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10 Fun Free Things to Do in Tucson



One of Tucson's best free attractions is the Mission San Xavier del Bac, located about nine miles south of downtown Tucson on the Tohono O'odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission is a great example of eighteenth century southwest mission architecture, with colorful interiors, a desert courtyard, museum and gift shop.

There's also a small marketplace in the parking lot where you can shop for Native American jewelry, art and other Southwestern wares. The mission is an active place of worship, so please be mindful of the local mass schedule. If you come on a Sunday, enjoy a tasty piece of authentic fry bread from the vendors that set up in the parking lot after mass. 

Tucson is a thriving university town, which means it offers many free arts and cultural attractions. One of the best is the Center for Creative Photography, located on the University of Arizona Campus. The museum hosts several exhibitions throughout the year, many of which feature the works of well-known photographers. 

Even the most casual art lover will enjoy a visit to DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun. The beautiful museum and garden were the home and studio of Italian artist Ted DeGrazia, who adopted Tucson and the southwest as his permanent home. Wander through the rustic, artful courtyard, take in the mountain views, and explore DeGrazia's impressive body of work in the museum. 

Finally, explore Tucson's history with a visit to the historic Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, a re-creation of the Tucson Presidio built in 1775. The site is still home to many historic buildings, and the museum offers free admission on the third Saturday of the month. 


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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 ahead and setting up a reservation.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Center for Creative Photography archives the works of some of the best photographers in the world. Check out the free art gallery.

Patricia's expert tip: Call or email ahead of your visit to check seasonal hours and to arrange a free tour.

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Train and history buffs will love a visit to this underrated downtown Tucson attraction. The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum in downtown Tucson preserves and interprets Southern Arizona railroad heritage through the museum's educational outreach, oral history and archival collections. The City of Tucson purchased the former Southern Pacific Railroad Depot on Toole Avenue in 1998, restoring the main depot and three adjacent building to reflect accurately their Restoration of the main depot building and the three adjacent buildings to their 1941 architectural style was completed in 2004.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Train enthusiasts and history buffs will definitely want to check out this underrated museum in downtown Tucson.

Patricia's expert tip: Looking for somewhere to eat after your visit? Check out Maynards Market & Kitchen, which is located adjacent to the depot.

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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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Tucson Museum of Art offers free admission for everyone on the first Thursday of the month after 5 p.m.

Patricia's expert tip: The First Thursday of the month is free after 5 p.m.

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Winding along the dry Santa Cruz River, this park is a fun place to forget the woes of the day. The park features a very popular disc golf course (the oldest in town, incidentally), as well as the Garden of Gethsemane, a peaceful little corner created as a repository for the works of sculptor Felix Lucero. On Thursdays the Santa Cruz Farmers' Market sets up here, offering the best local fruits, vegetables and herbs. Be sure to stroll along El Paseo de los Arboles ("The Pathway of the Trees") a special memorial walk with beautiful tiled walls. The park is currently being renovated to add more bike trails.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Santa Cruz River Park offers visitors an easy way to experience the natural world, without having to leave the city.

Patricia's expert tip: You can access the Santa Cruz River Park Trail from anywhere it crosses a road. Parking is available off El Camino del Cerro west of the river, and Christopher Columbus Park off Silverbell Road.

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El Presidio

The Presidio San Agustín was Tucson's first neighborhood. Named for the Spanish-built Presidio de San Augustin del Tucson, the historic area is the site of the original walled fort of Tucson. Though none of the original wall remains, the Presidio San Agustín offers a re-creation of the Tucson Presidio built in 1775.There are still many historic adobe homes and buildings standing in the area, which are occasionally showcased during home tours. Top attractions here include the Tucson Museum of Art, Old Town Artisans, and El Charro Restaurant. Bordered by West 6th, Sunset Park, South Arizona, and Freeway Street. Don't miss the free tours offered by the Tucson Museum of Art, which is part of this historic city block. Call the museum to check seasonal hours and tour availability.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Presidio San Agustín in Tucson is free and open to the public on third Saturdays and on August 20th, Tucson's birthday.

Patricia's expert tip: Enjoy free admission to the Presidio's small museum on the third Saturday of the month. Plus, it's also free on August 20th, which is Tucson's birthday.

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Sentinel Peak, also known as "A" Mountain, is local landmark, as well as a city park. Fans of the University of Arizona maintain the decades-long tradition of painting a giant "A" on the side of the mountain in honor of their alma mater. Sentinel Peak is often referred to as Tucson's birthplace, because it is the former site of an ancestral Pima Village. Although this is a non-traditional park, it's certainly worth the hike up simply for the dazzling views of the Tucson valley. Plus, the park recently received several upgrades, including two shaded plazas, new park entry signs, handicapped-accessible parking spaces and a new paved path.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: You don't need an expensive helicopter tour for a birds-eye view of Tucson. Just strap on your best walking shoes and climb up Sentinel Peak.

Patricia's expert tip: Plan an evening hike up to the park. The panoramic views of the city below are worth it.

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Within its boundaries, this 20,000 acre park has miles of hiking trails and numerous incredible desert vistas. If that sounds appealing, a hike up to Gates Pass will reward you with a charming stone gazebo from which to take in a stellar sunset view. Other outdoor activities within the park include horseback riding, picnic areas, camping and archery/rifle/pistol ranges. The park is conveniently located on the road to some of Tucson's most popular attractions, including the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios. The park offers plenty of pull-out points for motorists looking for the perfect spot to capture that postcard-perfect desert sunset.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Tucson Mountain Park is a popular spot for photographers looking to capture that perfect view of Tucson's famously brilliant sunsets.

Patricia's expert tip: Prepare yourself for hairpin turns and bring your camera to capture the great views.

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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 local Yaqui tribes. The grounds are rustic and artful, and the garden is lovely. Well worth a visit, even if you're not a DeGrazia devotee.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Even casual art lovers will enjoy a visit to DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun, the rustically beautiful former home and studio of a Southwestern legend.

Patricia's expert tip: Original art available in the large gift shop/gallery.

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The University of Arizona campus is an excellent place for a scenic stroll, with groves of mature 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The University of Arizona is Arizona's first university. Take a free self-guided tour of the beautiful and expansive campus.

Patricia's expert tip: Explore the university's Main Gate area, home to dozens of shops and eateries.

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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 of the mission is appreciated. The stunning architecture and storied history of Mission San Xavier del Bac makes this one of the Southwest's biggest treasures.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Mission San Xavier is a history buff's dream. Enjoy one-of-a-kind Southwestern mission architecture, and a free history museum to boot.

Patricia's expert tip: Stop by the small marketplace located across from the mission, which features Native American crafts and jewelry.

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Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.

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