Here’s a list of the 15 best things to do in Tucson (Arizona) along with famous landmarks, museums, and other points of interest.
Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona, located in Pima County. The city’s name comes from O’odham Cuk Ṣon, which can be translated to “at the base of the black hill”.
Tucson also goes by the nickname “The Old Pueblo” and the area is rich in history and culture. In this article, I’m sharing some of the best places to visit in Tucson along with activities and other landmarks that shouldn’t be missed while visiting.
Pima Air and Space Museum
Tucson is home to one of the biggest private aerospace museums of the world, the Pima Air & Space Museum. The museum was founded in 1976 and hosts an impressive collection of nearly 300 aircraft scattered on over 320,000 m² of land.
Many of the aircraft are located in the 4 main hangar halls of the property, while others are displayed on the outside. Guests also have access to the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, another interesting aspect of this sight.
Amongst the most prominent models of the collection is the B17 “Flying Fortress”, a bomber that quickly made a name for himself during the Second World War. An early prototype of the Boeing 777 can also be found in the museum.
Located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Sabino Canyon is one of the most impressive natural areas in southern Arizona. The canyon features amazingly steep rock cliffs, unique desert vegetation and interesting wildlife.
Popular activities include hiking, photography, and mountain biking. If you want a bit more comfort you can also join a tour around the canyon in the so-called Bear Canyon Shuttle.
The entrance area of the canyon has a visitor center and a bookstore, which are great for those wishing to learn more about the canyon and available activities.
Saguaro National Park
The history of the Saguaro National Park dates to the year 1933. Back then the area was declared a National Monument. The namesake of the park, the giant tree-like Saguaro cactus, is one of the most prominent symbols of the American West.
It can commonly be found in this part of the Sonora desert and is remarkably beautiful when it is blossoming during the summer months. The national park consists of the Rincon Mountain District, which is located east of Tucson, and the Tucson Mountain District, located to the west.
Both districts offer their guests amazing hiking trails and beautiful, untouched nature but are not for the faint of heart. Snakes, bears, cougars, extreme heat, and even flash floods are possible obstacles hikers face. With that in mind, it’s still one of the most beautiful places to visit in Arizona.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
The Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded in 1692, is situated in the Tohono O`odham National San Xavier Indian Reservation, around 15 km south of Tucson. The mission is the oldest existing European building in the whole of Arizona and a great example of Spanish colonial architecture.
Particularly impressive is the mission’s richly decorated interior. Further underlining its significance, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
The pilgrimage site remains immensely popular today and sees around 200,000 visitors annually. Don’t miss some of the local delicacies that are sold next to the parking area.
Tucson Botanical Garden
Tucson also offers its visitors a great botanical garden that is comprised of sixteen urban gardens. The themes of the gardens vary, there is a Zen Garden, a Butterfly Garden, a Prehistoric Garden and many more.
The Tucson Botanical Garden acts as a lush oasis in the heart of the city and is a great spot for nature lovers. Taking a walk through the gardens is also a great way to relax.
Furthermore, the garden offers art exhibitions and community events that are of interest to residents of Tucson and guests alike. Guided tours are available, as well as a gift shop.
Old Tucson Studios
The Old Tucson Studios are a film studio and recreational park located around 20 km west of Tucson. This place is a dream come true for anyone that loves old cowboy movies.
The area was used as a set for numerous movies including the movie Rio Bravo (featuring John Wayne) and El Dorado. Many of the requisites like the historic clay brick houses remain to this day.
Old Pueblo Trolley
This is both the old streetcar line that ran from 1993 to 2014 and the name of a non-profit organization that aims to preserve the mass transit history of Arizona.
The Old Pueblo Trolley Inc has two museums where you can see the old trolleys along with old cars and other means of transportation. They are run by volunteers, and located at 360 E 8th Street and 250 E 36th Street.
Cathedral of Saint Augustine
One of the most significant cultural highlights of Tucson is the Cathedral of St. Augustine. The cathedral acts as the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and was built in 1776.
The Mexican baroque style of architecture and the cast stone façade featuring the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI are very impressive. What makes the cathedral unique are the yucca and saguaro blossoms that were incorporated in the decoration of the façade.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
The Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is located around 90 km west of Tucson. It features over twenty optical telescopes as well as two radio telescopes.
Due to the favorable atmospheric conditions of the Sonora Desert and the high altitude of the Kitt Peak, the observatory was founded in 1958 and acted as one of the most significant astronomical observatories of the northern hemisphere.
Visitors can take part in different programs and activities. You can visit the observatory on your own terms or take part in a daytime tour. Particularly interesting are the nightly observation programs that allow guests to get a glimpse of the night sky above the desert.
Visitors can make use of the telescope and explore deep space objects. This is also one of the best things to do in Tucson with kids, especially if they are interested in space.
The Kennedy Lake is situated in the J.F. Kennedy Park and has a surface area of around 10 acres. The urban lake is particularly known for being a great fishing spot.
Canoeing on the lake is also a popular activity. Even though swimming is prohibited, the lake is a great spot for families. The surrounding park offers a basketball court, tennis courts and many other sports facilities. The picnic tables and grills make the park an ideal destination for families or groups of friends.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
The Colossal Cave system is located 35 km southeast of Tucson and offers an impressive 5.6 km of passageways. The temperatures inside the cave remain at a stable 21 °C for the whole year.
Interestingly, from 900 to 1450 AD the cave system was used by the Apache Indians, as well as the Hohokam and Sobaipuri. The park offers its guests a wealth of information about the history of the cave system.
Guests can take part in guided tours and even make use of the campground and stay overnight. If you’re looking for an adventure, the Colossal Cave Mountain Park is one of the best places to visit in Tucson, Arizona.
With an elevation of 2,792m Mount Lemmon is the highest mountain in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Located north of Tucson, the mountain is home to a ski valley that receives around 500 cm of snow annually.
One of the biggest attractions of the mountain is the observatory located near the summit. The Catalina highway leads from Tucson all the way to the small village Summerhaven, which is located next to the summit.
The highway is a very scenic way to travel the region and very much recommended for visitors that have access to a private vehicle. Please note that the temperatures on top of the summit are around 20 degrees cooler than in the plains.
The Tohono Chul gardens are a celebration of the wild, untouched nature of the Sonoran Desert. It is the goal of the owners of this property to create beautiful spaces that attract wildlife.
To achieve this, the park’s plantings were designed to be a perfect habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds. Thanks to all these efforts the gardens were awarded the Environmental Excellence Award by the Arizona Forward Awards.
Guests visiting Tohono Chul can also enjoy a great exhibition that authentically portrays the distinctive feel of the local art.
This unique and well-preserved neighborhood used to be a business district in the 19th century. Today it serves as a hub for art galleries and funky shops.
The main attractions of the Barrio Historico are its brightly colored houses that resemble the style of architecture of past centuries. The area is great for taking a walk and exploring some of the interesting shops and galleries.
Walking around in Barrio Historico is definitely one of the best things to do in Tucson, Arizona, and something I recommend to everyone, even if they are not particularly interested in art.
The best way to explore the scenic Sentinel Peak Park is to take a drive along the peak road that leads all the way to the summit. Alternatively, the road can also be used for walks or cycling.
The Santa Cruz valley was used by the Hohokam Indians as well as the Spanish colonists. The Sentinel Peak is also called the ”A” Mountain because students of the local university installed a huge A-shaped basalt rock at the summit in 1916.
The background to this was a football victory of the local Arizona Wildcats who use the letter “A” as their logo.
Want more recommendations on things to do in Tucson, Arizona? Leave a comment below!