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AARP’s City Guide to Tucson, Arizona

A thriving food scene and stylish new hotels make Arizona’s second-largest city a star in the Southwest

spinner image left a bobcat at the arizona sonara desert museum right sunset skyline of downtown tucson arizona
Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to catch a glimpse of a bobcat.
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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. 

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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

spinner image night time outside the hotel congress one hundred in downtown tucson arizona
John Dillinger was captured in 1934 at the Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson.

Hotel Congress

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. 

Graduate Tucson

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.

Things to do in Tucson 

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

This “museum” has a somewhat misleading name — though perhaps the “Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Zoo, Aquarium, Botanical Garden, Art Gallery and Hiking Trail” was too long to fit on the sign. Among its unique offerings are the Raptor Free Flight show, in which native birds of prey whizz over guests’ heads; and the Mountain Woodland habitat, which is home to a mountain lion, a black bear and Mexican gray wolves. Far cuter — though no less exciting — are the four species of hummingbirds that zip around the aviary, where you can often see teeny chicks in nests bound together with spiderwebs. 


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Whiskey Del Bac

If you like Scotch, you’ll love this American single-malt whiskey. Founders Elaine and Stephen Paul came up with the recipe while sipping a dram as they grilled over a mesquite fire. Instead of a peated whiskey, they devised a mesquite one, called Dorado, which involves smoking malted barley over a mesquite fire and then aging it in the desert. (They also have a non-smoky Classic expression and a mesquite-smoked white whiskey called Old Pueblo.) Stop into the distillery for tours Friday to Sunday ($15 for tour; $25 for tour and tasting), or simply drop by any day between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for a more casual pop-in tasting. 

Mercado San Agustin and MSA Annex

For a lovely place to spend a hot afternoon, the Spanish Colonial–inspired courtyard at Mercado San Agustin is lined with cafés, restaurants, shops and Mexican bakeries where you can pick up little pig-shaped cookies called cochitos. Just down the road, the market added the high-style MSA Annex, with 13 more locally owned boutiques, bars and restaurants housed in converted shipping containers. Especially worth checking out is Why I Love Where I Live, which sells souvenirs such as agave sipping cups, cactus-shaped cheese graters and hummingbird earrings.

Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum

Step back in time at this living history museum, which is a bit like the Southwest’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. In this re-creation of a 1775 Spanish fortress, you can get a glimpse into a 150-year-old row house and the excavation site of a 2,000-year-old pit house. The museum also offers a series of area walking tours to spots like Barrio Viejo, America’s largest collection of Sonoran row houses; and Armory Park, a neighborhood that developed during the 1880s arrival of the railroad and features California bungalows and elaborate Victorians. 

The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures

Good things come in very small packages at this miniature museum, which is home to more than 500 dollhouses and room boxes. One of the additions to the collection is a 1:24 scale replica (meaning one-half inch equals one foot of the actual building) of the Ball-Paylore House, a hexagonal mid-century modern icon built in Tucson in 1952. Other temporary exhibits are dedicated to artist Ara Bentley’s impeccably re-created Addams Family mansion (through Nov. 5).

Where to eat in Tucson 

Tito & Pep

The mesquite-fired grill takes pride of place at this midtown neighborhood bistro, where it’s used to impart a subtle smokiness to dishes such as Baja striped bass with roasted sunchokes and charred cabbage. The restaurant takes its name from the grandmother and great-aunt of chef and owner John Martinez, a 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for best chef in the Southwest, and the place has a warm retro vibe, thanks to its midcentury-inspired decor and teal-and-orange food murals by local artist Ashley White. 

Boca Tacos y Tequila 

A fan-favorite contestant on season 18 of Top Chef and James Beard Foundation Award nominee, Tucson-born Maria Mazon draws on her childhood in Sonora, Mexico, at this innovative restaurant on North 4th Avenue, where she works magic with salsas and tacos. You’ll find the usual suspects (carne asada, beer-battered fish), but your best move is to order whatever seasonal chef’s special is on the menu that day: Past experiments have included guajillo chili curry coconut soup, watermelon-topped spare rib tacos and Mexican-inspired poutine with guajillo gravy and salsa macha. And if you plan to check your bag on the flight home, remember: The jars of salsa make for an excellent souvenir.

El Güero Canelo

If one food defines Tucson, it’s the Sonoran hot dog, which came to prominence south of the border in the late 1980s and comprises a bacon-wrapped hot dog stuffed in a fluffy bolillo roll with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeño salsa, mayonnaise and mustard. For the best in the city, try this no-frills stand — with four locations around town — which was opened by Sonoran-born Daniel Contreras in 1993 and was later named a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic in 2018. 


Southwestern ingredients take a detour to Italy at this intimate and forward-thinking pizzeria, where pies are made with naturally leavened sourdough crusts and cooked in a wood-fired oven shipped over from Naples. In place of traditional chili flakes, dishes get a hit of spice from chiltepín, which grow throughout the Southwest, and seasonal toppings might include pickled Anaheim peppers, local kumquats, dandelion greens or roasted peaches. Located in a brick building from the late 1800s, the minimalist space is inspired by Japanese design, with a sleek Douglas fir ceiling and a 12-person communal table. 

Barrio Charro

Barrio Bread owner Don Guerra — who uses heritage grains like white Sonoran wheat in his loaves — was named America’s best baker at last year’s James Beard Foundation Awards. In 2021, he teamed with chef Carlotta Flores, from the century-old El Charro Café, for this wildly inventive fast-casual spot. In addition to all-day brunch with $5 mimosas, expect a menu of soups, burritos and tortas, like the Pueblo Quesabirria, made with birria (stewed beef), queso Oaxaca, beans, pico salsa and a consommé dip on the side; if you haven’t tried it before, it’s something like a Mexican French dip with tons more flavor. 

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spinner image sunrise at the san xavier mission in tucson arizona
Nicknamed “The White Dove of the Desert,” the San Xavier del Bac Mission is on the San Xavier Reservation.
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​San Xavier del Bac Mission

This Catholic mission was built between 1783 and 1797, and is the state’s oldest intact European structure. Over the years, it passed hands from New Spain to Mexico to the United States. Nicknamed “The White Dove of the Desert” for its gleaming whitewashed walls, the Baroque church is located in the San Xavier Reservation, part of the Tohono O’odham nation, and among its original murals and statues is a wooden carving of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

Ways to save: The church is always free to visit. Note: Face masks are required indoors only, and social distancing should be observed.

Mission Garden

To see why Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, visit this living agricultural museum, which feels like a little slice of Eden at the foot of Sentinel Peak — the city’s birthplace, where its first inhabitants grew crops 4,000 years ago. Now, it’s a fascinating community garden brimming with heritage fruit trees, heirloom crops and edible native plants like prickly pears, mesquite and palo verde beans.

Ways to save: The entry fee is a suggested $5 donation, and the garden operates a slew of free programs including monthly bird walks, on which you can meet Kevin the roadrunner. 

spinner image a man riding and leading a horse through cacti at saguaro national park arizona
Saguaro cactuses are the main attraction at Sagauro National Park.

Saguaro National Park

Sky-high saguaro cacti are one of the enduring symbols of the Old West, and they’re the main attraction at this 143-square-mile national park, which is split into two sections — Saguaro West and Saguaro East — flanking the city. There’s something for every outdoorsy type, from low-key scenic drives to hiking on the park’s more than 165 miles of trails. Be sure to save time for the Signal Hill Petroglyph Area in Saguaro West, which is reached via a 500-foot walk with a 40-foot elevation change: Here, you’ll be able to see more than 200 examples of Native American rock art, created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Ways to save: The entry fee is $25 per vehicle and good for seven days in both sections of the park; purchase an Annual Senior Pass (for 62+) and pay $20.

spinner image a row of historic aircraft at the pima air and space museum
More than 400 historic aircraft are housed at the Pima Air & Space Museum.

Pima Air & Space Museum 

This collection of more than 400 historic aircraft sprawls across six hangars and 250,000 feet of indoor exhibition space. Among the flying machines on display are a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, a Sikorsky UH-60MU Black Hawk military helicopter and an Aero Spacelines 377-SG “Super Guppy,” a bulbous-looking cargo plane that was used to carry the Apollo program’s Saturn rockets.

Ways to save: Admission is $19.50; $16.75 for ages 65 and older. 

Monsoon Chocolate 

It’s hard to think of a sweeter souvenir to take home than this indie chocolatier’s bon bons, which come in desert-inspired flavors such as prickly pear caramel and Whiskey Del Bac Dorado. For a true taste of the region, try the blue corn atole white chocolate, which is based on the traditional Mesoamerican corn- and masa-based beverage. 

Ways to save: The store’s cookies are a relative steal, starting at $3.75 each; try the Monsoon cookie ($4), made with toasted rye, brown butter, Tanzanian dark chocolate and flake salt. Get there early — the cookies sell out fast. 

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