Let me just get this out of the way. Tucson is awesome! It only took one weekend in town to fall completely head over heels in love. And we are already planning to return. We knew when we started researching things to do in Tucson that there was way too much to see in a single weekend, but trust me, we made a valiant effort!
Okay, clearly I need a lot more practice taking photos in front of murals but you get the gist. From the content of the “Greetings from Tucson” mural, you can see the wide variety of places, food, and culture that this town has to be proud of. (Plus in my defense, it's really hard to be graceful when you are wearing pants 3 sizes too big!)
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In reality, the weekend we spent in Tucson was not our first. During our RV sabbatical, we stayed at the really awesome KOA near the fairgrounds. It was only one of two RV parks we stayed in during our near 2-years on the road in the RV that had solar energy (the other one being in Santa Fe). We also previously visited while staying in Phoenix when we totally geeked out at the Pima Air and Space Museum and wolfed down some of the best tamales we've ever had.
But for this weekend we were on a mission, we wanted to get a taste of some of the best things to do in Tucson. It was a reconnaissance operation to explore what we wanted to come back for. Given that it is only a 2-hour drive from Phoenix, we had the opportunity to return often. Trouble is, now that we've discovered just how truly awesome Tucson is, we may need to spend every weekend here!
But if you only have one weekend, let me give you some of the best things to do.
Saguaro National Park
While Arizona has a lot of national monuments, trails, and recreation areas, it also has 4 national parks, with the most famous one, of course, being the Grand Canyon. However the big advantage of visiting Saguaro National Park is that it is so close to Tucson, you truly have the best of both worlds. Hikes and visits to the two parts of the national park and a huge variety of infrastructure and logistics to choose from when it comes to hotels, restaurants, and things to do.
- You will need a National Park Pass
Summertime is monsoon season in Arizona and the weather can change very quickly going from dark and gray to perfectly blue skies, it is a really cool phenomenon we are adapting to as new Arizonians.
We visited both the west side of the park which has a dirt road loop trail, short hikes with sites like petroglyphs and where the saguaro cacti are denser, and the east side of the park which has a larger driving loop (paved), trails, and taller more spread out saguaro since this part of the park is at a higher elevation and gets more rain.
The saguaro cactus is not endangered but it is protected in Arizona. There are regulations about harvesting, collecting, or destroying them. What is so interesting about this species is the arms that they grow which take 75-100 years for the very first one to show up. After that, they can have as many as 25!
The variety of cacti in the park is outstanding and we saw some of our old friends like the ocotillo which we saw a lot of in Borrego Springs and the cholla which there is a whole garden of in Joshua Tree. Word of caution about the cacti everywhere, be careful everywhere you step!
We returned to the western part of the park to try a sunset one evening. There is a really great trail and overlook at Gates Pass. We hiked up the trail but the sunset wasn't spectacular and I was a little afraid of climbing down the rocks in the dark (mainly because my other pair of too-big-for-me pants were sliding down as we descended!).
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Sonora Desert Museum is a largely outdoor site just outside the western part of Saguaro National Park and it's outstanding. The museum really captures the essence of desert life. We enjoyed our visit so much that we became members. There is a small zoo, a huge botanical garden, and an art gallery. We learned so much during our visit and plan on returning for more photography including sunsets on Saturday when the museum is open later.
This spot is less of a museum and more a living experience. You will see flora and fauna everywhere you look.
My advice to you is to arrive early (it is the desert after all) bring plenty of water, wear a hat, put on sunscreen, and have good shoes for walking in the sand and rocks.
There is a small cafe inside the museum shop, also a tiny ice cream shop – those will both get you cooled down after your explorations!
Tucson Botanical Garden
We enjoyed our visit to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix so we decided to check out the Tucson Botanical Garden (get your discount pass here!) to see what it was like. Plus we read that they have a secret weapon. Inside the gardens is an adorable restaurant called Cafe Botanica run by longtime and raved-about Tucson native and Gallery of Food chef, Kristine Jensen.
It's a beautiful oasis inside the gardens and a great place to have breakfast or lunch, or even just a cup of coffee, which is all we had room for after our big breakfast (more on that later). We sat and spoke with the server about the food, the restaurant, and the local Tucson area. In between helping others and speaking with us, she visited with a beautiful bird on the terrace.
Meet Frank. Isn't he a beauty? He was just one of many birds we saw as we explored more of the gardens.
Whether you eat inside or on the terrace, the culinary traditions of the Sonoran desert are celebrated in unique dishes that also mimic the current garden exhibition. At the time of our visit, the exhibition was focused on photographs of Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray. But at the moment they are getting ready for the return of the butterfly exhibit in October and the new focus is on Origami in the Gardens.
I took a moment on the terrace to gather my notes. I could see myself spending quite a bit of time writing here! Maybe I can be their blogger in residence!
We learned a lot in the individual exhibits and I think they are very smartly laid out because it is not a huge space. And now I've got some new favorite trees like the Chilean mesquite tree with gorgeous twisting branches offering an amazing amount of shade and these adorable cacti which you just want to pick up and cuddle…but don't!
Mr. Misadventures thoroughly enjoyed taking photos of the beautiful displays and I took a moment to check my Insta in the Zen garden. Bloggers never stop! My Type-A-Mom “Blog hard. Play hard.” captures the spirit of that!
The gardens have a couple of cool events like the Dog Days of Summer where you can bring your pet inside and let them explore with you. Pro tip: The gardens are open later (4:30 -8:30) on Thursday and Friday evenings and the restaurant also serves dinner on those nights. If you make a reservation for the restaurant you get into the gardens for free after 4:30.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
For a little more culture we headed to the beautiful Mission San Xavier de Bac just outside of town. Located on the Tohono O'odham San Xavier Indian Reservation, it's a Catholic mission and the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. It is currently undergoing renovations making it hard to photograph, but I did get a good shot from the parking lot. I lagged behind Mr. Misadventures because I was checking out some stands that were set up to cook fry bread and other Indian dishes. I got distracted (what else is new)!
It was Sunday morning and an extended mass for the victims of Harvey was taking place so we were unable to visit inside, but we checked out the museum and beautiful courtyards. Next door (not officially on mission grounds) is Grotto Hill which offers great views of the city. The entrance to the hill is guarded by two lions statues. There are also a few other lions on the mission grounds so I am intrigued as to what they symbolize.
We will be back to see inside the church. And maybe to eat some fry bread.
In an attempt to build and strengthen the city's vibrant culture and support artists (as well as mitigate graffiti and improve underserved areas of the city) Tucson supports an ongoing murals project. Many of the murals are found in the Warehouse Arts District, but we saw murals all over town. Although murals have been written about as far back as 2006, a lot of the newer ones were added in 2016.
We didn't have nearly enough time to explore them all and I have a ton of pictures for another post when we capture the rest, but this one on the side of the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Co. building as you enter the Warehouse Arts District is beautiful. Isn't it fantastic? At night, the colors seem to get brighter in the twilight.
The mural is located at the corner of East 6th Street and North 6th Avenue. The building was built in 1918 although the company's history dates back to 1892. There is also has a cool vintage sign on top (not pictured).
If you want to find the Greetings from Tucson sign, it's located at E 7th Street and North Arizona Avenue (one street over from North 6th Avenue and a few streets over from North 4th Avenue where there are lots of funky shops, bars, and restaurants) and is part of a cool project called Greetings Tour. You can read more about how this mural was created on their site.
NOTE: we went by at night and the mural is lit, but they are fluorescent light which is terrible for photos. The first two times we passed by someone was parked in front of the sign (bummer). And some lamebrain decided to put a Port-a-Potty next to the mural so you have to be careful with your shots!
There are several historic districts in Tucson, in fact as we drove around exploring we kept running into new ones, but hands down our favorite was Barrio Viejo, which is also one of the most colorful. As the name indicates, Barrio Viejo is an old neighborhood made up of 19th-century homes, many of them adobe style with a rich history of inclusion and cultural diversity.
The area has had its ups and downs with razing, gentrification, and now revitalization, and many people considered it the cultural heart of the city. The neighborhood was also known as Barrio Libre (Free) because it was free of rules and regulations and you can still see whispers of counter-culture here. (One of my favorite signs in front of one of the houses was: “If you aren't mad, you aren't paying attention!”)
The small one-way street of South Meyer Avenue running between 17th and 20th has a lot of colorful homes that just beg to be photographed! There are other neighborhoods that boast colorful adobes and we will be seeking them out on future trips.
Pima Air and Space Museum
As I mentioned, we didn't visit Pima Air & Space Museum on this trip, but it is worth mentioning if you are planning a weekend in Tucson. This was the funnest museum I've ever been to! We're space and history geeks in the Misadventures household so that along with the ability to climb on planes – cool!
This post is about things to do in Tucson, not about the food, but if you have been reading Misadventures with Andi for any length of time you've probably figured out that food makes my world go around, so of course, we tried out a few restaurants. But I'll be honest with you, we are still in the thick of our low-carb high-protein diet so we decided the best strategy for us was to eat a big breakfast which sustained us through lunch and then eat a simple salad for dinner.
Our strategy worked for us in that we had two amazing breakfasts, but it doesn't work for you in terms of giving you recommendations for meals.
Fear not. When we found out that Tucson is the ONE and ONLY place in the United States that has been designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, Mr. Misadventures nearly fell out of his chair and I nearly stopped our escrow process to look for a home there! Yes, I love me some national parks and beautiful gardens and fabulous murals, but this girl loves all the food and we are going to be spending a lot of time in Tucson learning more about its devotion to its food heritage, and I'm pretty sure I will be praying at that altar.
One breakfast we did enjoy was at 5 Points Market and Restaurant, an American bistro with fresh local ingredients near the Barrio Viejo. We were so impressed with this spot that we have already reached out to the owners to learn more.
I had their Bandito Blanco with grilled shaved ham and poached eggs served over a potato pancake with house mornay sauce (a French Béchamel sauce with grated Gruyère cheese). The potato pancake was a real treat given our diet but was worth every cheat day bite.
The other breakfast that Blue Willow, a Tucson mainstay set in a 1940's adobe home serving home-style goodness. We arrived about 15 minutes before they opened and found a whole bunch of people waiting including a family that spends every birthday and anniversary at this little spot.
I went with the Blue Willow Special which is scrambled eggs with shredded chicken, Hatch green chiles, tomatoes, chopped corn tortillas, cheddar cheese, warm salsa, and sour cream. For the sake of the diet, I had to pass on pinto beans and warm corn tortillas which come on the side. That made me sad, but only until I ate the first bite.
A Bit of Cowboy History
I love cowboy history. So the idea of exploring a movie studio originally built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures and now converted into a theme-park sounds fun. The location is very close to Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum so if you are headed to either spot consider visiting Old Tucson Studios as my friend Sage did. After that, if you need more cowboy culture, you'll have to drive another 90-minutes to Tombstone, one of my recommended things to do if you are visiting the greater Phoenix area.
That my friends is our whirlwind 3-day holiday weekend in Tucson! Whew. And as you can see, it's not a problem to find things to do in Tucson, the problem is that you will want to go back over and over again, which is pretty much the situation we are in now!
How about you? Have you been to Tucson? Did you do any of these things? Did you do something else? Got any restaurant recommendations? If you haven't been to Tucson, have I convinced you that you should visit? Do tell!
- Saguaro National Park EAST (also known as the Rincon Mountain District) is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona 85730.
- Saguaro National Park WEST (also known as the Tucson Mountain District) is located at 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743.
- The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located at 2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743.
- The Tucson Botanical Garden is located at 2150 N Alvernon Way, Tucson, AZ 85712. Cafe Botanica is inside the gardens.
- Mission San Xavier del Bac is located at 1950 W San Xavier Rd, Tucson, AZ 85746.
- The leopard mural is located at 7th Ave and Toole Ave, Tucson, AZ, 85705.
- The mural on the side of the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Co. building is located at 100 E 6th St, Tucson, AZ 85705.
- The Greeting from Tucson mural is located at the corner of 7th St & N Arizona Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705.
- Barrio Viejo colorful homes are found on South Meyer Avenue running between 17th and 20th.
- Pima Air and Space Museum is located at 6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85706.
- 5 Points Market and Restaurant is located at 756 S Stone Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701.
- Blue Willow Restaurant is located at 2616 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719.
More on Tucson
- I did another weekend write-up with more things to do in Tucson here.
- And a little more about food and other things to do if you visit Tucson.
- This is a great Tucson biking guide from a local!
- Looking for a good hotel in Tucson? I love the Downtown Clifton and the Hacienda del Sol!
Save some money with THIS pass!
- Good for savings at over 60 attractions: Tucson: Southern Arizona Attractions Discount Pass
If you want my FULL Phoenix and Tucson Phoenix and Tucson Activity + Day Trip List with day trips and things to do in Phoenix and Tucson, it is available for $4.99.
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For a visual summary of this post, check out my Tucson web story!