Tuscon Arizona overlook on a sunny day

The winding roads leading to Tucson all come with incredible mountain views. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Tour Tucson, Arizona, and Its Stunning Desertscapes — All in 3 Days

Tucson, Arizona, delivers an urban buzz, exceptional cuisine and the allure of Saguaro National Park. That’s a lot, but this Southwestern city also throws in 350 days of sunshine per year — meaning there’s never a bad time to visit. When school’s in session, you’ll feel the energy of the 45,000 students on University of Arizona campus. But Tucson has plenty of opportunities for quiet reflection, as well.

Explore Southwestern culture — and the stunning desert landscape — with a weekend in and around the state’s second-largest city.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Get to Know Tucson’s Food Scene

Begin your visit to Tucson by finding your bearings. Luckily, there’s an easy way to get around: The 3.9-mile Tucson Streetcar runs from Main Gate Square across downtown to Mercado San Agustin and back.

Be sure to check out the impressive Center for Creative Photography, located on campus at the University of Arizona. The dramatic concrete structure houses more than 80,000 images from Lola Álvarez Bravo, R. J. Kern and Margrethe Mather, among other photographers.

Three grilled shrimp tacos
Don’t forget to break for a delicious lunch. (Photo: Getty Images)

You might be surprised to learn that Tucson is the very first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S., a unique designation given to cities that have a rich and diverse culinary history, which in Tucson’s case dates back some 4,000 years.

Get to know this aspect of local culture over a lunch of tripas tacos and quesabirrias at El Taco Rustico. Choose from flour, corn or nopal tortillas, piled high with the flavors of northeastern Mexico.

Continue your Tucson immersion with a walk along the Turquoise Trail, a 2.5-mile loop that highlights historic landmarks such as the Presidio Museum via a smartphone app and a — you guessed it — turquoise stripe down the sidewalk.

Indulge in some retail therapy at Old Town Artisans, a historic shopping block dating back to 1922. Located on the site where the Spanish first built a fort in 1775, Old Town is where local artisans sell jewelry, sustainable clothing, records, contemporary art and more.

Then, stop into the Borderlands Brewery for a taste of Arizona’s craft-beer scene before crossing the Arroyo Chico to Bison Witches, a popular hangout serving creative sandwiches and cold brews until midnight.

Well after the sun goes down, experience another kind of nightlife. Visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory to witness the dark night skies of this region of Arizona. The observatory offers nighttime programs featuring 26 telescopes.

Saturday: Go Beyond the City Limits

Fuel up for an adventurous day at the Mercado San Agustin. This Spanish colonial-style open-air courtyard houses several food vendors. Grab churros from La Estrella Bakery and snacks from Presta Coffee Roasters to bring along on an outdoor adventure.

Travel to Catalina State Park, roughly 15 miles north of the city, where you can choose to hit the trails on foot, by bike or on horseback. Located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, this park is known for its desert vegetation, including almost 5,000 saguaro cacti.

Back in town, continue your desert adventure with a stop at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, an art gallery dedicated to the native culture and history of the Southwest. Set on 10 acres in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the visually arresting structure is registered as a National Historic Landmark and worth a trip in itself.

Next, get to know arid climate-loving plants at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Don’t miss the Cox Butterfly & Orchid Pavilion.

Mountain view at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort
A secluded corner at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. (Photo: Marriott International)

Finally, relax with a spa treatment at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, where you can choose from a variety of treatments and soak up the views overlooking the Sonoran Desert at Salud. The alfresco restaurant serves cantina fare and has 100 different tequilas on the menu.

Sunday: Take in Desert Beauty and a Mexican Feast

The San Xavier del Bac Mission on a sunny day
Pay a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. (Photo: Getty Images)

Start your final day with an eye-opening visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission, just south of Tucson proper. This National Historic Landmark dates back to 1692 and is considered one of the best examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the country.

Next, visit Saguaro National Park, where saguaro cacti can grow up to 50 feet in height and, depending on the time of year, you may even catch wildflowers in bloom (May is peak season for this). Hike and bike your way through the park before returning to Tucson to experience more of the city’s famous food.

Hit up 12th Avenue, an epicenter of Mexican American cuisine, to try a Sonoran hot dog or two. The local delicacy comes wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions and jalapeño salsa. Find them at El Güero Canelo and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.

For one last dose of culture, check out what’s on at the Rialto Theatre or the Tucson Music Hall. Afterward, drop in to one of the city’s famous honky-tonk bars, such as the Maverick or Nancy’s Boondocks, where you can show off your two-step late into the night.