Dark, starry skies; a UNESCO gastronomy designation; high desert wine country; and historic architecture — these are just a few allures of Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city. Located roughly two hours south of Phoenix, Tucson and surrounding areas offer something you can’t find anywhere else in the nation, like a world-class culinary scene dating back 4,000 years, the Tucson Gem & Mineral show and more. Plus, where else can you score a Sonoran dog?
When in the city of year-round sunshine and saguaros, here are our favorite things to do:
Within a half-hour or hour drive, both south and north, from Tucson, the outdoor adventures are endless. Explore the surreal Saguaro National Park with thousands of towering cacti dotting the landscape — go at sunset for a real treat as the sun dips below the Rincon mountains. Mount Lemmon provides plenty of year-round thrills, from skiing in the winter to canyoneering or ziplining in the summer. For the most scenic hike, Seven Falls Trail — yes, you’ll pass seven different waterfalls, but go in spring or fall during snowmelt — in the Coronado National Forest is a local favorite.
With the picture-perfect weather nearly every day, Tucson begs for just sitting still and enjoying the sun by the pool or with an alfresco meal. At Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, a former 1920s elite girls school with great pueblo architectural bones and stunning cacti landscaping, the staff excels at delivering tranquility. Reserve a table on the patio at Terraza for an elegant brunch buffet on Sundays or nab a dinner reservation at the fine-dining restaurant The Grill to watch the sunset on the Santa Catalina mountains.
Known as the world’s astronomy capital, Tucson has nearly 300 days of clear skies, and its skies are also among the darkest. Ample opportunities to view these celestial sights await, from complimentary offerings to elaborate experiences. Free or inexpensive options include checking out a compact telescope at the Oro Valley Public Library, visiting the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Science Center for public access to the 16-inch telescope (also home to cool planetarium laser shows) or grabbing a cold one at Sky Bar for telescopes and astronomy lectures. More than the cost of a couple of beers but worth the splurge, Mount Lemmon’s SkyNights Stargazing Program includes a light dinner, an astronomy lesson and the opportunity to look through giant Phillips 24-inch and Schulman 32-inch telescopes.
A 20-minute drive from the heart of the city, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is home to more than 1,300 plant species and 200 animal species. Wear comfortable shoes, a hat and sunscreen. The botanical wonders to enjoy are immense. Don’t miss the gift shop with tasteful desert-themed souvenirs.
Even in the distance, San Xavier del Bac Mission’s nickname — the White Dove of the Desert — is abundantly accurate. Built in the 18th century, the cathedral’s stunning architecture is an amalgamation of Moorish, Byzantine and Mexican influences. Self-guided tours are available daily.
The world’s largest privately funded aerospace museum, Pima Air & Space Museum has 80 acres of aviation history to explore, including six hangars and more than 400 aircraft and helicopters. The mammoth museum also offers tram and private walking tours by reservation.
What do you have when you grow grapes in soil similar to Napa or Bordeaux, sunshine 365 days a year and high elevation? High-quality grapes for winemaking. Within an hour’s drive south, Sonoita — Arizona’s first American Viticultural Area — is producing award-winning wines. Visit family-owned vineyards like Callaghan and Los Milics. If you like Old World-style wines, stop in at Sand-Reckoner Vineyards and for bolder South American-type reds, check out women-owned and -operated Vino Stache. If you can’t fit in a day trip to wine country, the new Citizen Hotel Tucson offers Sonoran wine tastings in the lobby bar and tours of the fully functioning Sand-Reckoner winery in the hotel’s cellar.
Eat and Repeat
As America’s first city to be designated a UNESCO Capital of Gastronomy, Tucson boasts multiculturally diverse culinary offerings. Treat your taste buds to a taco bike tour, a Sonoran hot dog — wrapped in bacon and topped with mayo and salsa — at El Güero Canelo or a chimichanga at its alleged birthplace, the century-old El Charro. Excellent innovative dining options include Tito & Pep for casual but creative cuisine and Zio Peppe, where Italian meets Sonoran flavors.
For a deeper dive into the area’s 4,000-year-old agricultural history, Mission Garden leads tours that include a desert fruit orchard, native medicinal plants and pollinator gardens.
Immerse yourself in the wonderland of architectural styles, from Neoclassical to Mission Revival, with these self-guided downtown tours. Outside of Palm Springs, Tucson has one of the highest concentrations of midcentury modern homes in the nation with an annual Modernism Week celebration. If you have a particular penchant for art deco, the Fox Tucson, a theater opened in 1930, is a gloriously opulent venue to catch a musical act or show.
Marvel at Minis
With the recent mini food obsession on Instagram, the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures has become one of the city’s most beloved quirky attractions. Dedicated to the artistry of all things tiny, the museum houses more than 500 miniatures, from ships and biblical figurines to dollhouses and room boxes. Kids will love exploring the miniature scenes hidden within the trunk of a life-sized, faux tree.