10 Best Museums in Tucson: Cultural Attractions You Shouldn't Miss
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
If spending hours in a good museum is your idea of a day well spent, Tucson boasts an impressive and diverse museum scene that you'll want to check out. This is not surprising, when you consider the city's deep and rich cultural history and heritage.
Our top pick goes to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This "living museum" is all around one of the best places to explore the natural history of Tucson and the Sonoran Desert.
History buffs will want to explore the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, located in the heart of downtown Tucson. The museum has one of the best collections of Latin American and Western Art in the southwest. After you're done perusing the galleries, explore the surrounding historic properties located adjacent to the museum.
If you've got an interest in aviation history, don't miss the Pima Air & Space Museum. The museum is home to more than 80 acres of museum space with approximately five hangars and 150 outdoor airplanes ready to be explored. Be sure to set aside a few hours to explore the entire museum (there's an on-site restaurant where you can grab a bite).
Finally, if you enjoy off-the-beaten path attractions, check out the Mini Time Machine, a museum dedicated to celebrating all things miniature. There are about 275 miniature houses and room boxes that appeal to visitors of all ages and interests.
Arizona State Museum
Since 1893, the Arizona State Museum has been collecting, preserving, researching and interpreting the cultures of the Greater Southwest, including Arizona and northern Mexico. It is the oldest and largest anthropological museum in the region, was one of the very first departments at the University of Arizona, and houses absolutely vast collections of pottery, textiles, photographs and documents, only a fraction of which can be displayed at any given time. Fans of the history, anthropology and Native American culture will be in awe. The museum is located on the grounds of the University of Arizona and offers free docent-led tours with admission. (520-621-6302, 520-626-5886)
Center for Creative Photography
A major addition to the arts complex at the University of Arizona, the Center for Creative Photography was conceived by Ansel Adams and is now the chief repository for his work. The photograph collection of the Center is one of the finest and largest in the world, with more than 60,000 photographs. Although the collection's main strength is photography by 20th-century American and Mexican artists, the Center holds significant collections of 19th and 20th century photography from around the world. In addition to Ansel Adams, the Center also contains the works of Richard Avedon, Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. A unique feature of the Center is print viewing. The public can view up to three boxes of prints from several thousand photographers by calling for reservations. (520-621-7968)
Arizona Historical Society Museum
The Arizona Historical Society's museum adjacent to the University of Arizona campus offers information about the development of Arizona from the first arrival of Europeans in 1540 through the times under Spain and Mexico, to territorial Arizona in the 1800s and beyond. Branch museums at Fort Lowell on the east side, and at the Sosa-Carillo-Fremont House in the Convention Center complex give looks at military and civilian life during the Mexican and territorial periods. The permanent collection includes southwestern treasures related to Wyatt Earp (including his wedding ring), Geronimo and other Arizona legends. A small gift shop offers Arizona-related books, jewelry and gift items. (520-628-5774)
The Mini-Time Machine, A Museum of Miniatures
The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson is a 15,560 square foot facility that likes to think of itself as a miniature time machine where you can step back in time--in miniature form. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy a self-guided tour through the various rooms, which represent different lands and times, real and imagined. The museum is home to over 275 miniature houses and room boxes. No matter what your inspiration, everyone in your group is likely to find a favorite room and time period. This museum of miniatures is perfect for kids, but adults are also likely to enjoy a tour of this offbeat museum. ((520) 881-0606)
International Wildlife Museum
It may seem a bit unorthodox these days to center a museum around a collection of stuffed and preserved animals and insects, but this one actually succeeds. Starting with the holdings of numerous educational institutions and individuals, the curators here have developed an engaging, hands-on learning experience. True, the taxidermists' craft is well represented, but where else can kids (and adults) touch and handle real skulls, fur and skin? And unless you see them up close, it's difficult at best to envision the size and mass of a rhino, a grizzly bear or an elephant. And while you've probably seen "Ice Age" at least once, there are only a handful of places to see a real saber-tooth cat, and this is one of them! Those are some mighty long fangs... (520-629-0100, 520-617-1439)
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)
DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun
Ted DeGrazia is a Tucson legend. His home and the surrounding buildings, originally built in open country in the foothills of the Catalinas, are now surrounded by the city. The gallery, his former home, his workshop, and the roofless chapel were all built by hand from native materials. The "gallery" now serves as a museum to the famed artist. It also houses the gift shop and a small gallery dedicated to the religious festivals of the Yaqui Native Americans. The grounds are rustic and artful, and the garden is lovely. Well worth a visit, even if you're not a DeGrazia devotee. (520-299-9191, 800-545-2185)
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. This museum also operates the Titan Missile Museum. Package admissions to both sites are available. This is a great family-friendly attraction that gives kids a close-up look at some of the most historic aircraft in the country. (520-574-0462)
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)
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.