In the state of Arizona, a typical trip is likely to take you to Phoenix. The largest city certainly has its attractions. However, it’s the second-largest city that more people are discovering in recent times.
Nestled in the Santa River valley region of Pima County, Tucson is a pretty desert area just north of the border with Mexico. As a result, Latin influences spread throughout this city, making for a unique ambiance.
With a population of more than half a million people, the city is the proud home of the University of Arizona and has an attractive landscape and wonderful, warm climate.
Indeed, with wonderful architecture, pretty public gardens, great weather, and Mexican fusion fare, visitors here have a lot to be happy about.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the best things to do in Tucson.
You might not have time to do them all in one trip, but we’re confident that you’ll love Tucson enough to come back again!
Top Things to do in Tucson in 2018
In 2018, you can be sure this bucket list offers the very best of Tucson, Arizona.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Found on the west of Tucson, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum sprawls over 98 acres and houses a zoo, an aquarium, natural history museum and an art gallery.
The purpose of the museum is to teach visitors about the flora and fauna that is found in the Sonoran Desert region, including the homes of 200 desert animal species and over 1,000 different types of plants.
The museum attracts over 400,000 travelers a year and consists of different exhibitions that offer both contemporary and historical explanations of plant life and wildlife. Some of the more popular exhibitions are Rivers to the Sea, Cat Canyon and Life on the Rocks.
Hike Sabino Canyon
Who doesn’t enjoy a good hike once and a while?
Sabino Canyon is located north of Tucson, snuggled within the Santa Catalina Mountains and Coronado National Forest, making for gorgeous scenery.
The canyon provides awesome trails as well as both hiking and trekking opportunities for visitors. Although this canyon is found in the desert, there’s Sabino Creek close by which offers waterfalls that can be accessed by a bridge.
If you’re not into hiking, you can take the tram, which features nine stops at different viewpoints, through the canyon.
Either way, Sabino Canyon is one of the most iconic things to do in Tucson.
Explore Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is a section of the Sonoran Desert which reaches west and east of Tucson.
This desert area is the lowest in North America and is known for its many types of flora and fauna which blossom and thrive despite the extreme heat.
You’ll be able to see the candelabra or saguaro cactuses, the tallest in North America, along with fascinating bird species such as the cactus wren and Gila woodpecker. You’ll get the chance to catch sight of rattlesnakes, tortoises as well as the Gila monster, which is a huge lizard.
Saguaro National Park offers a number of hiking trails to help you explore this exciting area in depth.
Visit Old Tucson Studios
If you’re at all into the popular TV show, Westworld, you’re going to love Old Tucson Studios.
This make-believe Western town is set in the style of the 19th century and was rebuilt in 1940 to serve as a setting for a number of Western films.
Surrounded by sandy hills, this little Western town is isolated in the desert for a true old-time Western feel.
If you’re looking for fun family things to do in Tucson, you can’t go wrong with this.
The sets have been used for many years, helping produce movies such as Young Guns and a lot of John Wayne’s films. Visitors are invited to take a guided tour to learn which sets were used in films and to learn about the history of the town or wander around, have lunch, or watch the kids play on the mini-train or pan for gold.
Tucson Botanical Gardens is a nature lover’s paradise.
Comprised of 16 gardens, Tucson Botanical Gardens is spread over 5 acres and has a reputation of instilling a sense of peace and quiet in visitors as a refuge from the often-busy city.
The different gardens have individual themes in order to promote the best Arizona flora. Some of these gardens include a children’s garden, a butterfly garden, and a Zen garden.
Within the complex, you’ll also find a gallery that includes rotating installations and exhibitions based on certain themes of Arizonian botanical interest.
Soak up Tohono Chul Park
This park translates literally to “Desert Corner,” a name coined by the Arizonian indigenous people, the Tohono O’odham.
The park consists of an on-site museum that focuses on education and environmental stewardship for the desert region.
Visitors can enjoy much more than just the botanical gardens, as the Santa Catalina Mountains stand as a stunning backdrop, providing a geology wall and discovery trails.
Pima Air and Space Museum
If you’re into aircraft, Pima Air and Space Museum should top your list of things to do in Tucson.
This museum holds its name as the biggest privately funded air museum in the world, providing over 300 aircraft along with a spacecraft as well.
The aircraft collection includes some of the most advanced models as well as a historical aircraft, and featured attractions such as John F. Kennedy's presidential plane and a 2930 Wright Brothers Flyer replica.
For a fee, visitors are invited to take a bus tour to the “Boneyard” which is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center.
For visitors who are interested in the United State Air Force history, there’s a historical tour offered that brings visitors through the ages.
Star Gazing at Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak National Observatory gets you closer to the stars.
This astronomical observatory quietly sits at the top of Kitt Peak among the Quinlan Mountains and claims to have the most diverse and largest astronomical equipment in the world, including 24 telescopes.
This observatory offers more than just stargazing opportunities. Depending on the visitor’s choice, the observatory offers day and night tours in order to feature the invention of the telescope and the observatory's history as well as a chance to observe the cosmos once the sun has set.
Walk Through the Body of a Rattlesnake
In Tucson, public art is a big thing. The city has invested millions on many different projects over the years. However, there is one that is more noticeable than most.
Diamondback Bridge was erected in 2002, bringing local wildlife into the city center in a big way. The entrance of the passenger tunnel is a snake’s gaping mouth, with long fangs acting as support beams.
The body stretches over the road, allowing cars to pass under and see the segments of the rattlesnake tunnel above them. On the far side, a statue shaped like the tail rattle rises 30 feet in the air.
While an abstract design, the colors and proportions are apparently quite accurate, making for a fascinating vision as you approach the bridge.
You can walk right through the animal, and it will even rattle as you leave the other side.
Go to the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures
They say bigger is better in the south. Not here though. This museum houses almost 300 little artifacts, including miniature houses and figurines, spread throughout three different, but equally intriguing, exhibits.
The first is the Enchanted Realm, which displays woodland creatures and fairy castles, along with witches and other mystical and magical objects and beings.
Second up is the History Gallery, which gives visitors glimpses of the past, showing how the craftsmanship in the region has evolved. It also is home to the oldest miniature house in all of the United States, which was crafted here in 1775.
The final exhibit is titled Exploring the World. It has many pieces from international artists, including Japan, Holland, the U.K. and Spain.
Best Things to Do in Tucson, Arizona: Final Thoughts
For a desert-based city, Tucson Arizona offers an impressive amount of outdoor activities that the entire family can enjoy.
From unique museums to the Space Museum, and of course the great Tucson studios, you can really immerse yourself in the desert region and all its wonderful quirks.
Phoenix may be the big smoke in the state, but Tucson is well worth a visit. It has a wonderful climate that makes it a pleasure to be in almost any time of year.
Friendly locals make for a big-town feel and fans of Mexican food, Western movies or interesting desert wildlife will all love it here.
Take a trip to Tucson this year to unleash your inner cowboy!