Published on November 22nd, 2022
Arizona’s second-largest city offers a lot more than college parties and makes for a great long weekend excursion or a stop on a long desert road trip. With a unique national park at its doorstep, a great selection of museums, and day trip opportunities in the direction of the Mexican border, here’s a roundup of the top things to do in and around Tucson.
Check out additional Arizona and Southwest USA travel guides, and combine your visit to Tucson with other regional highlights.
Explore downtown Tucson’s main highlights on a walking tour and hop between the city’s distinct neighborhoods. Start in the Barrio Historico and cast your wish in the El Tiradito Wishing Shrine. Then, check out the impressive Pima County Courthouse and the nearby museums highlighting early life in the former frontier town. After lunch at LaCo Tucson, cross to the vibrant university district and visit the Arizona State Museum or the Arizona History Museum.
The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is better known as “Saguaro East” and acts like a natural fence that borders Tucson’s eastern neighborhoods. After completing the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive, pick up one of the hiking trails and explore the backcountry. The most famous and strenuous hike is the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, suitable for overnight or multi-day camping trips.
During the height of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, 54 formidable silos were constructed around the country to house Titan missiles. Equipped with a nuclear warhead and launched within 60 seconds, these missiles could strike targets over 6,000 miles away. Nowadays, the Titan Missile Museum, 16 miles south of Tucson, is the only remaining site open to the public. Book your tour in advance, and don’t push the red button!
You’ll need a car to enjoy a visit to Tucson fully, and here’s one of the reasons why. Not far from Tucson are two interesting towns that can be visited as part of a day trip from the city. Less than an hour’s drive from Tucson, Tubac is Arizona’s first permanent Spanish settlement. Founded in 1752 as a fortress, Tubac is nowadays abundant with art galleries, boutiques, and trendy restaurants. Further east, Bisbee was Arizona’s mining capital for decades. When the miners left, artists and hippies moved in, drawn by the optimal weather, remote location, and Victorian-style architecture. Relieve the glorious mining years with a trip 1,500 feet underground at the Bisbee’s Queen Mine Tour.
If you’re traveling with children, spend a few hours at Old Tucson. Many western flicks and Southwest-inspired TV shows have been filmed at the Old Tucson studios since its inauguration in 1939 for the film Arizona. You might recognize it from films such as Tombstone and shows such as Little House on the Prairie. Since 1960, the studio also doubles as a theme park featuring guided movie set tours, gunfights, and stunt shows.
Tucson is surrounded by mountains, the most famous of which are the Catalina Mountains. Sabino Canyon is located at the base of the mountain range and serves as a desert oasis with over 30 miles of hiking trails in all fitness levels. Due to snowmelt and summer thunderstorms, Sabino Creek flows almost year-round, turning this area into a lush outdoor playground where rare animals, such as bobcats, might be seen. Sabino Canyon is off-limits to cars, so you’ll need to take the electric shuttle to get around and hit the trails.
Located on the grounds of the San Xavier Indian Reservation, the historic mission is just 25 minutes south of Tucson. Father Eusebio Kino founded the mission in 1692 as the Spanish colonists pushed to convert the area’s Indian tribes. It’s a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture and well worth the visit.
With bands of tough-looking cowboys roaming the city streets, often stirring a fight for a fist full of tourist dollars, a visit to Tombstone is the ultimate way to time travel back to the days of the Wild West. It’s also where old fads are still in fashion, such as mustaches, smoking in public, and noon-time drinking. Best known for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone is only 75 miles from Tucson. This historic mining town quickly boomed and quickly busted, but its heyday is still celebrated in the town’s historic center.
If you’re visiting Tucson with children, appreciate military history, or are simply fascinated by engineering marvels, don’t think twice and head to the Pima Air & Space Museum. Dedicated to celebrating America’s aviation and aerospace history, the museum houses hundreds of aircraft across over 80 acres and five hangars, including JFK’s Air Force One, the legendary F-14 Tomcat, Russian MiGs, and more.
Only 15 miles from Tucson, but feeling like a world away, head to the western section of Saguaro National Park to see the largest concentration of giant cactuses. The scenic drive from Tucson already hints at what’s to come, but inside the park, saguaro cactuses blanket the lower slopes of the mountains and the desert plain. Complete the Desert Discovery Nature Trail and Valley View Overlook Trail for a quick taste, and hike on one of the trails that climb to Wasson Peak for unforgettable views.
This wraps up the list of the top 10 things to see and do in Tucson and the surrounding region. Be sure to check out additional Arizona and Southwest USA travel guides, and plan the next legs of your adventure in the American Southwest.
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