Tucson, Arizona tends to play second fiddle to the state’s other sites, like Sedona or the Grand Canyon. But locals will have you know that their city never plays second string, and there are many things to do in Tucson that you won’t find anywhere else. Only a few hours from the Mexican border and situated in the heart of the Sonoran desert, Tucson is the best place to go for Mexican food, mountain and desert views, and slightly cooler weather than the northern cities (thanks to the higher elevation).
More than a place to cool off (if only slightly), there are a huge number of things to do in and around Tucson, Arizona. From the museums in Tucson itself to the unparalleled number of outdoor activities in the nearby Saguaro National Park, a trip to Tucson is a peek into the old days when the streets were filled with Native Indian and Mexican desert dwellers and American cowboys were on the hunt for the latest gold rush.
What should you do in this historic desert town? We put together of 15 things you can’t miss.
Saguaro National Park
The saguaro cactus is the classic symbol of the Sonoran Desert, and there’s no better place to see them than Saguaro National Park in Tucson. Only a short drive east or west from Tucson, the park is the perfect place for a day trip and nationally known as one of the most exciting things to do in Tucson for nature lovers.
If you’re wondering what facilities are available when you arrive? Both the eastern and western access points allow for driving loops, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. However, more intrepid travellers like you, camping is also an option. In addition, all campsites at located at Saguaro National Park’s East District and all are backcountry sites, which means they are hike-in sites with no access to facilities.
But, do keep in mind that there are no concession stands or restaurants at either park location. You’ll need to bring in food and plenty of water – and take it out with you. You can fill and refill water bottles at the water fountains at the park visitor centres when you buy your park pass ($20 per vehicle).
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Coronado National Forest is the Sabino Canyon Road and Recreation Area. The area is home to not only some of the best Tucson hiking trails, but it’s also an incredible way to experience the diversity of the Sonoran desert.
Open from 8 AM to 4:30 PM, you have the option of exploring the nature trail, riding the tram into the Santa Catalina foothills, or heading out into the backcountry on foot. However, if you meander around, you’ll encounter birds and other desert wildlife that call the rocky areas of the Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains home. Trust us, spending a few hours here at Sabino Canyon feels just like a few seconds.
The entry costs $5 per vehicle, and you can buy water from vending machines. Take note: pets are not allowed inside Tucson Sabino Canyon park.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to travel back in time to the Old West? Come to Tuscon and you can.
Mission San Xavier del Bac began life as a Catholic mission back in 1692, and construction of the church began in 1783. It’s Arizona’s oldest European structure, and stepping foot inside transports you back to the 18th century. Only nine miles south of Tucson, the Mission Church and Museum is open to the public daily with exceptions for special services. Visit the Church between 7 AM and 5 PM and the Museum between 8 AM and 4:30 PM. Admission is free.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Consistently ranked as hands-down one of the best things to do in Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is not your typical over-air-conditioned space filled with musty taxidermied animals.
On the contrary, 85 per cent of your time here is spent outdoors exploring the zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. When you want to retreat to the shade, you can explore the art gallery, and natural history museum— all on one site. The museum’s mission is to educate its visitors about the diversity and beauty of the desert. During your trip, you’ll encounter 200 species of desert-dwelling animal and over 1,000 plant types.
Believe it or not, the staff says you need a minimum of two hours to see everything. In truth, you could spend days here. In addition to the exhibition, your admission ticket also gets you:
- Complimentary docent-led grounds tours
- Access to two miles of walking trails
- Entrance to 16 desert botanical gardens
- Admission to live reptile, bird, and mammal demonstrations
- Admission to the Raptor Free Flight experience
The entrance ticket cost $21.95 for everyone age 13 plus. If you can, go on a Saturday during the summer when Tucson Cool Summer Nights offers extended opening hours until 10 PM. Don’t forget to bring your reusable water bottle. The museum stopped selling disposable water bottles in 2013. However, there are plenty of water fountains available to fill your own bottle.
Tumamoc Hill is another of Tucson’s’ best hiking trails – and it’s right in the heart of the city. The hike is a 3.1-mile out-and-back trail on a paved path. Tumamoc belongs to the University, which means you need to stay on the trail. However, since it is on private property, it is one of the few places in the Tucson Mountains that allows you to hike to the sunrise or sunset.
Your hike is free, and the trail is accessible between 4 AM and 10 PM. All the university asks is that you stay on the paved trail to protect the plants in Tucson and animals and leave your dog at home.
Step out of your car and into Hollywood’s vision of the Old West at Old Tucson. Although Old Tucson sounds like a neighbourhood, it’s a Hollywood Western-style theme park just west of the city (on your way to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and the western entrance to Saguaro National Park).
As Tucson’s gem, the site was home to Hollywood’s Western television shows and movies sets for over 70 years. Tours of the site include insight into the cinematic world of John Wayne and Old West shows featuring gunfights, horse stunts, and can-can musicals. The entrance tickets will set you back at $19.95 per adult and $10.95 for children aged 4 to 11. Your ticket also includes access to a small theme park with classic rides such as carousel, train ride, and the chance to drive an antique car. You can also book a horse ride or a flight on the zip line for an extra fee.
Cafe Santa Rosa
Many of the best things to do in Tucson revolve around Spanish colonialism and the American westward expansion. But before the Americans and the Spanish, Arizona’s native peoples enjoyed this land exclusively. Some of Arizona’s most famous tribes include the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Yuma, Pima, Yavapai, and Papago. Today, the Tohono O’odham (Desert People) reservations lie both directly south and west of Tucson.
But, you don’t need to head into the desert to meet the Desert People, you can find a piece of American Indian culture at Cafe Santa Rosa. Sylvia Gonzales, the proprietor, named the cafe after her mother’s village. She specializes in Native foods, including fry bread/popovers. You’ll also find tostadas and tacos here as well as chemait (a Tohono O’odham style tortilla).
Come here for the lunch specials that run between Tuesday and Thursday. Order anything with bread— the red or green chile and beans popover is always a treat. Alternatively, stop in on Sunday to try the white menudo. You can find their new location at 2615 S 6th Ave in Tucson.
Pima Air & Space Museum
Slightly away from Tucson International Airport, Pima Air & Space Museum is an 80-acre outdoor playground for aviation and space enthusiasts. It’s the largest private museum dedicated to air and space in the country, and the museum covers the entire history of flight from the Wright Brothers to Boeing’s Dreamliner. Besides, it’s also the place to go if you want to see the famous Boneyard (2,600 acres of military decommissioned military and civilian planes). Pima is the only vendor with permission to give bus tours of the space.
To book both tours, you need to make a reservation in advance for the 2-Day tour. The Boneyard tours are available from Monday to Friday. Because the Boneyard is on a U.S. Air Force base, you need to have a valid ID and provide your Social Security Number.
The microbrewery craze didn’t miss the Grand Canyon State, and Borderlands Brewing and Public House are one of Tucson’s best if not Arizona’s’ breweries. An afternoon or evening at Borderlands is one of the best things to do in Tucson.
As a food connoisseur says, the best way you’ll know a city is by tasting it. Here in Tucson, you get to know the city through its ingredients and flavours. Including the Horchata Cream Ale and the Prickly Pear Pale Wheat Ale. The best part, you’ll also get to enjoy live music, an art space, and a weekly Tucson’s food truck schedule.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak National Observatory isn’t in the heart of Tucson, AZ, but it is only an hour from the city. It’s the perfect day out for astronomy buffs. However, you don’t need a telescope obsession to appreciate the views of the rural mountain top setting.
To gain entry to the visitor centre, you need to travel down to the site between 9 AM and 4 PM. Nevertheless, the nighttime programs offer more value than the basic daytime tour. For $50, you get a four-hour crash course in astronomy (including a light dinner) and a view of the twinkling stars you’ll never forget.
Reid Park Zoo
Trust us, the Reid Park Zoo is one of the best things to do in Tucson for children. Located in the border of Reid Park and Tucson’s city golf park, the zoo plays host to animals from around the globe, including the African Savannah. In addition to the exhibits of animals, Reid Park Zoo offers interactive activities like miniature train rides, camel ride, air-conditioned cafes and more. Look out for different festivals held every year in this park.
Day tickets are $10.50 for ages 15 and up and $6.50 for kids ages 2-14. Don’t forget to check the board for daily activities and be sure to arrive before 9 AM to take part in the rotating keeper chat for a closer encounter with the animals.
Enjoy a BK Tacos
You can’t leave the Sonoran desert without trying one of its culinary legends: the Sonoran Hot Dog. The dish comes from Hermosillo, across the border in Mexico, and it’s a staple of the Arizona food scene. The basic building blocks of the dish include a hot dog, green chile sauce, pinto beans, onion, tomato, mayonnaise, and mustard. But some restaurants and food trucks in Tucson take this local favourite to a whole new level.
BK Tacos is one of the legendary purveyors of the Sonoran Hotdog (as well as other Mexican food like tacos and some not-so-heart healthy breakfasts). What makes them different? BK uses a secret jalapeno sauce and a love-it-or-hate-it cottage cheese guacamole. You can find BK on the north and south side of the city, and they serve up desert delights from 9:30 AM until midnight every day of the week.
Tucson Botanical Garden
If you love the idea of the Arizona-Sonora Museum or Saguaro National Park, but both feel too much for you in Arizona’s famous heat, skip wandering around in the desert and take a more manageable walk at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
Open from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM Monday through Wednesday and until 8 PM on Thursday and Friday, the gardens offer the same chance to see Arizona’s native flora as the largest parks. You’ll find a Native American crop garden, cactus and succulent garden, barrio garden, and even a prehistoric garden. Plus, the scenic landscape makes it an excellent place to take your mandatory Instagram shot of Tucson. The $15 entry fee also grants you admittance to the butterfly pavilions, art gallery, and the educational buildings on site.
Old Town Tucson and Barrio Viejo
Want to hang around town for the day and check out things to do in Tucson itself? Take a stroll through Old Town Tuscon and down to Barrio Viejo. It’s Tucson’s oldest neighbourhood and the best place to check out 19th-century homes and buildings. Many of the neighbourhood’s original inhabitants worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which transformed this dusty Mexican village into the city you see today.
Today’s Barrio Viejo is much smaller than it was in its heyday. Its smaller size is largely due to the fact that the city bulldozed the historic district in favour of building the Tucson Convention Center. Take in the colourful traditional buildings as you wander your way here from downtown. And don’t forget to stop for Lunch in El Minuto Cafe. The 1930s’-era family-run Mexican eatery famous for its cheese crisps.
Ruby, Arizona or Bisbee, Arizona
Ruby, Arizona makes another great day-trip from the centre of Tucson. This ghost town dots the whole of the southwestern portion of the United States, but Ruby is probably the best and bleakest example.
Located just north of the Mexican border, Ruby was a hive of activity from the 1870s, but after the mine closed in the 1930s, Ruby was all but abandoned. A trip here is a chance to see about two dozen buildings, some artefacts and old mining machinery. Just a heads up, the entrance to Ruby is available from Thursday to Sunday. And the fee is $12 per person.
Do you want the Old World to feel but think the ghost town isn’t worth the drive? Skip Ruby and head to Bisbee instead. Locals say it’s the “prettiest town in Arizona,” and it was the cultural centre of Arizona at the time. Unlike Ruby, it survived the exodus and today, it’s an artsy Old West town with plenty of art galleries and sweet cafes.