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What to Do During a Winter Escape to Tucson, Arizona

Updated: February 09, 2024

Written by

Jennifer Broome

With mild days and cold nights, winter is the perfect time to escape to the Sonoran Desert. Tucson is a city that’s bound to surprise you. It was the first and only one of two UNESCO designated City of Gastronomy in America. It’s surrounded by a jaw-dropping landscape of saguaro-covered hills and mountains soaring out of the desert ground. It’s one of the best places in the world to gaze at a star-filled night sky. Here are eight things to do during a winter escape to this vibrant city in southern Arizona.

Stay On or Near Congress Street

Tucson’s downtown is very walkable and filled with a plethora of restaurants and bars for an eclectic nightlife. For a skyscraper stay in the heart of downtown, earn some Bonvoy points at the Leo Kent Hotel in the iconic Old South Church building. The Tribute Portfolio Hotel is Tucson’s newest boutique hotel and has a contemporary vibe with southwestern and vintage touches. Book a room on a higher floor to enjoy the desert landscape out your window.

 For a historic stay, book a room at Hotel Congress. Open since 1919, the hotel with a giant rooftop neon sign is a Tucson institution. Notice the switchboard and safe when you check in. Both are original to the hotel and both still work. There are three music venues and 39 uniquely decorated rooms. Book room 214 for a room overlooking the Plaza Stage. The popular room is also one of the hotel’s haunted rooms. There have been numerous sightings of a Victorian gentleman decked out in a dapper top hat appearing in the window.

Sip a Dillinger Sidecar in the lobby bar, the hotel’s newly revamped “sexy spot” for sips and light bites. The cocktail is named after gangster John Dillinger who was arrested at the hotel in 1934. Tucson’s most famous watering hole is in the hotel. Tiger’s Tap Room was the first bar to open after Prohibition. Originally called the Tap Room, it was renamed in honor of longtime bartender Thomas “Tiger” Ziegler in 2017. He’s served thirsty patrons since 1959 and still steps behind the bar occasionally. In addition to the Plaza Stage and Club Congress music venues, there’s the Century Room. The jazz bar and mezcal lounge are swanky. Along with music, art is an integral part of the hotel. You’ll find interesting artwork in the rooms and throughout the hotel’s public spaces.


Eat Your Way Through Tucson

Tucson is a city you should eat your way through. From breakfast to dinner, you can savor the flavors of southern Arizona in a unique blend of indigenous, Mexican, Spanish, American and global infusions. For breakfast, pop into Cup Cafe in Hotel Congress. Their huevos rancheros are some of the best I’ve ever had. On another morning head over to Seis Kitchen. It started as a food truck and blossomed into three award-winning restaurants including the location in Mercado San Agustin Public Market. While sitting out in the quaint square, sip a cochata. The horchata and cold brew specialty drink is fabulous. Pair it with their chilaquiles served with smashed beans and crispy potatoes. The tortilla chips are tossed in either the tomatillo sauce or rojo salsa. Order the chilaquiles with both so you can try the green and red sauces.

 The cochata is the only coffee-based drink, so if you want a latte, step over to Presta across the courtyard. It’s their original location. For lunch, enjoy a fast-casual dining experience while you’re at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. For a unique twist on Italian food, dine at Zio Pepe’s for lunch before you head up Mount Lemmon. The elote arancini is off the charts.

For dinner, it’s worth the drive to Tito and Pep in an unassuming strip mall in Midtown. Make a reservation at least two weeks in advance, as even on a random Tuesday night this place was packed. Everything here is mesquite-grilled. Start by sipping a tequila-based Saguaro Blossom for a refreshing elixir. The menu goes from small bites to larger dishes. The charred broccoli with pickled chilies, toasted almonds and citrus emulsion is a flavor explosion in your mouth. The Sea of Cortez shrimp is spectacular. My biggest surprise of dinner was hands down the harvest of vegetable pozole layered with savory flavors. To top off the meal the chocolate ganache is divine.

For an iconic dining experience, El Charro Café is the oldest Mexican restaurant in America. For an elevated twist on their long-standing menu, dine next door at Charro Steak and Del Rey. When I saw the $30 margarita, I knew I had to try it. Honestly, the gold sea salt and high-end tequila make it worth the splurge. For a starter, the ahi tostada with avocado smear and topped with nuts and seeds is a phenomenal presentation and is delicious. While the steak and seafood menus are extensive, if you want to go light order the Broadway Salad. That will help you save room for champagne-fried strawberries for a churro experience unlike any other churros you’ve had.

Scenic Drives and Hikes in Saguaro National Park

You don’t have to venture far to visit a national park when in Tucson, as Saguaro National Park is in the city. There are two districts: Rincon Mountain and Tucson Mountain. Both have scenic drives and hiking trails of landscapes filled with the cactus giants that are an iconic symbol of the American Southwest.

In the Rincon Mountain District (east), the 8-mile one-way loop on Cactus Forest Drive is a must to enjoy scenic vistas from spots like Sonoran Desert Overlook and Cactus Forest Overlook. If you’re a cyclist, this loop is an outstanding ride. A ranger suggested for me to try the Mica View Trail for a 1.7-mile loop on a cactus forest trail. It’s superb and lined with a variety of cacti.

A visit to the Tucson Mountain District (west) can easily be combined with a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Both are adjacent to the Tucson Mountain Park, which you drive through to get to both. On a beautiful winter morning, I hiked the King Canyon Trail. The sandy and rock ledge-lined trail is an old mining road. If you’re short on time, do an out-and-back jaunt. For a longer hike, make a loop combining King Canyon Trail with Esperanza Trail and Gould Mine Trail for a 2.4-mile loop filled with views.

Explore the district’s foothills by driving the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive. It’s an unpaved, graded dirt road that is doable in a passenger car. For a short hike with a big payoff in the west district, head to Signal Hill Trail. It’s a stunning drive on a dirt road to the trailhead and only a half-mile round trip hike to the petroglyphs, or rock art, created by prehistoric Hohokam people. When you get to the top of Signal Hill, there are rocks covered with petroglyphs and a 360° view of saguaros in every direction.

Visit a Desert Museum

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is not your typical multi-story museum. It spans 98 acres and is a world-renowned zoo, botanical garden and natural history museum all in one. Because 85% of it is outdoors, make sure you have sunscreen, water, a hat, sunglasses and comfy shoes. I allotted several hours for my visit but could have easily spent an entire day here. There are two miles of paths through 21 acres with more than 300 animal species and 1200 kinds of plants.

I immediately headed for the Mountain Woodland area which is like a forested island surrounded by a sea of desert. I got lucky and saw the mountain lion taking a catnap on a boulder. The black bear was hibernating, but I did see the Mexican wolves before walking over to the Desert Loop Trail. You need about a half hour to do the whole trail where you can see javelinas, coyotes, birds and lizards.

Don’t miss Cat Canyon. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the ocelot romping around. Walk up the flight of stairs to observe the enclosures from above. For a quieter stop, take an introspective walk in the Labyrinth Garden following the rock-lined spiral to the center and back out. The pollinator gardens and hummingbird aviary tend to be quieter spots too. When you get hungry, there’s a full-service restaurant, fast casual grill and coffee shop.

See What Life is Like in A Bubble

It’s about an hour-long drive to Biosphere 2. Originally built for “self-sustaining space-colonization technology” with eight inhabitants in the early 1990s. It’s still a living laboratory you can visit on a guided tour or self-guided as I did. Because you are moving inside and outside during your visit of the varying environments, make sure to bring layers. Inside you learn about the mission and see some of the living spaces. After you explore a portion of the five-story, 25,000-foot human habitat, you continue into the Biosphere 2 Biomes filled with environments ranging from subtropical to savanna. There’s even an ocean and rainforest inside. Give yourself at least 1.5 hours for the 1-mile walking tour. If you’re wondering where Biosphere 1 is, it’s Earth.

Go on a Star Party

Southern Arizona is one of the premier places in the world to observe the night sky because of the mountains and very dry climate. Dark Sky International is headquartered in Tucson and there are several places where you can gaze at planets and galaxies far away through giant telescopes.

Factor in extra time to enjoy the ride up the 27-mile twisty road through the Coronado National Forest on your way up to the University of Arizona’s Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. A stop at Windy Vista Point is a must on the drive. The elevation gain is over 6,000 feet and the temperature is typically 20 degrees or more cooler near Mount Lemmon’s summit of 9,157 feet.

The Steward Observatory in the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is home to the “largest dedicated public telescopes in the United States.” The guided 5-hour experience includes taking in sunset, a light dinner from a local Italian deli and multiple opportunities to view a variety of objects in the night sky. On my tour we viewed a double cluster of young stars, M15 star cluster Andromeda galaxy, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter and the rings of Saturn through the Schulman Telescope. Reservations are required for these star-studded evenings.      

Explore 5 Points and Barrio Viejo

The 5 Points intersection is where Barrio Viejo, Armory Park, Barrio Santa Rita, Cesar Chavez Ave and Barrio Santa Rosa meet. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast of delicious huevos rancheros at 5 Points Market before walking over to Philabaum Glass Gallery. It opened in 1982 and is the only all-glass art gallery in Arizona and one of only a handful in the United States. The gallery features the works of 65 artists, including over 20 living in Arizona. From there head to the heart of Barrio Viejo, which is Tucson’s oldest neighborhood, and is filled with colorful homes. You can wander around the neighborhood on your own, but for a more in-depth adventure, go on a one-mile walking tour with Presidio San Agustin Del Tucson Museum to admire the largest collection of Sonoran row homes in America. Stop in EXO Roost for a chiltepin-infused cold brew for an iced coffee with a spicy kick.

Marvel at Planes

There are over 400 iconic aircraft on display at Pima Air and Space Museum. It’s one of the largest non-government-funded aviation and space museums in the world. One of my favorites in the main hanger is the Starr Bumble Bee. It was designed and built solely to get the record for the world’s smallest aircraft, which it earned in 1984. Robert H. Starr broke his own record with the Bumble Bee II in 1988.

Outside the main hanger is an aviator’s dream with row after row of planes from fighter jets to a 787 Dreamliner. Don’t miss the Aerospace Gallery or the 390th Memorial Museum housing the last B-17 Flying Fortress to be flown by any branch of the U.S. military. Because of its proximity to the airport, I made the Pima Air and Space Museum my last stop before catching my flight.

It’s impossible to see everything here in one visit. Give yourself a couple of hours to explore aviation history before saying adios to the fabulously vibrant, adventurous, delicious and friendly city of Tucson. It’s a destination that’s truly out of this world. 

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Written by

Jennifer Broome

Jennifer Broome has stood on the equator, crossed the Arctic Circle, skydived with the U.S. Army Golden Knights, flown with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, and trekked to Everest Base Camp. She is a freelance multimedia travel and environmental journalist for broadcast, digital, and print outlets. She’s also a freelance television meteorologist, content creator, and speaker. Her specialties are adventure travel, solo travel, U.S. National Parks, road trips, and sustainable tourism. She's been to all 50 U.S. states, over 45 countries, and is on a quest to visit all of the National Park Service sites including all national parks.  

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