Tucson is often overlooked as a travel destination, with most visitors to Arizona favoring nearby Phoenix, or the natural attractions of Northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Page. However, after I spent one week in Tucson several years ago, it was firmly planted in my mind as the best destination in Arizona. The smaller size makes Tucson much more manageable, more affordable and less congested than Phoenix. For a relatively small town, there are still lots of things to do in Tucson.
Things To Do In Tucson
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the best of all Tucson museums, is one of Arizona’s top attractions, and is where I take all visitors on their first trip to Tucson. The 100-acre property is a botanical garden, museum, art gallery, zoo, and aquarium. Exhibits show the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert, using over 1200 kinds of plants and 300 species of animals. The museum has an excellent rotation of guest speakers, temporary exhibits, a wonderful gift shop and even educational classes. If you are visiting with more than two people, consider purchasing a membership, which includes two guest passes that can be used on the day you buy the membership!
Saguaro National Park
The city of Tucson sits right in the middle of the two units of Saguaro National Park, each district containing an impressive number of saguaros, the country’s largest cactus variety. The Tucson Mountain District on the west side is close to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum so most visitors will combine both in one day as it’s about 30 minutes from downtown. The Rincon Mountain District on the east side of town sees fewer visitors but has a nice loop drive and interpretive exhibits at the visitors center. Both units have great spots to catch a sunset!
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is one of the most popular recreation sites in Arizona for hiking, jogging, wildlife viewing, photography and picnicking. Sabino Canyon is part of the Coronado National Forest, so parking fees apply if you don’t have a National Parks pass. Hiking in Sabino Canyon is very popular and there is a great tram system (ticket purchase required) that allows you to hop on and off, so many hikers will take the tram up and hike down. There are hikes for every ability; from .5 miles to 16 miles. There is also a nice gift shop and small visitor’s center near the parking area.
The Turquoise Trail
For Tucson visitors looking for more urban attractions and historical information, the Turquoise Trail is a great way to get your bearings in downtown Tucson. This historical self-guided walking tour of downtown Tucson will take you on a 2.5-mile loop through some of Tucson’s most interesting historical sites. Pick up a map at the visitor’s center and find the turquoise stripe painted along the sidewalks. There are dozens of restaurants within a few blocks of the trail, so you’ll have lots of dining options along the way!
Old Town Artisan’s
If you are looking for unique souvenirs to bring home, look no further than Old Town Artisan’s, a unique shopping and dining destination near downtown Tucson, in the historical Presidio neighborhood. Covering one city block, you’ll find art galleries, shops, a pub (Dusty Monk) and a restaurant (La Cocina) with a lovely courtyard and live music. This is a great place to find interesting Native American arts and crafts. It’s very close to the Turquoise Trail so these can easily be combined into a half day.
Kitt Peak Observatory
Astronomy fans will love Kitt Peak National Observatory! The visitor center is open from 9:00 am to 3:45 pm, but the nighttime programs are really the best feature at Kitt Peak. The nightly observing program, ($50 if reserved online) lasts for 4 hours from sunset until well after dark. Participants will have a light dinner, followed by time at one of the very large telescopes on site. Afterward, you will receive a star chart and binoculars to take a look at some of the constellations. The observatory is about 90 minutes from downtown Tucson, as dark skies are critical to the operations here. All roads are paved and it’s well worth the long drive home at night.
Pima Air & Space Museum
Tucson has one of the world’s largest aerospace museums, the Pima Air & Space Museum. Located near the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, you will likely also see some interesting planes in the air around the museum, too. The museum has over 300 aircrafts on display, including a Blue Angels jet, a Boeing Dreamliner and Air Force One used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. An add-on to this tour, which must be reserved in advance, is the Boneyard Tour, where you can see over 4,000 retired aircrafts in various states of repair.
TUCSON’S BEST FOOD & DRINK OPTIONS
Tucson was the first U.S. city to receive the UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation, due to having the longest agricultural history along with a recent culinary revival in the area. With so many things to do in Tucson, the quantity and quality of restaurants shouldn’t be suprising. Being less than 75 miles from the border of Mexico, there is an abundance of amazing Mexican food in Tucson, but many other cuisines are popping up in Tucson restaurants.
El Charro Cafe
With three locations throughout Tucson, El Charro Cafe has been serving up delicious Mexican food since 1922. The founding family reportedly invented the chimichanga, which remains a popular menu item. El Charro has a great happy hour menu, with a large selection of street taco flavors, 3 for $7. Be sure to save room for dessert as their Tres Leches Cake is to die for!
Another favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson is Guadalajara Grill, with two locations in Tucson. Evening guests will enjoy fresh salsa made right at your table – no other salsa will taste the same after the freshness at Guadalajara Grill! Both locations are very popular in the evening so you might want to go for lunch or call ahead for reservations.
Within the Old Town Artisan’s shopping area, La Cocina serves up global cuisine in a charming courtyard. The food here is good, but it’s really about the atmosphere. Whether you are taking a break from an afternoon of shopping or starting your evening out, the courtyard at La Cocina is a great place to have a few drinks, listen to some live music and sample some interesting appetizers, like polenta fries.
Located in the Mercado San Agustin, Agustin Kitchen is a great place to enjoy a unique twist on new American cuisine. They offer handcrafted cocktails, and local ingredients take the main stage in the seasonally rotating menu. The chefs at Agustin heavily emphasize sustainable protein, along with organic and local produce as much as possible. The courtyard is a great place to people-watch when the weather is nice.
GETTING AROUND TUCSON
Flying in and out of Tucson can sometimes be more expensive, with fewer flight options, so it’s sometimes worth using the Phoenix airport and making the two-hour drive. Whichever way you arrive, a car is a necessity in Tucson, as it is with most Western U.S. cities. Uber and taxi cabs are also available, but many of the things to do in Tucson are scattered beyond the limits of the town.
Downtown Tucson is very pedestrian and bike-friendly, especially near the University of Arizona campus. You can park on the outskirts of downtown and use the Sun Link Streetcar to get around. This will also take you out to the Mercado San Agustin, however, Tucson doesn’t have a public transportation network like you’d find in Chicago or New York. People in the West love their vehicles!
PLACES TO STAY IN TUCSON
As a college town, and major spa destination, there are so many hotels in and near Tucson, for any budget.
There are many budget-friendly accommodations in or near Tucson, with many popular hotel chains located near the airport. Beware of anything too cheap, however, as there are some neighborhoods with sketchy motels on the outskirts of town. A good budget option for staying downtown is the Hotel Congress, a hotel full of history and live music, which you will likely hear through the walls of your room until the wee hours!
If you are looking to pamper yourself, Tucson is the place to be! World-famous spa resorts such as Canyon Ranch, Miraval, and the Westin La Paloma are scattered throughout Tucson. Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain, in nearby Marana, regularly wins awards as one of the most luxurious 5-star Arizona mountain resorts. Each resort sits in a beautiful location with easy access to hiking and horseback riding trails.
Staying at a dude ranch is another popular option in Tucson. There are a few options around town, such as the White Stallion Ranch, a family-owned ranch that has been hosting guests for over 50 years. Staying at a Tucson dude ranch is like going back to summer camp, but with happy hour! Each day, you visit the activities desk to choose your daily adventures, and between riding and hiking, you can relax at the spa, pool or hot tub!
You can find more North American travel inspiration here!
DON’T MISS OUT ON TUCSON’S SIDE TRIPS
Southern Arizona has some great attractions, just beyond Tucson, which make for a great day trip or overnight adventure.
Tubac & Tumacacori
The artist’s colony of Tubac is just 1 hour from Tucson and is a fun day trip for eating and shopping. You’ll find several streets full of artisan shops, and several good restaurants to choose from. Just down the road from Tubac is the Tumacacori National Historic Park, containing the remains of three Spanish missions. Christmas Eve at Tumacacori is not to be missed, as hundreds of luminaria light up the landscape!
If you would like to include a visit to Mexico on your Tucson vacation, Nogales is the place to go. Just 1 hour and 20 minutes from Tucson, Nogales is the closest and largest border crossing from the U.S. to Mexico. The downtown has bars, restaurants, pharmacies, and shops. As with any destination, use caution if traveling after dark, but Nogales sees many U.S. visitors each day, so it is relatively safe for visitors.
ARIZONA THINGS TO KNOW
What attracts many people to live in the desert can also cause discomfort for new visitors to Tucson. The air here is very dry, so it’s important to stay hydrated, even when you aren’t sweating, and you will probably go through a lot of moisturizer, too! A small humidifier can make a big difference while you are sleeping, and travel humidifiers are pretty compact. Sunscreen is critical, for your skin and lips and a hat is always a good idea.
Don’t be fooled by sunshine and warm days. It can get really chilly at night here, with temperatures dropping into the 30’s F. If you are planning any evening or early morning activities, be sure to bring a lot of layers so you can remain comfortable through extreme temperature changes each day.
This isn’t Europe (although you can get to another country within one hour) and distances can be deceiving. If you are planning a road trip through Arizona, or even to neighboring states, be sure to allow plenty of time. Arizona from top to bottom is about 8 hours of driving, which doesn’t account for Phoenix traffic, two-lane roads, or any side trips you might want to take.
There are so many things to do in Tucson, a fun, eclectic town that has so much to offer! I chose it as my new home after traveling all over the Western US for five months, looking for a new hometown. I think it has the perfect blend of culture, scenery, great weather, affordability, and accessibility.
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Leigh Wilson is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a lifelong passion for outdoor adventure travel and urban exploration. In 2017, Leigh and her Airedale Terrier Bailey left Chicago on a 4-month road trip in search of a new hometown, which is now Tucson, Arizona. Leigh blogs at Campfires & Concierges, where she shares travel stories, reviews, and dog-friendly destinations.