Tucson is one of the most unique cities in the country. You’ll need a detailed Tucson itinerary to plan the perfect trip. Whether you are spending 1, 2 or 3 days in Tucson, there is plenty to see and do in this underrated city!
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How Many Days in Tucson?
You’ll probably want to spend at least three days in this unique desert paradise so you can see all this spectacular city has to offer and take advantage of all of the amazing things to do in Tucson, including a chance to get out and hike in the surrounding mountains.
If you are only spending one day in Tucson, you’ll likely want to spend it downtown and near the university. It is easy to get around this area and do a lot in one day. For 2 days in Tucson, explore downtown and the south and west side to get a taste of Tucson’s expansive history.
Getting To and Around Tucson
You can fly into Tucson International Airport, a great small airport, and rent a car there. You can also fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor and drive about two hours south to Tucson.
However you get there, you’ll likely want to have a car or use a rideshare service in Tucson unless you plan on sticking to the downtown and university areas, which are very walkable.
Tucson is a very spread-out city and while there is a bus system, it doesn’t go everywhere, especially to hiking areas in the outskirts of the city. There is a streetcar that goes from the University of Arizona through downtown to the west side neighborhood.
1 to 3 Days in Tucson Itinerary
Day 1 – Downtown and University
Start your Tucson itinerary by exploring the art and culture of the downtown area. If you are only spending one day in Tucson, this is where you will probably want to spend your time.
Cup Café at the Hotel Congress
Start your day with breakfast at the Cup Café, the restaurant within the famed Hotel Congress on Congress Street. This hotel is the heart of social life in Tucson and a great introduction to the city. It was founded in 1919 and where the FBI finally arrested John Dillinger in 1934.
You can see live music every night at Club Congress, have a drink at one of three bars, or see a show at its new outdoor venue. Its beautiful lobby is a must-see for Southwest décor. The Congressional Omelet and the Barrio Toast are excellent breakfast options at the Cup Café.
Tucson is an art city, and there are hundreds of murals to prove it. A lot of them incorporate indigenous and Mexican imagery, and most of them are located downtown. Wander around 4th Avenue, Congress Street and Broadway to see some of the most famous.
Tucson Museum of Art
Walk or take the streetcar west to the Tucson Museum of Art. Here you’ll find an always-fascinating array of exhibits on western, indigenous, Latinx, and Tucson art.
The museum also owns several historic houses and buildings you can explore to learn about the history of the downtown area. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and admission is $15 for adults.
While you wait for lunch—the nachos, quesadillas, and quinoa bowls are excellent—you can listen to live music or shop for LPs, vintage finds, art, and more at the Crow’s Nest, Art House Centro, Old Paint Record Shop, and La Zia Native Arts.
University of Arizona
Hop on the streetcar or drive over to the University of Arizona, another hub of Tucson. Spend some time walking around the mall, the gorgeous palm-lined lawn down the center of campus (also the set for Revenge of the Nerds).
Check out the university’s several world-renowned museums, including the Arizona State Museum for Southwest Anthropology, the Center for Creative Photography to see Ansel Adams’ collection, and the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.
Head back downtown to El Charro, Tucson’s oldest and most famous restaurant. The downtown location is often packed, but there are several buildings and a courtyard in this historic restaurant.
Founded in 1922, it invented the chimichanga, so you will definitely want to try that. It’s also famous for its margaritas. El Charro is a great spot for a long night of great food and great conversation.
Before you go back to your hotel, stop at the Coronet on Cushing Street for a nightcap. It recently moved to the historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood, which was nearly destroyed by the building of the convention center in the 1960s.
The Coronet is located in a series of historic adobe buildings and outdoor patio spaces. It often has live music in the evenings and is known for its inventive menu of local ingredients in its cocktails and small plates, perfect for a late night out.
Day 2 – The West and South Side
Tucson’s west and south sides are the heart of its indigenous and Mexican-American community, and it has gorgeous vistas from the Tucson Mountains. There are many important heritage sites here you won’t want to miss if you are spending 2 days in Tucson.
For one of the best breakfast burritos in Tucson, go to Tania’s 33 on Grande Ave. There is a huge menu here to try—everything from chorizo to machaca to vegan breakfast options. They are also known for their soups, which you can order by the gallon.
The wait can be long and there isn’t a whole lot of seating, so you may want to get your order to go and/or call ahead.
You can’t visit Tucson without taking a drive up Sentinel Peak! It’s the city’s most famous landmark, a small mountain just west of downtown. The base of it is where Father Kino started the Convento mission that later became St. Augustine (you can also visit the Mission Garden at this site).
Known as “Ts-iuk-shan” or “black base of the mountain” in Tohono O’odham, Sentinel Peak is where Tucson got its name. Today, it’s also known as “A Mountain” because of the large A laid out in rocks by University of Arizona students.
You can drive up the mountain to see an amazing view of the city and take a short hike to see the A up close.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
Drive down I-19 to exit 92 to see another Tucson landmark: San Xavier del Bac Mission, founded by Father Kino in 1692 to convert the Tohono O’odham people.
Today it still serves the Tohono O’odham on their reservation, and you can go to mass, visit the gift shop, walk up the grotto hill, and maybe best of all, eat some fry bread and buy some local Tohono O’odham jewelry and crafts sold in the parking lot or in the stores across the street.
Coyote Pause Cafe
Head north on I-19, then west on Ajo Road to Kinney Road. Stop for lunch at Coyote Pause Cafe, a colorful restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch on the far west side as you drive into the Tucson Mountains. The calabacitas (squash) tacos and mesquite pancakes are standouts.
Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum
Another must-see for any trip to Tucson is the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. This museum is more like a wildlife park and is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Founded in 1952, it has been a leader in the area for conservation and educating the public on Sonoran Desert plants and animals.
You can view bears, bobcats, wolves, bighorn sheep, javelinas, snakes, and most famously, demonstrations of birds of prey. There are several restaurants, hiking trails, a library, and many events and activities throughout the day.
Drive back to the south side of Tucson via Grants Pass, a twisty road through the Tucson mountains. For dinner, drive down South 12th Avenue, known as “the best 23 miles of Mexican food” you’ll find anywhere in the country.
There are all kinds of delicacies to try, from Sonoran dogs (a bacon-wrapped hot dog in an out-of-this-world bun with lots of toppings) to raspados (an iced fruity treat) to chilaquiles (tortilla chips soaked with chile sauce and served with eggs).
One popular taqueria on 12th Avenue is Tacos Apson, known for its roasted meats. Order at the counter and eat on the picnic tables outside. Try the barbacoa, asada, or the pastor and don’t forget to try the wide array of salsas.
St. Charles Tavern
Also on the south side is a great dive bar called St. Charles Tavern. It has a variety of local craft beer on tap as well as local spirits like mezcal and tequila, hosts live music outside in the back, has a wide variety of board games as well as a pool table and a jukebox stocked with local bands.
Day 3 – The North and East Side
The north side of Tucson is known for the gorgeous foothills of the Catalina Mountains, where many movie stars have made their homes. This area is a great way to end your stay in Tucson—with plenty of nature, rest, and amazing views.
Start the third day of your Tucson itinerary in the foothills at Tohono Chul, a botanical garden on Ina Road. In the 1980s, the Wilson family opened their hacienda, several outbuildings, and 37 acres of gardens to the public as Tohono Chul.
It is now a popular spot for brunch, where you can dine in the original hacienda’s courtyard or patio and try the bottomless prickly pear margarita. Tour the gardens, which include cactus, succulents, herbs, and flowers. There are also sculptures and hiking trails.
Poco and Mom’s
On East Tanque Verde Road is one of the most popular restaurants in Tucson, and you don’t even have to go all the way to New Mexico to try the famous red and green chile at Poco and Mom’s.
The green chile pork stew and the chile relleno—really, anything with red or green chile, is a must-try. Warning: there will probably be a wait to get in.
Drive further up Tanque Verde and turn left at Sabino Canyon Road. Sabino Canyon is a popular recreation area for Tucsonans because it is one of the only places in the area with year-round running water in Sabino Creek.
Buy a ticket for the Sabino Canyon Crawler, an open tram, where you can ride up to the top of the canyon and listen to an automated narration about the natural history of the canyon on headphones. From the top, you can either hike down several different paths or ride back down on the tram.
Don’t miss the Sabino Dam and Reservoir, a popular spot to picnic and splash around.
Drive west across curvy River Road and stop for dinner at El Corral, an old-school Tucson roadhouse. Built in 1926, El Corral was the first restaurant in the foothills and served western movie stars like John Wayne, Tom Mix, and Lee Marvin after they finished shooting movies at Old Tucson Studios.
Check out all the photographs that line the walls and the Tom Mix shrine (he stopped at El Corral on his way to Florence, where he died in a car crash in 1940). El Corral is famous for its prime rib and tamale pie.
Hacienda del Sol
Wrap up your itinerary at one of the most beautiful places in the city: Hacienda del Sol, an old hotel that was originally founded as a girls’ boarding school and ranch in the 1920s.
In the 1940s, it became a hideaway for movie stars shooting westerns in Tucson, and it was a favorite of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Wander through the beautiful cactus gardens, courtyards, the lobby, and the library. Stop and see the old photos of the girls at the boarding school in the hallway on your way to the bar to sample some excellent cocktails.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Whether you’re spending 1, 2 or 3 days in Tucson, you’re going to need to find a great place to stay while you’re there. Fortunately, there are a lot of great accommodation options in Arizona’s second city that can suit all kinds of visitors. If you’re wondering where to stay, have a look at these suggestions:
Hotel Congress – Located in a historic Tucson building, this hotel is a great place to stay if you’re looking to be in the centre of the action. There are tons of great rooms available, an on-site restaurant, bar and even a nightclub to ensure that you have a good time no matter the hour of the day.
The Downtown Clifton Hotel – Situated in downtown Tucson, this hotel is a great option for those looking for a quieter stay in the city but still close to a number of great attractions. They have a range of clean and comfortable rooms on offer and a restaurant and bar on site, as well.
Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own space over a hotel, then consider finding a private vacation rental. There are a myriad of options available in Tucson, such as this stunning house in the mountains that you’re sure to find something that suits your fancy.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Tucson hotels!
This Tucson itinerary will be jam-packed with the essential things you’ll want to see and do in the Old Pueblo. Enjoy the sunsets and happy trails!
Are you planning a visit to Tucson? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!