Tucson is located in Pima County in the state of Arizona. It is the second largest city in the state after Phoenix and has a population of over 500,000. It is also home to the University of Arizona and the soul of the Sonoran Desert.
The city is in the north of the US-Mexico border and is heavily influenced by the desert region in which it stands. On a visit to Tucson, you will be welcomed by beautiful architecture, leafy gardens, and desert flora and fauna. You can also indulge yourself in its abundant Mexican-inspired food and beverages.
Tucson is a land of adventures, and as an Arizonian and an avid traveler of my home state, I want to share with you some of the finest attractions Tucson has to offer.
1. Head for the desert at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
I’ve heard a lot about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum since I was a kid, and it exceeded my expectation during my first visit.
Sprawling over 98 acres and featuring an aquarium, zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum, and art gallery, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum can be found to the west of Tucson.
The museum focuses on educating visitors regarding the various flora and fauna that can be found in the Sonoran Desert region, a habitat for over 200 species of desert animals and over 1,000 types of plants.
This unusual museum is one of the most visited attractions in Arizona and attracts over 400,000 travelers per year. It is made up of different exhibitions that provide both historical and contemporary explanations of wildlife and plant life. Some of these include ‘Rivers to the Sea,’ ‘Cat Canyon,’ and ‘Life on the Rocks.’
If you want to dine, don’t worry because the museum has a food court and cafes to ease your exhaustion after a long stroll in the museum. I also recommend you visit its gift shops if you want to take a piece of the desert back home.
2. Hike the Sabino Canyon
Source: Billy McDonald / shutterstock
Located just north of Tucson, the Sabino Canyon is nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Coronado National Forest. The canyon offers magnificent trails, majestic views, and hiking and trekking opportunities.
Surprisingly, considering that the canyon is located in the desert, there is also Sabino Creek nearby which features waterfalls that can be admired and crossed by a bridge. For visitors who prefer not to hike, there is a tram through the canyon that has nine stops along the way.
If trekking and hiking are not on your list, I suggest you bring your camera and take some scenic shots worth posting on your social media accounts. Or you can also visit its bookstore to find gifts and souvenirs to remind you of your visit.
3. Explore the trails of Saguaro National Park
A member of the United States National Park System, the Saguaro National Park is actually split across two separate locations to the east and west of Tucson. Parts of the Rincon Mountains, the Tucson Mountains, and the Sonoran Desert are all located within the park.
The name Saguaro was actually given to the park after the name of an indigenous cactus that grows there, and visitors can witness these cacti up close on one of the many treks available around the park.
During my visit, I was amazed by the giant saguaro cacti, which I learned was the universal symbol of the American West. Their enormous, and majestic stance humbled me and reminded me that I am also just an existence relying on our nature.
Hiking trails, long and short, are marked and available to all different levels of fitness and endurance, although the park authorities advise that visitors must not attempt long hikes in the more remote parts of the park in the summer months when temperatures rise considerably.
4. Become a botanist at Tucson Botanical Garden
As a traveler, I am always drawn to nature; that’s why I took the time to ground myself and unwind in Tucson Botanical Gardens.
For visitors wanting to go for a stroll surrounded by nature, Tucson Botanical Gardens has a large compound made up of 16 individual gardens. The garden complex is spread over 5 acres and is known for providing a temporary sanctuary for people who wants to relax from their hectic life.
The gardens are themed to promote the best of the Arizona flora to visitors, including a children’s garden, a Zen garden, and a butterfly garden. There is also a gallery located within the complex that has a series of rotating exhibitions and installations on various themes regarding botanical interest in the Arizona area, including desert plants.
If you want something fun and educational for your kids, I recommend visiting this Botanical Garden for an unforgettable family bonding. You can also bring snacks and drinks or have breakfast and lunch at Edna’s Cafeteria.
5. Walk on the wild side at Reid Park Zoo
Established in the 1960s, Reid Park Zoo spans over 20 acres and is home to over 500 species of animals. The zoo is split into four different zones and features animals from bears to elephants to giant tortoises.
Veterinarians also work at the faculty, and the zoo is a firm favorite in the city as the local population has raised money over the years to take care of the animals and provide them with the best level of care available. Visitors can see animals from all over the world in the zoo as well as indigenous species.
6. Explore Tohono Chul Park
Tohono Chul literally translates as Desert Corner and takes its name from the indigenous people of Arizona, the Tohono O’odham. The park is actually made up of an onsite museum and has a focus on environmental stewardship and education about the Sonoran Desert Region.
The Santa Catalina Mountains rise grandly in the background, and visitors to the park can enjoy not just the botanical gardens but also a riparian habitat, a geology wall, and discovery trails.
It’s open from 8 am to 5 pm daily, where you can enjoy its greenhouses, galleries, and garden bistro. I suggest visiting its museum shops to so you can bring something back home as a souvenir or gift for your loved ones.
7. Learn all about aerospace at the Pima Air & Space Museum
Proudly known as one of the largest air and space museums in the world, aerospace buffs can see over 300 aircraft and spacecraft at the facility, which has a span of over 80 acres.
The museum is non-government funded and raises revenue through ticket sales and admissions and started from humble beginnings in the 1970s with 48 aircraft to the powerhouse that it is today.
If you are interested in the history of the United States Air Force, I recommend going here as they have a historical tour through the ages, and there is even a replica of a control tower on site.
8.Get spiritual at San Xavier del Bac
Situated in downtown Tucson, San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic Mission that sits on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission takes its name from a Christian missionary who is also hailed as the co-founder of the Jesuit Order, Francis Xavier.
The site was built in the 18th century and is often considered one of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. It is open to the public daily and attracts over 200,000 visitors a year, many of whom consider the site a pilgrimage. It is still run by the Franciscan members of the Christian community so that tourists can savor the serene atmosphere in one of the oldest European buildings in Arizona.
9. Raise your sights at Sentinel Peak
Southwest of Tucson, nestled in the Tucson Mountains, lies Sentinel Peak. The peak is often wrongly perceived to be the result of a dormant volcano because the surrounding land is volcanic and said to date back 20 million years.
If you want something new and adventurous, I suggest you book an exciting visit here. The peak offers trekking and hiking opportunities for travelers, and one of the highlights is the scenic views over Tucson Valley and across the city of Tucson.
10. Step onto a movie set at Old Tucson Studios
Are you a fan of old-school Westerns? If you are, I advise you that a trip to Old Tucson Studios should not be missed. The studios stood next to the Tucson Mountains and were built specifically as the location for the famous movies Little House on the Prairie, Gunfight at the O.K Corral, and Arizona.
The studios have now also been developed into a theme park where visitors can take a tour complete with historical explanations and live-action performances that include gunfights, stuntmen, and women.
When I visited the Old Tucson Studios, I felt like I was brought back to the heyday of Arizona. I was able to meet great new friends and fellow travel enthusiasts. We took photos together and enjoyed some meals at the nearby restaurants since outside food is not allowed.
11. Enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation at the Cathedral of Saint Augustine
Located at Stone Avenue, the Cathedral of Saint Augustine is a Roman Catholic church twinned with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson. The church is notable for its sloped floors, in order to provide the entire congregation of worshippers (the church has a capacity of over 1,000) with a clear view of the altar, as well as a crucifix from Pamplona in Spain.
Other features include stonework with the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI, along with carvings of indigenous plants found in the Arizona Desert region.
12. Star gaze at Kitt Peak National Observatory
If you are an astrophile or a person who loves everything celestial, I recommend having a great time at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It offers the perfect view of the night sky.
An astronomical observatory sits atop Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains and boasts the largest and most diverse astronomical equipment in the world that, includes 24 telescopes.
Depending on your interest levels in all things astronomical, there is a choice of day or night tours, one featuring the history of the observatory and the invention of the telescope and the other that commences at sunset. You can also observe the cosmos through telescopes above the Arizona Desert.
13. Work up a sweat hiking Tumamoc Hill
Known as a ‘butte,’ an isolated hill located to the west of Tucson, Tumamoc Hill is used primarily as a transmission station due to its raised altitude. It is home to radio, television, and public safety transmitters and an astronomical observatory complete with telescopes for monitoring the night sky.
Visitors flock to the hill in search of hiking opportunities, although the terrain is challenging and therefore recommended for more experienced hikers. If you do make it up, there are educational tours and lectures on the hill regarding the local history and ecological significance of the butte.
14. Go off-road at Mount Lemmon
At over 9,000 feet, Mount Lemmon is the pinnacle of the Santa Catalina Mountains and is topped with an observatory that is used for research purposes. The mount is bisected by a highway that offers visitors unparalleled views for a scenic drive.
If you want a more rugged approach, I recommend going to a section of the road named the ‘Back Side’ of the mount, as it is positioned on the north side and offers the chance to drive off-road vehicles or motorcycles.
15. Enjoy a moment of tranquility at Kennedy Lake
Kennedy Lake is located in the J.F Kennedy Park in Tucson and is spread over 10 acres of parkland. The lake is famous for the varied species of fish that populate its waters, including rainbow trout, bass, catfish, and carp.
You can take a stroll around the lake and enjoy the views. There are also boating opportunities as well as fishing for those who fancy catching some of the lake’s famous inhabitants.
16. Splash some cash at Foothills Mall
Located in Casa Adobes in northwest Tucson, Foothills Mall is a large indoor shopping mall. You can splurge as the mall features over 90 different shopping outlets, or, if shopping is not on the agenda, then there is a 15-theatre cinema complex. You can also dine at one of the 8 restaurants on site. With a retail area of over 700,000 square feet, there is surely something for everyone to enjoy in this indoor shopping paradise.
17. Go spelunking at Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Discovered in the 19th Century, Colossal Cave Mountain Park is made up of not just one cave but an entire cave complex that includes over 5 kilometers of passageways inside the caves.
If you want to brave the caves trails with temperatures which are at a stable 70 degrees Fahrenheit(21 degrees Celcius) year round, you can roam the dwellings previously used by Apache Indians in days gone by, but for visitors who prefer to stay above ground, there are many other choices on offer at Colossal Cave Mountain Park. These include two museums, iconic statues, picnic areas, horseback riding, and a campsite.
18. Explore DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum
DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum is best described as an outdoor museum that features a range of exhibits and historic buildings dotted throughout the desert and is founded by the architect Ettore DeGrazia.
The buildings are highly admired due to their construction using traditional techniques and materials, such as cactus flooring, where visitors can explore the area and the various buildings, such as a ceramics studio, a ghost house, a nun’s house, and many more.
During my visit, I thought of the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum as a large masterpiece of installation art in the middle of the desert. You can find inspiration or satiate your sight in its gallery and museum.
19. Get away from it all at the Garden of Gethsemane
This park that sits on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River is open all day and provides a leafy oasis of cool in the city if you fancy finding some shade under one of the park’s many trees and watching the world go by.
Of note in the Garden of Gethsemane are the various sculptures that feature different biblical scenes and lend a note of quiet contemplation to the atmosphere. The park is also famous for owning the largest eucalyptus tree in Tucson.
20. Find your fortune gold panning
For those hoping to go home with a bit of extra cash, why not try your hand at gold panning? I recommend joining the Desert Gold Diggers club and go and explore one of the many areas said to contain gold in the Arizona Desert. You can either pan for gold directly from a water source, or you can use a rake and pick to sweep the earth and try to find a prize nugget that way.
21. Get wild in the town of Tombstone
Just outside of Tucson lies the town of Tombstone. While once a booming area as a result of an abundance of silver found at the site, Tombstone no longer enjoys such a run of luck, I suggest you still head over to see a real former ‘wild west’ location that used to be a feared Apache territory. The town attached gunslingers and prospectors, and some of the old flavors still remain for those wanting to see a slice of the past.
22. Sample some Mexican food
No trip to Tucson would be complete without indulging in the plethora of authentic Mexican food on offer, and locals will tell you that Tucson is widely held to have some of the most delicious Mexican cuisine north of the border.
There are so many options to choose from that they span 23 miles over the city, and many of the city’s favorite haunts have been passed down through generations and still focus on family home-style traditional cooking. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and many other less well-known choices can be found in the city, with whatever level of Mexican chili heat you feel you can handle.
23. Quench your thirst at one of Tucson’s breweries
Tucson has made a name for itself over the years as a place to get the freshest glass of beer around. Even if you are not a beer aficionado, the quality of the products on offer will quench your thirst after a long hot day in the desert.
In recent years a range of traditional and trendy microbreweries have sprung up, fabricating their product on sites and educating visitors on the brewing process. The best part, however, is probably sampling the finished beverage.
24. Take a trip to Fort Lowell Museum
Fort Lowell, located on the outskirts of Tucson and built-in 1873, used to operate as a United States Army post which ceased activity in 1891. Over the years, much of the original fort fell into disrepair and lay in ruins before being rebuilt and made into the Fort Lowell Museum that visitors can explore today.
The museum belongs to the Arizona Historical Society and depicts military life in the fort. Fort Lowell Museum is also part of the larger complex of Fort Lowell Park, which includes a large pond, swimming pool, games fields, and sports courts.
25. Explore your creative side at the University of Arizona Art Museum
Art lovers need to look no further than the University of Arizona Art Museum to satisfy their art cravings in Tucson. Operated by the University of Arizona, the site also includes a museum and has permanent exhibitions that include over 6,000 exhibits from all corners of the art world, such as sculptures, textiles, prints, and hand drawings. The art on show here is diverse and focuses on both European art as well as American art.