A day trip to Tucson makes for a fun excursion from Phoenix, Arizona. From desert landscapes to top-notch Mexican food, explore how to spend the perfect day in Tucson!
There are numerous things to do in Tucson but in this post, I’ll share the best activities that you can do in one day.
So, whether you are passing through on a road trip or coming from Phoenix, I’ll share the essentials to a one-day Tucson itinerary.
Where Is Tucson Located?
Tucson is located in the southeast corner of Arizona about 1.5 to 2 hours south of Phoenix.
The state of Arizona itself is located in the Southwest corner of the United States bordered by California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. The bottom portion of the state borders Mexico.
From the following cities, the drive time is:
Phoenix – depending on traffic, 1.5 to 2 hours (120 miles)
Flagstaff – 4 hours (257 miles)
San Diego – 5.5 to 6 hours (408 miles)
Los Angeles – 7 hours (485 miles)
White Sands National Park – 5 hours (326 miles)
How To Get To Tucson, Arizona
If you are coming from one of the nearby states, you can easily drive making it a great place to stop on a road trip.
In fact, on a road trip from San Diego, I spent a few days in Tucson as I was passing through heading east.
But if you are coming from further away or prefer to fly, there are two options for booking a flight.
For the most flight options, I would recommend flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).
And in Tucson, select to fly into the Tucson International Airport (TUS).
Once you land, the easiest way to get around is by renting a car.
What Is Tucson Best Known For?
Tucson has quickly become a foodie destination and in 2015 it gained the honor of being a UNESCO “City of Gastronomy”.
There are numerous delicious options to indulge in Mexican food but so many other cuisines too. Basically, make sure to bring an appetite when visiting Tucson!
Another draw to Tucson is its desert landscape, mountains, the famous Saguaro cacti, and adobe architecture.
If you enjoy the outdoors there are many trails to hop on or watch a stunning fiery desert sunset.
Tucson is also known for being a cool university town as it is the home to the University of Arizona!
Where To Stay In Tucson
Even though this post is for a day trip to Tucson, you might want to spend an entire day and stay the night. Then take off early back to Phoenix or onto your next destination!
The Historic Hotel Congress – located in a historic building with a restaurant and a great bar.
America The Beautiful Pass
When traveling to most US National Parks, National Monuments, or other federal recreation sites there is a fee.
If you have an America The Beautiful Pass, then your entry is free!
An America The Beautiful Pass is good for 1 year and includes admission into over 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks, national forests, and national monuments.
If you know you will visit at least three parks or forests in a year it is more than worth getting an America The Beautiful Pass.
In this post, you can use an America The Beautiful Pass to enter Saguaro National Park. For more info on the pass, read America The Beautiful Park Pass: Is It Worth Getting For Your Trip?!
Other top places in Arizona or nearby states that you can use the pass at are:
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- White Sands National Park
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Big Bend National Park
- Zion National Park to name a few!
Map Of Tucson Attractions
Best Things To Do In Tucson In A Day
1. Saguaro National Park
Have you always wanted to see the largest cacti in the country? Saguaro National Park is home to the giant Saguaro cactus and is the iconic image of the Southwest desert.
The Saguaro cactus (big ones) can live 150 – 175+ years and reach heights of up to 50-feet! The Saguaro is slow-growing and only increases 1 – 2 inches per year.
Saguaro National Park is located in two locations on both the west and east side of downtown Tucson. Visiting at either sunrise or sunset is a magical time to explore!
Between the two sections, there are over 120,000 acres of desert home to the Saguaro cactus. For the highest density of Saguaro cacti, I recommend focusing on the west side of the national park.
The east side has older cacti but not as dense as found on its western section. If you are limited on time, I would focus your time on the western portion.
The section of Saguaro National Park to explore on the west is known as the Tucson Mountain District (Tucson Mountain Park).
Bajada Loop Drive
The Bajada Loop Drive is one of the first areas to explore inside the Tucson Mountain District. It is a 6.0-mile loop with packed dirt that is fine for any car to drive on.
Because it is a loop, there are two directions you can take but as it is one-way on a good portion of it, make sure that you complete the loop counterclockwise!
Off of N Kinney Road, turn onto Hohokam Road and start the loop here. Do not start the loop via Golden Gate Road.
Two short hikes to explore along the loop are the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail.
The Valley Overlook Trail (0.8-miles) has a dense Saguaro cacti section that makes for a great walk to take photos and a pretty view of the park.
The Desert Discovery Nature Trail (0.5-miles) is a paved trail with several signs educating on the cacti and the local habitat.
For those that want more of a challenge, top hikes to do are Wild Dog Trail (1.8-miles), King Canyon Wash Trail (2.4-miles), or the Sendero Esperanza Trail to Wassen Peak (3.4 to 8-miles).
The fee to enter the park is $25 per vehicle but if you have an America The Beautiful Pass you can get in for free!
Note: Dogs and horses are not allowed on most trails. Although I didn’t encounter any, be aware of and stay clear of rattlesnakes.
Tips: If you want to see the flowers growing on the Saguaro cacti, then plan a visit between late April and June.
In case you are wondering how to pronounce Saguaro, it sounds like “sa-Wah-roh”.
2. Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac stands tall and prominent against the flat desert landscape surrounding it.
Upon seeing it, the mission evokes a wow moment as it is quite stunning with craftsmanship in a Spanish Colonial architectural style.
The nickname “White Dove of the Desert” seems appropriate for its stark beauty and contrast to the rather drab and dusty desert around it.
Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded in 1700 by Father Eusebio Kino (a Jesuit) but the mission wasn’t built on the current site until the late 1700s.
It is considered the oldest European building in Arizona and is located on the Tohono O’odham nation about 9-miles south of downtown Tucson.
With a white stucco exterior, large wooden doors welcome visitors inside to view beautiful paintings, frescoes, and statues.
Today the mission is a National Historic Landmark and is still used for services run by Franciscans friars.
Some refer to the mission as the Sistine Chapel of the New World likely because it is a breathtaking masterpiece.
Visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac is one of the best things to see in Tucson that you don’t want to miss!
Hours: The church is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The gift shop is open until 5:00 pm. There is no admission fee.
3. Barrio Viejo
Barrio Viejo translates to the “old neighborhood” in Spanish and might be the most charming section of Tucson.
It is a neighborhood that you want to wander in admiring the vibrant colored adobe-style houses and buildings.
The homes you see are from the 1800s displaying Mexican heritage around every corner. It is in Barrio Viejo that you can see such a high number of adobe homes in one place.
Over the years this section of the town fell into disrepair but fortunately over the past few decades a revitalization has made it a sought-after place to live again.
If you want to take a walking tour yourself, walk along 6th Ave, 7th Ave, 8th Ave, Church Street, and Stone Avenue.
Sticking to those streets or areas close by will allow you to see the best portions of Barrio Viejo.
I thoroughly enjoyed the unique touches such as brightly colored doors, gates, and windows giving the neighborhood so much character.
El Tiradito Wishing Shrine
Besides the picturesque adobe homes, my favorite spot in Barrio Viejo is El Tiradito Wishing Shrine.
The shrine is set against a brick wall surrounded by several candles and images of Catholic saints. Normally there are plenty of flowers too but on a hot summer day not so much…
The El Tiradito Wishing Shrine is rather unique in that unlike any other shrine in the United States, it is dedicated to a sinner on unconsecrated ground!
As with any good story, there is always some form of a love affair and an unexpected peril of at least one involved…
A man buried at this site supposedly had an affair with his mother-in-law and got caught in the act by the father-in-law.
No surprise that the father-in-law in a rage murdered the man which led the mother-in-law to hang herself with grief over her lover.
The name El Tiradito means “the little throwaway” and where many come to leave letters or prayers of heartbreak.
A few attractions and places to eat at or take note of are:
Jewish History Museum – Limited hours of Wednesday 10:00 am to 12:00 pm or Thursday 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm.
5 Points Market & Restaurant – A market that has a restaurant serving up great coffee, tea, brunch, or lunch.
Café Desta – Serving delicious traditional Ethiopian food.
4. Eat Tacos For Lunch!
If you have worked up an appetite and are craving awesome tacos, then head to Boca Tacos Y Tequila!
Boca Tacos as its name implies has an assortment of mouthwatering tacos that will be sure to delight.
Shortly before visiting Tucson, I had seen Chef Maria Mazon on the cooking show Top Chef and figured I would give this top chef a try.
I’m so happy I did as I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of each taco! My favorite tacos are the al pastor and the steak with beer battered shrimp.
The gourmet tacos are served up on homemade corn or flour tortillas, cabbage, and salsa. There are awesome taco options for both meat, fish, and veggie lovers too.
A few additional tasty bites to try are the boca balls and the “bahn mi” quesadillas…
And you might get to meet Chef Maria herself! She came out to briefly say hello and greet guests which is a nice touch.
Hours: Open Monday – Thursday from 12:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Friday & Saturday from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, and on Sunday from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm.
5. Explore Vibrant Street Art
It seems like every city you visit these days has splashes of colorful art up against what would have previously been a boring wall.
For a small city, Tucson has a number of talented artists adorning walls and buildings with vibrant images.
These images tell a story and/or inspire a movement within a city. In searching out the top art murals in Tucson, you can view the history, culture, and desert landscape that thrives here.
The first mural I stumbled upon is the Greetings From Tucson wall that is a bright and cheery welcome to the city.
You can find the Greetings From Tucson mural at 406 N Sixth Ave behind Miller’s Surplus.
Another large and spectacular mural not too far from the one above is the Goddess of Agave mural.
It is an impressive 40-foot mural of a beautiful woman surrounded by an agave plant-like crown. You can find her on the old Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Co building at 440 N Seventh Ave.
A few other murals that I found and enjoyed viewing are in Barrio Viejo.
For an in-depth listing of where you can find the top art murals in Tucson visit this post. Here you can explore the murals you want to see the most!
6. Pima Air & Space Museum
If you are a fan of aviation and its history, there is no better place to visit than the Pima Air & Space Museum!
The idea for the museum originated in 1966 during the 25th Anniversary of the United States Air Force.
At the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, it was realized how much aviation history from World War II needed to be preserved including various aircraft.
Introducing aviation history to the public began with lining up several stored aircraft along the fence so people could see going by.
Over the years many types of planes, helicopters, tankers, and bombers were collected adding to the museum’s collection.
It consists of a museum, a space gallery, five hangers storing many aircraft, and the Flight Grill where you can grab a bite to eat.
For an additional $8, you can also elect to go on a 45-minute tram tour that takes you out onto a 1.5-mile path through 80 acres of old planes.
You may have heard of an “airplane boneyard” across the street that you could walk around and tour. That used to be possible in the past but is no longer.
Note: The Tram Tour is currently offered Thursday – Sunday but may change throughout the year. Check the Pima Air Museum website for updates.
Hours: During the summer months (June – September) the museum is open from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. In the winter months (October – May) you can visit from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
7. Taste Incredible Mexican Food
Whether you head back to Phoenix, continue on your road trip, or spend the night, make time to grab some dinner first!
If you weren’t already aware, Tucson has so many incredible restaurants but I recommend focusing on Mexican.
With such close proximity to Mexico it’s no wonder that Tucson would have some of the best Mexican food in the country.
So why not indulge in a meal at one of these top Mexican establishments! You can’t go wrong with any of these options…
- Mi Nidito Restaurant
- El Charro Café
- Tucson Tamale (north side, 7286 N Oracle Rd)
A few other delicious food options besides Mexican food are:
- BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs – Known for the best Sonoran Dog (bacon-wrapped hot dog with beans, tomatoes, and jalapeno salsa on a sweet bun)
- Blue Willow Restaurant – Healthy comfort food in an adorable adobe home.
- Saffron Indian Bistro – Yummy Indian food
Bonus Tucson Attractions
If you decide to stay longer than a day in Tucson or already want to come back, here are some additional fun things to do in Tucson!
Sentinel Peak – A famous small mountain also referenced as “A Mountain” because of the huge “A” made up of rocks. A short hike to the A provides wonderful views of Tucson.
Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway – One of the most scenic drives in Arizona with 60-miles up to Mount Lemmon.
Kitt Peak National Observatory – Southwest of Tucson are spectacular views and several telescopes. There is a visitor center, activities. and tours. Currently, the observatory is closed but check their website for updates.
Tucson Museum of Art – An art museum and education center sharing modern, contemporary, western, and Native American art in the Presidio District.
Best Tucson Tours
Historic Bike Tour in Tucson – Explore the most historic areas of Tucson on a guided bike tour!
Tucson Taco Bike Tour – If you love tacos, this is a tour not to be missed!
Hot Air Balloon Ride – Tick off your bucket list and soar up in the sky in a hot air balloon with beautiful views of the desert!
Mount Lemmon Tour – A guided tour to Mount Lemmon enjoying the best rock formations and viewpoints!
Tips For Visiting Tucson
- Tucson is a desert so make sure that you have plenty of water with you especially in the summer months.
- Have a reusable water bottle or a filtered water bottle with you filled to help keep you hydrated.
- When on any desert trail keep alert and stay away from rattlesnakes.
- Have a hat and sunscreen to keep the sun from scorching your body!
- During the hot months, stay cool with this awesome cooling towel for the neck and face.
- Wear comfortable shoes for all the walking you will be doing!
- Have a backpack that can carry your camera gear and any other items you need for a day trip.
- Pack snacks and drinks in this cooler that is perfect for a road trip!
- No matter what time of year you visit, the dry desert wreaks havoc on your skin. Bring chapstick and body lotion to hydrate the skin!
- In case you or anyone in your car gets carsick, these ginger chews are lifesavers!
Best Time To Visit Tucson, Arizona
The best time of year to visit Tucson is from the months of September to May.
The fall, winter, and spring months have mild temps (66 F to 90 F) that are great for hiking, golfing, and seeing any Tucson attraction.
Avoid the VERY hot summer months if you can. During these months it feels like you are walking around in an oven…
Temperatures in June, July, and August can reach up to 110 F (43 C) with an average of around 100 F.
Is Tucson Worth Visiting?
Yes! Spending a day in Tucson is worth it as there is plenty of beautiful mountains, delicious Mexican cuisine, hiking, giant Saguaro cacti, art, and history to enjoy.
Have a fun visit exploring a day in Tucson, Arizona!
Got Travel Insurance?
Don’t leave home without travel insurance as you never know what might happen on a trip! It is always when you least expect it that something can go wrong like getting sick, in an accident or cancellation of some sort.
And when out hiking or visiting waterfalls, a slip can quickly become a twisted ankle or possibly worse. Get a no-obligation World Nomads travel insurance quote today for peace of mind!
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