IntroductionTucson's historic Hotel Congress once billed itself as the place “where summer spends the winter.” Indeed, for years this diverse little city smack-dab in the middle of Sonoran Desert cactus country was mainly a magnet for “snowbirds” and retirees. Of course, the secret's out now and many have discovered Tucson is more than just a warm place to pilot a golf cart onto the 15th fairway in January.
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In DepthTucson is a culturally rich city that enjoys a starkly beautiful Sonoran Desert setting and reliably warm weather. It's this tourism trifecta that today draws droves of golfers, hikers, shopaholics, Mexican-food lovers and leisure-wear resort regulars to Arizona's second-largest city.
With a population above the half-million mark, Tucson has seen some unfortunate stucco-and-strip-mall suburban sprawl. But make no mistake, this is no Phoenix Junior. With the lovely Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop and the towering cacti of Saguaro National Park at its doorstep, Tucson feels connected to its surroundings.
Many of the city's historical adobes were bulldozed back in the 1960s. However, a good number of the low-slung Spanish and Mexican-era structures remain, especially in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood (just south of downtown) and the El Presidio Historic District in the heart of downtown.
When the summer sun isn't blazing, the latter is a nice area for a leisurely stroll, shopping at the Old Town Artisans complex and perhaps a happy hour Cadillac margarita at El Charro Cafe, the city's oldest restaurant.
Downtown's Stone Avenue is home to two of the city's most important houses of worship. The baroque St. Augustine Cathedral, completed in 1868, looks like it's been plucked straight out of a colonial Mexican town. Nearby, the historic 1910 Stone Avenue Temple was one of Arizona's first synagogues. Designed in a mix of neoclassic, Romanesque and Moorish styles, the building now houses the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center .
The downtown core has long boasted some beautiful public murals and buildings, including the mosaic-tile domed, Spanish Colonial Revival-style Pima County Courthouse, completed in 1928. The Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block in addition to two historic neighborhoods are also downtown.
Years ago some tourists complained that there's little else to entertain a non-history buff for long, but today the area is booming with dozens of restaurants—including several run by well-known chefs—and regular food truck and art gallery gatherings. Making it easy to explore Tucson's downtown, the Sun Link streetcar runs from Main Gate Square and the adjacent University of Arizona campus through the 4th Avenue shopping, dining and nightlife district, to the Mercado, Tucson's public market.
On the east side of downtown is the lively Congress Street district. Tourists, hipsters and college students amble down sidewalks lined with early 20th-century buildings. Amtrak trains rumble into the lovingly restored Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, parts of which are more than a hundred years old. Today the depot houses a transportation museum.
After dark, indie rock fans line up under the historic Rialto Theatre's electric pink-and-purple neon marquee for a sold-out gig. It's also here you'll find the 1919 Hotel Congress, home to a hip nightclub. On the west end of Congress Street, a former silent-movie house, the Fox Tucson Theatre, is a beautifully restored venue for live shows and classic movie screenings.
Spanish, Mexican and Western heritage play big parts in the city's cultural pageant. But the constant parade of Arizona Wildcats T-shirts on the street will show you that this is a college town as well. The University of Arizona campus sits a few miles northeast of downtown.
Golf and spa resorts and modern shopping centers are ubiquitous in the foothill neighborhoods north of town. If you drive further up into the Santa Catalina Mountains, you’ll find Mount Lemmon, where you can hit the slopes at one of the country's southernmost ski areas. The mountain tops out among pine trees at 9,157 feet, and from here you’ll be treated to expansive views of Tucson and its surroundings. This is also the location of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, which takes advantage of the Tucson area's clear skies, clean air and low humidity, as do other internationally known observatories within a couple hours' drive: Kitt Peak and Whipple observatories.
By CarTucson's major approach and through-route is I-10, the nation's southernmost transcontinental highway. Primarily an east-west route, it angles into the city from the southeast and the northwest. Northbound, I-10 intersects with I-19 in south Tucson and then continues along the west side of the city, providing access to the downtown area. Once I-10 leaves the city, it proceeds northwest to Phoenix, 120 miles away.
A major approach from the west is I-8, which originates in San Diego and joins with I-10 about midway between Phoenix and Tucson. Because both I-10 and I-8 traverse desert country, some of their sections are subject to dust storms, particularly in spring and early summer. Local radio stations broadcast advisories during these fluctuating weather conditions, and interstate signs with changeable messages warn motorists.
A well-known route reaching Tucson from the north is SR 77. One of the area's oldest two-lane routes, it is especially scenic. South of Tucson, I-19 leads to the Mexican border at Nogales.
Street SystemTucson is laid out in a grid pattern. Numbered streets run east-west to the south of Speedway Boulevard, and numbered avenues run north-south to the west of Euclid Avenue. Address numbers start at the intersection of Broadway, the north-south divider, and Stone, the east-west divider. Unless otherwise posted the speed limit on most streets is 25 to 40 mph.
ParkingMetered parking is available on many downtown streets, but be sure to check signs and meters for restricted times and limits. There also are a number of commercial garages and lots. Rates average around $2 per hour or $5 per day.
Public TransportationSun Link, Tucson's modern streetcar system, began operating in 2014. The 3.9-mile system features 23 stops and connects downtown Tucson with the University of Arizona campus, Main Gate Square, the 4th Avenue Business District and the Mercado District. Several Sun Link stations are decorated with sculptures by various artists, including an eye-catching, 6-foot-tall human head made up of small, steel letters at the E. Helen Street and N. Warren Avenue station.
Riding Sun Link requires either a 1-day SunGO ticket, which costs $4, or a one-way fare of $1.50; 50c (ages 65+ with valid ID and the physically impaired). Reloadable SunGO Cards, transfers and 30-day tickets also are available. Tickets can be purchased at vending machines at each Sun Link stop, and each ticket must be validated once you are on board by tapping it against one of four validators. Phone (520) 792-9222 for more information.
Sun Tran, Tucson's bus service, operates a fleet of modern buses. The Ronstadt Transit Center, on 6th Avenue between Congress and Pennington streets, is the main downtown station. The fare to all points is $1.50; 50c (ages 65+ with valid ID and the physically impaired); free (ages 0-5). Fares can be paid to the bus driver or at self-serve ticket machines (cash only).
Sales TaxArizona's statewide sales tax is 5.6 percent; an additional 2 percent is levied in Tucson. The tax on a hotel room in Pima County is 13.05 percent, plus an additional $2 per room per night in Tucson. There is a combined state and county rental car tax of 10 percent, plus a Pima County rental car fee of $3.50 per rental; a concession fee of 11.1 percent is added if the car is picked up at the airport, and an additional 2 percent tax is added if the car is picked up off airport property but within the Tucson city limits.
Police (non-emergency)(520) 791-6813 (8 a.m.-10 p.m.)
HospitalsCarondelet St. Joseph's Hospital, (520) 873-3000; Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital, (520) 872-3000; Northwest Medical Center, (520) 742-9000; Tucson Medical Center, (520) 327-5461; University Medical Center, (520) 694-0111.
Visitor InformationVisit Tucson 811 N. Euclid Ave. Tucson, AZ 85719. Phone:(520)624-1817 or (800)638-8350A visitor information center in La Placita Village is open Mon.-Fri. 9-5, Sat.-Sun. 9-4; closed major holidays.
Air TravelTen miles south of downtown, Tucson International Airport (TUS), (520) 573-8100, is served by many major passenger airlines. Short-term airport parking costs $1 per half-hour up to $13 per day; long-term parking costs $10 for 24 hours ($2 for the first hour, then $1.50 per half-hour up to $10 per day).
Allison Limousine, (520) 888-5466, provides limousine service throughout the Tucson area; prices range from $65 to $135 per hour. Cab service to downtown averages 20 minutes and costs $27-$30.
Rental CarsHertz, (520) 573-5201 or (800) 654-3131, offers discounts to AAA members.
Rail ServiceThe Amtrak station is at 400 N. Toole. For advance ticket and schedule information phone (800) 872-7245. Tickets may be purchased at the station.
BusesThe terminal for Greyhound Lines Inc. is at 471 W. Congress St.; phone (520) 792-3475 or (800) 231-2222.
TaxisThere are many independent taxi companies in Tucson. Rates are not regulated by the city. Companies that serve the area include Discount Cab, (520) 388-9000; VIP Taxi, (520) 300-3000; and Yellow Cab, (520) 624-6611.
Public TransportationSun Tran, (520) 792-9222, operates a fleet of buses running throughout the metro area as well as a streetcar line downtown.
What to Do in TucsonTravel back to New Spain at Mission San Xavier del Bac (1950 W. San Xavier Rd.). Started in 1692 by the Rev. Eusebio Kino of the Jesuits, today’s mission was built 1783-97 by the Franciscans, who continue its ministry. The atmosphere hearkens back to the 18th century, complete with arches, original statuary and mural paintings.
Explore the diversity of Tucson’s ecosystem at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd.) where you’ll find trails, gardens, animals and even an aquarium.
Embrace the great outdoors at Tucson Mountain Park (W. Gates Pass Rd. & S. Kinney Rd.). No visit is complete without experiencing the stark beauty of the desert with its wide horizons and far-reaching saguaros. Whether it’s hiking, taking pictures, painting or exploring the area’s history, there’s plenty of fun things to do.
Unleash the kids at Children’s Museum Tucson (200 S. 6th Ave.) where displays are geared toward your youngest family members. STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—exhibits educate, and kids can get creative in themed activity areas.
Ride the rails—or imagine you’re doing so at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum (414 N. Toole Ave.). Much of the West’s growth came from the arrival of railroads, so you’ll find the museum beside the former Southern Pacific Railroad Depot—still welcoming passengers. Highlights include a locomotive, sculpture of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, and exhibits highlighting railroad culture.
View the former site of El Presidio San Agustin del Tucsón (196 N. Court Ave.), an adobe established in 1775 by the Spanish. Though the last fort remnant was torn down in 1918, recent conservation efforts re-created portions. You’ll see walls, a 20-foot adobe tower called a torreón and a mural that explains the rest of the 11-acre site.
Browse the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block (140 N. Main Ave.), which sits on a corner of what was once the presidio. Although Art of the American West is understandably a big deal here, the museum features a range of other genres. Shop for handmade creations made by Arizona residents at the museum store and then tour the nearby historic buildings.
March around the Arizona Historical Society/Fort Lowell Museum (2900 N. Craycroft Rd.) grounds to learn about frontier military life. Within the refurbished Commanding Officer’s Quarters, you’ll find exhibits detailing everything from the Apache Wars to everyday life for soldiers and their families.
Refresh your memory about the indigenous history of the state and northern Mexico at the Arizona State Museum (1013 E. University Blvd.). One exhibit features pottery dating back hundreds of years. Other exhibits include photographs, relics and priceless textiles—but all highlight the Southwest's distinctive personality.
Tucson Travel with Kids
Under 13Even the smallest kids will feel really big at The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures (4455 E. Camp Lowell Dr.), which transports visitors to places both real and imaginary. Fairytale castles, enchanted trees and beautifully crafted miniature homes from around the world captivate young imaginations.
Another sure bet when it comes to attractions for kids is downtown’s Children’s Museum Tucson (200 S. 6th Ave.), where educational science exhibits are cleverly disguised as fun play areas with names like Music Garden, Imaginarium Art Studio and Investigation Station.
With hundreds of furry, feathered and funny-looking animal residents, Reid Park Zoo (3400 E. Zoo Ct.) sets the stage for adorable antics that will keep kids entertained while showing off our planet’s biological diversity. And when it’s time to cool off, head to Kenya Get Wet, the zoo’s water playground.
Experience Tucson’s Old West heritage during La Fiesta de los Vaqueros (4823 S. 6th Ave.), a 9-day festival held each February. The highlight is the Tucson Rodeo, one of the most respected in North America. The Tucson Rodeo Parade draws thousands of spectators with its horse-drawn floats, marching bands and Mexican folk dancers, and there are even rodeo events for cowboys and cowgirls under 12.
Shopping in TucsonIf you've come to Tucson itchin' to buy turquoise, Kachina dolls and dream catchers, the world is your oyster. But Southwestern art and crafts are only part of the city's shopping picture. You can also overstuff your carry-on bag or car trunk with goods from funky boutiques, cutting-edge art galleries and high-end shopping malls.
Downtown in the El Presidio district, Old Town Artisans , 201 N. Court Ave., is housed in an 1850s adobe building that sits on an entire city block. The half-dozen shops and galleries deal mainly in traditional Native and Latin American crafts (pottery, carvings, blankets), but you'll also find some contemporary jewelry and art here.
The Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block's excellent Museum Store, 140 N. Main Ave., carries a nice selection of works by some of the state's best artists (read: expensive), as well as art books and affordable gift items.
Without question, downtown's most eclectic shopping and dining area is 4th Avenue (between 9th Street and University Boulevard). With the exception of a prehistoric Dairy Queen, you won't see a single chain store or restaurant (not even a Starbucks) on the entire strip, which is exactly how Tucson hipsters like it.
For a shopping courtyard filled with unique specialty boutiques, try the hacienda-style St. Philip's Plaza, at the southeast corner of Campbell Avenue and River Road. The plaza's Bahti Indian Arts specializes in Native American art and crafts. On Saturday and Sunday, the plaza hosts a farmers market; the Saturday market also includes an artisans market.
Tucson NightlifeTucson's nightlife is mainly concentrated in the downtown area. Whether you choose to catch a live band, sip designer cocktails or guzzle beer alongside UofA students, many spots are within walking distance of one another.
Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., has been called one of the country's best live music clubs by Esquire magazine. Just off the lobby of the historic Hotel Congress , the venue books mostly local and regional alt-rock bands. The stage, backed with red velvet drapes and framed by Gothic-style metalwork, overlooks a dance floor that's shoulder-to-shoulder on weekends; phone (520) 622-8848.
If you'd rather skip the club and its surprisingly high cover charge, yet still be able to hear the music, opt for the Hotel Congress' lobby bar. The décor is classic Southwest Deco, the scene is laid-back and there's a casual patio out back as well.
Across the street is the Rialto Theatre , 318 E. Congress St., a restored 1920 vaudeville and movie palace that now hosts mid-level touring acts (think Bon Iver, Lucinda Williams and Fleet Foxes); phone (520) 740-1000.
Downtown's tiny The Screening Room , 127 E. Congress St., shows a mix of recent box office smashes and indie fare; phone (520) 882-0204. Even better is The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. (a few minutes east of the UofA campus), which has three screens and runs film festival standouts and theme nights like “Mondo Mondays” and “Scream-o-rama”; phone (520) 795-7777.
Fourth Avenue is loaded with casual bars and pubs popular with UofA students. On the upscale side is Sky Bar , 536 N. 4th Ave., a sleek space that's a chill-out café by day and a hip bar by night. DJs spin techno and house beats on weekends; there's live jazz and blues on Tuesday. Every night, flat-screen TVs show astronomical images taken from the bar's very own telescope; phone (520) 622-4300.
For country music you'll need to gas up the F-150 and head to east Tucson. Opened in 1962, The Maverick Live Country Club , 6622 E. Tanque Verde Rd., offers live music Tuesday through Saturday; phone (520) 298-0430.
Tucson Performing ArtsWhen it comes to enjoying theater during your vacation, Tucson offers many choices. Top billing is given to the Arizona Theatre Company, Arizona's professional state theater. This premier company performs six plays during its September through May season at the Temple of Music and Art, (520) 622-2823, 330 S. Scott Ave. A forum for experimental theater is The Invisible Theatre, (520) 882-9721, 1400 N. 1st Ave., which stages six plays between September and June.
If you’re looking for things to do with kids, the Gaslight Theatre, (520) 886-9428, 7010 E. Broadway, offers entertainment for the entire family. The melodramas, comedies and musicals produced here encourage audience participation; reservations are required. The University of Arizona adds to Tucson's theater offerings. The school's resident company, (520) 621-7008, 1025 N. Olive St., presents its offerings of musicals and serious drama in spring, summer and fall, while the UA Presents series brings national touring companies to Centennial Hall, (520) 621-3341, 1020 E. University Blvd.
Tucson Sports & RecreationTucson is America's Winter Training Capital, and an athlete's mid-winter dream. With comfortable temperatures and abundant sunshine, it's almost impossible to lose a training day—no matter what your sport.
Tucson's city parks and Pima County parks offer facilities for almost any activity. A number of swimming pools and tennis, racquetball and handball courts are available as well as picnic areas, playgrounds, and soccer and ball fields. For information about facilities and reservations for their use contact the Pima County Parks and Recreation office at 3500 W. River Rd., (520) 724-5000, or Tucson Parks and Recreation at 900 S. Randolph Way, (520) 791-4873.
Among the courses in Tucson are: Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort's Pusch Ridge and Cañada courses, (520) 544-5000, 10000 N. Oracle Rd. and 10555 N. La Cañada Dr.; Omni Tucson National, (520) 297-2271, 2727 W. Club Dr.; Randolph Municipal, (520) 791-4161, 600 S. Alvernon Way; and Ventana Canyon, (520) 577-1400, 6200 N. Clubhouse Ln. Also in the area is Canoa Ranch Golf Club, (520) 393-1966, at 5800 S. Camino del Sol in Green Valley.
Hiking is probably the best way to get up close and personal with the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson Mountain Park is laced with hiking trails and is among Tucson’s most fun places to go. The Santa Catalina Mountains offer many areas of unspoiled beauty as well. Hiking permits are required for some areas. Empty vehicles will be fined or towed if a permit is not displayed. For more information about permits and National Forest fee areas, contact the Coronado National Forest office in Tucson; phone (520) 388-8300. Catalina State Park , (520) 628-5798, has trails that can challenge the experienced hiker but not intimidate the novice; two longer trails begin at the end of the park's paved road. For more information about hiking, phone the county's recreation office at (520) 724-5000. Hike In Tucson directs guided hiking trips along several area trails; phone (520) 477-6867 or (877) 445-3749.
Another great way to see the countryside is on a trail ride. Several stables offer half-day, full-day and overnight horseback riding trips into the mountains and desert. Check hotel brochure racks for stables. Skiing is available at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, a scenic 30-mile drive northeast from Tucson. The southernmost ski area in the nation, Mount Lemmon offers both downhill and cross-country skiing. A scenic sky ride on the ski lift is offered during the off-season. Phone (520) 576-1400 for snow condition updates.
Bus ToursGray Line, (520) 622-8811 or (800) 276-1528, offers sightseeing tours to Tucson's major sites as well as trips to Tombstone and the Grand Canyon. Overnight and multiple-day tours are available.
Looking for other things to see in Tucson? While you're at the visitor center ask for the free Presidio Trail Historical Walking Tour brochure, which includes a map of the Presidio Trail, a bright turquoise stripe painted on the sidewalks that wind through the heart of downtown Tucson. The 2.5-mile trail begins at the intersection of Church and Washington streets and passes more than 20 numbered historical sites, including the Pima County Courthouse and the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. If you follow the trail without the walking tour brochure and its written descriptions, don't worry; most sites on the tour are marked by plaques.
1-day ItineraryAAA editors suggest these activities for a great short vacation experience.
MorningThe sun rising over the Sonoran Mountains provides a pleasing light that’s perfect for exploring Tucson's rugged terrain. Tread carefully around the prickly saguaros—scene-stealing cacti that dot the landscape and appear on everything from salsa jars to shoot-’em-up Westerns.
At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd.), you’ll find a world-class zoo, museum and botanical garden all rolled into one. Fun things to do include investigating how saguaros provide valuable habitat for wildlife, enjoying a live-animal demonstration or walking one of the desert trails. Start early: Temperatures can climb into the 100-plus range during the summer.
If you’d like to wander farther than the museum’s trails allow, explore Tucson Mountain Park (W. Gates Pass Rd. & S. Kinney Rd.). With approximately 20,000 acres, the park welcomes hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians alike, and no wonder—the views from Gates Pass Scenic Overlook are superb.
Did you spot unidentified wildlife? A visit to the International Wildlife Museum (4800 W. Gates Pass Rd.) might clear up the mystery. Its interactive displays feature more than 400 species of preserved birds, insects and mammals in natural surroundings.
The tile-decorated surfaces at Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe (2456 N. Silver Mosaic Dr.) provide a colorful backdrop for plates of huevos divorciados and huevos rancheros. The latter were even featured on the Food Network’s “Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” where the chef tried his hand at the dish. Though the egg specialties are hard to beat, try a cheese crisp.
AfternoonSure to inspire your own vacation photographs, the Center for Creative Photography (1030 N. Olive Rd.) offers ever-changing exhibits. It’s also the museum that photographer Ansel Adams co-founded at University of Arizona, so make an appointment to survey its permanent collection.
To explain how the state developed, the nearby Arizona Historical Society/Arizona History Museum (949 E. 2nd St.) delves into the Spanish and pre-territorial periods.
Stick to The Postal History Foundation (920 N. First Ave.) for your fix of stamps and postal history. The structure—assembled circa 1895 from a prefabricated “post office kit”—was moved a few times before serving as a museum. Guests still can mail letters and packages from the full-service post office.
After licking envelopes and mailing presents, visit Magpie’s Gourmet Pizza (605 N. 4th Ave.) for some finger-licking food. Made fresh to order, foodies can choose from a variety of toppings to create their own pie. Offering everything from salads and subs to calzones and oven-roasted wings, the restaurant also features delectable desserts.
Visualize early Tucson at the Arizona Historical Society/Downtown History Museum (140 N. Stone Ave.). History buffs can browse through depictions of houses and other buildings, including police and fire departments, and an old-time barbershop.
EveningAs the heat of the day settles, head toward the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block (140 N. Main Ave.) around what was once Spain’s El Presidio San Agustin del Tucsón (196 N. Court Ave.). An on-site art museum highlights Western and Latin American art as well as rare books and manuscripts.
A half mile south, across from the Convention Center, the Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant (198 W. Cushing St.) is an 1860s landmark serving up cuisine with a Southwestern flair as well as events and live music.
The atmospheric Main Dining Room at the Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St.) awaits. Things for couples to do include ordering the pastry chef’s selection of small bites or enjoying a nightcap to end the evening on a warm note.
Tucson EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
In February the city boasts a superlative: the world's largest gem and mineral show with more than 40 shows across town. The focal point of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is at the Tucson Convention Center, which is filled with some 250 dealers selling to the public.
If you like horses and cowboys, Tucson is the destination for you mid- to late February during La Fiesta de los Vaqueros , held at the rodeo grounds. This classic professional rodeo event features a parade with people on foot, on horseback and in every size and shape of horse-drawn vehicle. The fiesta ends with the rodeo finals, in which some of the best riders and ropers on the circuit compete.
In March and again in December Tucson's 4th Avenue holds a huge street fair filled with artisans selling and demonstrating their crafts. Enhanced by music and food vendor booths, these weekends attract visitors and residents alike. The annual Tucson International Mariachi Conference and music festival comes to town in late April. Mid-month brings the Pima County Fair . In May, the Tucson Folk Festival attracts thousands of traditional music fans for a weekend of entertainment by the genre's top acts.
Tucson's fall activities begin in late September and early October with Oktoberfest on Mount Lemmon . In early November, a Tucson artists' organization presents the annual All Souls Procession . Inspired by Mexico's Día de los Muertos, thousands of people walk 2 miles through the streets of Tucson to commemorate the passing of loved ones, carrying photos of the deceased, wearing the departed's clothing or dressed in skeleton costumes.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
Places in Vicinity