Tucson does not typically come to mind first as an ideal holiday destination as most of us are accustomed to snowy wintry weather, overcast skies, and traditional trees over the desert plant and mild climate found throughout Southern Arizona. It can be quite difficult to get into the holiday spirit somewhere like Tucson where the skies are endlessly sunny and the weather more conductive to biking or hiking rather than sledding or building a snowman.
Listening to classic carols like Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland just is not the same in a warm, dry, dusty desert climate. Nevertheless, there are numerous festivities & holiday light shows to enjoy throughout the season. Tucson is an underrated city with lots to do all year round, and even more so during the winter season when you combine unparalleled outdoor attractions with seasonal festivities.
On an interesting side note, Tucson has actually experienced a White Christmas on 4 occasions since 1984, with the largest storm bringing 4 inches in 1916 and the most recent snowfall being a mere 2 inches in 1987. While the odds of a White Christmas are really, really slim, they are actually not zero, but rather 4 percent! It would be a pretty magical sight to see some fresh snow covering the cacti covered desert, however, most of the time Tucsonians who love wintry weather will have to settle for watching a snowy holiday classic instead.
While Tucson lacks a traditional winter ambiance, you will still find many of the same traditional holiday activities that you will find in the colder climates. Zoo lights, holiday plays & movies, and Christmas tree lightnings are all part of the lineup just like everywhere else. Additionally, you will find a few unique Southwestern style traditions such as “A Southwest Nutcracker,” Southwestern themed art markets, and even snowfall at the mall.
If you find yourself spending the holiday season in Tucson, here are the top 5 festivities you will definitely want to add to your lineup. And do not forget about all the wonderful outdoor & cultural attractions in the area – check out my list of the best things to do in Tucson.
Winterhaven Festival of Lights
For 68 years, the community of Winterhaven has been putting on a community wide decorating festival unlike any other, making it the biggest and best, as well as longest running, holiday tradition in Tucson. The developer of the residential community came up with the idea in 1949 after seeing a similar display in a Beverly Hills neighborhood. It’s been held each year since, with the exception of 1970 during the energy crisis when residents voted to go dark.
Each house goes all out with decorations, with no house barren. Some of the themes are really unique, with 2017’s event including A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, and even a Stranger Things themed display. You will find everything here – live readings of A Christmas Carol, synchronized shows, screenings of Christmas Vacation, carolers, even a mini musical fountain show like the Bellagio in Vegas. And locals really get into the holiday spirits with festive Christmas decor of all kind – even light up dog collars!
The roads are closed to car traffic every day of the festival, with the exception of the 26th. You have the option of strolling around for free or paying for a tour via a wagon, trolley, or Alpine Pedaler party bike ride. I recommend skipping the overpriced tourist attractions and walking at your own leisure – you will see more and get in a bit of exercise!
While this event is a bit over commercialized with the vendors and trolley tours, it’s definitely one of the most festive & colorful light displays anywhere in Arizona and definitely worth checking out. One thing is for sure – the homeowners definitely put much effort into their displays and there is holiday cheer all around. If you are looking to get into the holiday spirit in Tucson, a visit to Winterhaven is a sure way to do so.
Food bank donation boxes greet you as soon as you enter and the community has raised thousands and thousands of dollars each year. In 2016, $21,000 of food was donated to the Community Food Bank. At Winterhaven, you can feel good attending an event where profits go towards giving back to the community!
Location: Entrances on Ft. Lowell, Tucson, Country Club, and Prince
2018 Dates: December 8-26, 6-10pm
Pricing: Free street parking, Additional fees for wagon and alpine pedaler rides (reservations required)
Marana synchronized musical tree show
Marana is a small suburb just northwest of Tucson. The main holiday event here is a Tree Lighting Ceremony and Holiday festivals which draws 1000’s of crowds on opening day. A 40 foot Christmas tree accompanied by a musical show, live musical entertainment, and 20 tons of real snow really draw in the crowds from all over Tucson.
Fortunately, after opening night, the crowds disappear and you can watch the wonderful choreographed show all to yourself. This is one of the more underrated, under visited Christmas activities to check out, particularly if you would like to avoid the very hefty crowds found at the Reid Park Zoo Lights and Winterhaven events.
The festive show, which is in tune to 5 classic holiday songs, is free to attend and there is a large parking lot. It’s a quiet area without a lot of congestion – a big bonus in the hectic, trafficky Tucson area. The show runs daily 5 to 9pm until New Years Eve. After your visit, treat yourself to a delicious authentic Italian meal at Dominick’s Real Italian – the best Italian restaurant in the Tucson area with the best garlic knots, pizza, and to-die- for toasted ravioli!
Location: 11555 W Civic Center Dr, Marana, AZ 85653
2018 Dates: December 1st through New Years Eve, every hour from 5-9pm
Holiday Classics at the Fox theater
The gorgeous historic Fox Theater, which opened back in 1930, is one of the top places you will want to check out on your Tucson visit, and really the standout of the tiny downtown area. This theater can accommodate many with a 1164 seat capacity. This place is absolutely gorgeous – by far one of the more beautiful theaters I’ve ever come across.
During the month of December, they screen a variety of holiday classics including White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Polar Express. It’s really fun to see these beloved classics on the big screen in a gorgeous place as they were meant to be seen. If you grew up in the old days when going to the theater was such a memorable event, the Fox should be a trip down nostalgia lane. And for anyone else, you will get to experience the feeling of seeing in a movie in the golden days of Hollywood.
If you happen to be in town during any of these airings, it’s really a special way to get into the holiday spirit! Additionally, the Fox offers a number of other festive holiday events including the Russian Grand Ballet’s Nutcracker and special holiday musical performances.
Before your visit, I recommend stopping for a wonderful brunch at the historic Arizona Inn, a peaceful old-fashioned resort with the most delicious blue corn pancakes. Visiting the Inn during the holidays is one of Tucson’s most iconic holiday traditions. Be sure to take a look at the grand tree in the lobby, where many locals come to open their gifts next to the roaring fire.
Location: 17 W Congress St, Tucson, AZ 85701
Pricing: $7 per show
Enchanted Snowfall at La Encatada
La Encatada is Tucson’s premier upscale shopping center. It’s an attractive outdoor shopping center which is great for strolling around during the cooler winter season. Who says you cannot enjoy a little snow in the desert? While the chance for actual snow is pretty much non existent (4% to be exact), you can enjoy a little bit of that magical snow falling down by the beautiful courtyard tree, accompanied by holiday tunes, hot cocoa, and live musical and dance performances.
For anyone missing the traditional wintry weather and wishing for a White Christmas, La Encatada is your best bet anywhere near Tucson. Afterwards, you can stroll around the luxury shops, enjoy dinner at a high end chain like North Italia or check out a local favorite like Blanco, or enjoy a cup of locally roasted coffee at Savaya.
Location: 2905 E Skyline Dr, Tucson, AZ 85718
2018 Dates: Friday and Sat evenings at 6 and 6:45, November 23-December 22
Pricing: This event is totally free right down to the free parking!
Reid Park Zoo Lights
Reid Park is a small, yet pleasant zoo with a surprising diversity of animals. The zoo is nicely laid out and easily walkable via a short path which winds its’ way around the tiny little zoo. While it’s no San Diego or Brookfield, it’s worthy of a stroll if you are in town and a zoo lover, and even more so if you love holiday light displays as it’s one of the top displays in the Southern Arizona region.
The annual Zoo Lights display is a bit disappointing, especially so if you have been to some of the larger zoo events across the country, however, decent enough for a small city like Tucson. Although I would definitely consider Winterhaven first as it is free and there are so many more lights to look at, the Zoo Lights is a good add on activity if you happen to be doing something else in the area.
Besides lights, you will find S’Mores making stations, visits with Santa, 2 synchronized shows, and hot cocoa stations. The zoo could do with a few more festivities including ice carving sculptures, carolers, and perhaps an ice rink. Also, you really do not get to see many animals here as the zoo lacks the fantastic indoor exhibits found at other zoos. If you are lucky, you may see one of the cats roaming around, although do not expect to see much more.
I recommend treating yourself to dinner at the Polish Cottage before your visit. This excellent local restaurant serves amazing traditional cuisine in a cozy little cottage setting. They have the best perogies and potato pancakes in Arizona! Plus, this little hidden gem is just a little over a mile from the zoo entrance!
Location: 3400 E Zoo Ct, Tucson, AZ 85716
2018 Dates: December 5-30, 6-8pm
Pricing: $10 per person ($1 off with Humane Society donation – see list)
More holiday fun!
Dining at the Arizona Inn – This beautiful historic hotel is one of the must-do’s in terms of holiday dining. It’s one of the few places that puts up a Christmas tree and the library is the perfect place to meet up with friends or family next to the roaring fire. The service is some of the best in the area and the food is top knotch – treat yourself to a stack of blue corn pancakes topped with prickly pear syrup!
Location: 2200 E Elm St, Tucson, AZ 85719
Downtown Parade of Lights – 2017 marked the 23rd anniversary of this festive celebration held annually in downtown Tucson. A number of really decked out vehicles and floats light up the dark streets downtown. It’s free, cheerful, and full of holiday spirit, so check it out if you happen to be in town.
Oro Valley Festival of the Arts & Tree Lighting ceremony – Oro Valley puts on a unique holiday celebration which includes one of Southern Arizona’s largest art shows. New visitors will love strolling shopping for all sorts of eclectic Southwestern crafts. Festive entertainment is also part of the lineup during the 3 day festival.
Note: The light displays at Tohono Chul Gardens and the Tucson Botanical Gardens are both very popular. In my opinion, they are both overpriced. Nevertheless, Tohono Chul is home to a great little bistro with excellent cuisine and a beautiful setting amidst the trees in the courtyard. Come for breakfast – skip the light show. The options listed above are definitely more impressive!