Arizona’s second-largest city sits at the nexus of Old West and Mexican cultures, where dude ranches share space with Spanish colonial churches, Sonoran hot dogs are a religion and you can stay at the hotel where infamous gangster John Dillinger was captured. But culture has flourished here since long before either arrived. In 2015, Tucson was named America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy, recognizing 4,000 uninterrupted years of Native food culture.
And the city also straddles a very different boundary: the one between civilization and the untamed. The Sonoran Desert lies at Tucson’s doorstep, with the two halves of Saguaro National Park flanking the city on the east and west. Here, the namesake cacti tower over the most biodiverse desert on the planet, where signs of human habitation, including centuries-old petroglyphs, are just as abundant as the wildlife, from roadrunners to javelinas. With its thriving food scene and stylish new hotels, Tucson is every bit as hot as its triple-digit summer temperatures.
When to visit Tucson
During the spring and fall, you’ll have temperate weather without having to deal with the hordes of tourists who arrive in the winter to escape the ice and snow back home.
How to prepare for your trip
Don’t be fooled by the more than 340 days of sunshine pack layers! This is the high desert, at 2,643 feet above sea level, and nights can get chilly.
How to get to Tucson
Tucson International Airport (TUS)offers direct flights to 21 destinations across the United States and Canada, including hubs such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Chicago. The Canadian ultra-low-cost carrier Flair Airlines has flights between Tucson and five Canadian cities. Many visitors will also fly through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), which is less than two hours away by car — a straight shot southeast on Interstate 10. While Tucson offers the convenient Sun Link Streetcar within the downtown core, you’ll definitely want a rental car to explore farther-flung destinations like Saguaro National Park and the San Xavier del Bac Mission.
Where to stay
If you want to be in the heart of it all, you can’t beat this 103-year-old downtown landmark, which was the site of gangster John Dillinger’s capture in 1934. But be warned: This place likes to party. It’s home to the newly opened Century Room, a jazz club and mezcal lounge; Club Congress, a rock venue; two restaurants; and a lobby bar called Tiger’s Tap Room, where the namesake bartender, Thomas “Tiger” Ziegler, has been slinging drinks since 1959. The 39 rooms are well-appointed, with thoughtful Southwestern touches and vintage rotary phones, but if you need silence to fall asleep, you might want to consider a stay farther out in the desert — though the front desk will happily provide you with earplugs.
The Citizen Hotel
Wine enthusiasts will love this downtown hotel, which opened last year in the former home of the city’s oldest newspaper. It’s the brainchild of local hotelier Moniqua Lane and two area winemakers, Sarah Fox and Rob Hammelman, and each of its 10 rooms is named for a different wine varietal that flourishes in the high Sonoran Desert. The lobby bar is one of the best places in town to sample the fruits of Arizona’s burgeoning wine scene.
Relive your college days with a stay at this member of the university-themed boutique hotel chain, which opened close to the University of Arizona campus in 2020. Even if you’re not here to visit a current student or cheer on the Wildcats, there are plenty of thoughtful details around the property to love, including abundant minerals and gemstones in the lobby to reference the area’s mining history, and saguaro-shaped floor lamps in guestrooms. The Moonstone rooftop bar is a scenic spot to sit by a fire pit, with views of Mount Lemmon as you sip on drinks like the Good Juju, made with Tucson’s own single-malt Whiskey Del Bac.
Tanque Verde Ranch
This upscale yet affordable dude ranch traces its roots to 1868 and sits on 60,000 acres of desert near Saguaro National Park East. But you won’t need to venture beyond the ranch’s boundaries for a good time: Right on property, you can go horseback riding or mountain biking, hike through a cactus forest or fish for bluegill sunfish and largemouth bass in Lake Corchran. Pink-adobe casitas and smaller salas dot the property, hidden among mesquite trees and cactuses, and many feature kiva-style fireplaces, leather furnishings and Native American art.
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
Born in 1929 as a boarding school for the daughters of prominent families like the Vanderbilts, this Moorish-inspired retreat was converted into a guest ranch in the 1940s, and it soon began attracting Hollywood royalty. Today, it’s a luxury resort at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and it’s constantly evolving: Recent additions have included 40 new guestrooms — for a total of 97 — an expanded pool area and a spa inspired by the Sonoran Desert. If you’re a cinema buff, book the two-bedroom Tracy-Hepburn Casita Grande, where the two lovebirds stayed during their visit.