Tucson has an impressive number of high-quality museums that make it worth a day trip from Phoenix. On a visit, you can learn about aviation history, discover the Sonoran Desert, and even marvel at miniature houses or neon signs. The University of Arizona campus has several of its own museums, including a 12,000-square-foot ode to gems, minerals, and jewelry.
Before you go, you may want to purchase and download the Tucson Attractions Digital Passport, which offers discounts or two-for-one admission to some of the museums below.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is more than just a museum—it’s also a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, and art gallery. Start your visit at the Earth Sciences Center, home to one of the world’s most extensive regional mineral collections, before heading outside. The zoo showcases the animals and reptiles indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, whereas the botanical garden features more than 1,200 different types of plants found in its arid landscape. Meanwhile, the Warden Aquarium is dedicated to the fish that fill the desert's waterways. There are also hiking trails onsite.
The largest privately funded aviation and aerospace museum in the world, the Pima Air & Space Museum has more than 400 historic aircraft and 125,000 artifacts housed in six hangars—three of which are dedicated solely to World War II. Among the aircraft on display, you'll see a Wright Flyer, a supersonic SR-71, B-17G Flying Fortress, and an Air Force One used by both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
In addition to a tram tour, the museum offers a bus tour of The Boneyard, a collection of more than 4,000 stored military and government aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base across the street. There is an additional charge for both tours.
Despite its name, the The Mini Time Machine Museum has nothing to do with time travel. Instead, it is dedicated to the art of miniatures, ranging from historic dollhouses to figures carved on the lead tip of a pencil. You’ll also see a tiny Waterford Crystal decanter, re-created movie scenes, and holiday collectibles. Download the museum’s web-based audio tour before you go for insights into the 500-plus exhibits on display; or, join one of the docent-led tours, which take place daily at 1 p.m. (depending on docent availability). After your visit, buy one of the miniature pieces from the gift shop so you can start making your own miniature house or room box. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Similar to the Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, the Ignite Sign Art Museum in Tucson celebrates vintage neon signs, particularly those from the area. Be on the lookout for the hat-shaped Arby’s sign, Bible-shaped Craycroft Baptist Church sign, and glowing bucket of KFC. Informative plaques tell their stories as you weave your way through the 7,000-square-foot indoor space and equally-sized outdoor viewing area. Before you visit, check the online calendar. The museum regularly holds classes on neon restoration and plans to add classes on neon design in the near future.
The University of Arizona boasts a number of outstanding museums, but the Alfie Norville Gem and Mineral Museum is one of its best, especially now that it has relocated to the historic Pima County Courthouse. Its new 12,000-square-foot exhibition hall features gems, minerals, and jewelry from around the world, emphasizing those from Arizona. In addition to the gem gallery and fluorescence displays, don’t miss the Crystal Lab, where you can grow simulated crystals, or the recreated Bisbee, Arizona mine.
Another of the university’s museums, the Flandreau Science Center is a favorite among families who come for the hands-on science experiments and the 45-minute planetarium shows. While many exhibits here focus on astronomy, you’ll also learn about biology, geology, ecology, energy, optics, and more on a visit. Tickets are $16 for adults and $12 for college students, seniors, military members, and children between the ages of 4 and 7. Children 3 and under are free.
This downtown museum is a re-creation of the Spanish fort that founded Tucson in 1775. Visits begin inside the small museum, where you’ll learn about the soldiers and settlers that lived at the fort and local Native Americans. Outside, you’ll see the re-created fort, a prehistoric pit house, and an original 150-year-old Sonoran row house. On Thursdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as well as Fridays at 2 p.m., you can take a docent-led tour (free with admission); or, come on the second Saturday of the month when the museum hosts its living history days. The presidio is also the starting point of the 2.5-mile Turquoise Trail that loops past historic sites in downtown Tucson.
Collector Thomas H. Hubbard founded this off-the-beaten-path museum to showcase his impressive collection of Franklin automobiles—and as you walk from one vintage vehicle to the next, you’ll begin to understand his passion. Produced from 1902 to 1934, these stylish touring cars were state of the art at the time, with air-cooled engines, six cylinders, and automatic spark advance. The museum also features Hubbard’s aunt’s collection of Native American artifacts. Allocate at least an hour here; it's open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (other times by appointment).
Dedicated to conservation, the International Wildlife Museum displays more than 400 species of insects, mammals, and birds, many in dioramas depicting them in their natural settings. If you’re comfortable with taxidermy—all are donated by governmental agencies, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and similar organizations—it’s an opportunity to safely view and appreciate these animals. The museum also educates through videos, interactive displays, and hands-on exhibits.
A visit to the International Wildlife Museum is easily combined with a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Both are located on the west side of town in the Tucson Mountains.
This 40,000-square-foot museum has everything from European paintings to American folk art—but its focus is on Latin American, American West, Modern, Contemporary, and Asian art. Visit to see the new Kasser Family Wing of Latin American Art, displaying works from prehistoric to modern times. The museum is also the caretaker of five neighboring historic properties, three of which are open to the general public when the museum is open and two of which are included with admission.
If you are especially interested in Native American and Western art, head to the Desert Art Museum to see its collection of pre-1940s Navajo textiles, tribute to the cinematic landscapes, and art by Maynard Dixon, Thomas Moran and others.