10 Best Tucson Attractions and Activities You Shouldn't Miss
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
Tucson is home to one of the most iconic symbols of the West: the Giant Saguaro. This monolithic, sub-tropical plant can be seen along desert roads and clustered at the base of Tucson's hillsides and mountains. Get your fill of this beautiful and unique desert scenery with a visit to Saguaro National Park, which is bifurcated into two large swaths, situated on both the western and eastern edges of the city.
Another can't-miss is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located deep in the desert of Tucson's westside. This impressive "living" museum features extensive walking trails, gardens, and unique outdoor exhibits where you can get up close to mountain lions, coyotes, and maybe even spot a javelina or two.
While you're on the westside, clear some time in your itinerary for a stop at Old Tucson Studios. Movie buffs will recognize the film studio as the location for such films as Tombstone and The Three Amigos. There are western-style shoot-outs, a fun saloon cabaret show, and plenty of carnival-like games and attractions.
History buffs will want to stop in downtown Tucson to visit the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. You can poke around the remains of the city's historic presidio fort, and tour some of the oldest houses in the state of Arizona.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is the only place in the world that protects the saguaro cactus, a symbol of Arizona that grows only in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the well-known plant as well as other types of desert life that have shown resilience in adapting to the harsh, sweltering environment. Enjoy the scenery from the air-conditioned comfort of your car or venture out for a breathtaking hike for an up-close look. The park is divided into East and West sections, each with a visitor center located about 15 miles from downtown Tucson. They both offer guided walking tours, informational exhibits, bookstore and restrooms. The Rincon Mountain center is east of town; the Tucson Mountain District Visitor's Center is west of town at 2700 N Kinney Rd, 520-733-5158. (520-733-5153)
University of Arizona
The University of Arizona campus is an excellent place for a scenic stroll, with groves of ancient olive trees and shaded pathways surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens full of palm trees and cacti. Start at the UA visitor center, where you can learn more about the campus and pick up a map. Highlights include the arts complex with its nationally known photo repository featuring the work of Ansel Adams, the Arizona State Museum, Centennial Hall, and the Flandreau Planetarium. Don't miss the Old Main building, the university's first building and a great example of territorial-era architecture. The university's student union offers several dining options. (520-621-5130)
Pima Air and Space Museum
Aviation buffs, this one's for you. The Museum opened to the public in May, 1976, with 75 aircraft on display. Since then the collection has grown to over 250 aircraft occupying 80 acres of land. The entire museum property covers about 150 acres. One plane of interest is the Lockheed Tristar, used by John Kennedy as Air Force One on short flights or flights to small airports. The museum also operates a cafe and gift shop. This museum also operates the Titan Missile Museum, located just south of Tucson in the community of Sahuarita. Package admissions to both sites are available. (520-574-0462)
Biosphere 2 Center
Located just north of Tucson in the small community of Oracle, AZ, Biosphere 2 is a self-contained, man-made habitat that comprises all of the elements from Earth (Biosphere 1). It is a sealed glass and space frame construction with seven wilderness ecosystems. Today, Biosphere 2 is operated as a research station by Columbia University, which also maintains a branch of the university on the grounds. Guided tours take visitors through several of the biomes, as well as the biospherian's former living quarters and the technical rooms that control the various interior climates. Well worth a visit when you're in the area. The center offers kid-friendly attracts and tours, as well. (520-838-6200, 520-896-6400)
Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block
The Tucson Museum of Art houses a permanent exhibit of pre-Columbian art, Western art, Latin American art (from ancient to contemporary), modern and contemporary art, and Asian art, plus traveling exhibits. It also houses an art school and an art library. There is a fine gift shop within the museum, as well. Located in the historic El Presidio (the original walled city), the Art Museum shares the district with historic homes, one of which is on the National Register of Historic Places. All are within easy walking distance of the museum. Well worth a visit when you're in downtown Tucson. (520-624-2333, 520-696-7450)
Tohono Chul Park
Tohono Chul Park is an award-winning botanical garden in northwest Tucson. The park has been open for more than 25 years, bringing together nature, art and culture in unique and insightful exhibits. The park's gardens were designed to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. A stroll through the gardens can also provide you with glimpses of birds, lizards, jackrabbits and even the occasional bobcat and rattlesnake sighting. The park is also home to art gallery, fine dining bistro and a gift shop. Tohono Chul Park hosts weekly events and classes. Check out the website to see what's in bloom during your visit. (520-742-6455)
Mt. Lemmon Ski Resort
Located about an hour from town, Mt. Lemmon's ski lift runs year round you can use it to reach the top for skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer. And thanks to the mountain's altitude (about 9000 feet), the climate is substantially different than in Tucson. It's not uncommon for folks to spend the day skiing, and then drive back to their hotel in Tucson for an afternoon dip in the hotel's outdoor pool. During the summer, be sure to bring a jacket a tank top and shorts may be comfortable in town, but it probably won't be enough on the mountain! Ski runs are usually open from mid-December to April. (520-576-1321, 520-576-1400)
Mission San Xavier del Bac
San Xavier is considered one of the finest examples of Mission architecture in this country. Founded by Father Eusabio Kino, today it serves as the parish church for the Tohono O'odham tribe and often hosts concerts. The elaborate interior has been carefully restored using techniques taught by experts from the Vatican in Rome. Numerous native artifacts are housed inside, including books, maps and photos. Tourists are welcome any time except during services. There is no admission charge, although a donation for the continued upkeep is appreciated. There is a small outdoor marketplace on the grounds where visitors can purchase authentic Native American jewelry and crafts. (520-294-2624)
Old Tucson Studios
The setting for many favorite Western movies (including Tombstone, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Three Amigos, and countless John Wayne flicks), the Old Tucson Movie Studio had become something of a cinematic legend. Though a fire destroyed part of the studio in 1995, it has been carefully restored. Guests are treated to great views of the Tucson Mountains and the Sonoran Dessert. Attractions have been expanded to include pony rides, carnival games, stagecoach tours, exhibits and an Opera House featuring live performances. Shopping and dining are plentiful at this unique attraction that offers a nostalgic glimpse of the Old West. (520-883-0100)
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of Tucson's star attractions, with good reason. Part zoo, part natural history museum, and part botanical garden, the facility is set on 21 acres and is home to numerous animals that roam freely within invisibly-fenced enclosures. After checking out the exhibits in the main visitor center, wander along two miles of paved pathways, where you can catch sight of endangered species such as the Mexican wolf, thick-billed parrot, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, and the Gila topminnow; and not-so-endangered critters like leafcutter ants, black bears, river otters, bighorn sheep, coatis, beavers, coyote, javelinas, black-tailed prairie dogs, termites and roadrunners. And don't miss the captivating cactus garden or the Hummingbird Aviary! (520-883-2702)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.