Tucson is one of our very favorite cities to visit. It’s tied to our past: J’s brother and his family lived there for twenty years until about ten years ago; and for as long as I can remember, my Uncle Jim has been in love with the Arizona desert and has made frequent pilgrimages to the Tucson area. And happily, Tucson has been part of our present as Airstream adventurers, as the city has a well-located RV park!
We love Tucson for its world-class restaurants (it was the first American city awarded City of Gastronomy by UNESCO), its impressive beer scene, and its easy access to phenomenal hiking among the cartoonish cacti.
As of this writing in October 2023, we’ve taken the Airstream to Tucson three times: in November 2022, as part of Big Trip #4; in 2021, as part of our Winter Warmth Trip; and in 2018, during Big Trip #2.
I compiled this bit of history in my post for our Big Trip #4 visit, but it’s more useful in this central Favorites location:
Tucson’s long history started with a village along the Santa Cruz river in 2100 BC, inhabited by hunter/gatherers who eventually built systems of irrigation canals and farmed across the river valley. The Spanish Jesuits showed up in 1692 and built a mission, beginning an extended conflict with the Apaches. In 1775 an Irish-born, Spanish-raised military governor of Northern Mexico and Texas built the founding structure of the new city of Tucsón, the Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón military fort. During the Mexican-American war in the 1840s, Tucson was captured by the Americans and then returned to Mexico, and it wasn’t included in the massive post-war land cession to the US. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Tucsón and southern AZ became part of the US, and the US continued Mexico’s wars with the Apaches. Then we get the Wild West phase of Tucson’s history, with Tombstone and the Earps. In 1885 the University of Arizona was founded (although the city was hoping to be awarded Arizona’s mental hospital, with its larger funding, rather than its university), and it wasn’t until the 1910s that Phoenix surpassed Tucson in population. Fast-forward to today when tourism is an important chunk of the economy, and after the U of A, many of the largest employers are military and high-tech. And, of course, 2017 was a big year in Tucson, when UNESCO named it the US’s first City of Gastronomy (San Antonio‘s the second).
Favorite Tucson Campground
When in Tucson, we’ve only ever stayed at Sentinel Peak RV Park. The campsites are pretty bare-bones, but the campground has a laundry room and tiny pool, and the location is fantastic: it’s a short drive to downtown or several hiking parks, and a walkable distance from the very cool Mercado District of eating, drinking, and shopping establishments.
If you don’t mind a bit of a drive to get into town, we loooove camping at Catalina State Park, an incredible park just northeast of Tucson. Ideally you’d be able to spend a few days at Sentinel, and then a couple more in Catalina!
Favorite Tucson Activities
Our go-to Tucson daytime activity is hiking, and now that we’re Airstreaming to Tucson more regularly, we’ve been focusing pretty much exclusively on hikes. But when we first started camping there we tried to branch out and experience the city in non-hiking ways. These were our favorite non-hiking Tucson activities:
Historic Walking Tour
Whenever we land in a new-to-us town, we ask the Googles about self-guided walking tours focusing on history and/or architecture. Tucson has a good one! The “turquoise trail” historical walk winds for a couple miles around the oldest part of the city, surrounding the Presidio, the Spanish fort established in 1775. It’s all downtown, so you’ll have lots of options for food and drink stops along the way.
Historic Miracle Mile Driving Tour
For a different kind of tour, get in the car and check out the Miracle Mile driving tour. We enjoyed the short drive to see the handful of neon signs and mid-century buildings that remain from the old motels and restaurants lining the old primary entrance corridor into Tucson from the north. I even drove back to see the iconic neon cactus after dark… it made me smile, but not sure I’d recommend a special trip to see it.
Historic Fourth Avenue Walk
Historic Fourth Avenue is a funky neighborhood near downtown full of shops, cafes, and bars. We were particularly drawn to The Boxyard, a super cool cluster of shipping containers serving food and drink around a central courtyard.
The next three activities are some we remember fondly from visiting family before we started Airstreaming. We haven’t been back in recent Tucson trips, but still recommend considering them when making a Tucson itinerary.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Not a museum in the traditional sense, the Desert Museum is more like a nature walk along a path that takes you past exhibits on ecology, geology, history, and art. You can explore an aquarium, botanical garden, zoo, and acres of desert habitat. We highly recommend a couple hours there.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
This beautiful church from the late 1700s is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, and considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US. It’s just south of Tucson and free to visit.
Tombstone is a totally cheeseball and totally fun Wild West experience. It’s just over an hour from Tucson; I suggest returning to Tucson via Sonoita and stopping at some of the vineyards in the surprisingly lush (pun not intended) Arizona Wine Country!
The hiking around Tucson is the stuff of dreams. Options abound, and everywhere you look you’ll see those iconic, comical saguaro cacti. Saguaro National Park borders the city to the east and west, Catalina State Park is just north, Tucson Mountain Park is adjacent to the west side of Saguaro NP and borders the city. Within the surrounding county, there are a bunch of smaller parks where the trails are shorter, but the views are still lovely and the cacti are still fabulous.
Saguaro National Park
How many big cities are a twenty-minute drive from a national park? Maybe just this one? Saguaro National Park is split into two pieces, Rincon Mountain District in the east, and Tucson Mountain District in the west, and they are the bread to a Tucson sandwich. The western side is smaller, with a denser cactus population and a dirt scenic drive, while the eastern side has a paved scenic drive and more backcountry hiking opportunities. We’ve enjoyed the scenic drive on the eastern side, along with some shorter hikes, and a longer hike to Wasson Peak on the western side. Read about our national park hikes in this post.
Catalina State Park
We absolutely adore Catalina State Park, just north of Tucson. We’ve both camped there and just popped up for a day hike from the city; it’s gorgeous and convenient and the hiking is insane. See our Catalina post for our favorites, but I’ll tell you here that our #1 is the Romero Pools trail. Dogs are allowed on most Catalina trail, but not in Romero Canyon.
Tucson Mountain Park
Tucked between Tucson and Saguaro NP West, Tucson Mountain Park is a gem. It’s extremely convenient to Tucson, and offers longer, more scenic, and less-traveled trails than the county parks. We loved the hike we did there on visit #3, and plan to return for more exploration. Dogs are not allowed in this park.
I have to include Sabino Canyon here because we have such fond memories of hiking there in the Aughts, but since we’ve been Airstreaming to Tucson, we haven’t been back to Sabino Canyon. Why? It’s an absurdly gorgeous area adjacent to Tucson, with hiking and water (rare in the desert!) and an informative visitor center, but in recent years they’ve focused on a shuttle system that provides canyon access to more people (which is great!)–meaning larger crowds on the trails (which is less great). That said, Sabino Canyon is well worth a visit if you’re new to the area. Here’s a nice overview post to help you plan.
Pima County Parks
Of the smaller Pima County parks we’ve hiked in–Painted Hills Trail Park, Enchanted Hills Trails Park, and Sweetwater Preserve–we think Sweetwater might be the prettiest, but all feature rolling hills and cacti galore. All these parks allow dogs and bikes, and Enchanted Hills allows horses. Being so convenient to town, these parks can get pretty busy at prime hiking times, so (as usual) we recommend starting your hike early to beat the crowds and minimize bike traffic, and depending on the time of year, to beat the heat!
Favorite Tucson Restaurants
Tucson is loaded with scrumptious food and it’s always hard for us to choose where to eat! These are the restaurants at the top of our must-return-to list when we’re in Tucson.
Tito and Pep
We went to Tito and Pep for my birthday last year, and have already (two months out) booked a table for J’s mom’s birthday when we’re there in December. The location east of downtown is not ideal for Sentinel Peak RV residents, but the Southwestern food, the cocktails, and the service are impressive enough to bring us back.
The Little One
This tiny cafe has been a family favorite since the Aughts. The food at The Little One is always fresh and delicious, the service cannot be beat, and we always order family-sized portions of rice, beans, and meat to stock the Airstream fridge before leaving Tucson.
Seis Kitchen is our go-to for breakfast burritos on hiking mornings. We like to order ahead, throw them in our backpack, and chow down at the first big vista point on the trail.
I chose Bata for my second birthday dinner (yes, I had multiple birthday celebrations and I recommend it) and it was a treat. The veggie-heavy menu was perfect for veggie-heavy me (but meaty J loved it too), and the upscale service and atmosphere made the night seem extra special.
Kukai is a ramen window at our favorite neighborhood hangout MSA Annex. We had their ramen last visit and it was super, and the rest of the menu looks equally appealing. The atmosphere at the Annex is just the coolest–take your dog, order your ramen, or whatever, find a fire pit, get a cocktail from Westbound, and enjoy your evening!
Ruiz Hot Dogs
J enjoys a good Sonoran hot dog–a hot dog wrapped in bacon then grilled and topped with beans, tomatoes, onions, and other condiments–and for twenty years has gotten his fix at El Güero Canelo. Last visit, however, he tried Ruiz Hot Dogs and thinks their dogs are better!
Favorite Tucson Breweries
We have a definite favorite brewery that we prioritize each visit, then try to hit a couple other old familiar stops and try out some new ones too.
Pueblo Vida is our favorite Tucson brewery. Not only do we try to go their taproom at least once when we visit, but we also buy cans to stock the Airstream before we leave Tucson. If you like sours and hazy IPAs like we do, you’ll love Pueblo Vida’s beer.
Borderlands Brewing is a usual stop for us when we’re out exploring town with Bugsy. Their big yard area is perfect for having a beer with your pupper, and the beers are consistently pleasing.
Favorite Tucson Cocktail Joints
The Owl’s Club
The Owl’s Club is a neat spot for a fancy cocktail: it’s an old funeral home with a private courtyard in a historic neighborhood downtown.
Tough Luck Club
Another neat spot for a well-crafted cocktail: Tough Luck Club has sort of a speakeasy vibe, hidden away in the basement of a downtown pizza restaurant.
Westbound, in our dear MSA Annex, is our go-to for relaxing with an adult beverage. They serve cocktails on tap and a large selection of local beers, but we mostly love Westbound for the outdoor vibe at the MSA Annex.
- We want to hike beyond the waterfall at Romero Pools in Catalina SP
- We want to further explore the trails in Tucson Mountain Park–maybe the 12-mile Yetman Trail, on our list since visit #2
- We want to check out the trails on Mt Lemmon
- We should consider camping and hiking at Cochise Stronghold one of these trips! It’s an hour and a half from Tucson, so not really a day trip candidate
- We want to check out two new cocktail bars on our Christmas trip: Sidecar and Nightjar.
- Another old to-do list item: have a drink with a view on the patio at the Ritz Carlton… but it’s a 37-minute drive from our campground so maybe not. It’s ten minutes closer to Catalina SP, but once we’re in Catalina we’re loath to leave!
If we have a bad weather day (but when does that happen in Tucson outside of monsoon season when we don’t plan to visit), the Museum of Miniatures sounds cute.
This post will be updated as we continue to explore Tucson! Let us know if you have suggestions!