Tucson, Arizona is a beautiful city located an hour north of border the state shares with Sonora, Mexico, situated in a valley surrounded by breathtaking mountains on all sides. We spent a week there during monsoon season this year to celebrate my sister’s graduation from nursing school, and we spent our time exploring the beautiful outdoors, finding some of the best vegan/vegetarian food we’ve ever eaten, and hiding from the heat in beautiful places! Special thanks to my niece and good friend Kashja for showing us around her city! Our trip wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without your help!
When to Visit
Summer begins in May in Arizona and lasts well into September/early October. We visited Tucson (early August) during monsoon season (mid-June to late September) this year, and we saw some absolutely incredible views, sunsets, and sunrises. I wish we could have gone later in the year when it was cooler and less busy, but it was still enjoyable and I’m glad we saw the monsoons!
Pros: Cheap flights! Our flight to AZ round trip was less than $100 per person, including a check bag!
The Monsoons cause incredible rainbows (we saw like 8 at once!), and skies were painted in the most brilliant colors of reds, oranges, purples, and blues; I’d never seen anything like it.
I loved how exciting the rains were, I really enjoyed it! It rained about every other day we were there and the rains were always less than hour or two, so it wasn’t a very big deal honestly, plus it made the temperatures drop quickly.
By Climbing mountains we were able to find higher elevations ergo lower temperatures, and exploring caves was also another great way to beat the heat, so the high temps weren’t an issue for us.
Cons: The temperatures are highest during the summer, and oddly enough in August just about everything was booked up in Arizona, which we thought was really strange considering how hot it was (it was between 110-120 degrees F daily). Flooding is frequent and can be very dangerous. Monsoons come quickly and often without warning causing flash floods, and bringing along lightning (lightning hit a tree near where we staying which caused it to collapse onto a building, tearing down an entire wall, it was intense) and high winds up to 100 mph. We were caught in a “mild” monsoon walking downtown in Tucson and the streets flooded up over our ankles and the wind made it really difficult to walk in. Thankfully we found a building to pop into to take refuge and dry off! Dehydration is also a real threat to anyone hiking or exploring the desert or parks and several people had died in the weeks before we arrived because they didn’t bring enough water on their day long hikes.
Fall and winter are busier in Arizona because it is cooler and therefore easier to go outside. Contrary to popular belief, Arizona does have more than one season, and it is not uncommon for it to snow in the valley. Spring (Feb-May) is a great time to visit before the monsoon rains arrive, and after the temperature levels out.
Regardless of when you visit, there are endless beautiful and exciting things to do in the area!
What to Do in Tucson
Tucson is a massive city that fills an entire valley and is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains. There is something from everyone here from nightlife and some of the best food in the world to performances, concerts, plays, all things outdoors, and so much more. Google just about anything followed by “Tucson” and you’re likely to find it! This guide focuses on what we did during our week here during monsoon season, and is not a comprehensive list of everything there is to do, however I highly recommend everything listed below because it was so much fun!
Explore Tohono Chul Park & Botanical Gardens: I loved this gorgeous botanical garden and park. Not only do they assist in building up the native landscape by growing starters for many native plants that are later transplanted all around the city, but they also offer educational tours and independent tours of the Sonoran Desert landscapes found inside the park. We saw so many different plants and animals, my only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend there!
Explore Caves: During our visit, Robin and I explored a couple really awesome caves out in the desert, which was such a great way to escape the high temperatures. Inside the caves, it’s typically a steady 70 degrees, which was 50 degrees cooler than the ambient air temperature outside! Aside from being cool and comfortable, the caves we visited like Colossal Cave had really interesting history and situated in beautiful landscapes. Colossal Cave was the site of a bandit hideout, and where bank robbers fled from police at one point. It’s said that their treasure is still hidden inside the caves somewhere (which I personally think is possible, because the caves are huge and winding, with endless hiding places for treasure.
Saguaro National Park: We visited the national park filled with Saguaro Cacti during the day and it was absolutely breath taking. We weren’t able to safely venture out too far with the limited equipment we have, but the park does offer guided tours and even moonlit walks for adventurous individuals who want to see the park lit up at night. I love nature, and everything the park rangers of the NPS do for our natural sites, so I always make a point to visit national parks if I’m nearby. If you like being outdoors or are looking for a non-touristy spot to photograph, this is definitely a great place to visit!
Climb/ Drive-Up Mt. Lemmon: We took about an hour and a half drive (making multiple stops along the way) up Mt. Lemmon to see the view from above and visit Summerhaven, a city at the top of the mountain filled with people escaping the heat of Tucson (it’s about 30-40 degrees cooler at the top of the mountain!). There are large expanses of saguaros, waterfalls, rivers, and forests (the only forest with deciduous trees in the area), plus lots of rocky outcrops and climbing spots, in addition to bike paths and camp sites along the way. We had a ton of fun driving and stopping to explore the areas along the way, plus Mt. Lemmon is the perfect place for a picnic!
Visit San Xavier del Bac historic church – it’s beautiful!
Check out University of Arizona’s Campus! We were here for my sister’s graduation, and the campus was not only gorgeous, but also full of delightful stores, cafes and coffee shops, and unique gift shops. It reminded me a lot of my alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor!
Thrift Shop! There are so many awesome thrift shops in Tucson ( I don’t even remember all of the ones we stopped at in town, but every one we went to was cool in its own unique way, and had tons of stuff I would have loved to buy if my suitcase wasn’t already so full!). When you pass by a thrift shop, it’s worth while to stop! I found so many designer items by Dior, Ted Baker, and even Ferragamo and Lilly Pulitzer in Tucson’s thrift shops I couldn’t believe it!
Art Galleries: Art is one of my favorite things about visiting any city, because each city has its own unique style of art and graffiti, but Tucson’s art scene was really beautiful and unique because it was surprisingly bright and colorful for a desert region, and it tied it a lot of native and indigenous culture that made it even more unique and important. I loved the Gallery West Native American Art Gallery, because some of my ancestors are from this region and it was really interesting to see their history and culture come alive through present day artists.
Where to Eat in Tucson
Prep & Pastry is a delightful little spot for breakfast, brunch, or lunch, and they have a few locations around town. The prices are very reasonable, the drinks are great, and the food is even better! They have lots of vegan and vegetarian options and the staff are very friendly!
Welcome Diner is a quiet, out of the way diner with the best burritos and jackfruit sandwiches I’ve ever had, and let me tell you, I’ve eaten lots of both! They also had lots of vegetarian and vegan options!
In ‘n Out Secret Menu is a vegetarian’s fast food best friend. We probably had their vegetarian burger 3 times during the week we were there, and I miss it all the time #tragic. In ‘n Outs are located all over Arizona!
Pico de Gallo is a hole in the wall Mexican joint that had food so good I almost fainted (that may have been the heat stroke getting to me, but it is what it is and I regret nothing!). They were even featured on Food Network!
El Charro Cafe was delicious, inexpensive, and conveniently located! Their staff was super friendly and answered our questions, plus gave us recommendations on where to hang out when the sun went down.
Speaking of Cafes, Cafe Poca Cosa is one of the cutest little cafes I’ve ever been too, and their menu is updated twice a day, so there’s always something new to try and enjoy!
Drinks at Congress Hotel were the perfect way to celebrate the end of our wonderful stay in Tucson. Their food is incredible too (I recommend the Beyond Burger and Sonoran Sopes if you’re vegetarian like we are!)
Things to Be Aware Of
- Like any large city, always be aware of your surroundings, keep an eye on your belongings and trust your instincts. We never once felt unsafe here, but it’s important to always be vigilant when you’re traveling.
- During monsoon season, stay out of low lying areas such as washes, tunnels, etc. as the heavy rains can cause devastating flash floods that have, sadly, already claimed lives this year. Do not drive over flooded roads as they may damage your vehicle. Instead, take an alternate route.
- Be sure to drink lots of water, apply sunscreen liberally, and wear protective clothing like long sleeves and hats as the heat and strong sun can cause dehydration and sunburns. Aim for 8-12 glasses of water per day, minimum. Eating juicy fruits like mangos, watermelon, grapes, etc. can help you stay hydrated too! Pop, coffee, and alcohol make you dehydrated, so try to avoid them.
- Arizona is home to many creatures that aren’t friendly towards humans when bothered, such as scorpions, rattle snakes, coral snakes (red, cream and brown striped), brown recluse spiders, havalinas (small pig like animals with mean temperaments), Africanized “Killer” bees, Gila monsters (lots of bacteria in their mouths which can cause infections), and Sonoran desert toads (toxic if handled) all pose a threat to humans, however during our week stay and even after looking for some of them (I studied Earth & Environmental science and I was hoping to get some exciting photos, sue me haha), I didn’t see any of these things, but you should definitely be aware of what they look like, where they live, etc. It’s best to stay away from all wildlife, and if you’re ever stung or bitten by anything, always err on the side of caution and seek medical assistance ASAP.
Thanks for reading!
You can find more of my travel guides for North America and Europe here!