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Tucson

Photo by Rob Rachowiecki

Tucson Itineraries

Tucson for Kids

Tucson: a Hiker’s Nirvana

Tucson’s Essential Mexican Food

Giant cacti, desert and mountain scenery, unique history, sunshine galore, and world-class food

Tucson is a unique Southwestern desert town where a patron of the opera can wear a Stetson hat and cowboy boots and not feel out of place sitting next to a fashionista decked out in cutting-edge evening wear.  “The Old Pueblo”, as locals call it, is nothing if not diverse. Its history starts with Indian tribal lands, continues as a Spanish colonial outpost, then a Mexican rural community, next a wild western American territorial settlement, and finally the second largest town in the State of Arizona. Its population is over 500,000 and the greater  metropolitan area has a million folks living in it.

The landscapes surrounding Tucson are equally as diverse.  Deserts studded with iconic 50-foot-high saguaro cacti, cut by riverine canyons, and encircled by pine-forested mountain ranges invite exciting explorations. The east and west units of the Saguaro National Park bookend the town, and provide access to picturesque drives and many hiking trails. Five mountain ranges, two reaching elevations over 9,000 feet, surround Tucson ensuring that even in summer desert heat scenic outdoor adventures can be had year-round.

Tucson is just an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border and has a rich Hispanic heritage; ear-splitting mariachi concerts and authentically traditional Mexican food abound. No visit to Tucson is complete without sampling a Sonoran hot dog, or a locally-invented chimichanga, or one of dozens of kinds of tacos, both traditional and newly created.

But it’s not just about tacos. In 2015, UNESCO named Tucson a World City of Gastronomy – the first city in the United States to be accorded that honor. Local agriculture and farmers markets, seed preservation, and healthful eating are important components of this honor, and Tucson’s incredible variety of ethnic restaurants supports this gastronomic recognition.

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, founded in 1885 and the state’s first university. With over 40,000 students, it uplifts a culture of arts, science and sports and drives a healthy nightlife.  Over a dozen theatrical groups regularly put on shows ranging from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals to cutting-edge world premier plays. Divey blues bars, casinos, art galleries, symphony concerts, ethnic eateries, and upscale international restaurants provide entertainment for all budgets and interests.

A world-renowned natural history museum, a vital astronomical observatory, a planetarium, the world’s largest repository of retired military aircraft, and a zoo featuring a pair of black jaguars are just some of the attractions for scientifically-inclined locals and visitors.

Tucson lacks a major professional sport team but locals avidly support the University of Arizona Wildcats, especially the men’s basketball team which is consistently ranked among the top 25 in the country and for which tickets at the over 14,000-seat McKale are often at a premium.  Football tickets at the 56,000-seat Arizona Stadium are usually more readily available. Baseball and softball teams compete on a championship level.

The Old Pueblo has a glorious climate with sun shining for all or part of 350 days of the year.  Outdoor activities such as bicycling, swimming, walking or hiking are popular activities which can be enjoyed year-round. Summers are hot, with frequent temperatures over 100 F (38C), but, as locals love to say, “It’s a dry heat.”

When To Go

Tucson is a year-round destination with mild winters and hot summers (see Weather and Climate).  The one time of year best avoided is during the famous annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in February, because hotel rooms are at a premium. Of course, if you are interested in gems, minerals, stones, and fossils, then this is the best time to be here – but book hotel rooms as early as possible.

How Much Time To Spend

While “snowbirds” – visitors from cold northern states escaping winter – may spend several months in vacation rentals or RV parks, more casual travelers will find that three to five nights will give a good overview of Tucson. If you add on day trips beyond the town limits, you can easily stretch this to a week or more.

High and Low Season

Tucson’s peak season is the winter, when “snowbirds” from snow-swept states flock to the mild weather. January to March are the busiest and priciest, with February being especially challenging for reasonably-priced last-minute accommodation.  The hot months of May to September see fewest visitors and best prices for hotels.  Other months are shoulder season and combine reasonable costs with warm but not baking weather.

Weather and Climate

With 350 annual sunny days, the weather is bright and hot. Tucson ranks 2nd in the world for skin cancer rates (Queensland in OZ is number one) so do make sure you go out wearing sun block, hat, and dark glasses to go with the shorts and T-shirt. Tucson is a casual town!

June and July average highs of 100F (38C), although it can max out over the century mark on any day from April to October. But… it’s a dry heat; the low humidity allows nights to become 25F (14C) cooler. So in summer Tucsonans play tennis and jog at dawn, when it’s pleasant. Avoid exertion in the early afternoon when it is the hottest – on June 15, 2016, four hikers died of heat exhaustion in three separate incidents when temps skyrocketed to a record-shattering 115F (46C). You should drink a quart of water every hour when exerting yourself in hot, dry weather.

April, May, and June see almost no rain; rivers become dry, sandy washes. Heavy monsoon rains drench the desert from mid-July to September, and sandy washes can become raging torrents within minutes. Every year, clueless drivers are rescued from cars stuck or carried away in floods, so don’t cross a road with flash flood warning signs.

Winter temperatures are mild, with rare freezes that last only a few hours and occasional sprinklings of snow. The right combination of rains and temperatures can give rise to splendid spring blooms of desert flowers.

The mountains north of Tucson soar to over 9000 feet above sea level, and can be reached in an hour’s drive. They offer cool respite in the summer, and skiing at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley in winter.

Events and Holidays

Local Events

February
Tucson Gem & Mineral Show
Tubac Arts & Crafts Fair
Tucson Rodeo
March
Tucson Festival of Books
Fourth Avenue Spring Street Fair
April
Mariachi Conference
May
Tucson Folk Festival
Tucson Pops
Wyatt Earp Days (Tombstone)
August
Tucson’s Birthday Aug 20, 1775
September
Greek Festival
Tucson Pops
October
Anza Days (Tubac & Tumacacori)
Tucson Meet Yourself
Helldorado Days (Tombstone)
November
All Souls Procession
El Tour de Tucson
December
Winterhaven Festival of Lights
Fourth Avenue Winter Street Fair

National Holidays

January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday):  Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday):  Presidents Day
May (last Monday):  Memorial Day
July (4th):  Independence Day
September (first Monday):  Labor Day
October (second Monday):  Columbus Day
(not the same as Native American Day, which is only celebrated officially in two states, on September 25th)
November (11th):  Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday):  Thanksgiving Day
December (25th):  Christmas

Time Zone

Tucson is on Arizona time, which does not observe daylight savings time with the exception of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona which does observe daylight savings time. During the summer, Tucson is the same as Pacific Daylight Time and during the winter it is the same as Mountain Standard Time.

Here is the current time in Tucson.

Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’

What To Pack and Wear

The Old Pueblo is a casual town, and shorts, sandals, and t-shirt work well for almost everything from May to October.  A very light sweater or jacket may prove useful even in summer for late evenings and an umbrella will help keep you dry in the rainy months. In winter, dress in a few light layers. Ties are rarely worn and are not needed in even the most exclusive restaurants where a nice dress or a collared shirt, jacket and slacks will suffice.  It is important to have sun protection – bring or buy sun block, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun glasses.

What it Costs

Costs in Tucson and the surrounding area are generally moderate compared to major metropolises such as San Francisco and Manhattan. The high season is January – March.

Car Rental: This varies from $200 to $300 per week for an economy car through a small SUV. Daily rates are higher per day than weekly rates.

Accommodation: Camping is available at Catalina State Park and on Mount Lemmon. Tucson’s best hostel is the Roadrunner, with dorm accommodation from $22 per person. Budget “mom and pop” motels and economy-priced chains such as Motel 6, Days Inn, Super 8, America’s Best Value Inn, Econo Lodge, and others provide basic shelter in the $40 – $60 per night range for a double room. Although some are shabby, many have a swimming pool, which is a big plus in Tucson’s summer, and some offer a microwave and mini-fridge to defray restaurant bills. There are plenty of Air BnB opportunities.

Three-star chains such as Best Western, La Quinta, and Radisson Suites have rooms in the $70 – $110 range. Bed and Breakfasts and self-catering apartments tend to $100 to $180 per night. Resorts and upscale hotels are mostly $120 – $220, with a very small number of places breaking the $300 a night price level.

Eating: Ethnic restaurants, especially the ubiquitous Mexican places, are found throughout the city and offer inexpensive meals – a couple choosing judiciously from a menu can eat well for $30 including tax and tip, as long as they stick to drinking the ice water which is served in every restaurant.

Tucson has long been known as a cowboy town, and there are a slew of steak houses in the Old Pueblo.  El Corral, known for its prime rib, is one of the most reasonably priced, where you can get a main course for around $20. You can pay two or three times more for a steak at the upscale Sullivan’s Steak House, and the sides, tax, and tip are extra.  So What It Costs to eat in town is totally up to your budget.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double
$$ => Rooms $100 – $300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Currency Converter

This author’s personal favorite is xe.com

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).

Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.

Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework; check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:

Restaurants

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.

To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.

Hotels

Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.

Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.

At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.

Other Costs

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees

In Tucson, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies from 6.1% to 8.6%, depending on where you are. In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated. Sales tax is not charged on food in grocery stores.

Lodging tax in Tucson is 12.05% plus $2 per night. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.

Other

Some attractions have free or nominal admission on certain days – which tend to be more crowded but are easy on the pocket.
Arizona History Museum – 2 for 1 admission on first Tues of month
National Parks and other Federal sites (National Forests etc) are free several times a year, particularly on veteran holidays
Tucson Children’s Museum – $3 admission on the 30th of each month
Tucson Museum of Art – free 1st Thurs of the month after 5 pm; half-price 1st Sun of month

Several of Tucson’s cultural and music festivals are free. Especially noteworthy are:
All Souls Procession
Fourth Avenue Street Fair
Tucson Festival of Books
Tucson Folk Festival
Tucson Meet Yourself
Tucson Pops
Winterhaven

Travelers visiting US National Parks and other federal public lands such as National Forests, especially if they plan on going to other parts of the United States, should avail themselves of an annual pass which is valid throughout the country for a full year from the date of purchase. The pass costs $80 and will admit the pass holder and occupants of a non-commercial vehicle into over 2000 federal recreation areas.

American citizens and permanent over 62 years of age can obtain a Senior Pass for $10 which is good for the owner’s lifetime and admits the owners and occupants of their vehicle to National Parks and federal recreation areas. In addition, the Senior Pass offers some discounts for amenities – for example camping sites are 50% discounted.

Although passes can be obtained online and by phone, they are most easily obtained by going to a National Park and getting them in person.

Transportation

Getting Around

Tucson is rather a spread out city and cars are the main way to get around. That said, the Sun Tran Bus system is useful in and around the city center, to the airport, and to many suburbs.  Downtown is relatively compact and quite walkable. Tucson has a reputation as a bicycle-friendly town and buses have bicycle racks. There are bike lanes on many roads as well as bike paths along river banks and in parks.  Nevertheless, cyclists do need to ride defensively because unfortunate accidents and occasionally fatalities occur annually.

Transportation Hubs

Tucson International Airport
Phoenix Airport

Background

Recommended Reading

Five-Star Trails: Tucson describes 35 of the area’s most beautiful hikes in detail.

Music

KXCI, 91.3, is a community radio station with eclectic and non-commercial programming provided by mainly volunteer DJs and staff.  They play many local bands as well as shows ranging from blues to bluegrass, acoustic to zydeco.