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Tucson, Arizona: Best Places to Visit in and Around the City

February 10, 2021 /
things to do in Tucson Arizona

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Here we are in Arizona, a land full of attractions and a state that we always look forward to visiting again to discover new secret places. We are in South Central Arizona, more precisely in Tucson, the capital of Pima County, the second most populated county in the state that is named after a Native American tribe. The area of Tucson, Arizona‘s second-largest city after Phoenix, is also no exception when it comes to natural beauty. Let’s discover this city and its exceptional surroundings together.

Location and Directions

Tucson is in a valley nicknamed Optics Valley, because of the strong presence of the optics industry. It is located at 2388 ft above sea level in the Sonora Desert, surrounded by five mountain ranges and crossed by the Santa Cruz River. Thanks to its mild winter climate, many people decide to spend the coldest months here. They are the so-called “snowbirds“, and some of them own a second home here.

Tucson can be reached by air via its international airport (7250 Tucson Blvd.) or via the aesthetic Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (3400 E. Sky Harbor Blvd. – Phoenix), which is about two hours away. The choice depends on how your itinerary is set up in the state. If you don’t want to use your own vehicle, we always recommend renting a car for more so that you will have more freedom to get around if you do.

Tips for car rental

For those who prefer to use local means of transportation in the area, we suggest taking Sun Tran buses (www.suntran.com) which follow several routes in greater Tucson, or riding the Sun Link, a streetcar that connects various points in Downtown Tucson (www.sunlinkstreetcar.com). Those who want to go beyond the city limits can rely on Amtrak trains (400 N. Toole Ave.).

Map of the City and the Surrounding Area

Places to Visit in Tucson: Congress Street

places to visit in tucsonLet’s start by exploring Downtown Tucson. You can take a walk along Congress Street, the main street through modern and historic buildings. This area is also recommended for those looking for nightlife and entertainment. As you walk in the heart of Tucson, you can visit shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants, theaters, and offices. One of the landmarks of this street is the Congress Hotel, a historic building from 1919 whose fame exploded when the notorious bank robber John Dillinger was captured here in 1934. To keep the memory of this episode alive, the event of the capture is commemorated every January during the Dillinger Days. Besides having a rich history, this is a lively hotel throughout the year, with events, wedding celebrations, shows, and concerts.

Many other interesting places await us, so let us continue on to other places in the city and beyond.

Best Things to Do in Tucson

Here is a summary of the main places to visit in Tucson.

things to do in tucsonWe want to make special mention of the Cathedral of Saint Augustine (192 S. Stone Ave.), the cathedral of the Diocese of Tucson, with two symmetrical bell towers that highlight the refined stone façade depicting the coat of arms of Pius XI, who was the pontiff at the time of the construction of this Catholic cathedral. On the outside, you can see the two statues representing the Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Inside, your gaze will be drawn upward towards a splendid vaulted ceiling. You can admire the stained-windows and a large crucifix from the 12th/13th century carved in Pamplona in Spain and placed in the choir section. The floor is slightly inclined, so that everyone can see the altar. The Our Lady Chapel, the chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary belongs to this beautiful cathedral.

A central neighborhood where you can enjoy a very pleasant walk is El Presidio, enclosed by W. 6th St., W. Alameda St., N. Stone Ave. and Granada Ave. This is a historical area, that once served as a fortress, with houses dating back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. El Presidio Park (160 W. Alameda St.) is located between the town hall and the county court. This park is a well-known place in the city and has been in existence since 1539. Inside there is a memorial for veterans, a small rose garden dedicated to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a large fountain and modern artwork. It is a lively place where people meet, have fun during city festivals, and get married.

Tucson places to seeThe Presidio Museum (196 N. Court Ave.) is a reproduction of the Presidio of Tucson, the old fortress built in 1775. Here visitors take a virtual journey back in time. And to learn more about the history of the city, volunteers in period costume demonstrate the many activities of the time and also reenact significant historical events. For hours of operation, the cost of tickets and the activities program, please visit this site.

If you love Latino culture, head south of El Presidio to visit the Barrio Libre neighborhood (surrounded by 4th St., Stone St., 19th St. and Osborne St.), the largest Spanish-speaking neighborhood in the city. Many buildings were built in adobe while others date back to the 19th century Spanish colonial period.

Reid Park Zoo (3400 E. Zoo Ct.), located near downtown, is the right place to see animals from all over the world, such as funny ring-tailed lemurs, majestic flamingos, pretty otters, Andean bears, Aldabra tortoises, and anteaters, just to name a few. During the visit to the zoo, you can also go on a carousel or a train that makes a loop around the zoo, see the staff interacting with the animals, and perhaps you can even feed some “guests” of the zoo and ride on camels. The zoo is open daily except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Outside Downtown Tucson

Tucson touristic attractionsLet’s venture out of Downtown Tucson and see other attractions.

We move south to the Mission San Xavier del Bac (1950 W. San Xavier Rd.) nicknamed “the White Dove of the Desert” because of its white walls that contrast the blue sky in the desert and frame a beautiful stone facade. It is impossible not to notice it from a distance. It is located in the San Xavier District where most of the population belongs to the Tohono O’odham Nation (“desert people”), which is linked to the Pima tribe. This mission, run by Franciscan friars, is an example of Spanish Colonial architecture and dates back to the 18th century. Inside there are statues and paintings. The church has richly decorated ceilings and walls.

The museum on-site tells the story of the mission through the artifacts. Admission is free and you can visit it every day from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. You can shop at the gift shop that is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. According to the rules of this church, it is not possible, for example, to be baptized or married here if you do not belong to this Catholic community, since sacraments should be received in your home parish.

On a separate note, there is also the Pima Air & Space Museum (6000 E. Valencia Rd.) which is not a classic museum. Rather, it is a huge exhibition of airplanes inside and outside a large complex. In addition to the many models of aircraft, there is also a Hall of Fame of aviation. This is one of the largest air & space museums in the world. This is a “must-see” for all aviation enthusiasts! The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and you must purchase a ticket to be admitted to the museum.

what to do in tucsonThe Flight Grill, located inside the Pima Air & Space Museum, serves quick meals and, from the window, you can see some of the planes parked outside. If you are looking for a souvenir of the visit, there is the inevitable gift shop. Between September and October cotton fields along the route resemble a snowy expanse. You must definitely stop and take some pictures. It’s amazing!

The Fred Enke Golf Course (8251 E. Irvington Rd.) is a large golf course located in a semi-arid hilly terrain where it is recommended to use a golf cart because of the uneven landscape of the course. For those who love and practice this sport, this golf course is a real challenge.

At the Trail Dust Town (6541 E. Tanque Verde Rd.), a theme park, a Far West setting has been recreated with attractions and shows, including a stuntmen show, a merry-go-round, a haunted house, a train that crosses sceneries of the Far West and a museum of military history spanning from the 18th to the 21st century. You can go in search of gold and have your picture taken in an Old West “fashion”. Each attraction has its own cost. There is no shortage of shops and restaurants either.

Speaking of dining options, we suggest the Silver Dollar Saloon – which faithfully models a 1890s venue – and Pinnacle Peak, a steakhouse with a familiar Far West atmosphere known for its good steaks. The menu also includes vegetarian dishes and a kids’ menu. The Trail Dust Town is open from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm, but the attractions, shops, and restaurants have their own schedules, so please check the website.

what to see in tucsonLocated west of Tucson, near the western section of the Saguaro National Park, is Old Tucson Studios (201 Kinney Rd.), another Far West theme park, but with a twist. It is not only a theme park, but it is a real movie set that is still active today. It was created in 1939 to shoot the movie “Arizona” and later others like “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, “El Dorado” and “Little House on the Prairie”. You can spend a full day at the park and be entertained by expert stuntmen shows, entertaining musicals in the saloon, narrated train tours through the property, and old miniature cars. You can also take “Far West” themed pictures, as you look for gold and ride on a carousel.

In the on-site museum that tells the story of old Tucson, original costumes worn in various television series are on display. There is a variety of places to eat, ranging from saloons to ice cream parlors. The park can be visited by purchasing a ticket. The hours of operation vary according to the season, so please visit this site..

Things to Do Near Tucson

things to do near tucsonYou can’t say you have visited Tucson without exploring the surrounding nature. The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd.) is a unique complex that brings together attractions ranging from nature to animals to art. There is a zoo, an aquarium, a botanical garden, walking paths, an art gallery and a natural history museum. There are also exhibitions and a gift shop. There is an entrance fee for the park and operating hours vary according to the season.

The streams in Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens (7366 N. Paseo del Norte) make the atmosphere of the gardens even more relaxing. Birds like the black-chinned hummingbird, sweet acacia trees, flowers, palm trees and desert willows create a beautiful environmental picture. There is also the children’s garden, which was created especially for kids. Concerts, special events, lectures, and weddings are held in the Performance Garden.

Canyons, Parks and National Monuments

Saguaro National Park tucsonSaguaro Cacti are plentiful in and around Tucson, in the heart of the Sonora Desert. Saguaro National Park (3693 S. Old Spanish Trail) is home to a large concentration of saguaro cacti and at sunset, the views are even more impressive. The structure and size of these plants are sometimes incredible and sometimes funny because in some cases they resemble human features. Along the Valley View Overlook Trail you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Tucson Mountains.

Meanwhile in the Signal Hill area, a great picnic area, you can take the opportunity to see ancient petroglyphs. We would also like to mention that there is a campsite in the park, which is ideal for those who love to be in nature.

Sabino Canyon tucsonSabino Canyon (5900 N. Sabino Canyon Rd.) is part of the Coronado National Forest. There are two particularly interesting trails.

  • The first is the Sabino Canyon Trail, which you can visit on a 45-minute narrated tour at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The shuttle makes nine stops.
  • The second is the Bear Canyon Trail, which you visit on a tour without a guide that leads to the beautiful Seven Falls. During this tour, the shuttle makes three stops.

The animals that inhabit the park include white-tailed deer and the peccaries, a mammal similar to a wild boar, but certainly the most famous “resident” is the roadrunner (the beep-beep bird starring in cartoons).

Along I-10 in the Sonora Desert, we find the Ironwood Forest National Monument, where ironwood trees grow. As the name suggests, these trees have a resistant bark and can reach a height of 108 ft. In spring the ironwood trees are covered in beautiful bright purple flowers. In this area, you can see desert bighorn sheep, bats, and owls. Petroglyphs are also present here. The park was created by President Bill Clinton on June 9, 2000.

Day Trips from Tucson

There are four beautiful day trips we would like to recommend.

day trips from tucsonAbout 30 minutes from Tucson, more precisely in Vail, you can explore Colossal Cave Mountain Park (16721 E. Old Spanish Trail), an exciting series of caves with stalactites and stalagmites that you can visit on a tour that lasts about 40-45 minutes. Inside the park, in a desert and cactus setting, there are trails for hiking, biking, running and riding; you can see birds and visit the butterfly garden. The name of the park describes only one aspect of the park. There is so much more to see besides the caves. We also recommend Posta Quemada Ranch, a beautiful farm with animals, which gives the possibility to go on horseback or pony rides and to go on pleasant walks on the property.

Tombstone TucsonAt 4,593 ft above sea level and about an hour and 15 minutes away from Tucson, you can find Tombstone, a Far West town that best displays its charm in the historic district. Strolling along its streets with wooden arcades, you feel as if you were in the Far West among cowboys, stagecoaches and saloons, just like in a John Wayne movie. This neighborhood is the tourist and commercial center of Tombstone.

On October 26, 1881, the town was the scene of the notorious gunfight called the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Freemont Street. In order to commemorate this gunfight, every third weekend in October there is an event called Helldorado Days. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was so astounding that a film was made in 1957.

About 55 miles southwest of Tucson, the clear skies of the Sonora Desert make this an ideal place for the Kitt Peak National Observatory, located at 6,876 ft on the peak of the same name. Even if you’re not an astronomy enthusiast, it’s worth taking a day tour to see spectacular views, or a night tour to observe the stars and planets (that are visible even to the naked eye). Experienced bikers can conquer the summit of Kitt Peak by bike. This area is part of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument tucsonJust over 2 hours from Tucson, Ajo is home to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (10 Organ Pipe Dr.), a park of over 500 square miles known for its organ pipe cacti that was founded in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The semi-desert regions in the south central part of Arizona are the ideal place for cacti to grow and in 1976 UNESCO decreed this a biosphere reserve.

Events and Exhibitions in Tucson

Various events take place in Tucson throughout the year, and we’d like to point out a few

The Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Show, the largest, oldest, and most prestigious exhibition of gems, minerals, and fossils in the world, is held in late January/early February. Visitors are enchanted by the colors and shapes of these natural beauties in the hands of expert craftsmen. In addition to seeing the gems on display, you can attend seminars and meet the dealers. Many activities are open to the public free of charge. This event takes place in various locations in the city and you can find the complete list of the locations on the website.

Rodeos are common in the West, and there is one here in Tucson in mid-February. The Tucson Rodeo is also known as the Fiesta de Los Vaqueros. The event is held at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds (4823 S. 6th Ave.). In addition to the classic competitions, you can listen to live music, children can participate in activities for kids and you can enjoy good food in the food court. One of the highlights of this event is the historic non-motorized parade, which reflects the spirit of the first parade held in 1925 with floats, carriages, and horses. It’s a real western show! Tickets for the rodeo can be purchased by phone. For more information, please visit the official site.

In March, at the Mission San Xavier del Bac, there is an event organized by the Native Americans of the area (the Tohono O’odham mentioned above) called Wak Pow Pow, a dance competition between tribes that also come from other states. Cash prizes are awarded to the first three groups in each category. There is also an artisan marketplace on-site with handicrafts made by Native Americans.

By paying a ticket, you can attend the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, a great event of music and folk dancing celebrating the culture of mariachi music that takes place in April at the Ava Amphiteather inside the Casino del Sol Hotel (5655 W. Valencia Rd.).

In May, music lovers can visit the Tucson Folk Festival, a free event celebrating the American tradition of bluegrass, jazz, country, and Latin music. The festival events take place in different locations downtown, such as El Presidio Park (160 W. Alameda St.) and the Presidio Museum (196 N. Court Ave.) to name a couple.

Tucson’s culture is showcased in the free October event called Tucson Meet Yourself, held at various locations Downtown. This event celebrates the traditional culture of southern Arizona, the diverse ethnic groups of northern Mexico and the folk music communities in the city. On this occasion perform artists, dancers, musicians and enjoy homemade food. I would also like to mention that the folk music groups give energetic performances.

In November, there is the Fall Arts and Crafts Festival. It takes place less than an hour from Tucson along I-19 S in Tubac, a picturesque town. The buildings, which are a kaleidoscope of colors, display the artistic vibe of this town that makes Tubac worth visiting regardless of the event.

Shopping in Tucson

During a trip, it can be nice to go shopping or take a look at shop windows, stalls and appreciate the local artisans’ work. We point out some places in the city.

  • Old Town Artisans (201 N. Court Ave.), in the central neighborhood of El Presidio, is a pleasant area with handicrafts that are local but also from other parts of the American Southwest. Here you will also find La Cocina Tucson, a restaurant with a menu that includes Mexican and international dishes. The atmosphere is lightened by live music in the evening.
  • For shopping in a less traditional setting we recommend La Encantada (2905 E. Skyline Dr.). The open-air building has two floors. Its architecture is a combination of Spanish Colonial Architecture and modern sophistication. It is worth visiting.
  • Tucson Premium Outlets (6401 W. Marana Center Blvd.) is a complex of outdoor shops of great brands at discounted prices where you can also see a view of the mountains.
  • Park Place (5870 E. Broadway Blvd.), Foothills Mall (7401 N. La Cholla Blvd.) and Tucson Mall (4500 N. Oracle Rd.) are three great shopping centers.
  • La Placita Village (100 S. Church Ave.), a 40-year-old icon in Downtown Tucson that seems to have its days numbered. It looks like a center of offices and shops with colorful buildings in need of renovation. Unfortunately, the only option seems to be the demolition of the majority of the buildings unless the petition of thousands of citizens asking to spare it and revitalize it is accepted. Therefore, we suggest that you inform yourselves before you go there.

Best Places to Eat in Tucson

places to eat in tucsconDuring a trip we always like to taste the local cuisine, try dishes that are new to us or known only by name. So let’s try it, bearing in mind that the atmosphere of the place also plays an important role.

  • Little Anthony’s Diner (7010 E. Broadway Blvd.) a fun, cheerful and vintage environment inspired by the 1950s. It has a casual atmosphere and it serves American cuisine and even has a kids’ menu. On certain days of the year, car shows are held outside the restaurant. On the website you can check the dates of the events.
  • El Corral Restaurant (2201 E. River Rd.) offers a western atmosphere in a building with a Spanish colonial and mission revival architecture. This restaurant specializing in meat dishes claims to serve the best ribs in Arizona. It seems to have positive reviews.
  • A restaurant with a Southwest American style but with a touch of elegance is the Gringo Grill & Cantina (5900 N. Oracle Rd.), which serves Southwestern, Mexican and Sonoran cuisine, typical of the area. You can eat inside the restaurant or on the patio, which allows you to enjoy beautiful views of the city and the mountains. It is closed on Sundays and it offers live Latin music on Saturdays from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm and Happy Hour from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
  • There are 2 excellent restaurants in the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort (5601 E. River Rd., see next paragraph) we want to mention here.
    • The Grill at Hacienda del Sol offers American cuisine with a wide selection of wines in a refined restaurant with “old world” decor and a beautiful view of the mountains and the city. The Grill at Hacienda del Sol has been awarded the title of ideal location for the best meal with a view, the best romantic meal and one of the 5 best restaurants in Tucson.
    • The other restaurant is the Terrace Garden Patio & Lounge, a restaurant with views of the city that offers the possibility to eat indoors or on the outdoor patio. Here you can enjoy Happy Hour and live music.

Where to Stay in Tucson

where to stay in tucson
Lodge on the Desert

Here are our suggestions for accommodations for those who want to stay overnight in Tucson

Downtown has two hotels. The Downtown Clifton Hotel Tucson (485 S. Stone Ave.) is a hotel located in the middle of downtown built in 1947 and renovated in 2014. The rooms are furnished in a Far West style. The hotel offers free Wi-Fi, access to a laundry room and a gift shop.

The Big Blue House B&B (144 E. University Blvd.), a lovely historic building, is located in the northern part of downtown, along the main road of the University of Arizona. The rooms, each one decorated in its own style, are equipped with a kitchen or partial kitchen and all have free wi-fi. For breakfast, you can choose from various beverages, fresh fruit, cakes, pancakes and other delicacies prepared and served by the owners.

In the midtown area, against the backdrop of the Santa Catalina Mountains, you will find the Lodge on the Desert (306 N. Alvernon Way), a boutique hotel with rooms built with adobe. The beautiful property offers wi-fi, free parking and has a spa, a pool, and a restaurant. Breakfast is included in the price.

Nestled among the foothills of the beautiful Sonora Desert, you will find the Hacienda del Sol (5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Rd.), a really stunning historic ranch surrounded by nature. The rooms and suites have a refined rustic style with wooden decorations.

Accommodations in Tucson

If you have some time left…

Tucson Arizona In and around Tucson there is plenty to see and explore. The choices are endless. If you’ve never been to other parts of Arizona before, also visit the nature and culture of Phoenix and Scottsdale (about 1 hour and 50 minutes away), the beautiful red rocks of Sedona (about 3 hours and 30 minutes away), the fascinating Grand Canyon (about 5 hours and 15 minutes away) and whatever else catches your eye along the way. Arizona is nicknamed the Grand Canyon State and we will not challenge the truthfulness of this definition, but certainly, there is much more that is worth visiting … and lastly, we just want to wish you a good trip to Tucson in Arizona!

Marianna Licia e Paolo
Marianna Licia e Paolo

While we each have our own personal pursuits, there are two passions that we share: photography and traveling, especially in the United States.

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