10 Best Sightseeing Spots in Tucson: Don't Miss These One-of-a-Kind Destinations
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
Tucson is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the United States, so there is a lot of ground to explore in this desert metropolis.
Saguaro National Park, which flanks the city to the east and west, is home to North America's largest cacti, the iconic giant saguaro. These plants are only found in parts of Arizona and California. You'll get an eyeful at Saguaro National Park, which preserves over 1.6 million of these majestic giants.
For more desert beauty, make sure to pay a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a 21-acre living museum that is part botanical garden and part wildlife zoo. You'll want to set aside several hours to explore the trails and exhibitions and this unique desert museum.
Explore Tucson's Spanish and Native American heritage at Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded in 1692 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino.
If you have time for a day trip, the historic village of Tubac (roughly 50 miles south of Tucson) is the perfect place to pick up authentic Southwestern and Mexican arts and crafts.
Tombstone, located about 70 miles southeast of Tucson, is another great sightseeing opportunity. Walk the streets of "the town too tough to die," including the historic Birdcage Theatre, Boothill Graveyard, and of course, the site of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Back in Tucson, be sure to check out the Pima Air and Space Museum, one of the largest aerospace museums in the world.
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)
About 50 miles south of Tucson is the artsy little town of Tubac. Start off at the Visitor's Center in the La Entrada de Tubac shopping center, where you can pick up maps and plenty of brochures about local attractions. You'll certainly want to see Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, which dates back to 1752 and houses some wonderful historical and archaeological exhibits. You can hike the Anza Trail between this park and Tumacacori National Historic Park (about 3 miles). The trail crosses the Santa Cruz river a couple of times so you'll get wet feet, but it's a great way to see the variety of plant and animal life that a constant water source brings to an otherwise arid desert. Finally, be sure to spend some time browsing through the numerous art and craft galleries, charming boutiques and eclectic shops offering everything from handmade beads and furniture to Native American pottery and contemporary art glass. A fun day trip! (520-398-0007)
Biosphere 2 Center
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 the University of Arizona, 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. Recently named one of the 50 must see "Wonders of the World" by Time Magazine, Biosphere 2 offers an insightful glimpse into the future of our planet. (520-838-6200, 520-896-6400)
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)
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)
Tombstone is located about 70 miles southeast of Tucson, perfect for a day trip. Some of the biggest legends of the Old West originated right here -- Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the gunfight at the OK Corral. Today's Tombstone is touristy, to be sure, but with the help of the National Park Service the town is trying to retain some of its National Historic District designation, so new tourist traps are thankfully a thing of the past. Visitors will find a handful of snack shops and restaurants, a few small hotels and B&Bs, and horseback, stagecoach and wagon tours among the services; gunfight shows, monuments, a city park, a couple of intriguing museums, and various historic buildings comprise the sites. Tombstone is a must-visit for any fan of the Old West! (520-457-3929, 888-457-3929)
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Although discovered by two amateur cavers in 1974, the existence of Kartchner Caverns was not commonly known until 1988 when the state purchased the caves and surrounding land for use as a public park. Guided tours last about 1 and a half hours, and lead guests past some of the most amazing and colorful cave formations in the world. The Rotunda/Throne Room tour is offered daily, year round; Big Room tours are offered daily, October 15 to mid-April, but due to the difficult terrain of this tour, children under 7 are not permitted. The park also features hiking trails, a Discovery Center and 62 campsites. (520-586-2283, 520-586-2283)
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. The stunning architecture and storied history of Mission San Xavier del Bac makes this one of the Southwest's biggest treasures. (520-294-2624)
Situated on the northeast edge of town in the Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon is a popular year-round spot for walking and picnicking because it doesn't require a hike into the mountains. That's because a shuttle bus travels the 3.8 miles to the head of the canyon, making nine on/off stops along the way. Of course the Coronado National Forest is crisscrossed with many miles of trails that are great for hiking or horseback riding (and some are open to bicyclists as well), so if you have the urge to really get out in nature, this the perfect place to do it. Although not required, shuttle reservations are recommended during peak seasons. (520-749-8700, 520-388-8300)
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.