27 April 2023 by David Ward
In the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Tucson offers visitors the chance to experience the unique nature of the American West. But, this vibrant city has plenty more besides, from world-class gastronomy and wellness retreats to a host of star attractions both downtown and beyond. Here, we walk you through our five top experiences.
1. Head downtown
While you might know Tucson for its outdoor adventure, the city itself has much to recommend it. And, whether you’re staying in the thick of the action, or out at one of the desert ranches nearby, you’ll certainly want to head downtown to take in the highlights.
Handily enough, the six districts – Main Gate, Fourth Avenue, Congress Street, Presidio, Convention and Mercado – are all connected by the Sun Link Tucson Street Car, so getting around couldn’t be easier. Here’s a little more detail on each one:
Located close to the University of Arizona, near the city centre, and just a short hop from the northern foothills, Main Gate Square is one of Tucson’s most accessible neighbourhoods. Head here for delicious, globe-spanning food, craft beer and cocktails; shop for designer brands in boutique stores; or join local students to cheer on the Wildcats on game day.
Artsy and eclectic, this is Tucson at its bohemian best. Expect vintage clothing and bookstores, handcrafted furniture and local artworks, all paired with some fabulous locals-favourite eateries. If you’re around in spring, be sure to look out for the famous Fourth Avenue Street Fair, a 50-year-old tradition that celebrates the very best of this creative neighbourhood.
This is Tucson’s main drag, where glass-and-steel skyscrapers sit alongside colourful barrio-style homes and some of the city’s favourite restaurants, theatres and live-music venues. Head to the Museum of Contemporary Art for standout collections, take in a show at the Fox Tucson Theatre, or get lost among the antiques and artworks of The Lost Barrio historic warehouse district.
This is the district where Tucson began as a Spanish military fort in 1775. As such, it’s the place to get lost in Tucson’s rich history, from the exhibitions of the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block to the Presidio San Augustin del Tucson with its adobe walls. Old Town Artisans is a highlight for its art galleries and shops, while the excellent LaCo Tucson, with its charming alfresco restaurant, cantina and live music venue, is the perfect place for a pitstop.
Home to the redeveloped Tucson Convention Centre, this neighbourhood is one of contemporary sports venues, modern and historic theatres and pretty parklands dotted with fountains, seating areas and public art exhibits. If you time your visit, you might just catch a Tucson Roadrunners ice hockey match.
Mercado San Agustin
Located at the western end of the Sun Link Streetcar route, Mercado San Agustin is a delight to explore. With its renowned public market, discover everything from Mexican bakeries to taquerias and artisan coffee shops before shedding the calories with a hike to the summit of Sentinel Peak for sweeping city views. Meanwhile, the nearby MSA Annex is home to some excellent cafés and an outdoor beer and wine garden.
Downtown Tucson & the Sun Link Street Car
2. Explore Tucson’s great outdoors
Surrounded on all sides by the endlessly sprawling desert, Tucson is rightly known for its outdoor adventures. For an easy introduction to the region’s landscapes and wildlife, visit Tucson Mountain Park on the western edge of town. Sharing the same mountain range and cactus forests of the far-larger Saguaro National Park, this 20,000-acre area features easy-to-navigate hiking trails, glorious sunsets, and some truly magical scenery. Of course, you might want to head further afield, and you’ll find endless trails that take you deeper into Tucson’s desert surrounds.
If hiking isn’t for you, there are numerous other ways to appreciate the scenery, with mountain biking and birdwatching trips among the most popular options. Indeed, twitchers have plenty to get excited about, with the deserts playing host to some 30 species of hummingbird alone. Lastly, visiting golfers are well catered to with a selection of excellent courses, their lush fairways and greens contrasted against a red-desert backdrop.
Desert landscapes on the edge of Tucson
3. Go ranching
A quintessential part of any visit to Tucson, a ranch stay is the chance to embrace the great traditions of the American West. Indeed, from the likes of horseback rides and delicious cowboy cookouts at the excellent Tanque Verde, to spa treatments and award-winning dining at Hacienda del Sol, it’s a chance to experience the very best of the region while staying in accommodation that pairs old-world heritage with the latest modern comforts. You’ll find two recommended ranch stays below, both of which can be added to any of our tailor-made Arizona holidays.
Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson
4. Get a taste for Tucson’s food scene
Charting the history of Tucson and its surrounds, the city’s food scene tells a story that dates back some 4,000 years. Indeed, it’s a rich culinary tapestry of Mexican and Native American traditions, showcasing everything from tasty tacos to corn temales to deliciously meaty carne seca and the not-to-be-missed Sonoran hot dog. You’ll find examples of these dotted throughout the city, and in the ranches that surround it, showcased in everything from BBQ joints to fine dining restaurants. And to wash it all down? Tucson’s craft beer scene is well worth exploring, with brewers using local ingredients to create something truly unique. There’s a reason the city was awarded UNESCO City of Gastronomy status. Delicious!
Green corn tamales
5. Relax and unwind
Adventure aside, Tucson is also primed for pure relaxation. Whether it’s a yoga session in the desert, or even at a craft brewery, or time spent relaxing at a luxury resort or destination spa – Miraval and Canyon Ranch are two favourites – there are plenty of ways to unwind after days of active exploration. Now, Explore our Arizona holidays below.
Sunrise yoga at Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort