With cactus-studded state parks, fascinating historic sites, and a surprisingly innovative food and drink scene, there’s a lot to love about Tucson. Home to The University of Arizona, the city is often overlooked as yet another party-centric college town. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll quickly discover there’s much more to Tucson than that!
Nestled in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is surrounded by a handful of sprawling parks, including Saguaro National Park, Catalina State Park, and Tucson Mountain Park. With so many hiking, biking, and sightseeing options, it’s no wonder why this city is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts!
But if you’re in town for a relaxing retreat, you’ll find everything you need in the city center. History buffs will definitely want to spend some time exploring the El Presidio Historic District and touring the Mission San Xavier del Bac, while families will love seeing wild animals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Plus, the whole family will love shopping, drinking, and dining along bustling Fourth Street.
With its UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation, Tucson is a dream come true for foodies. From the oldest Mexican restaurant in the US to award-winning farm-to-table eateries, Tucson really does have it all!
With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Tucson for you. Stick to these fun and unique Tucson bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this one-of-a-kind city!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Tucson
1. Take a Cactus-Studded Hike in Saguaro National Park
Outdoor enthusiasts will be spoiled for choice when it comes to things to do in Tucson. While you’ll have a range of national parks and towing mountains to choose from, you’ll definitely want to spend some time hiking around the incredible Saguaro National Park.
Located an easy 20-minute drive from the heart of Tucson, you’ll have 165 miles of scenic trails to explore at Saguaro National Park. Expect to find plenty of the park’s iconic saguaro cacti along the way!
If you’re looking for something short and sweet, you can get up close with a towering cactus on the easy .8 mile Valley View Overlook Trail. Another popular pick is following the .5-mile trail to the Signal Hill Petroglyphs. On top of the hill, you’ll see petroglyphs that were created by the Hohokam people over 800 years ago!
If you really want to sweat it out, you can challenge yourself with the more strenuous hike up to Wassen Peak. The 8-mile out-and-back journey is tough but well worth it for the epic views from the top! Or, if you don’t feel like hiking but still want to see the sights, it’s well worth taking a scenic drive along Cactus Forest Drive or Bahada Loop Drive.
2. Explore the El Presidio Historic District
El Presidio Historic District is a must on your Tucson bucket list – especially if you’re interested in the city’s history. This just happens to be one of the oldest inhabited sites in the United States. Once home to the Hohokam Indians, it became the site of a Spanish military fort in 1775, marking the beginning of the City of Tucson.
Today, you’ll find picture-perfect restored adobe houses, a museum, and archaeological exhibits. Time your visit right and the little ones will love the blacksmithing demonstrations and battle re-enactments!
If you’re hankering to pick up some souvenirs, you’ll love Old Town Artisans. The 1850s marketplace is brimming with shops selling everything from Native American art to Southwest-style pottery. You’ll also find buzzing brewpubs, hip tattoo shops, and vintage vinyl stores in Old Town Artisans.
Once you work up an appetite, you’ll have a range of Mexican cantinas to choose from. But if you want to dine at the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant, El Charro Café is the place! After that, it’s well worth checking out the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block‘s collections of Latin American, Western, and Native American art.
3. Eat Your Way Through a UNESCO City of Gastronomy
When most people think of Tucson, the last thing to come to mind is gastronomy. But Tucson is actually one of the foodiest cities in the US!
In 2015, the city was the first city in the US to earn the title of UNESCO City of Gastronomy. With over 4,000 years of agricultural history, its numerous cultural influences, and its creative approach to cuisine, it’s easy to see why!
Take some time to eat your way through Tucson, and you’ll discover local favorites like the bacon-wrapped Sonoran-style hot dog and chicken-stuffed tamales. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover all sorts of innovative eateries and culinary inventions.
Start your day with a kimchee egg sandwich Exo Roast Co., then sample spicy tonkotsu ramen at Ikkyu, ají ceviche at Charro del Rey, or seafood-stuffed tacos at BOCA Tacos y Tequila. For dessert, why not treat yourself to an indulgent snickerdoodle pancake from Baja Cafe or some Sonoran sea salt chocolates from Monsoon Chocolate?
There are always new restaurants opening up in Tucson, so come hungry!
4. Learn About Native Plants & Animals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
If you’re looking for a family-friendly activity, visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most fun things to do in Tucson. Much more than a museum, this 98-acre zoo boasts an aquarium, botanical garden, an art gallery, and so much more. It’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in everything the beautiful Sonoran Desert has to offer!
Explore the vast grounds, and you’ll find 230 animal species and 1,200 local plant species. There are so many things to do at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum it’s impossible to fit it all in during a single visit.
Animal lovers can easily spend hours viewing bobcats and gray foxes in Cat Canyon, getting up close and personal with sea creatures at Stingray Touch, and marveling at mountain lions, black bears, and Mexican gray wolves at Mountain Woodland.
Dinosaur fans will love learning about prehistoric Arizona at the Ancient Arizona exhibit, while avid hikers will want to follow the agave-studded Desert Loop Trail. If you need to take a break from the desert sun, the museum is home to four cafes where you can rest your feet and refuel.
5. Photograph the Mission San Xavier del Bac
Located just south of the city center, on the edge of the San Xavier Indian Reservation, Mission San Xavier del Bac is a must on your Tucson sightseeing tour. Known as the “White Dove of the Desert,” this beautiful and historic church was built by Spanish Jesuits in 1770.
A prime example of the Baroque-style architecture of the colonial period, the church has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Pay a visit to Mission San Xavier del Bac, and you’ll quickly realize that this is still a very active Roman Catholic Church, so it’s important to be respectful.
Visitors can even attend weekly Mass if they desire. If not, this place is still well worth the journey for the photo ops alone!
The Patronato San Xavier offers free guided tours from Monday through Saturday. Docents are all trained in the history, architecture, and culture of the Mission and the local community, and all proceeds go to preserving and restoring the Mission San Xavier del Bac.
6. Catch a Show at the Western-Themed Gaslight Theatre
If you need a break from hiking in the desert sun, catching a show at the Gaslight Theatre is yet another fun-filled, family-friendly thing to do in Tucson. This one-of-a-kind venue is housed in the old Jerry Lewis Cinema. With its old-timey wood façade and Wild West theme, you’ll feel like you’re stepping onto a movie set!
Gaslight Theatre hosts musical comedy melodramas six nights a week, with five different shows each year. Depending on when you visit, you’ll have the option of seeing everything from sci-fi comedies to festive holiday performances. Gaslight Theatre also hosts live concerts every Monday night.
Theaters aren’t typically known for their food, but Gaslight Theatre’s menu boasts seriously good handmade pizzas, addictive desserts, and a long list of American comfort foods.
Adults will love the creative cocktails and boozy milkshakes! Plus, there’s unlimited free popcorn for the whole family to enjoy.
7. Take a Drive on the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
Taking a drive on the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is a must on your Tucson bucket list. The 27-mile one-way road starts on the east side of Tucson and winds to the top of Mount Lemmon, which is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains. From Mount Lemmon, it takes about one hour to get back to the heart of Tucson.
What makes this drive so unique is that you’ll pass by a variety of landscapes and ecosystems along the way. Many equate it to having the chance to see everything from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada in one short drive!
You’ll definitely want to bring your camera, as there are picture-perfect vistas around every corner. If you want to stretch your legs, there are also plenty of hiking opportunities along the byway. Plus, you’ll find all sorts of picnic areas along the route in case you want to enjoy a scenic snack.
Once you reach the top of the mountain, be sure to pay a visit to Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin for one of their famous giant cookies!
8. Spend a Spooky Night in a Haunted Hotel
If paranormal activity is your thing, spending the night at Hotel Congress is hands down one of the most unique things to do in Tucson. Dating back to 1919, Hotel Congress has quite the history and is said to be one of the most haunted hotels in the US! So staying here is not for the faint of heart.
Hotel Congress was a gangster’s hangout during the 1920s, and quite a few card-playing gamblers were shot and killed here over the years. From devastating fires to suicidal guests, this building is no stranger to tragedy. With over 100 years of history, it’s no surprise that guests have reported experiencing mysterious activities while staying here.
Most activity takes place on the second floor. But wander around the hotel, and don’t be surprised if you hear invisible children playing in the hallways or spot a woman in black suddenly appear on the reception staircase.
If you really want to give yourself a scare, stay in room 242, and you might wake up to the “Lady in White” whispering in your ear. If you stay in room 214, chances are you’ll see a man in a seersucker suit peering out of the window!
9. Take a Ride on the Sabino Canyon Tram
From cactus-strewn hiking trails to crystal clear creeks, there’s a lot to explore in Sabino Canyon. If you want to maximize your time, it’s well worth hopping on the Sabino Canyon tram. Since no private vehicles are allowed into Sabino Canyon, this is a great way to explore this beautiful area!
The narrated tour has nine stops along 3.8 miles and lasts up to 45 minutes. But the best part is you can hop on and off at any of the nine stops if you’d like to hike a certain trail or spend some time at one of the many vistas along the way. The trams run every 30 minutes.
Alternatively, you can take the Bear Canyon Trail tram, which is a non-narrated 2-mile ride to the Seven Falls trailhead. If you’re willing to work up a sweat, the hike is 5 miles (round-trip) and takes you to seven creek crossings and a bunch of beautiful natural pools along the way. Do note that the fall is seasonal, so it’s best to visit in late winter or early spring.
10. Stuff Your Face at the Nation’s Oldest Mexican Restaurant
Just one hour from the border town of Nogales, it’s no secret that Tucson is home to some of the best Mexican restaurants in the US. But did you also know it’s home to the oldest?
El Charro Café claims to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in the US that’s been continually operated by the same family. Since opening its doors in the El Presidio Historic District in 1922, the eatery has perfected some seriously impressive family recipes.
It’s even rumored that founder Tia Monica Flin invented what we now know as the chimichanga after she accidentally dropped a burro into a frying pan!
If you’re a Mexican food lover, you pretty much have to have a meal at El Charro Café. Come hungry because the menu boasts a long list of Sonoran-style dishes – from burros and chimichangas to tacos and enchiladas. But El Charro is best known for its world-renowned homemade salsa and tamales.
11. Sample Local Goods at the St. Philips Farmers Market
Clearly Tucson takes its food very seriously, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the city boasts some incredible year-round farmers’ markets. And the St. Philips Farmers Market just happens to be one of the best!
Tucson may be nestled in the Sonoran Desert, but the land surrounding the city – including the fertile Santa Cruz Valley – is home to a range of crops, orchards, and even vineyards.
Every Sunday morning, over 60 vendors gather in the historic St. Philip’s Plaza to sell their farm fresh goods. You’ll find tons of fruits, veggies, and flowers. Plus, you’ll find a range of premade goods, meats, and cheeses. This is the perfect place to pick up picnic supplies before heading out for an epic hike.
Or, if you want to get a taste of local culture, there are always live musical performances, pop-up events, and dozens of vendors selling distinctly Tucson artwork, jewelry, and pottery.
12. Learn about Aviation History at the Pima Air & Space Museum
Boasting over 400 aircraft and spacecraft, Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the coolest Tucson attractions. Plus, it just so happens to be one of the largest air and space museums in the world!
Explore the 80-acre museum, and you’ll find fascinating outdoor displays and six massive hangars to peruse. Since this place is so big, it’s well worth paying the extra $6 to take an informational tram tour. If you plan to take a tram tour of the adjacent “Boneyard,” the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, you’ll need to pay an additional $10.
Among the many draws are the John F. Kennedy’s presidential plane, the replica of a 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the Orbis DC 10 Flying Eye Hospital. If that’s not enough, the museum features all sorts of cool exhibitions, including “Submarine Hunting” and “The Space Race,” as well as the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.
13. Take a Break at the Tucson Botanical Gardens
The Tucson Botanical Gardens are one of the best Tucson attractions if you’re in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of the city center. Plus, the Tucson Botanical Gardens are touted as one of the “Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For” – so you know they’re something special!
Explore the 5.5-acre grounds, and you’ll find 17 specialty gardens, including a Zen Garden, a Prehistoric Garden, a Barrio Garden, a Xeriscape Garden, and a Children’s Garden. And don’t miss out on the Cox Butterfly & Orchid Pavilion, which is home to over 400 tropical butterflies from 11 different countries, as well as tons of colorful orchids.
The Tucson Botanical Gardens also hosts year-round art exhibits, classes, and events. And if you’re feeling peckish, Edna’s Eatery is open for breakfast and lunch and serves up locally sourced dishes on their beautiful Xeriscape Garden patio.
14. Go Bar Hopping Along Fourth Avenue
As a college town, Tucson is somewhat (in)famous for its nightlife scene. If you’re in town to let loose with friends, a night out on Fourth Avenue is one of the most fun things to do in Tucson!
You can start off your night sampling creative craft brews (think the chili-infused Serrano Seduction) at Dillinger Brewing Company before heading over to The Hut Tucson for tropical drinks. If you’re in the mood for a Burlesque show, Surly Wench Pub is the perfect pick, or if karaoke is more up your alley, head over to Mr. Head’s Art Gallery and Bar!
Fourth Street is also home to tons of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. If you need something to soak up all that booze, you’ll be spoiled for choice. You can fill up on beef and brie sandwiches at Bison Witches Bar & Deli, carne asada fries at The Blind Tiger, or chicken and waffles at The Drunken Chicken. The options are endless!
15. Go Hiking in Catalina State Park
As one of Tucson’s top attractions for outdoor enthusiasts, Catalina State Park boasts 5,500 acres of canyons, streams, and hiking trails in the Coronado National Forest. If you’re in search of an epic full-day hike, Sutherland Trail is the perfect place to work up a sweat while relishing in Tucson’s amazing desert landscape.
This 10.8-mile hike is a challenge, but it’s well worth it for the beautiful scenery. Plus, you don’t actually have to hike the entire trail if you don’t want to.
If you do opt to complete the entire thing, the trail will take you up into the mountains to an elevation of 8,600 feet, so expect to glimpse plenty of local wildlife, towering saguaros and pine trees, and sweeping views along the way.
Another less challenging hike in Catalina State Park is a hike to the Romero Pools. The 5.6-mile hike leads you to these picturesque and refreshing pools, perfect for a dip on a hot Arizona day!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Tucson. What’s your favorite thing to do in Tucson?
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