The Perfect Weekend Getaway: Tucson From Phoenix

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Multi-cultural roots meet college-town energy in Tucson, a creative hotspot framed by a brace of desert peaks. Galleries and studios attest to the thriving arts scene here, and Tucson is the first city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, a tribute to local flavors that range from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to vegan jackfruit tacos.

With a 131-mile, car-free network of trails and paths within Tucson itself, it’s no surprise that cycling is big. Beyond the city limits, the surrounding desert is a playground for outdoorsy locals and visitors alike, whether you’re hiking the Santa Catalina Mountains or dodging saguaro cacti on a mountain bike.

GETTING THERE

From Phoenix, follow Interstate 10 East all the way to Tucson (1 hour and 42 minutes, 113 miles). Make a pit stop at the open-air Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, where you can feed not only ostriches, but also stingrays, Boer goats, miniature donkeys, and other adorable creatures.

DAY1

Celebrate an early start to the weekend with a giant cup of horchata and Sonoran-style tacos at Taqueria Pico de Gallo. Flour and corn tortillas are made in-house, a tasty base layer for carne asada, shrimp, chicken, and fish tacos. (With extra zing from chiltepin peppers, the house hot sauce is a fiery highlight that makes bottled versions look week.)

From there, head to the wonderful Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where you’ll find 98 acres of botanical gardens and animal enclosures, plus a natural history museum, aquarium, and art gallery. The gardens are a highlight, with 1,200 different kinds of plants that range from a prickly cactus garden to alien-like soaptree yuccas in the desert grassland. (Docent-led tours of the museum, which are free with admission, are a great way to get the most out of your visit.)

Take your time on your way back to town, and if sunset is approaching, pull off to enjoy the view from Gates Pass Scenic Overlook in Tucson Mountain Park. A few hiking paths depart from here, but it’s well worth the side-trip just to see evening light amid the saguaro cactus.

For dinner, raise a glass of small-batch mezcal to the central Mexican cuisine of Penca Restaurante, whose menu offers updated takes on traditional dishes such as esquites, pozole, and encacahuatadas. Want to keep the evening going? Stroll a few blocks to the quirky R Bar, whose décor includes a surreal steel mural of Tucson backlit with a loungy orange glow.

DAY2

If the fancy brunch scene leaves you cold, go for oversized banana pancakes at Bobo’s Restaurant, arriving early to beat lines of locals with the same idea. Service is usually lightning fast here—that means you’ll get out the door in time for a morning trip to the Santa Catalina Mountains that arc across the north side of Tucson.

A good place to start exploring is Sabino Canyon. The 8-mile Sabino Canyon Trail is flanked by saguaro and ocotillo cactus on the way to pretty Sabino Creek, where cottonwood, ash, and sycamore trees cluster around the precious water source. (To reach the trailhead, you’ll need a ticket for the open-sided electric tram that shuttles hikers through the fragile landscape.)

By the time you’re back at the trailhead, you’ll be ready to cool off during a meal on the shady, garden patio at La Cocina—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch one of their lunchtime live music events as you dine on Tex-Mex with some global favorites thrown in for good measure. (Think chile relleno meets salade Niçoise.)

From there, it’s just a quick stroll to the Tucson Museum of Art, a blissfully air-conditioned spot with fine collections of pre-Colombian art from Latin America, plus folk art and Southwestern art. The collection rambles across a whole city block, filling both a modern wing and several converted 19th-century buildings.

Once you take that in, take a walk—or grab a cab—to 4th Avenue, a street with some of the city’s most browsable boutiques, shops, and galleries. Find unique souvenirs from local artists and designers at Popcycle; quirky local screen prints are available a few doors down from Tiny Town Gallery & Surplus; it’s all about comic art, collectibles, and zines at & gallery.

When you’re ready for dinner, make your way to the pizza restaurant ANELLO, whose short-but-sweet menu is all about simple toppings on sourdough crusts. Save room for Italian desserts including vivid gelato and an almond olive oil cake.

DAY3

Grab a counter seat at Welcome Diner for a leisurely brunch, with options that include chicken and biscuits, breakfast burritos, and plates of eggs, all made with super-fresh ingredients, many locally sourced. It’s a stylish spot with a mid-century feel, and the appealing vegan options are a favorite even for omnivores.

Next, check out Mission San Xavier del Bac, a Catholic church founded in 1692. The building’s white and sand-colored exterior is a remarkable sight against the desert sky; head inside to see statues and frescoes that have earned this spot the nickname “Sistine Chapel of the Southwest.”

And now, it’s time for a bike ride. Head to the South Mercado Station of the Tugo Bike Share program, which is located near a portion of The Loop, Tucson’s 131-mile network of car-free paths and trails. From the station, pedal north along the Santa Cruz River, passing a series of parks as you ride. (This ride can be as long, or as short, as you want. Plan your trip using the interactive map of The Loop.)

Before leaving town, make one last food stop at Tito & Pep, where chefs use a mesquite-fired grill to tease every bit of flavor from a menu of colorful vegetable dishes, meats, and fish. “It’s not Mexican, it’s Tucsonian,” they say, offering a perfect coda to a weekend in the city.

WHERE TO STAY

Options here run the gamut from basics to top-end luxury. The most stylish affordable pick is Hotel McCoy, a revamped mid-century hotel with a salt-water pool, local art, games, and a fun oatmeal-bar breakfast. If you’re splashing out, do it in Hacienda del Sol, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains—there are great views of the peaks from the pool. Many of the rooms here have hand-crafted furniture and beautiful wooden ceilings; desert-inspired artwork is scattered throughout the property.

WHEN TO GO

Mild weather in the spring and fall make these prime times to visit: In April–May and September–October, average highs range from the low eighties to the mid-nineties. Summers are hot, with highs around 100 in June, July, and August. Enjoy plenty of sun all winter; nights can be cool, but there’s plenty of warmth during the day.

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