Tucson is a delightful city that sits in a serene valley surrounded by majestic mountains and stately saguaros. The University of Arizona and its 45,000 students is here, but it would be wrong to call Arizona’s second-largest city a college town. The enticing blend of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo cultures along with eclectic shops, incredible food, beautiful architecture and tempting outdoor activities makes Tucson a great destination for all ages. The mild winters coupled with an average of 286 sunny days a year only contribute to the appeal of this funky spot just 60 miles north of the Mexican border.
Recreational cannabis use remains prohibited in Arizona but there is a ballot measure to legalize it for recreational use that could reach the public for a vote in 2020. Thankfully, medical marijuana was legalized in 2010 and patients diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition and possessing a written certification from a medical doctor, osteopath, naturopath or homeopath licensed in Arizona can make a purchase at a cannabis dispensary. There are several clinics in the state that specialize in issuing marijuana certifications and are staffed by physicians who are often willing to make both the medical diagnosis and the required certification to allow access to a marijuana dispensary.
The “Old Neighborhood” is perfect for a stoned stroll due to its photogenic Southwestern facades, intricately adorned and brightly colored adobe houses and overall colorful character. It was originally settled in the mid-to-late 1800s by Mexicans and Chinese who came to Tucson to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad and is now a mix of residential and retail with several excellent places to grab a bite or a drink. Temple Emanu-El – the first synagogue in the Arizona Territory – is in the neighborhood, as is the excellent Tucson Children’s Museum.
The first class to graduate from this school back in 1895 consisted of two women and one man and Arizona had yet to become a state. Today, around 35,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 graduate students call this sprawling 380-acre campus in central Tucson home. Sports are a big draw here, with basketball taking the spotlight in the winter and spring after football season ends. The interesting University of Arizona Museum of Art displays a broad variety of work spanning different historic periods and is an excellent venue for art enthusiasts and novices alike. The campus is a great place to simply hang out and enjoy the (almost always) nice weather and the University Bookstore is the place to go pick up some Wildcat gear.
Main Gate Square is a pedestrian friendly zone with several shopping and eating options just west of University of Arizona’s campus. Despite the presence of a few chain restaurants, the majority of businesses are locally owned and have their own personality. There is a fair amount of public art and a diverse program of regularly scheduled live music that draws students, tourists and locals. Many of the restaurants have expansive patios filled with patrons enjoying the weather and the people watching. Check out Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company for a cold beverage or Woops! BakeShop for a delicious macaroon. The Sun Link streetcar conveniently connects Main Gate Square with other popular destinations in Tucson like Fourth Avenue (see below).
Sam Hughes is a gorgeous historic district east of the university that deftly balances tree-lined residential streets with spirited college bars, brewpubs and a great selection of restaurants. There are 16 different architectural styles represented in the neighborhood, but most homes are either Spanish eclectic, mid-century modern or mission-revival. The Loft Cinema is a hip independent movie house and Himmel Park has plenty of green space for relaxing in the sun, as well as a pool and several tennis courts. Stop by Arte de la Vida for fantastic vintage folk art from Mexico and points farther south.
Part zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, art gallery and national history museum, this private institution sits west of town on 98 acres. Over 200 species of desert animals (mountain lions, prairie dogs, cayotes, etc.) and around 1,200 local plant species fill the museum’s land and the walking trails provide a unique opportunity to see everything up close. Try to get there either early in the morning or just before dusk when the animals are most active. The majority of exhibits are outside so dress accordingly.
The mountains around Tucson are covered with saguaros and the best place to come face to face with these giant cacti (some grow up to 40 feet tall) is in the amazing Saguaro National Park. The park is split into two separate districts (East and West) and both can be easily accessed and enjoyed due to their relatively small sizes and proximity to Tucson. In addition to the saguaro there are prickly pear, cholla and yucca spread across the desert floor. Head to Signal Hill in the West Unit for ancient petroglyphs and stunning vistas or stick to the paved one-quarter mile Desert Ecology Trail for information about the plants and animals that inhabit this section of the massive Sonoran Desert. If your time is limited, cruise the epic eight-mile Cactus Loop Drive for good views of the surrounding peaks and the regal saguaros.
Founded in 1893, this museum is the oldest and largest anthropological research museum in the Southwest and its expansive collections are vital resources for the study of the region's 13,000-year-old human history. As part of Arizona’s oldest cultural organization – Arizona Historical Society – the museum allows visitors to learn the rich history of the Apache Indians along with descriptions of pioneering ranch life along the Mexican border. The absorbing stories and artifacts of famous Arizona personalities like Wyatt Earp and Geronimo, as well as the Mexican Emperor and Empress Maximilian and Carlota, are fascinating.
Known as the White Dove of the Desert, Mission San Xavier del Bac is a restored 18th-century architectural gem nine miles south of downtown Tucson that was influenced by Moorish, Byzantine, Renaissance and Mexican architectural styles. The Mission was founded in 1692 and construction of the building finished in 1797. It is the oldest intact European construction in Arizona. There is a museum located on site and the best way to enjoy this National Historic Landmark is by taking a guided tour.
Home to the world-famous Boneyard (the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world with over 4,400 aircraft) this is an aviation enthusiast’s dreamland. In addition to the thousands of aircraft resting in the desert, the museum has several hangers with planes and helicopters and plenty of information on other aspects of aviation like military life and civilian air travel. It is the second largest aviation museum in the country and one of the largest non-government funded aviation museums in the world. If you’re into planes or just want to get high and wander amongst some massive aircraft, this is the place to do it.
Perfectly located slightly north of downtown and just west of Fourth Avenue, The Downtown Dispensary is noted for its good vibes and clean and organized retail space. The dispensary sells vapes and topical pain relief gels from Arizona-based iLAVA and also has a good selection of KIVA Confections from California. The staff is courteous and compassionate. Address: 221 E 6th St #105, Tucson, AZ
Desert Bloom’s cannabis is almost always available: the down-to-earth dispensary is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 365 days a year and also offers patients the option of delivery. Their in-house brand of edibles includes tasty hard candy and they also make their own THC/CBD tinctures and suppositories. Try their special pre-rolls that are rolled with unbleached RAW papers and contain 70% cannabis and 30% organic herbs for a different type of toke. Address: 8060 E 22nd St #108, Tucson, AZ
The Prime Leaf specializes in local purveyors like Mojave Cannabis Company, Potent Planet and Tierra Grow and carries a substantial amount of premium shatter and resin with strain flavors like Fire OG and Critical Kush. Sweeter options include weed-infused gummies, brownies, chocolates, oils, budder and medicated juices. Grab a Haze and Main’s Happy Hour Bubbly to drink on your hike through the saguaros. Its 3-1 ratio of THC to CBD (75 mg./25 mg.) along with 80 mg. of caffeine is a perfect blend.
Address: 4220 E Speedway Blvd, Tucson, AZ
SAINTS was the first dispensary to open in the state back in 2012 and has set the standard for high level cannabis care ever since. Each of its 30-35 strains is grown in house and curated to specifically address different ailments such as multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. Veterans receive a 20% discount on every purchase, first time patients get substantial discounts and there are daily specials like Wax Wednesday and Top Tier Tuesday. You won’t find a nicer and more knowledgeable group of budtenders in Tucson. Address: 112 S Kolb Rd, Tucson, AZ
Fourth Avenue is a vibrant commercial corridor of historic buildings filled with over 140 bars, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. This is not a typical shopping strip because almost every business is locally owned, painted in vibrant colors and different from its neighbor. Check out Hippie Gypsy for groovy threads and smoking accessories (just look for the mural featuring Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Zappa and the Beatles) or Del Sol for Native American pottery, jewelry and hand-woven rugs. Razor’s Edge eschews the ubiquitous Tucson hippy vibes for more of a goth and punk ascetic while How Sweet it Was has an awe-inspiring collection of vintage items stretching back to the 1800s.
Terry Etherton opened his fantastic gallery in 1981 with a desire to showcase the wonders of photography as an artistic medium. Local artists from Tucson and across the American Southwest (William Clift, Michael Berman) and Mexico (Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Alejandro Cartagena) are highlighted, but the impressive collection also features historic photographs (Esther Bubley) and contemporary prints from around the world.
An array of stimulating independent shops (and eateries) surround a serene courtyard at this lovely market on the west side of the Santa Cruz River. Try Mast for handmade jewelry and local leather goods and La Cabaña at the Mercado for antiques and contemporary decor. Looking for a pair of traditional southwest moccasins? Jesse Aguiar at San Agustin Trading Company has been handcrafting gorgeous footwear since 1969.
This small regional used book chain has six locations across the state, including the original Tucson location that opened in 1976. The “Entertainment Exchange” has deep roots in the community and keeps its inventory fresh by carefully curating its massive selection of books, musical instruments, electronics, movies, video games, toys and housewares. Educators receive 20% off all purchases and the store has free Wi-Fi and a Kids Club that provides children with a $10 gift certificate on their birthday. There are plenty of comfortable chairs that are perfect for getting lost in a book.
You will not find a website, phone, or a credit card that will be accepted at this small spot in downtown (151 N. Stone Ave.), but you will find some of this the best homestyle Hispanic food in Tucson, along with amazing fresh juices like beet mandarin and key lime pineapple mint. Chicken smothered in house-made green salsa, delectable chili relleno and guisado (stew) with potatoes and onions are a few of the dishes that might be on the blackboard. If you like the food, be sure to tell the owner to receive a free hug.
The Hotel Congress (est. 1919) is a Tucson landmark and this café with a lovely patio serves up simple yet elegant cuisine in the lobby of the hotel. Vegan options on the menu like Tofu & Tamale for breakfast and the Beyond Patty Melt (plant-based veggie burger, vegan mozzarella, grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions, mezcal poblano Dijon mustard, rye) for dinner complement classics such as Niçoise salad and pan seared trout. The Santa Cruz Flank Steak (8 oz. Santa Cruz chili and local honey marinated flank steak, chimichurri vinaigrette, calabacitas, lemon-thyme yucca chips) is delicious. Be sure to wander the hotel after your meal to enjoy the historic photographs, colorful murals and vintage appointments that decorate the wonderful building.
The Coronet recently relocated from the Coronado Hotel to a charming Territorial Adobe building on historic Cushing Street and the food only got better. The cozy interior with stone floors and dark wooden furnishings is the perfect stage for fabulous international contemporary cuisine. The diverse wine options and the excellent Happy Hours deals make The Coronet one of Tucson’s more enjoyable dining options.
Tucson’s first Ethiopian restaurant is still its best. This might not be the cuisine that one thinks about when visiting the desert southwest, but Zeman’s is a Tucson landmark and the casual spot has maintained its quality for over 25 years with carefully cooked meat and veggie platters and sumptuous Injera (a gluten free option is available). Zemam’s does not serve alcohol but diners are welcome to bring their own.
As you might have guessed, this tiny spot right downtown (58 W. Congress St.) serves up scrumptious tacos in cafeteria-style line and has beers on tap – plus an impressive tequila selection – at the adjacent bar. It’s simple and quick food that is ideal for terminating any lingering hunger you might have after a day out in Tucson or an afternoon in the mountains. If the tacos are not tempting the tummy, go for the Street Dog – it’s their take on a Sonoran hot dog that’s wrapped in bacon, grilled and topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes and salsa.