surprises found on the trip was a morning at the Desert Museum. We had no idea it was a conservation zoo for only local animals, so we had no idea what to expect. The enclosures are stunning and set in the desert, where local fauna and flora are. Well worth a visit for a few hours. Tip: head early in the morning to see the animals when they are active.
Eat lunch at Mercado San Agustin and shop locally at the MSA Annex.
This part of Tucson is wonderful for a lunch, perusing of shops, and even grabbing a drink. The MSA Annex is just down the street and offers multiple vendors with local goods by artisans. We spent a few hours here exploring one afternoon.
Do a mezcal tasting.
At night, head to Exo bar for a Mezcal tasting that features a range of mezcals. Their menu is extensive and offers a few different tastings depending on your palette.
Walk the Barrio Viejo
Near downtown, the Barrio Viejo is a neighborhood lined with historic adobe homes. All very colorful, it’s a great neighborhood to explore.
Tour Mission San Xavier del Bac.
A great thing to do while near the airport (10 minutes away), this mission has an ornate church to explore. It’s really pretty, the bright white exterior pops in the desert. You could spend maybe thirty minutes or so here.
Bonus Photography Tip – Nightime Photos
One incredible part of being in the desert is nighttime photography is great. The reduced amount of ambient light means you can really capture incredible photos of the nighttime sky and stars. You’ll want to be somewhere where there are no street lights.
You’ll need a tripod and a camera (a lens that goes down to f/4 or f/2.8).
Quick settings guide:
- Place the camera on a tripod and set your camera to manual mode
- Go to your lowest aperture or f stop around f/1.8 or f/4
- Set your manual focus to the maximum focal length (∞)
- Set shutter speed to 0.8-1.0″ (seconds) and ISO to ~5000
- Use a remote control or timed photo to take the photo
These settings are a good starting place to see what you can capture using a standard tripod. To brighten the image, you could slow down the shutter speed. The relatively short shutter speed (and high ISO) is intended to reduce star trails. You’ll be surprised how much they move in a 10-20″ exposure! To shoot longer exposures at lower ISO, a star tracking tripod mount will give you the best results. But, the above will work for a very quick and easy nighttime photo starting point!
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