The Three-Day Best of Tucson

Angled late-afternoon sunlight hits the colorful buildings of Tucson's downtown.

Downtown Tucson viewed from Sentinel Peak. Photo © Bill Morrow, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The following suggested itinerary is meant to guide you to the city’s very best—the essential Old Pueblo experience. You’ll need your own car, a camera, a hat, and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Day 1

Try to get an early start for sightseeing, especially during the hot months, when you only have a few hours before the weather gets unbearable. If you’re an early riser, I’d suggest heading downtown to the St. Augustine Cathedral before 7 a.m. You can stand across the street and watch as the rising sun lights up the Spanish revival cathedral, and the tall, skinny imported palm trees cast their shaggy shadows against the glowing building. It’s a perfect Southwestern scene.

Head downtown to the Hotel Congress, have a big breakfast at The Cup Café, and take a look around the historic old hotel.

Hop in the car and head west from downtown into Tucson Mountain Park, stopping to enjoy the view of the desert below at Gates Pass.

Spend a few hours exploring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just down the hill.

Next, head back over the Tucson Mountains to downtown and stroll, shop, and eat a late lunch or early dinner on 4th Avenue and nearby Main Gate Square.

If you have it in you, barhop around Congress Street, 4th Avenue, and Main Gate Square, taking in a few bands at The Hut, The Playground, and Plush along the way.

Day 2

Drive to midtown for a filling greasy-spoon breakfast at Frank’s.

On your way back downtown, stop by the Arizona Inn and have a look around the lush grounds.

Then drive to the El Presidio district downtown and explore the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block and El Presidio Real de San Agustín del Tucson for a few hours.

For lunch, go to El Charro, right near the museum, or to Little Cafe Poca Cosa, a short walk away, then take a short drive south on I-19 and check out San Xavier del Bac.

In the late afternoon, drive into the foothills to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and take a tram ride up into the canyon or hike one of the trails.

As the sun dips behind the Santa Catalina Mountains, head on over to Hacienda del Sol for drinks and appetizers (or dinner) on the patio overlooking the city.

Hit El Parador (assuming it’s a Friday or Saturday night) for salsa dancing, or knock back a few drinks at The Tap Room and dance, or watch a band at Club Congress.

Day 3

Depending on your personal inclinations, you should either tour Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson, or head north up the Sky Island Scenic Byway into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Both trips are scenic and fun and take about two hours of driving time round-trip; it just depends on whether you prefer sweeping mountain views or otherworldly underground sights.

If you’re headed up to the mountains, stop at the Rincon Market on your way out of town and pick up a picnic lunch. If you take a trip to the caverns, stop afterwards at the Horseshoe Café in Benson for lunch. Either way you go, you’ll likely get back to town in the late afternoon if you get an early start.

Once back downtown, head to Old Town Artisans to have a few drinks in the lush courtyard and check out the shops.

For your final dinner in Tucson, go to Mi Nidito or La Fuente, where you’ll be sent home with the brassy sounds of mariachi ringing in your sunburned ears.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.

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