Destination Arizona: A beginner’s guide to Tucson

By: Maxine Sheppard

March 27, 2019

Saguaro purple sunset © Visit Tucson

Saguaro purple sunset © Visit Tucson

Surrounded by Sonoran Desert mountains and sandwiched between the twin sections of Saguaro National Park, the city of Tucson is the second-largest in Arizona.

A thriving college town affectionately known as “Old Pueblo”, Tucson is home to a rich cultural life, farm-to-table dining and colourful historic neighbourhoods, all heavily influenced by its Mexican, Spanish, Native American and Anglo roots. The sun shines here more than 340 days per year, and with springtime temperatures of around 25° degrees, now is a great time to visit. Our partnership with Delta connects you to Tucson direct from Los Angeles in only 90 minutes, so book your Arizona trip today and check out our guide for the best things to do during your stay.

Adobe houses in Barrio Viejo © Maxine Sheppard

See and do

Start your explorations on a morning ride with Tucson Bike Tours and get to grips with Old Pueblo on two wheels. Led by enthusiastic guide-owner Jimmy Bultman, the laid-back tour covers around 10 miles of flat terrain on comfortable cruise bikes, with stops in some of the most colourful neighbourhoods in the city along the way. You’ll whizz past revitalised Downtown, the old adobe homes of Barrio Viejo and the trendy Warehouse Arts District, as well as El Presidio, the oldest district in Tucson and one of the longest inhabited in the USA. It’s the best way to get a feel for the city in a short space of time and you’ll come away with some great local tips. Tours cost US$50 and run at 9am, 12pm and 3pm.

With a vibe reminiscent of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, the lively Historic Fourth Avenue District is the place to go for vintage and thrifted garb, retro design emporiums, tattoo parlours, street art and dive bars. Alongside one-off gems like recycled goods store Pop Cycle, pinball palace D&D Pinball and the powders and potions of Dry River Witches Collective you’ll find true taco heaven at BOCA Tacos y Tequila, where ebullient owner Maria Mazon offers a 25-variety-strong menu. Grab a table on the patio and soak up the Mexican vibes.

Street art views with Tucson Bike Tours © Maxine Sheppard

Peek at the treasure trove of vintage advertising signs at the new Ignite Sign Museum, before hopping in a hire car and heading up to Mt. Lemmon, northeast of the city. The highest peak in the Santa Catalina mountains is home to the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory, part of the University of Arizona, and offers nightly (weather-dependent) stargazing events using the largest public telescopes in the USA. The drive up here along the Sky Island Scenic Byway – through saguaro-dotted desert, past eerie hoodoos, craggy canyons and ponderosa pine forest – is one of the most phenomenal in the Southwest.

Mt Lemmon SkyCenter © Visit Tucson

Back down below, the attractions on the west side of town can easily fill a day or longer. Kick things off at Old Tucson, a mock Wild West town and fully operational film studio opened by Columbia Pictures in 1939. Though it’s best known today as a Western-style theme park with live action gunfights, can-can shows and faux saloon bars, this movie lot has produced more than 200 films including Gunfight at the OK Corral and Three Amigos. When you’ve had your fix of dusty streets and gun-slingin’ cowboys, a few miles up the road is the open-air Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, home to cactus-filled botanical gardens, an art gallery, a hummingbird aviary and dozens of species of desert animals including javelinas and jackrabbits.

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections – the Tucson Mountain District to the west and the Rincon Mountain District to the east – both within about 10 miles of the city centre. They both preserve the landscapes, flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, but the shining stars are inevitably the gigantic saguaro cacti that dominate the skyline in every direction. Part stately, part ungainly, this mammoth species grows incredibly slowly – by the age of 8 it’s still only an inch high – but can eventually reach heights of over 50 feet. Not until a saguaro cactus is 50 years old at the earliest does it grow its first ‘arm’, and sometimes not until it’s 100 in areas with low rainfall. Now, in spring, is the best time to visit the park. Saguaros begin to blossom in late April, attracting honey bees, bats and birds.

Saguaro National Park © Maxine Sheppard

Eating and drinking

In 2015 Tucson was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the USA, recognised by the cultural agency for its “rich agricultural heritage, thriving food traditions, and culinary distinctiveness”. In agricultural terms they certainly weren’t wrong: the Tucson area has been farmed for more than 4,000 years, making it the longest continuously cultivated area in North America.

It’s a legacy strongly reflected in the local culinary scene – from the heritage plants grown at the city’s Mission Garden to the prickly pear cactus in Borderlands Brewing Co.’s wheat craft beer – but the farm-to-table dining scene is where it’s brought to life most creatively. Leading the pack is Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, helmed by award winning chef Janos Wilder. His dynamic venue offers a tantalising menu brimming with Southwestern flair: highlights include the salmon belly with candied jalapenos and pickled cholla cactus buds and the Sonoran bread pudding with mezcal hard sauce.

More Hispanic and Native American influences can be sampled at the Mexican-inspired Charro Steak, and Contigo Latin Kitchen on the outskirts of town in the Catalina Foothills. Alternatively, if you’re after something quick and simple but no less culturally significant, head to the simple Ruiz food truck/trailer on the corner of W 22nd Street and S 6th Avenue for the best Sonoran hot dogs in town.

Where to stay

There’s a clutch of new hotels in the pipeline, but in the meantime you’ll find a good mix of places to stay, from sprawling resort-style properties in the hills outside the city centre, to hip and historic downtown abodes and restored midcentury motels.

Combine city sightseeing with some full-on R&R at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort, a 15-minute drive from Downtown. This expansive 575-room resort comes with incredible sunset views, as well as three nine-hole golf courses, a full-service spa, and an array of outdoor spaces set around a lazy river and fire pits. Experiential travel is a big focus here, with a varied line-up of activities on offer including guided morning hikes through the surrounding trails, Native American sunrise rituals, and nightly Tequila Toasts on the outdoor patio with sunset-watching and stories.

For a more central location, book a room in the thick of things at the landmark Hotel Congress. This buzzy venue dating from 1919 is full of retro charm and boisterous swagger. It makes no bones about having some of the noisiest hotel rooms in all of Tucson, but the advantage is you’ll be within staggering distance of its excellent Maynards Restaurant and Cup Cafe bar – a top spot for happy hours, classic cocktails and craft beers.

Lovers of a vintage vibe should check out the mural-adorned Hotel McCoy. It’s a bit further south off Interstate 10, but what it lacks in location it more than makes up for in retro appeal, offering cool rooms, ping pong, pinball and foosball, and an authentic restored midcentury pool.

JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort © Maxine Sheppard

Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow, with connecting flights to Tucson through our partnership with Delta.

For more things to do in Tucson and beyond, head to


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.