Known for its cultural diversity and rich history, Tucson has exceptional museums, attractions, and resorts. It’s also home to the University of Arizona’s main campus and is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
While many visitors from Phoenix come just for the day, you can easily spend two or three days in Tucson and not see it all—especially if you stay at one of two dude ranches on the city’s edge. To help you with your one- or multi-day itinerary, we’ve made a list of the top 15 things to do in Tucson.
Visit the Boneyard and a Titan Missile
Because of its dry climate, Tucson is home to the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world, the Boneyard. Even though it's situated on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, you can tour the Boneyard through the Pima Air & Space Museum. Bus tours leave the museum multiple times each day, looping past some of the 4,000 decommissioned planes on display. Advanced reservations are required.
History and military buffs will want to set aside additional time to visit the affiliated Titan Missile Museum, which features an unarmed missile still in the silo. It's just a half hour away in Green Valley.
Founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692, this National Historic Landmark is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. Visitors are welcome to explore the Catholic mission and grounds, located just 9 miles south of downtown Tucson, and learn about its history in the onsite museum. Exhibits also tell the story of the Tohono O’odham people the mission serves as well as the structure’s ongoing restoration. In the parking lot, you’ll likely encounter Tohono O’odham selling crafts and fry bread.
To visit another Jesuit mission, head to Tumacacori National Historical Park, just 45 miles south of Tucson off of Interstate 19.
One of Tucson’s most popular attractions, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum explores the interdependency of life in the harsh environment surrounding the city. Its gardens, recognized as one of the nation’s top 10 public gardens, feature more than 1,200 types of plants; meanwhile, its zoo introduces visitors to native reptiles, Mexican gray wolves, javelina, a mountain lion, bobcats, bighorn sheep, and more.
The museum also features a walk-in aviary, aquarium, displays on the region’s geology, and hiking trails. Plan to spend at least two hours here, although you could easily spend most of the day exploring the museum.
Discover Why Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy
Tucson became the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States in 2015, thanks to its rich culinary history. To appreciate that history, start with a visit to the Mission Garden, the oldest, continuously farmed land in the nation. Then, browse the heirloom seed collection and food products available for sale at Native Seeds/SEARCH.
Later drop by the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S., El Charro Café, family-owned-and-operated since 1922. Or sample a Sonoran hot dog, a local favorite; El Guero Canelo won a James Beard award for its version of the hot dog, wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, salsa, mayo, and mustard.
Saguaros—towering, multi-armed cacti that can live up to 200 years—are exclusively found in the Sonoran Desert. And while you can see them in Phoenix, some of the most impressive stands can be found in Saguaro National Park. Drive the 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District or the Bajada Loop Drive in the Tucson Mountain District. Combined, both areas have more than 175 miles of trails for hiking, including a short 0.3-mile trek to petroglyphs. Each has its own visitor center.
Giddy Up at Tucson Guest Ranches
Ever wanted to experience life on a ranch? Tucson has two historic guest ranches in its metropolitan area: Tanque Verde Ranch and White Stallion Ranch. They offer horseback riding for all ages and skill levels, team penning, and activities such as nature programs, hiking, tennis, and mountain biking. After a full day of fun, enjoy a hearty meal followed by stories and songs around the campfire.
You don’t have to stay at a guest ranch to get a taste of the Old West, though. Both ranches allow visitors to book a ride without a stay, and the city has several other stables, too.
One of the premier places for astronomy in the world, Kitt Peak National Observatory has nearly two dozen active telescopes, including three dedicated solely for public viewing. It’s well worth the hour and 15-minute drive from Tucson to the observatory for guided tours during the day and/or night viewing programs. Advance reservations are required for night viewing, and strict guidelines prohibit the use of cell phones and car headlights onsite.
For another option, try Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter. The University of Arizona affiliate offers night programs with access to two of the largest telescopes available to the public in the Southwest.
Relax and Rejuvinate at a Resort Spa
Tucson boasts more than half a dozen award-winning resorts, making it a favorite escape for Phoenicians. If you have the time to book a stay at one, you can lounge by beautiful pools, tee off on lush golf courses, and enjoy panoramic views when you’re not exploring the city.
Don’t miss the spa, though. Most resorts invite guests to enjoy their spa for the day, which include amenities like steam rooms and private pools. For the latest in relaxation, check out El Conquistador Tucson’s salt therapy lounge at its new spa, SpaWell.
Located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Sabino Canyon features a flowing creek, waterfalls, and abundant wildlife. Plan to spend half a day hiking the 30-plus miles of trails, taking the open-air tram on a narrated journey through the canyon, or both. A second, non-narrated tram goes to the Seven Fall trailhead. Come prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat, and bring a camera. Sabino Canyon is a favorite with local photographers.
When temperatures rise in Tucson, cool off at Colossal Cave. Located 15 miles from Tucson in Vail, the cave has more than 3 miles of underground trails accessible on guided tours. Descend approximately six stories (363 stair steps) on the Classic Cave Tour, squeeze through narrow passages on the Ladder Tour, or don a headlamp and crawl to the darkest parts of the cave on the Wild Cave Tour.
Can’t get enough of caves? Make the 50-minute drive to Kartchner Cavern State Park, home to one of the longest soda straw stalactites in the world and other unique features.
Operated by the University of Arizona, this self-contained, other-worldly-looking facility conducts research related to our planet (the original biosphere) and its ecosystems in a controlled environment. You can tour the center's rainforest, ocean, and other areas at your own pace using the Biosphere 2 Experience app, which includes videos and slideshows related to what you are seeing. Allow an hour and a half to complete the tour.
There’s a lot of culture and history in downtown Tucson, and you can discover both on the Turquoise Trail. Created by former board members of the Presidio Museum, this trail—marked by a painted, turquoise line—loops 2.5 miles through downtown and highlights sites of historic interest.
You can pick up a printed brochure at several downtown locations (including the Presidio Museum), or download the Turquoise Trail app to use on your phone. The museum also offers guided walking tours generally twice a month.
Shop for Handcrafted Items and Souvenirs
Tucson is a good place to look for Mexican and Native American souvenirs. Drop by Mercado San Agustin for Spanish Colonial-style décor at La Cabana, traditional moccasins at San Agustin Trading Co., and fresh tortillas and pastries from La Estrella Bakery. Meanwhile, the Lost Barrio Historic Warehouse Shopping District specializes in furniture, artwork, and Mexican imports. At Old Town Artisans, La Zia Native Arts sells Native American jewelry, pottery, sand paintings, and more.
You don’t have to actually enroll at the University of Arizona to learn a thing or two. The university has a number of interesting museums, both on-campus and nearby. Start at the Smithsonian-affiliated Arizona State Museum, where exhibits explore the region’s 13,000-year human history, and continue to the Gem & Mineral Museum, one of the best university collections in the nation. Art lovers won't want to miss the Center for Creative Photography, or the 5,000-plus works at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The Pharmacy Museum and the family-friendly Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium are popular, too.
When Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia couldn’t get a gallery to showcase his work, he built his own in Tucson. Literally. De Grazia poured the footers, shaped the adobe bricks, and plastered the walls that make up this gallery-turned-museum. On display, you’ll see roughly 800 of the museum’s 15,000 DeGrazia originals, including the colorful paintings of Native Americans that made him famous. Be sure to check out the adobe chapel onsite before you leave.