30 can’t-miss things to see, do & experience in Tucson

February 7, 2020
By Dana Sullivan
By Dana Sullivan

An insider's guide to Tucson.

You only have to visit Tucson once to realize there’s something incredibly special about this scenic desert town.

Surrounded by breathtaking mountains and blanketed in towering saguaros, the Tucson area houses over a million residents and is home to the University of Arizona—one of the top research institutions in the world—along with Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Raytheon, and more.

In the last decade, downtown Tucson has been revitalized, with exciting new bars, shops and restaurants that paved the way for a vibrant culinary scene that matches the town’s historic charm and fascinating culture.

The best thing about Tucson? It has something for everyone

From rugged outdoor adventures to tasteful art museums; from blooming botanical gardens to quaint boutique hotels: you’ll find anything but boredom in this bustling town.

So whether you’re visiting, vacationing or a local looking to discover something new, we’ve put together a can’t-miss list of the best things to do in Tucson.

Where to have an outdoorsy adventure

There’s no shortage of outdoor adventures to be had in Tucson — after all, the city has an average of 286 sunny days per year. Whether you enjoy hiking, biking or just simply experiencing nature, there are countless trails, parks, and bike paths to take advantage of.

Visit Saguaro National Park

Tucson is well-known for its plethora of giant saguaros, a type of cactus that can grow to be over 40 feet tall. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park on both the east and west sides of the city. You can drive, hike, bike, or horseback ride through either park.

Feeling extra outdoorsy? Camping is allowed by permit at six designated campsites for those looking to sleep among the stars.

Check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

2021 N. Kinney Rd.

The desert landscape is home to many unique plants and animals—most of which you can see and learn about at the expansive indoor/outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Located west of I-10, the 98-acre museum is a “fusion experience” that boasts a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum and aquarium.

Walk through Tucson Botanical Gardens

2150 N. Alvernon Way

Founded in 1964, the Tucson Botanical Gardens are blooming with beauty—not to mention a range of classes, garden tours and even a magical butterfly exhibit that houses over 400 butterflies.

If you’re looking to learn about the diverse plant life in the city, take the garden tour (included with admission) to get to know Tucson’s wide assortment and uncover the variety of gardening traditions and botanical themes present in the locale’s various specialty gardens.

If you get hungry, stop by Café Botanica for a menu inspired by the Sonoran desert and the high-desert of Northern New Mexico.

Go take a hike

If you enjoy hiking, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

From northeast hikes like Finger Rock and Sabino Canyon to Tumamoc Hill out west and Madera Canyon down south, there is a seemingly endless assortment of trails for every level of expertise.

Not sure where to start? Lace up your hiking boots, grab your day pack and check out our article, 7 Tucson Hikes with Nearby Eats.

If you’re craving even more mileage, 7 (More) Tucson Hikes with Nearby Eats lists additional trails (and tasty post-hike restaurants) worth checking out.

Ride the Chuck Huckelberry Loop

Known simply as the “The Loop,” this 131-mile path circles the city and links to Marana, Oro Valley and South Tucson. It also connects Rillito River Park, Santa Cruz River Park, and Pantano River Park with Julian Wash and the Harrison Greenway.

Residents and visitors alike are welcome to walk, run, bike, skate and horseback ride their way around town. Keep an eye out for the 48 works of art scattered on and around the pathway.

Enjoy the drive up Mt. Lemmon


Located in the Coronado National Forest just north of Tucson, Mt. Lemmon (not to be confused with the citrus fruit) is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains with an elevation of 9,159 feet.

Of course, there are many hiking trails and campsites that cover the mountain, but the landmark also boasts its very own ski resort and even a quaint little town called Summerhaven.

Whether you’re planning a hike or not, the drive alone is a site worth seeing—the further up you go, the more dramatic the landscape changes become. By the time you get to the pine tree-covered peak, you might forget you’re still in Tucson!

If you’re feeling hungry, check out: Guide to Mt. Lemmon: Day Trip Eats & Drinks for the Family.

Go wild at the Reid Park Zoo

3400 Zoo Court

A family-friendly experience, the Reid Park Zoo is home to hundreds of animals and welcomes over 500,000 visitors per year. Founded in 1965, the popular destination covers 24 acres filled with lions, tigers, and of course, bears.

But the zoo isn’t just for kids—Reid Park hosts many popular adult-friendly events, including: Brew at the Zoo, a beer-themed event where you can sample local craft brews; and Wine Gone Wild, where visitors can sample a variety of wines and spirits from wineries, distributors, and distilleries.

Take your mark at the Tucson Marathon

Love running long-distance races?

The Tucson Marathon is popular option for runners looking to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Held every year in the beginning of December, the fast course is primed for your best time. In fact, the race is consistently ranked as a top 10 Boston qualifying course.

Where to enjoy a cultural experience

Founded in 1775, the city of Tucson officially became part of the United States in 1854 and is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in North America. In other words, it’s jam-packed with cultural experiences that reflect its history, growth and modern-day appeal.

Scroll through our list to see some of the most exciting, enthralling and educational attractions that the city has to offer.

Fly by the Pima Air & Space Museum

6000 E. Valencia Rd.

History buffs and aviation enthusiasts alike will get a thrill out of seeing the 350 historical aircrafts lined up at the Pima Air & Space Museum. One of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world, the destination features six indoor exhibit hangars, three of which are dedicated to WWII.

Experience the Wild West at Old Tucson

201 S. Kinney Rd.

While the town of Tucson has come a long way since its Wild West days, Old Tucson seeks to keep tradition alive with western attractions like wagon rides and live-action stunt shows.

The western-themed local is also a popular production site, appearing in over 400 films and commercial productions.

Hollywood icons such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Martin, Sharon Stone and Martin Short have also set foot in Old Tucson.

Channel your creativity at the University of Arizona Museum of Art

1031 Olive Rd.


Art is alive and well in this town, and the University of Arizona Museum of Art is proof. Here, you’ll discover diverse collections of over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints with an emphasis on European and American fine art.

Exhibits change often and feature everything from high school student work to established artists and relevant themes that reflect on current events.

Catch a show at the Rialto Theatre or Gaslight Theatre

318 E. Congress St. • 7010 E. Broadway Blvd.

Fancy yourself a theater buff? Catch a show at the historic Rialto Theatre in downtown Tucson or the centrally located Gaslight Theatre.

Opened in 1920, the Rialto originally hosted vaudeville shows, a type of entertainment popular at the time that featured a mix of specialty acts like singing, dancing and comedy. Today, the venue still hosts a variety of shows that range from live music and concerts to comedy acts and even the occasional film screening.

The Gaslight Theatre offers more whimsical productions, including musical comedy melodramas that range from westerns, sci-fi spoofs, Christmas shows and more.

Blast off at the Titan Missile Museum

1580 W. Duval Mine Rd.

Located in Sahuarita, the Titan Missile Museum offers a fascinating look into the front lines of the Cold War. The museum itself is centered around the preserved Titan II missile site, the last of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the country from 1963 to 1987.

Once a top-secret location, the museum offers a rare glimpse of the technology used to deter nuclear war.

Visit the gardens, gallery and bistro of Tohono Chul

7366 Paseo del Norte

Named one of the World’s Great Botanical Gardens by Travel + Leisure Magazine, Tohono Chul is a charming combination of Sonoran nature, art and culture.

Set on 49 acres of lush desert, you can wander through winding garden paths, visit the exhibit galleries and grab a bite at the bistro which features regionally inspired fare.

See stars at the Kitt Peak National Observatory

There’s so much to see in the desert sky, and the Kitt Peak National Observatory offers optimal views.

Located southwest of Tucson on Kitt Peak of the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert on the Tohono O’odham Nation, the observatory is home to one of the largest arrays of optical and radio telescopes in the world. Daytime tours and evening skygazing programs are available.

Experience southwestern art at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun

6300 N. Swan Rd.

Dedicated to the life and works of Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is beloved by locals and tourists alike. Known for his passionate depiction of southwestern life, DeGrazia and his work live on in this colorful gallery.

Capture a moment at the Center for Creative Photography

1030 N. Olive Rd.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Center for Creative Photography must be worth millions. Located on the University of Arizona campus, the museum currently houses more than 90,000 works by over 2,200 photographers and is home to the premier research collection of American photographic fine art and archives.

Climb aboard the Toy Train Operating Museum

3975 N. Miller Ave.

In 1988, the Gadsden-Pacific Division Toy Train Operating Museum opened its doors and has been chugging along ever since.

The museum is home a variety of model trains and displays, some of which visitors can operate themselves. The GPD also hosts two toy train and collectible shows annually that are open to the public and feature model and toy trains, prototype railroad memorabilia, collectible toys and more.

Light a candle at the El Tiradito Shrine

420 South Main Ave.

Located in the Old Barrio area of downtown Tucson, El Tiradito Shrine is a spiritual landmark and is said to be the only Catholic shrine dedicated to a sinner. Many locals believe that the man buried there died fighting for the love of a woman, and visitors often light candles and leave written letters of heartbreak and prayers.

Say a prayer at the San Xavier Mission

1950 W. San Xavier Rd.

Whether you’re religious or not, the Mission San Xavier del Bac is a stunningly gorgeous sight to be seen.

Founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692, this national historic landmark is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and is filled with original statuary and mural paintings. The mission is still active today, and continues to serve the religious needs of its parishioners.

Where to unleash your inner foodie

Let’s face it: we could go on and on about the best places to dine in and around town (you are reading this on Tucson Foodie, after all). Instead, we’ve rounded up a few food and drink-centric experiences that are quintessential to Tucson.

And if you’re still looking for more, we invite you to explore our variety of roundups, including our Ultimate Tucson Visitor’s Guide to Food & Drink.

Chow down on a Sonoran Dog

Super Chipilones Sonoran hot dogs at El Perro Loco (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Super Chipilones Sonoran hot dogs at El Perro Loco (Credit: Jackie Tran)

You simply cannot visit Tucson without trying at least one Sonoran dog, a hot dog variation that originated in Hermosillo, Mexico and features a slightly sweet bun, bacon-wrapped wiener, pinto beans, onions, tomato, salsa verde, mustard, and mayonnaise.

We recommend trying any (or all) of these 8 Awesome Sonoran Hot Dogs in Tucson.

Hop around Tucson’s microbreweries

Julie Fagg pouring beer at 1702 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Julie Fagg pouring beer at 1702 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Tucson has become quite the hop spot in recent years for microbreweries. In fact, there are now 21 unique breweries scattered around town that produce popular craft beer, including Barrio Brewing, Crooked Tooth, Dragoon, and more.

For a complete lineup, visit Your Guide to 21 Tucson Breweries That are Hoppin’.

Take a Tucson Foodie “Tour”

Jackie with $50 of potato dishes at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Melissa Stihl)
Jackie with $50 of potato dishes at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Melissa Stihl)

Staying in a certain part of town or craving a particular type of food? We’ve got you covered with a bounty of delectable options from fast and affordable to exquisitely fine dining.

Make a day of it—heck, make a week of it—by eating your way through a few of our favorite guides:

Where to shop ‘til you drop

A visit to Tucson wouldn’t be complete without a few souvenirs to take home. For those that love a good shopping excursion, we’ve rounded up a few fabulous places where you can drop some dough while supporting small businesses.

Check out a local market

From the Fourth Avenue Street Fair to Cultivate Tucson and countless farmer’s markets and swap meets, there’s always an exciting local market to explore. You’ll discover unique finds from local artisans and small businesses.

Plus, they’re usually accompanied by tasty bites, beverages, and even food trucks.

Take a walk down Historic Fourth Avenue

Fourth Avenue is a lively downtown street filled with eclectic shops, local restaurants and bustling bars.

You’ll find everything from unique clothing and accessories to salons and tattoo shops—not to mention an enticing lineup of ethnic cuisines that range from Greek and Italian to Latin and Mexican.

Experience everything this popular destination has to offer with Your Guide to 33 Bars & Restaurants on Fourth Avenue.

Find something special at Mercado San Agustin

100 S. Avenida del Convento

A small but charming shopping center with a bright and airy courtyard, Mercado San Agustin is home to several eateries and boutiques with plenty of local flair. Enjoy a tasty taco at Seis, peruse local treasures at Mast, or grab a fresh floral arrangement at Bloom Maven.

Shop the MSA Annex

267 S. Avenida del Convento

The newly constructed MSA Annex is located right by Mercado and houses more than a dozen locally owned shops and eateries in modified shipping containers.

The containers, designed by Tucson Architect Paul Weiner, add a unique flair to your shopping and dining experience.

Where to relax and recharge

Unless you plan on staying with friends or family, you’ll need a comfortable place to crash once the day’s activities are through.

Home to many beloved boutique hotels and resorts, Tucson has no shortage of accommodations to rest your weary head and recharge for the next day.

Party hard before passing out at a downtown hotel

Hotel Congress

We admit that Hotel Congress might not be the most *relaxing* hotel stay and yes, there is even a disclaimer on their website. However, if you’re a bit of a night owl and don’t mind the loud music, it’s definitely worth booking a night or two at historic Hotel Congress, located at 311 Congress St.

This landmark hotel was built in 1919 and is a popular “going out” destination, complete with a nightclub and concert venue. It also happens to be where the infamous outlaw John Dillinger was captured in 1934.

Another reason to check in? Hotel Congress is conveniently located within walking distance to many of downtown Tucson’s most popular restaurants and bars.

Cantaloupe Collins at the AC Hotel Tucson Downtown (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Cantaloupe Collins at the AC Hotel Tucson Downtown (Credit: Jackie Tran)
AC Hotel by Marriott Tucson Downtown

Another hotel located in the heart of downtown Tucson, at 151 E. Broadway Blvd., AC Hotel Tucson Downtown is a fabulous choice if you’re spending a night out in the city.

In addition to the convenient location, the hotel is environmentally friendly. It was recently awarded a LEED certification for its environmental design and awareness. Read more about it in our: AC Hotel Tucson Downtown Celebrates LEED Certification with Sustainable Cocktail.

Be on the lookout for pool parties hosted on the rooftop in summer or step into the lobby bar for a cocktail and let the games begin!

Enjoy a restful retreat at the Arizona Inn

200 E. Elm St.


Another popular (albeit quieter) historic Tucson hotel is the Arizona Inn. This charming boutique hotel spans over 14 acres of gardens, fountains, flowers and lawns. Centrally located, it’s a great place to stay if you plan on traveling to all parts of town.

Live the resort life

As a vacation hot spot (literally—summer temperatures can reach upwards of 110 degrees), you’ll find many resorts located in and around Tucson that offer large swimming pools, lazy rivers, golfing, and beyond. The selection even tempts many locals into “staycations.”

Need a few recommendations? The JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa is a popular westside destination that offers luxury amenities, while the northeast Hacienda del Sol offers equally appealing niceties.

If you’re a local or just passing through Tucson, let us know in the comments where you’ve had a memorable experience in our beloved city.

[This article was originally written on August 9, 2019, and most recently updated on February 7, 2020.]

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