Tucson: The Southwest's Best Affordable Escape

Arizona's second city seduces with stunning scenery, reasonably priced resorts, and famed cuisine.

Saguaro National Park.

Ian Shive/Tandem Stock

A sunset drive over Gates Pass outside Arizona's Saguaro National Park, a half hour west of downtown Tucson, delivers momentary goose bumps. In the vast valley before you, lanky green cacti stand silhouetted against purple-red mountains, a visual rock opera. Hit it just right, and golden light pierces the cactus spines, electrifying their outlines.

Travelers and residents wax rhapsodic about Tucson's Sonoran Desert beauty. But the southern Arizona metropolis isn't just another pretty place. Beyond the sunny surface you'll find rich layers of history, top-notch art, and a food scene so hot that Unesco crowned Tucson the first City of Gastronomy in the United States. These charms, combined with a wealth of free attractions and reasonably priced hotels, make Tucson the Southwest's best affordable escape.

Mountains corral the city of 530,000, with the Santa Catalinas in the north, Rincons in the east, and the Tucsons in the west. Meanwhile, the two halves of Saguaro National Park hug the city's eastern and western edges. Here, scenic splendor comes cheap: $20 buys you a seven-day pass to explore more than 91,000 acres of wildland, where forests of succulents spring from the sand.

For serious saguaro sightings, drive Scenic Bajada Loop in the park's western district, then wander the short Signal Hill Trail, where petroglyphs of deer and decorative spirals swirl across gray and rose-hued sandstone. This art, etched centuries ago by the Hohokam people, only hints at Tucson's history. Hunter-gatherers first settled here circa 10,000 B.C. Some 8,000 years later, ancient farmers sowed the soil with corn and beans—giving Tucson a phenomenal 4,000 years of agricultural history.

For a free lesson on Tucson's past, head south of the city, where Mission San Xavier del Bac stands solitary and white as a lone cloud. In 1692, the European missionary Padre Eusebio Kino came here to convert the Hohokam's successors, the Tohono O'odham. The padre founded what would later become a stunning Spanish colonial chapel, complete with balconies, bell towers, and an ornate facade. Paul Schwartzbaum, a Guggenheim Museum conservationist who restored the mission and the Vatican, called it "the Sistine Chapel of North America." On a free guided tour, marvel at the intricate statuary and brilliantly colored frescoes painted by Spanish and O'odham artists.

DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.

Jill Richards

Paintings adorn a different setting in the Catalina foothills north of town, at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. Ted DeGrazia—an Arizona-born artist who won accolades for his romantic depictions of American Indians and cowboys—built the gallery using natural materials and mud scooped from the foothills, so his portraits "would feel good inside." For $8, you can gaze at colorful canvases on earth-scented adobe walls, and walk across floors embedded with dried slices of cholla cactus.

Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.

Courtesy Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort

A short drive farther into the foothills brings you to Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort. What began as a 1920s boarding school for silver-spoon girls turned into a hideaway for silver-screen stars: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trysted in the Casita Grande suite. Today, resort guests can sleep like the stars for $350 per night. To score similar seclusion at $200 per night, head up the road to historic charmer Westward Look. Wherever you sleep, you can visit Hacienda del Sol to sip $6 happy hour margaritas as the sun tints the mauve mountains fuchsia, like ripening prickly pear fruit.

Locals have a saying: When the mountains turn pink, it's time to drink. Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails obliges with $5.50 happy hour highballs (with, say, tequila, mescal, and house-made honey syrup) as well as a $5 gourmet take on the Sonoran hot dog from James Beard Award–winning chef Janos Wilder. Lounge on the patio and soak in the spirit of downtown Tucson: urban buzz beneath a pulse soothing expanse of pastel sky.

Equally striking tableaux await a few miles away at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography. Stroll the free, nationally renowned museum, and the images inside will transport you to such distant locales as New York and Mexico City. In February, the center will celebrate the birthday of its cofounder, Ansel Adams, with a showcase of his photographs. The University of Arizona Museum of Art ($8) across the street made headlines last summer when it recovered a Willem de Kooning painting that had been stolen from its gallery in 1985. Woman-Ochre—worth an estimated $100 million—is now being conserved. Meanwhile, you can see a Georgia O'Keeffe, a 15th-century Spanish altarpiece, and thought-provoking works focused on the borderlands.

5 Points Market & Restaurant.

Jill Richards

Despite its marquee cultural fare, Tucson remains laid-back and slow paced. "We live in a large city that feels like a small town," says Brian Haskins, who moved here with his partner, Jasper Ludwig, for the sunshine and Mexican food. The couple's 5 Points Market & Restaurant, at the border of the Armory Park and Barrio Viejo neighborhoods, draws diners with farm-to-fork dishes and a cozy front porch. Says Ludwig, "It's a community gathering place." Join regulars catching the $5 early-bird special or, for $11, indulge in the vibrant flavors of huevos rancheros or butternut squash breakfast salad.

Hand-woven huipiles at La Cabaña.

Jill Richards

Another gathering spot is Mercado San Agustin, a red tile–roofed, open-air shopping center on Tucson's west side. On Thursdays, the central courtyard becomes a farmers' market, and the scents of roasted chile peppers and tamales fill the air. If the aromas make you hungry, you can also pick up tacos at Seis Kitchen. In the arcade, Mast sells locally inspired gifts, such as DeGrazia–themed coloring books, while La Cabaña tempts with antiques from around the globe. Aesthetes flock to San Agustin Trading Co., where hand-stitched moccasins line the walls. It's not what you would see at the average market, but then again, Tucson isn't your average city.

Hamilton Distillers’ Whiskey Del Bac.

Jill Richards

"Tucson has soul," says Stephen Paul, founder of Hamilton Distillers, northwest of downtown. "There's so much depth here." The same might be said of Paul's Whiskey Del Bac, which Esquire deemed a top American whiskey. On one of the distillery's free bottling days, you can help fill, cork, and label whiskey, then eat lunch, try a sample, and take a bottle home. Or join a geekily detailed Saturday tour ($20) to learn how the distillery ages mesquite-smoked and classic single-malt whiskeys in mini barrels, giving spirits the smooth spice of a well-aged Scotch in just 12 months. It's kind of like Tucson, where the close-knit community creates an intoxicating blend of scenery and soul.

Sleep and Save

Room prices at resorts drop as you get closer to the center of town. For instance, Lodge on the Desert offers boutique charm for around $169 a night.