Disclosure: This is a sponsored collaboration with Visit Tucson. As always all opinions are my own.
If I was to move to Arizona all over again, there is no question that my city of choice would be Tucson. Sitting in North Carolina and looking back on our 2 years in the Phoenix area, our most memorable outings with both indoor and outdoor activities, sunsets, sunrises, hikes and more were in and around Tucson a locale that’s surroundings surround you. Whenever Mr. Misadventures and I would get on I-10 (or more likely I-8 because we enjoyed the slightly longer scenic route through the Sonoran Preserve) heading South, in 2 short hours we would find ourselves in a place with an incredible sense of community. Tucson is a hodgepodge of cultures and creeds, scientists and students, artists and outdoorsmen, and there is nothing like it. An oasis where we found we could unplug and create our own experiences and adventures and explore without boundaries.
And then there is the food. You know me. Always the food.
Tucson has it in spades. Sure, there are lots of cities with world-class restaurant scenes, but in Tucson, the culinary roots run deep. It has one of the longest-running food heritages in North America. The mixture of Native Americans (the ancient O’odham people), Sonoran (Tucson is in the Sonoran Desert), Hispanic, and Southwestern ingredients and cuisines mixed with those of international mining and working-class immigrants led to a culinary scene built on ingenuity, local ingredients, and sustainability. For this reason and more, Tucson became the first, and 1 of only 2, American cities that has earned the title of UNESCO Capital of Gastronomy.
The Amazing Food of Tucson
UNESCO City of Gastronomy
Yes. You read that right. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
Tucson’s passion for food extends way beyond any meal produced by chefs in restaurants. There are farm cooperatives, seed cooperatives, and food banks. There are botanists who can tell you the family tree of, well a tree (trust me, Google Rev. Eusebio Francisco Kino), like nobody’s business! And food archaeologists who not only helped Tucson prove that its food heritage dates back to 4,000-year-old cornfields, but also do food tours in the desert!
My kind of people! My kind of place!
Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food
You know what else they’ve got in Tucson? The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food has some of the best Mexican food on Earth. Mapped out and ready for you to try. I love Mexican food. I have followed a lot of food trails before, but this one? ¡El mejor! (The Best!) Some of the best restaurants in Tucson are on this list, along with hole-in-the-walls, fine dining, and the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family (now run by this amazing lady!).
Within the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food, you will also find the very weird and wonderful Sonoran hotdog. A strange concoction indeed. Its layers reflecting the cultural mix that make up the very fabric of Tucson epicurean delights. It is a hot dog wrapped in bacon with pinto beans, tomatoes, green salsa, jalapeño, mustard, and mayonnaise, and with avocado and cotija cheese on top. Make sure you hit BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs or El Guero Canelo, a James Beard award-winning version!
Two of my favorite spots on this trail are Boca Tacos and Tucson Tamales. Boca Tacos has very unique tacos. I am a fan of the octopus one with garlic sautéed lemon butter and the cauliflower one in curry cilantro and orange oil. These gourmet tacos are enough to get me in the door, but the incredible range of homemade salsas kept me coming back for more. Mr. Misadventures and I first discovered Tucson Tamales when we were staying at the RV park.
We went to the Pima Air & Space Museum (more on that later) and stayed so long we missed lunch and rolled right into dinner. So, I Googled for a good spot near us (because we were hangry!) and stumbled to this mecca of tamales. I will tell you that the hubby wasn’t a huge fan of Mexican food (mind changed now) and when I explained what a tamale is (steamed masa dough in a corn husk with meat) he wasn’t impressed, but being the adventurer that he is (and you know, hangry…) he went along with it. Not only did he love them, but we practically bought the store out to stick in our RV freezer. We slowly doled those out on the road for a few months until they were no more. When we visited Tucson for the first time after moving to Phoenix, it was the first place we returned to!
Celebrating All Food Cultures – Senae Thai Bistro
Tucson is a very welcoming place. It has to be. There is a huge mixture of cultures and a large influx of people from all over the world because of the universities, aerospace, and military in the air. Instead of being exclusive, they welcome the mélange. In fact, they celebrate it. So when Chef Dee Buzier of Senae Thai Bistro was selected as 1 of only 32 chefs around the world to participate in the THAI SELECT Project that recognized her for her “authentic and creative Thai dishes” no one was surprised.
That is just how they do it Tucson. If you are going to do food, do it right, do it local, be authentic. Chef Dee sources local ingredients as much as possible and works with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program to grow some of the greens in her dishes. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person with Mr. Misadventures and I dined there and she was the most adorable, humble, smart, and nicest chef I have ever met! A true citizen of Tucson.
A Food Desert Hero in the Desert – 5 Points Market and Restaurant
A food desert is a neighborhood, usually urban, where finding healthy food (including grocery stores) is nearly impossible. That was the case for the area near the colorful Barrio Viejo (more on this area later!) south of Tucson’s early business district. And that’s exactly where you can now find 5 Points Market and Restaurant. Jasper Ludwig and Brian Haskins opened this spot in 2014 and recreated family recipes that had been tucked away in their recipe boxes. They also incorporated local, seasonal ingredients which they procure by working with small local farmers and fields. Their market is stocked for the neighborhood surrounding them and their dishes are all $10 or less so that the locals can afford it.
They promote the farms and vendors they buy from, listing them on a blackboard inside their gorgeous space. I have eaten there countless times and every darn dish is phenomenal. They are true community members, and very neighborly, they share a wall with an amazing Ethiopian restaurant called Cafe Desta, and allow them to use their seating space in the evenings!
Tucson is a village where you can feed your body and your soul.
And my work here is done. Kidding. Or am I? I know for my foodie friends that is all it takes to get them hopping on the next plane (Tucson has a great regional airport [TUS] with over 200 flights a day!) to grab a knife and fork! Of course, at the moment, as we all sit at home riding out the ‘Rona, we can’t exactly do that.
But that’s okay because I am going to give you the download on all my favorite spots to eat, sleep and do in Tucson to help you plan that trip as soon as we can get off our couches and get back into the world.
Once we can all free ourselves, free yourself in Tucson!
Where to Eat in Tucson
Of course, I am continuing with where to eat. Are you new here?! And I have already highlighted most of my favorites, but here they are again, plus a few more that I’ve been to.
Boca Tacos (533 N 4th Ave.) gourmet tacos and salsas. Part of the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.
Tucson Tamale (7159 E Tanque Verde Rd) exceptional tamales of all varieties, plus frozen ones to take home! Part of the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.
El Charro Café (multiple locations, I went here: 6910 E Sunrise Dr) classic Mexican dishes from the nation’s oldest running (same family) Mexican restaurant. The El Charro family has a ton of restaurants throughout the city, including a new seafood one. Part of the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.
5 Points Market and Restaurant (756 S Stone Ave) an American bistro with fresh local ingredients near the Barrio Viejo.
Cafe Desta (758 S Stone Ave) authentic Ethiopian cuisine and coffee.
Blue Willow (2616 N Campbell Ave) a Tucson mainstay set in a 1940’s adobe home serving home-style goodness.
Senae Thai Bistro (63 E Congress St) authentic, award-winning Thai cuisine.
Saffron Indian Bistro (7607 N Oracle Rd) my pals from Coleman Concierge brought us here. We had good lamb, chicken, and Murg Malai Kabab.
My Favorite Things to Do in Tucson
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
I can’t count how many times Mr. Misadventures and I have been to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It feels like a home away from home. We became members after our first visit! We love the size, the variety of activities, the passion of the 400+ volunteers, and the endless possibilities of the seasons in this outdoor museum. If you are staying a few days you may be around when staff leads you through a saguaro harvest with a Tohono O’odham family or a prickly pear harvest. After spending a day soaking in all that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has to offer, don’t miss the sunset at Gates Pass in Tucson Mountain Park right near the museum.
Saguaro National Park
There are 2 parts to this unique national park on either side of Tucson and you will be quickly enthralled with the funny poses the saguaro make. Frankly, it is one of the things I miss most about not being in Arizona, I kind of got used to seeing these majestic cacti! Saguaro National Park has driving trails, walking and hiking paths and trails, a picnic area, and sunset spots – just always remember to have plenty of water and a hat!
Pima Air & Space Museum
I have been to a lot of museums in my life, here and abroad, and I can honestly say that one of my all-time favorites is the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson! I love airline, space, and aviation history, but the icing on the cake is the boneyard where you explore in, around, and on 100’s of airplanes!
Biking and Hiking
If you have a bike you want to bring it to Tucson! (P.S. you can rent them too!). There is a system of 120+ miles of mixed-use (biking, walking, running) trails in Tucson. The largest loop is 53 miles, but there are lots of smaller loops and paths to follow (like the one to the farmers market perhaps…). There is a very active pro-bicycling culture and you should enjoy the fruits of their labor.
There is good hiking in Tucson as well. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and the Catalina Mountains to name a few. We camped in Catalina State Park and hiked the Canyon Loop Trail and part of the Romero Canyon Trail. Sabino Canyon is car-less and you have to hike or tram in. This park affords a great opportunity to see owls.
Festivals, Rodeos & Shows
Not surprising, there are several food festivals that take place throughout the year in Tucson. But there are also art, film and heritage festivals which would be a bonus to any trip. My absolute favorite is the Tucson Modernism Week that takes place in October. If you love all things Mid-century Modern you will love this event! There are films, lectures, design and architecture exhibits throughout the city, and a fun vintage trailer show. Palm Springs who?
One show that brings people from all over is the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show held at the end of January/beginning of February each year. There are 100’s of vendors selling bling – old and new and at all price ranges. Nearly every time I speak to someone about Tucson they mention this show!
You can find a rodeo happening during any given month in Arizona, Tucson holds their version, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson which is a rodeo, and a parade in February. I don’t know about you, but I love rodeos and get a kick out of people-watching there!
Other Great Things to do in Tucson
Tucson Botanical Garden (2150 N Alvernon Way) a beautiful 5.5 acres of gardens, a gourmet cafe and exhibit space (I saw a great Frida Kahlo exhibition there!). You will be amazed by the variety of plants that grow in the Sonoran desert!
Barrio Viejo (Meyer & 17th/19th, Park at Meyer/19th, walk back. Continue on Meyer at 19th and around the block to the left.) is a historic working-class neighborhood with colorful adobe homes. A real treat for photographers. Be respectful it is a neighborhood people (and families) live in.
Tucson Murals (all over, but here is a list of 45!). Tucson has a solid art scene full of talented artists, many of whom take their creativity to the streets. Err. The walls.
Rillito Park Farmers Market (4502 N 1st Ave) is a year-round farmers market with actual food (I’ve been to so many so-called markets that are more like arts and crafts shows!. I often coordinated our last activities of the day to be near this market so we could grab farm-fresh products for our trip home.
Mission San Xavier del Bac (1950 W San Xavier Rd) is a historic mission on the Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation. You can also try native foods from locals in the parking lot.
Where to Stay in Tucson
There are plenty of hotels and resorts to choose from of all shapes, sizes, and wallets, but here are some of my picks, all places I have stayed in.
Fun & Funky The Downtown Clifton
If you are going for something with a retro vibe and hip decor, look no further than The Downtown Clifton hotel. Not only is it super close to one of my favorite restaurants, Five Points, but also walking distance from Tucson’s colorful historic adobe neighborhood, Barrio Viejo.
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
I did not know I was missing an authentic hacienda experience until I had one. I went there looking for a romantic weekend staycation and got so much more. Hacienda del Sol makes you feel like you are a million miles away from it all at the foot of the Santa Catalina mountains, even when you are still in the heart of Tucson!
El Conquistador Tucson
My good friends Jenn and Ed of Coleman Concierge invited Mr. Misadventures and me to a weekend at the El Conquistador Tucson. Ed lived in Tucson for years and the two of them shared a lot of their favorite spots over meals and conversation. El Conquistador was the perfect backdrop for a weekend away at a resort.
Airbnb Adobe Casita
We stayed in this adobe casita which was the first load-bearing straw bale home built in the U.S., if you stay there you can check out a fascinating book on the topic as well as be within walking distance to downtown.
Lazydays KOA Resort
If you are RVing and planning to stay in Tucson, I recommend Lazydays KOA Resort. We stayed there a couple of times during our RV adventures and think it has a good location. We appreciated their sustainability efforts as well. Not RVing but looking to rough it? They have cabins that you can rent there as well!
Day Trips from Tucson
While there are a ton of things to do in Tucson, you have the freedom to road and Tucson serves as a great home-base for exploring a few areas outside of the city. You are staying a few extra days, I recommend you check out the following, we certainly enjoyed doing so!
Mt. Lemmon is a wonderful respite from the heat in the summer and a nearby spot for skiing in the winter. Lots of camping and hiking for spring and fall. Beautiful lookout points and you can sit amongst the monarch butterfly migration in September, they surround you!
Sonoita & Patagonia
Sonoita and Patagonia are known for 2 things: amazing birding and delicious wine. There is also the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area and Patagonia Lake State Park for hiking, bird-watching, boating, and more. We did some off-roading there on Ruby Road, there is even a haunted mine out there. But I am partial about the wine 😉 There are dozens of wineries and tasting rooms. Have some sips, grab a bottle to go, and bring them back to Tucson!
Titan Missile Museum
Titan Missile Museum is a former ICBM missile site. You can tour the facility (note, make reservations online ahead of time, this is a very popular spot) and the missile silo along with getting a bit of history of what it was like to grow up or live in the U.S. during the cold war.
Biosphere 2 is a science research facility run by the University of Arizona. The 3-acre glass building and domes house 7 model ecosystems that are part of active research projects which you can tour to learn about Earth sciences.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Kartchner Caverns State Park has camping and cabins, with lots of hiking and outdoor activities, but people come for the caves. There are nearly 3 miles of passages in the world’s longest stalactite formation and tours available daily to see it (reserve in advance!).
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak has the largest accumulation of telescopes in the world, 24 in all! They offer 2 or 3 different tours a day (depending on the day) and they are well worth the trip up the Quinlan Mountains.
Organ Pipe National Monument
Another national park property dedicated to a specific species of cacti, Organ Pipe National Monument is pretty awesome. There are 2 parts to the park you can drive through and get out to [cautiously] explore as well as plenty of picnic opportunities. Don’t miss the opportunity to check out Ajo as well.
Get your cowboy on in Tombstone where famous cowboys like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and other gunslingers ruled. Visit the O.K. Corral and the Bird Cage Theatre to get a sense of Wild West history!
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument is known as the “Wonderland of Rocks” and “Land of Standing Up Rocks” because there are rocks on tops of rocks on top of rocks, a photographer’s dream!
I hope that my love letter to Tucson illustrates the wonderful vibrant multicultural food culture and heritage that is a huge part of why you should visit this desert oasis. If you don’t visit for the food, there are still endless possibilities to fill your vacation dance card and create your own experience. It is an outdoor mecca where you can relax and recharge. With its parks and gardens, hills, and canyons for hiking and biking, museums, festivals, institutes, fun, and funky shops, and community art and food projects, there are plenty of things to tempt you and your family with!
How about you? Have you been to Tucson? If yes, what was your favorite part (or meal!)? If not, are you inspired to go (when it is safe), and why? Do share!
For a visual summary of this post, check out my Visit Tucson web story!
Like it? PIN it!