Tucson in 48 hours: How to Spend a Weekend Experiencing the City
March 11, 2021
Travel date February 2021
Tucson is a vibrant city located in southern Arizona and is a great stop on any Southwest or Arizona road trip. If you only have 48 hours in Tucson, don’t worry. We spent ten days identifying can’t miss itinerary stops so you can get a feel for the city’s top attractions. To check out our other Arizona road trip stops, check out our Arizona blogs.
What is Tucson Arizona famous for?
It’s difficult to limit Tucson to one reason for its fame. The city has so much to offer to visitors and locals. Tucson’s top claims to fame are desert beauty, art, food, and airplanes.
When to visit Tucson
The offseason is the best time to visit Tucson since the weather is mildest in February-March and September-November.
Winter in Tucson is mild compared to most of the United States but evenings temperatures can occasionally drop below freezing.
Tucson is near Mexico and summer temperatures hover in the high 90s. Summer is also the rainy season and this is when the desert cactus bloom. However, unless you are visiting specifically for the cactus bloom, summer is not the best time to visit due to the hot days.
How much time do I need in Tucson
Just like most destinations, you could spend weeks exploring every nook and cranny and trying all of the highly rated restaurants in Tucson.
I would recommend a minimum of two days if you want to visit Saguaro National Park while in Tucson. Saguaro National Park deserves a minimum of a half day but would be best experienced in a full day or two if you have it.
How to get around Tucson
If you only have 48 hours in Tucson and don’t want to figure out the public transportation or pay for Ubers, a car is essential to explore the area. An Uber from downtown to Saguaro National Park or Pima Air and Space Museum, would be prohibitively expensive.
Free camping near Tucson
There are a few options for free camping around Tucson. We used Campendium to find Pump Station Road BLM which offers free 14-day camping within a half-hour of the city.
We parked Pippi among the cacti and enjoyed watching the gliders from the nearby Tucson Soaring Club in the skies above during our stay.
What to do in Tucson in 48 hours
There is so much to do in Tucson but if you only have a weekend, I would prioritize
Saguaro National Park
Street Art Stroll
Sonoran hot dogs
If you have more than 48 hours in Tucson, I would recommend spending the extra time at a museum or mountain biking at the Tucson Mountain Park.
Saguaro National Park: What is there to do in Tucson
Tucson is located in the Sonoran desert, which is home to many species of cacti.
Saguaro National Park offers a great opportunity to experience the giant cactus that is universally associated with Arizona, the saguaro. To learn the difference between the two national park districts and how to spend your time in the park, check out our Saguaro blog post.
If you only have half a day, I would recommend the Rincon Mountains East district of Saguaro. The East district’s scenic loop is paved and there are several short hikes for those who don’t have multiple days to explore the park.
Street Art Stroll: What is there to do in Tucson
I didn’t know before visiting but Tucson is covered in graffiti. Not the ugly tagging type of graffiti spotted on train cars. Beautiful works of art are sprinkled all over downtown Tucson. I recommend spending an afternoon taking a street art stroll.
What is mural art?
A mural is a piece of art applied or painted onto a wall, ceiling or other permanent surface. All of the murals we saw in downtown Tucson were painted on exterior walls of buildings. The subjects varied from the traditional “Greetings from” postcard, nature scenes, animals, portraits, patterns and brightly colored cultural themes.
How many murals are in Tucson?
The City of Tucson promotes 25 murals in downtown however we found many awesome works of art that were not listed on their mural map. It appears the city residents have embraced the program and commissioned their own works of art.
Why does Tucson have so many murals downtown?
The City of Tucson created the Arts Brigade Downtown Project with several social and economic goals. They don’t identify tourism as a project goal however the murals definitely attract tourists. We noticed several others walking the same paths and taking mural photos. A couple of helpful locals gave us unsolicited tips and tricks to get the best angles for our photos.
Who paid for all of the murals in Tucson?
The City of Tucson created the program with sponsorship from local businesses and individuals. The nearby Indian reservation, the Tohono O’odham Nation, also awarded the city a grant to encourage local art.
Why did the City pay for street art?
Beautiful professional pieces of art deter tagging or the nuisance graffiti often found in urban areas.
The unspoken honor code between graffiti artists is you can paint over someone else’s work if you can do a better job. After seeing some of the magnificent pieces of work, I suspect they will be there for many years to come.
Areas targeted for murals were blighted downtown streets needing beautification. I can attest this goal was achieved. Beauty was oozing from these otherwise industrial brick buildings.
One of the key goals of the project was to showcase local artists. Commissions were awarded to locals whose designs exemplified the culture of the city. I loved the southwest and Native American themes in the murals we saw.
How do I find the murals in Tucson?
The City created an interactive mural map that can be found here. We found an electric car charger in the Historic 4th Avenue District, so we parked and used the map to stroll around discovering murals while our car charged.
What must you eat in Tucson?
Tucson was the first American city to earn the UNESCO “City of Gastronomy” designation in 2015. We didn’t really get the full gastronomy experience but I felt like we experienced Tucson as a local.
Before visiting, a friend told us to try a Sonoran dog while in Tucson. I had never heard of one and asked her what it was. She didn’t provide much of an explanation other than it’s a hot dog and they are really good in Tucson.
I will preface this segment by telling you that hot dogs are my favorite guilty pleasure. Some people love tacos or pizza. I LOVE hot dogs especially with lots of tasty toppings. The messier the better.
After trying the city’s two top rated Sonoran dog restaurants, I agree you must eat a Sonoran hot dog while in Tucson.
What is a Sonoran hot dog?
In the late 1980s, the Sonoran hot dog was created in Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora. It is a grilled bacon wrapped wiener served in a soft bolillo style bun and topped with onions, pinto beans, diced tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard and jalapeno salsa.
Where should I go in Tucson for a Sonoran hot dog?
In a town full of Mexican restaurants most serve a version of the Sonoran dog. However, a few earned their fame thru their Sonoran dog and those are the ones we chose to try. We tried Sonoran hot dogs at both BK Carne Asada and El Guero Canelo. Both were featured in Food Networks top rated restaurants in Tucson.
El Guero Canelo: Sonoran hot dog in Tucson
El Guero Canelo started as a food truck and has grown into several locations around Tucson. The location we visited used the original food trailer as their drive up window to place orders. It was really cute. The girl working the window was really kind and helped us navigate our first Sonoran dog.
We each got a dog and also ordered a caramelo to share. We’d never heard of a caramelo before visiting but it’s Tucson’s take on a quesadilla. It is meat and cheese grilled between two tortillas. The girl taking our order recommended the carne asada and it was spectacular.
I fell in love with my first Sonoran dog. It was a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with all kinds of delicious toppings. Sign me up.
BK Tacos: Sonoran hot dog in Tucson
Since we were in Tucson for ten days, I didn’t feel too guilty about having a second Sonoran dog. We had to try El Guero Canelo’s top competitor, BK Carne Asda aka BK Tacos.
We had a different experience at BK Carne Asada because we chose to eat on their patio on a sunny afternoon.
To make a fair comparison we ordered a Sonoran hot dog and carne asada caramelo but we also ordered a Choridogo and a Torito. Choridogo is a BK specialty that is a Sonoran hot dog topped with chorizo.
A Torito is another house specialty; it is a grilled spicy yellow pepper filled with cheese and wrapped in ham and bacon.
The choridogo and torito were the highlights of our meal at BK. The choridogo was super messy and wonderful. The torito reminded us of grilled bacon wrapped jalapenos which are a favorite snack.
The regular Sonoran hot dog was also good but they included raw and grilled onions while El Guero Canelo only had grilled onions which I preferred. The caramelo at BK seemed to be smaller and contained less meat so we preferred their competitors caramelo.
In summary, I loved the Sonoran dog at both places and would definitely include a Sonoran dog in any trip to Tucson.
Tucson has so many craft breweries, we had no chance of visiting even half of them so we chose breweries near or en-route to other destinations. We tried both 1912 Brewing Company and Crooked Tooth Brewing Company. Both are worthy of a visit if you enjoy local craft beer.
1912 Brewing Company
On our way home from sightseeing, we stopped on the north side of Tucson at 1912 Brewing Company for an afternoon refreshment. They are located in an industrial office complex. But they do set up an outdoor seating area in the parking lot once the neighboring offices close for the day.
They specialized in sours and I enjoyed a taster of their wheat beer, the lemon meringue pie gose and the Strawberry and Raspberry Raspado Donut, a collaboration between 1912 and Donut Bar Tucson. All were tasty and I decided to take home a couple cans of their other sour offerings including the Peach Pie Gose.
Kevin doesn’t care for sours so he tried both of their red ales, Tu Weno and Weapons Check. He liked Weapons Check so much that he bought a four pack to take home.
1912 had a food truck serving tacos during our visit but we decided to skip them and eat dinner at home.
Crooked Tooth Brewing Company
While touring downtown, we found many of the breweries were closed either due to COVID or just limited hours of operation that didn’t align with our timing. We decided to try Crooked Tooth Brewing Company since it was only a few blocks from our parking spot. It was a happy accident.
Again Crooked Tooth offered several sours and I was drawn towards that section of the menu. During our visit they were offering $1 off pints for happy hour so I skipped the tasters and committed to a pint of the Mango Pineapple sour. It was tasty and I was torn between ordering a second pint of the same or trying something new. For my second pint, I had the Tamarindo Sour, a brown sour.
The Tamarindo Sour was a standout beer that I will remember for a while. It was a bit sour but still sweet and a little malty. I’ve never had tamarind so I was a little worried it would be too sour. The bartender recommended a Tajin rim and it was wonderful.
What is Tajin?
Tajin is a Mexican spice blend of dehydrated lime, salt and a blend of chili peppers. I was bummed to find they didn’t offer to-go cans of the Tamarindo Sour because I would have definitely bought several.
Again, Kevin avoided the sours section of the menu and tried Mama Quilla Moon 2021, a wee heavy Scott ale and the Rebuild the Guild, a hazy IPA. Both were tasty choices. Doesn’t everyone taste their partners beers?
We thought the marijuana dispensary across the street was interesting looking so we googled it. In it’s former life it was a Baptist church and the local residents fought the dispensary moving in. It was doing a steady business the afternoon we visited Crooked Tooth.
Rebuild the Guild, the hazy IPA, was super fruity with a touch of vanilla and a lot less hops that I expect from an IPA. It was an approachable IPA. Also, the proceeds from the sale went to the Arizona brewers guild, so we bought a four pack to take home. It’s for charity, right?
If you have more than 48 hours in Tucson
If you have more than 48 hours in Tucson, I would recommend a hiking or biking the trails at Tucson Mountain Park or visiting a local museum.
We spent a full day at the Pima Air and Space Museum and feel like most visitors would enjoy a visit. Check out our upcoming blog to learn more about the museum.
We didn’t visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum but did see it during our time at Saguaro West National Park. The popular museum is a combination science museum and zoo.
Tucson Mountain Park
Tucson Mountain Park is located adjacent to Saguaro National Park West district. The 20,000 acre county park contains 62-miles of multi-use trails. We chose to ride our bikes on the scenic trails however we saw many hikers using the same trails.
We use the free app, MTB Project, to find interesting trails and navigate during our rides. It uses the phones GPS and doesn’t require a cellular signal.
I chose to ride the Chaparral trail to the Ironwood Loop which was a 10-mile ride from our chosen parking place. The trail is rated easy and is a good option for beginners.
Kevin combined a few more advanced trails and we split up. This was my first full solo mountain bike ride. I was overly cautious to avoid the cactus thorns in the trail since Kevin carries our emergency tire pump on his bike. Thankfully, I managed the whole ride without any issues. It was a great confidence builder.
Tucson Mountain Park is definitely worth a visit if you have more than 48 hours in Tucson and want to get in a good bike workout.
Tucson in 48 hours Wrap Up
Surrounded by the beauty of the Sonoran desert, Tucson is a picturesque place to spend 48 hours. Saguaro National Park and the local Tucson Mountain Park offer great hiking and biking opportunities near the city. If those aren’t enough reasons to plan a weekend visit to Tucson, the city is full of amazing art, food, and beer.