There’s a plethora of things to do in Tucson for all ages and interests. Before we get into all the amazing attractions the city has to offer, let’s do a bit of background. Tucson is the second largest city in the southwestern state of Arizona and has a population of around 520,000 people. The Spanish translation of the city name means ‘at the base of the black hill’ and relates to Sentinel Peak. The Peak is covered in basalt, which makes it black in appearance. Tucson is famous for being the first UNESCO recognized ‘City of Gastronomy’ due to its quality and diverse range of cuisines. Tucson plays an important role in the US military, with two of its largest employers being Raytheon Missile Systems and David-Monthan Air Force Base. It also has the cleanest air of any city in the United States, which is likely down to all that wide-open desert space.
So, let’s take you on a quick journey and explore all the great things to do in Tucson on your visit.
Saguaro National Park
The Saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of the Southwestern United States. The massive cactus are a protected species, and the park exists to preserve and showcase these unique plants in their natural habitat. There are two sections of the park, sitting either side of Tucson city. The saguaro such an important species in Arizona that, if you have one if your garden, it’s a crime to chop it down. The tallest saguaro grows to around 50 feet high and has up to 50 arms. The oldest can live up to 200 years, and the species only exists in the Sonoran Desert. Within the park are miles of walking trails, scenic lookouts (up to 8,666 ft), camping, and miles and miles of beautiful open space. Visiting the National Park is one of the best free things to do in Tucson. Just remember to check the weather and take water and supplies. It can get incredibly hot out there.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
Located on the Tohono O’odham Nation Indian Reservation, the Mission San Xavier del Bec is a Spanish Catholic mission, founded in 1692. The mission is the oldest surviving European church in Arizona, and its name translates as ‘where the water comes in.’ San Xavier is based close to the Santa Cruz River, which was used extensively by the native community who lived there, hence the name. The mission was built with Moorish influence and is a brilliant white against the bright Tucson sunshine. It is still used today for its original purpose, unlike the other missions in the state. Because of this, it’s closed to the public when being used for religious ceremonies. However, you can visit at other times, and it’s a wonderful thing to do in Tucson to learn about its history.
Tucson Botanical Garden
Tucson’s Botanical Garden differs from most other botanic gardens in the United States in that it’s a collection of 16 separate gardens, based within the same 5.5 acres of land. Each garden has a specific theme, and all are connected by walkways. Some of the highlights are the Zen Garden, the Barrio, the Butterfly and, of course, the Children’s Garden. If you manage to convince your kids to go along, it’s only fair they have somewhere to run around and burn off all that excess energy they always seem to have. If you don’t have kids, you can take your four-legged friend (dog, not cat…) along for a tiny fee and they, too, can enjoy the beauty of the area. Checking out the botanical gardens is one of the top things to do in Tucson. Clearly, it’s even better if you can take your doggo.
Tickets required, available online or from the entrance, $8-$15
Pima Air and Space Museum
Pima Air and Space Museum sits on a 127-acre lot and has more than 360 full sized aircraft. It’s the world’s largest aerospace museum that’s not funded by Government. Since it was founded in 1976, the museum has continually expanded, adding multiple hangars and new exhibits. In 2015, the second 787 ever built was donated to the site by Boeing. The museum also works in partnership with the neighboring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. This has allowed Pima to show The Boneyard as part of its collection. This is the world’s largest aircraft preservation and storage facility. The area allows visitors to view a huge range of aircraft that have been retired from active service. The Museum and Boneyard are great things to do in Tucson with kids.
Historic Fourth Avenue in downtown Tucson is the cultural heart of the city. It’s a hipster’s paradise and is full of kooky boutiques, art, antiques and hand-crafted gifts. The Avenue is a very popular place to hang out and has a wide selection of options for eating and drinking. Although the atmosphere is lively during the day, it really comes alive when the sun goes down, and the lights come on. Taking a stroll for dinner and drinks is one of the top things to do in Tucson.
Old Tucson Studios
If you love all things Wild West, this will be near the top of your list of things to do in Tucson. Old Tucson is a theme park, TV and movie studio, which was built to record the movie ‘Arizona’ back in 1939. After this, it was used for other shows and films, including ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ Legendary Western actor, John Wayne, starred in four movies filmed on sets at Old Tucson. More recently, the studios were used for ‘Terminal Velocity’ and ‘Tombstone’ movies in the early 1990s. In 2011, several new streets were built, as well as an original dressmaker and blacksmith store. If you want to take the family for a day of Wild West fun, this is for you. The studio runs a series of show tours where you can witness gun fights, saloon bar brawls, and can-can girls.
Ticket required, available online or at the entrance, general admission, $10.95-$19.95
Off-beat things to do in Tucson
On the hunt for slightly odd and unusual things to do in Tucson? Then read on… The city is home to an enormous pedestrian bridge designed to look like a Diamondback snake. The bridge quite literally snakes its way across the highway and ensures walkers and cyclists a safe passage. Or does it?? Actually, yes it does. It might look like a rattlesnake, but it is just a bridge. An exceptionally creepy bridge, but a bridge nonetheless. Taking a walk into the mouth of an enormous rattlesnake has to come top of the list of unusual things to do in Tucson.
FAQs About Tucson
We’ve compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the city and things to do in Tucson. These will help your research, planning, and general education about all this uniquely Southernwestern city has to offer.
What is there to do in downtown Tucson?
If you’re headed downtown, there’s a ton of interesting things to do in Tucson. You can hit up the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, or visit the beautiful Old Pima County Courthouse. Alternatively, stay outdoors and take a walk through the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
What can you do for free in Tucson?
If you’re looking for free things to do in Tucson, you’re in for a treat. Take a stroll in Santa Cruz River Park and check out the scenery, or go higher and check out Sentinel Peak Park. If you’re looking for cultural attractions, then head to the DeGrazia Gallery in the sun to experience the wonderful outdoor desert gallery.
What is there to do in Tucson at night??
If you like mixing drinks and stargazing, Sky Bar would be the perfect thing to do in Tucson for you and your SO. The bar offers a solar-powered cafe during the day, but when the lights go out, it’s all about the solar system. You can grab a cocktail and a telescope and check out the night sky to see what you can spot. For lovers of theater, grab a schedule for Fox Tucson Theater and see what’s on at the beautiful 1930s Southwest Art Deco building.
Tucson is a lively city, known for its southwestern charm and dedication to spicy food. As with most desert cities, it has long, hot summers and very mild winters. This makes a pretty ideal vacation spot all year round. It has a lot to offer and a great deal of Native American history, which it’s understandably proud to showcase. The city benefits from being close to mountain ranges, which makes it a popular destination for visitors who enjoy outdoor activities. The locals – known as Tusconans – are friendly and welcoming, and have a reputation for being laid back. Accommodation is diverse, with the option to stay in everything from traditional Adobe homes to high rise hotels. Tucson International Airport serves the city, and public transport is cheap and frequent. We hope we’ve convinced you about all the wonderful things to do in Tucson during your vacation!