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Time for Tucson, Arizona: A great guide

It’s rare that I spend more than a week in a destination. It was such a luxury to take our time in Tucson and really feel at home. This plucky town is about a 90-minute drive from Phoenix. Use Tucson as a base for admiring national parks and mountains, digging in birria tacos, and learning a little about local indigenous culture. My toddler had a blast every single day in Tucson and its surrounding natural beauty! So did I, once I calmed down a bit from making sure she didn’t run straight into a prickly cactus.

Saguaro national park view in arizona

Here’s the down-low on what to see outside, what to eat (the fancy and the food trucks!), where to check out live entertainment, where to stay, and more in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

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Simply friendly & fun Tucson haunts

Tucson’s Lazydays KOA Resort

KOA lazydays campground at sunset with palm trees

Usually, we opt for a boutique hotel or even a holiday rental when traveling. This time, we tagged along with our RV-ing retired parents and settled in at the KOA campground. Now this is a little more like urban camping, as you won’t get pine tree coverage in a desert obviously. But we stayed in a cozy stucco-style cabin and felt there was a good amount of space for three. Bringing your own RV or 5th wheel is still the best option for this KOA that caters to that crowd of travelers from all over the country.

baby eating ice cream at KOA in tucson AZ

Besides the two pools, onsite restaurant, and playgrounds, there’s a regular roster of activities. The adults loved mimosa breakfasts, trivia, and golf putting, while the toddler screams for ice cream at sundae nights. Literally.

dad and rory at KOA in Tucson AZ

If looking for some hotel options in Tucson, here’s a great list. The Graduate hotel looks extra funky with a rooftop pool. And read on if you want to splurge at a gorgeous sanctuary like the Miraval Resort, reviewed below.

“The best part is having the full bar deliver drinks to the pool with just a text message, or takeout to your RV/cabin.”

          BBQ Rush

On site at the KOA, there’s a halfway decent barbeque restaurant serving fresh smoked meats and sides daily. Sometimes there’s out-of-the-box specials too, including curries and tacos. The best part is having the full bar deliver drinks to the pool with just a text message, or takeout to your RV/cabin.

Dutch Bros Coffee

Dutch Bros iced coffee

I know it’s a chain. But don’t you have to check out all the new coffee chains that you don’t have at home?! It’s the right amount of obnoxious and fun, with tons of flavored caffeinated drinks to choose from. I got mocha coconut coffees through the drive through multiple days, but supported local coffee endeavors too of course!

Beyond Bread

beyond bread sweets in tucson arizona

A tasty carb-loaded breakfast cures any ailments. After you nosh on some cinnamon rolls, take home fresh baked breads for lunch later.

Guadalajara Original Grill

Albeit a little kitschy, the whole crew had a blast at this colorful Mexican restaurant. There are a few different locations, which all offer the same somewhat authentic menu and strong margaritas. Have guacamole made at the table too while you wait for your main meals.

Tucson’s local activities and local small businesses

Taqueria Mi Pueblo and Taqueria El Rapido

caramelo in tucson arizona

“You should know about caramelos. It sounds sweet, but really it’s like a thick quesadilla, with or without all the fixings.”

Let’s talk tacos for a second. I was blind to the Mexican taco scene, being from a very cold and very northern state. But quick to the chase, we found out that birria tacos is pretty much all you need to order. It’s a slow cooked shredded meat stew that’s put into soft shells, often dipped, then thrown onto a flat top skillet. It’s heaven. You can find these at many taco trucks throughout the city, but “Mi Pueblo”’ and “El Rapido” were my favorite.

OK I fibbed a little, because you should also know about caramelos. It sounds sweet, but really it’s like a thick quesadilla, with or without all the fixings. Caramelos seem to be a Tucson-exclusive thing, claimed to have been invented by the Taqueria El Semental, famous for their Sonoran-style tacos.

Juice n Fruit Raspados

raspado in tucson arizona

Raspados are a tasty, cold, Mexican dessert that can be ordered a zillion different ways. There are a few fun spots in town to try, including a couple food trucks. This one in a small strip mall did just the trick though for this raspados novice. You can do a traditional shaved-ice style version, or have berries/ice cream mixed in too. Just go for it: I bet any choice is delicioso.

Reid Park Zoo

baby and mom feeding giraffe at ried park zoo tucson arizona

This was our toddler’s first zoo ever, and it didn’t disappoint. Highlights included finding out how to properly feed a giraffe, peep hunkering rhinos, and get up close with lots of tropical birds.

Of course, zoos aren’t perfect, but we did notice how well maintained and open the environments seem. Plus, we learned all about Reid Park’s massive conservation, protection, education, volunteerism, and fundraising efforts year-round.

Three Canyon Beer & Wine

three canyon wine and beer in tucson outdoor area

A casual and music-filled evening is had every weekend at the Three Canyon Beer & Wine place. There’s a massive back area with tons of seating, including some fire pits. The stage offers a variety of bands and acts, which delighted the toddler. The food is honestly just alright, but the drinks were great with many local options.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

saint xavier mission in arizona

Located on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, this mission was completed in the late 1700s and is still active today. It was mainly built by the Tohono Oʼodham indigenous people, who added Native American motifs to the aesthetic. Today, many of those who live on the land combine their own traditional beliefs and practices with Spanish-influenced Catholicism brought by colonizing evangelicals.

With a sometimes prickly history, it is worth a visit to learn how missions influenced local indigenous life in Arizona and throughout the U.S. You can tour the church on most weekday mornings, and pop into the gift shop. There’s also vendors selling snacks like tacos and fry bread in the parking lot.

           San Xavier Co-op Farms

cookie from sant xavier coop farm

Just a minute down the street is a small farm shop and co-op where you can buy some local treats to support the Tohono Oʼodham tribe. 

For the farm, they follow a five-point mission that includes respect for the land, sacredness of water, respect for elders, respect for animals, and respect for plants. The people call this the Tohono O’odham Himdag, or Way of Life.

They sell a lot of livestock hay and feed, but the shop carries seasonal harvest items from traditional crops like flours, beans, honey and homemade cookies. You can have a peek at some stocked items in their online shop too.

“For the farm, they follow a five-point mission that includes respect for the land, sacredness of water, respect for elders, respect for animals, and respect for plants. “

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Pima County Courthouse

pima county courthouse

Downtown Tucson has some pretty architecture, nice modern museums, and some grassy spots for a relaxing time in town. We enjoyed a quick break at the courthouse, seemingly in the center of the financial district. Its pretty blue dome and historic past has earned it the “most outstanding Spanish Colonial Revival building in Arizona” title. It’s surrounded by grass and fountains, plus is home to the Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center.

Bombole

While downtown admiring the architecture, you can pick up some empanadas to go, Indian-style. They have a rotating menu mostly made from scratch, with things like chicken tikka and matar paneer empanadas.

Outdoors and outside Tucson

Saguaro National Park

baby looking at saguaro national park though car window

Grab a national park pass and spend an afternoon enjoying a leisurely drive-through or a short hike in the desert.

large saguaro cactus

If you travel with a stroller or a kid who doesn’t know the dangers of cacti, the Mica View Trail is a nice paved route in the park. It gave us great up close encounters with the famed saguaro cacti and mountains in the background. The massive cacti can live up to 200 years, and this is the only place in the world to see them.

Sabino Canyon recreation area

view from blackett ridge trail in airzona sabino canyon

This is another fantastic option for a little more serious hiking and potentially less crowds than the national park. Located inside the Coronado National Forest, there’s a few different trails you can do in a day. My husband enjoyed the Blackett Ridge Trail. There’s also an open-air electric shuttle that will take you through the park too.

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Mt. Lemmon

mt lemmon summit arizona

If you dig nature but aren’t quite ready to tackle a summit on foot, you can drive to the top of Mt. Lemmon—more than 9,100 feet high. Reserve at least a half-day to do this loopy and windy road to the top. It’s about an hour from Tucson and also 30 degrees cooler on average than the downtown area! The scenic outcrops are worth stopping at, because the summit itself is mostly a ski resort at the tippy top and somewhat closed off.

The Sawmill Run Restaurant

There are some cabins being built for overnight guests at the top of Mt. Lemmon, and there are a few restaurants to choose from too. We found hearty pub-like faire at the Sawmill Run, paired perfectly with some great margaritas from their full bar.

Splashy Tucson Establishments

Miraval Arizona Resort and Spa

eileen in hot tubat miraval resort arizona

Take a break from the ordinary and immerse in a chic desert retreat for the whole day. If you’re feeling any kind of burnout or fatigue lately (I think most of us are), this is the ideal place in Tucson for spa, fitness, reflection, and wholesome dining all at once. Miraval truly encourages you to unplug, and do not permit any Wifi devices in most of the common areas.

ResortPass
in the relaxation area of miraval resort in tucson arizona

If you plan to spend just a day at Miraval, consider the Resort Pass to bundle your experience. The day pass includes a $175 credit you can use towards a spa treatment (facias, massages, etc.), equine classes, and cocktail classes. You also can indulge access to multiple pools, a buffet and a la carte lunch, to-go breakfasts and smoothies, Jacuzzis, lounge areas, plus yoga/meditation/exercise classes. Take home the included tote bag and water bottle too.

Vivace

Appetizer at vivace restaurant in tucson arizona

After enjoying a belly full of tacos for weeks, we were ready for a little variation. My folks have been snowbird-ing in Tucson for the past seven years and swore by this scenic, old-world-style Italian restaurant for a delicious meal. We ended up visiting twice because it was that tasty. I even had a seafood stew with pasta that went against all my rules of having anything from the sea while not on the coast! Espresso martinis helped compliment the yummy desserts too while overlooking the mountains in the lush courtyard.

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Frost Gelato

gelato from frost in tucson

Keeping with an Italian theme, frost gelato came with a big reputation for some of the best dessert around. We dug deep into smooth cups full of hazelnut, pineapple, sweet cream and strawberry. It’s worth a treat on a night. Plus, Frost is located in a scenic outdoor shopping center

Arizona Wine Collective, Union Public House, and Reforma Modern Mexican

wine and chips from arizona wine collective in tucson

Inside the St. Philip’s Plaza is a plethora of fine food options to tickle any taste. We visited a few times during our stay to try a little of everything, plus hear some live music and shop at boutique stores. Start your evening at the Arizona Wine Collective to sample some local libations in a cute outdoor setting overlooking the courtyard.

fresh salsa at reforma in tucson AM

Then have a margarita and appetizer at Reforma, like the house salsa with chips and homemade guacamole. Finish off dinner across the way at Union Public House with some flatbreads and some of the best chicken fingers I’ve had in a long time, that I definitely did not steal from my toddler!

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Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Twitter @Crooked_Flight

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

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