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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 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!
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What Is It? The American Southwest is full of beautiful colonial missions, and one of the best in this area is the San Xavier del Bac.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: You can visit the church and museum to learn more about its history.
What Is It? One of the top attractions for seeing wildlife in Tucson is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which has a little bit of everything: zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, art gallery, and natural history museum.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: There’s also a bird show where hawks fly over the audience and staff gives visitors the opportunity to see the birds close-up, which is always a big hit with the kids.
What Is It? This top national park in Arizona is near the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and definitely worth a visit during your time in Tucson.
Why Do It? 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!
Good to Know: Go for a hike first thing in the morning to beat the heat and take plenty of water with you.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: At the Pima Air and Space Museum, make sure to see John F. Kennedy’s presidential plane and the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer replica.
What Is It? Another amazing natural attraction in Tucson is the Colossal Cave Mountain Park, which is a must-see destination for all true adventurers.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: Head just 15 minutes southeast of Tucson when you’re in the area to check it out.
What Is It? No trip to Tucson would be complete without some delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: The restaurant’s lunch, dinner, dessert, and happy hour menus can be found online, so check them out to tempt your taste buds.
What Is It? This is one of the oldest inhabited sites in America, once by Native Americans and later colonized by the Spanish.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: Whether you like to shop or just soak in the history, this area is essential for any first-time visitor to Tucson.
What Is It? One of the best ways to see Southeast Arizona is by car, and scenic drives here do not disappoint.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? There are lots of state parks in Arizona worth visiting, but one of the best near Tucson is Catalina State Park.
Why Do It? 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 dates 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.
Good to Know: Visit Pusch Ridge Stables for guided horseback rides, and keep an eye out for the park’s large and diverse bird population.
What Is It? The Reid Park Zoo spans 24 acres and is home to hundreds of animals. Over 500,000 people visit the zoo each year to see the animals, join classes and camps, host birthday parties, and even volunteer.
Why Do It? This zoo is a great Tucson destination for families and lets you see animals from around the world without ever leaving the city. Some of the many animals you can see here include zebras, elephants, bears, lions, giraffes, rhinos, and monkeys.
Good to Know: The zoo in Tucson is open from 9am to 4pm between October and May and from 8am to 2pm between the months of June and September.