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Although the Grand Canyon and Phoenix often steal the spotlight when it comes to Arizona travel, Tucson has tons to offer visitors from all around the globe too. This Southern Arizona city inspires a sense of freedom to discover, explore, and be inspired by the dramatic landscapes. It’s an ideal for free-spirited travelers who want authentic, original, and unpretentious experiences that make lifelong memories.
With the beauty of the Sonoran Desert as the city’s backdrop, the Tucson area is famous for the iconic saguaro cactus, hoodoo mountain ranges, and its Wild West roots. Tucson has a thriving visual and performing arts scene and a casual pace that lends itself well to laid-back travelers. And because of its climate and sunshine, it’s also become a premier restoration destination with lots of spas, resort hotels, and golf courses to rejuvenate yourself and get away from it all.
These are some of the top things to do when you’re in Tucson!
Mission San Xavier del Bac
The American Southwest is full of beautiful colonial missions, and one of the best in this area is the San Xavier del Bac. It was established in 1770 by Spanish Jesuits and is a lovey example of Baroque architecture from this period of history. It earned the nickname, “White Dove of the Desert” and is still used as a Native American spiritual center. You can visit the church and museum to learn more about its history.
Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum
One of the top attractions in all of Tucson is the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, which has a little bit of everything: zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, art gallery, and natural history museum. This is a great way to get to know and understand the desert landscape in an up-close and personal way. Take a walk on the two miles of trails across 21 acres to learn about plants, animals, caves, and much more. Don’t miss the mineral collection here, which is one of the very best in the world. There’s also a bird show where hawks fly over the audience and staff give visitors the opportunity to see the birds close-up, which is always a big hit with the kids.
Saguaro National Park
This national park is near the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and definitely worth a visit during your time in Tucson. The park stretches both east and west of the city and often surprises visitors with how many plants grow here despite the extremely hot temperatures. Some highlights are the candelabra cactuses, as well as animals like the Gila woodpecker, desert tortoises, and Gila monster, which is more of a lizard than an actual monster! Go for a hike first thing in the morning to beat the heat and take plenty of water with you.
390th Memorial Museum & Pima Air and Space Museum
The 390th Memorial Museum is an informative and emotional museum in Tucson that tells the story of a World War II B-17 bomb group. You can learn about the crew’s stories and war missions when you tour the exhibits here. It’s located on the grounds of the Pima Air & Space Museum, and your admission to the 390th Memorial Museum is free when you pay to visit the Air & Space Museum. At the Pima Air and Space Museum, make sure to see John F Kennedy’s presidential plane and the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer replica.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Another amazing natural attraction in Tucson is the Colossal Cave Mountain Park, which is a must-see destination for all true adventurers. The park and ranch span 2400 acres and have lots of hiking and biking trails that you can explore on your own. You can also take a guided cave tour, go horseback riding, and set up camp here to sleep under the stars in the great outdoors. Head just 15 minutes southeast of Tucson when you’re in the area to check it out.
El Charro Café
No trip to Tucson would be complete without some delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine. The El Charro Café, located at 311 North Court Avenue, is the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant that’s been continuously operated by the same family. It was established in 1922! This is a wonderful place to try Northern Mexico-Sonoran style favorites with a Tucson-inspired twist. The café isn’t far from the Tucson Convention Center either if you’re in town on business. The restaurant’s lunch, dinner, dessert, and happy hour menus can be found online, so check them out to tempt your taste buds.
Old Tucson Studios
Anyone who enjoys old Western movies simply must visit Old Tucson Studios, which has been the set for many Western films since the 1940s. Young Guns and lots of John Wayne movies were shot here to set the stage for famous Wild West scenes. Today you can check out concerts and the dance hall for live entertainment here and watch Wild West gun battle reenactments. It’s also a family-friendly place with lots of things for kids to do, such as panning for gold and riding a miniature train.
El Presidio Historic District
This is one of the oldest inhabited sites in America, once by Native Americans and later colonized by the Spanish. This is a must-see place for those who love Southwestern architecture because there’s a nice mix of restored buildings here. El Presidio Historic District is also a great place to shop for souvenirs because there’s an Old Town Artisans marketplace that is packed with stores, crafts, décor, and jewelry from Tucson and New Mexico artists. Whether you like to shop or just soak in the history, this area is essential for any first-time visitor to Tucson.
Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
One of the best ways to see Southeast Arizona is by car, and scenic drives here do not disappoint. The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway route goes to the top of Mount Lemmon and the Santa Catalina mountain range to give you a spectacular view of the local landscape. The route is about 60 miles round trip and passes through deserts and forests. This is a great way to spend a hot summer afternoon to get a break from the heat and sun. Plan to pack a picnic lunch to stop at one of the scenic overlooks and snap a few photos. To turn this scenic drive into a more active adventure, hop out of your car at one of the trailheads along the way and go for a hike to explore the landscape on foot.
Catalina State Park
There are lots of state parks in Arizona worth visiting, but one of the best near Tucson is Catalina State Park. This desert park has some great picnic areas and is an excellent place to set up camp near the city. You can go horseback riding here and even see some archaeological ruins that remain from a Hohokam Native American village that date back to 500 AD. There are 5,500 acres of hiking and biking trails flanked by canyons and streams here, so it’s an outdoor lover’s paradise. Visit Pusch Ridge Stables for guided horseback rides, and keep an eye out for the park’s large and diverse bird population.