Although Arizona’s nickname is The Grand Canyon State, my recommended itinerary for a first-timer’s seven days in the state involve cities south of the Grand Canyon. Because the natural wonder deserves its own separate itinerary, it’s best to focus on everything else Arizona has to offer this time around.
Day 1: Arrive and Drive
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) is your best bet for available flights, rental cars, and ease of travel. In a relatively central location, Phoenix is a great starting and ending point for traveling around the state. Rent a roundtrip rental car and head 1.5 hours south to Tucson, where I recommend booking accommodations in the downtown area for access to excellent restaurants and local shopping. Grab your first meal in Arizona at CRUDA Mariscos & Oyster Bar and order the customer favorite “Arroz Marinero,” or seafood rice, alongside fresh oysters to kickstart your week.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park
One of Tucson’s biggest tourist draws is its close proximity to Saguaro National Park, most notable for its picturesque miles of desert filled with saguaro cacti – the most iconic, postcard-worthy cactus one could imagine. Saguaro National Park is easily accessible by vehicle, but also includes numerous hiking trails leading to stunning views, petroglyphs, and desert wildlife. It is not recommended to spend a lot of time outdoors in the park in the heat of summer, unless you enjoy average high temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the months of June and July. Fall and spring lend milder weather to the climate, making shoulder season travel [the period between the most popular and least popular seasons] more appealing for exploring desert terrain.
Day 3: Explore Tucson
While Tucson is smaller than Phoenix, it still has a lot to offer tourists. One of the most visited tourist sites in Tucson is Mission San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission built in 1797. With architecture similar to that found in Spain’s Andalusia region, touring the premises of the Mission transports travelers to Spain for the day. Practicing Catholics can attend mass at Mission San Xavier del Bac, while those wishing to solely sightsee can wander the property’s mausoleum, museum, and gift shop during the day. To read more about Mission San Xavier del Bac, visit the website at sanxaviermission.org.
Day 4: Old Town Scottsdale
Check out of your Tucson hotel room and head north to Scottsdale, sitting just east of Phoenix. Old Town Scottsdale is packed with opportunities for wine tastings within walking distance to each other. Spend the afternoon sauntering from Salvatore Vineyards Tasting Room to Aridus Wine Company Tasting Room, along with Carlson Creek Vineyard Tasting Room, and enjoy local shopping in between stops. After dinner, head to your downtown Phoenix hotel to check in for the remainder of your stay.
Day 5: Explore Phoenix and Tempe
Phoenix is much larger than Tucson and has much more to offer, including its iconic Desert Botanical Garden. Stroll one of the Garden’s many loops trails to view a wide range of mountain, cacti, desert, and wildlife views. Nearby college town Tempe sits alongside the Salt River and is home to Arizona State University. Walk alongside the river, catch a sporting event at ASU, and grab a beer at college students’ favorite local haunts before heading back to Phoenix for the evening.
Day 6: Camelback Mountain
On your last day in Arizona, hike one of Phoenix’s most well-known sites for one of the best views of the city tourists can find. The peak of Camelback Mountain resembles an actual camel with an elevation of 2,704 feet. Access Camelback Mountain via the Echo Canyon and Cholla trailheads and be prepared to sweat in order to see sweeping views of Phoenix and beyond. Due to its challenging nature, this trail will work up a major appetite for dinner, which should be had at none other than Centrico in the historic San Carlos Hotel. Dine on enchiladas and tacos and wash them down with none other than a prickly pear margarita to celebrate the surrounding Sonoran Desert.
Day 7: Depart Phoenix
Return your rental car to PHX without rushing to grab breakfast or lunch before heading to the airport that morning. PHX is well-stocked with eateries, so food options will be anything but scarce prior to boarding your flight home. On your next trip to Arizona, be prepared to head to the northern half of the state to see Sedona, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon.