A trip to Tucson means exploring the natural beauty of national parks and pine forests, unplugging in open-air museums and gardens, and basking in the Old West spirit. Oh, and indulging in the city’s rich and vibrant food scene—Tucson has been designated by UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy, after all. Dive into 11 Tucson experiences that are absolutely essential to a great vacation.
Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food
Tucson is a food lover’s haven. The city’s food culture is so rich, in fact, that UNESCO named Tucson a City of Gastronomy—one of only two American cities to earn the distinction. Throughout the city’s cafes, cantinas, and cocinas, you’ll find some of the best Mexican food in the U.S. Don’t miss pozole at Penca, carne seca at El Charro, or green chile stew, machaca burritos, and prickly pear margaritas at Poco & Mom’s Cantina. After poking around the shops of Old Town Artisans, La Cocina’s outdoor courtyard is the perfect place to recharge with a relaxing lunch under the cool shade of the trees. At night, the oasis comes alive with twinkly lights and live music. The atmosphere may be the first draw, but La Cocina’s beer-marinated pulled pork, polenta fries, and crispy artichoke hearts earn endless praise.
DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun
With a gorgeous desert setting in the Catalina foothills, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun gives you the freedom to roam its 10 saguaro-studded acres at your own pace. Here, you’ll find lovely tile mosaics, an open-air mission with rock floors and colorful murals, and an adobe gallery showcasing the work of DeGrazia and other Southwestern artists. You can also visit the artist’s home and grave on the property, which is on the National Historic Register.
If you’re looking for a portal to the Wild West, Old Tucson is it. The family-friendly movie studio and theme park has served as the film location for more than 400 movies and TV shows, including “Calamity Jane” starring Doris Day, the 1976 “A Star is Born” with Barbra Streisand, and the classic 1959 John Wayne Western “Rio Bravo.” Modern-day visitors are treated to live-action cowboy stunts and gunfights, can-can shows at the dance hall, vintage stage coach rides, and more.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
There’s no cooler way to beat the Arizona heat than with a cave tour of Colossal Cave, part of a 2,400-acre park that also offers a museum and a historic ranch with Western trail rides. The cave’s “Crystal Forest” is a big draw, and the park’s grounds—dotted with saguaros, Santa Rita prickly pear, and other native vegetation—make for great picnicking.
Saguaro National Park
Explore without boundaries at Saguaro National Park, a 90,000-acre stretch so immense, it’s split into two separate parks, with one on the east side of Tucson and another on the west. Both sides offer scenic drives with spots to pull over and soak up the amazing panoramas—towering saguaros stretching toward the mountainous horizon. There are also picnic areas, hiking and nature trails, and a visitor center with exhibits. In Saguaro National Park West, make the easy hike up to Signal Hill to see rock carvings and beautiful views. If you’re going during hours of peak heat, be sure to bring protective clothing, water, and sunscreen. Many visitors opt to go in the morning or around sunset, when the views and lighting are truly spectacular.
All of Tucson provides a sense of allure and freedom, but perhaps nowhere as powerfully as the Santa Catalinas, a rugged natural area to the north of the city. The 27-mile Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, also known as the Catalina Highway, rises from a desert landscape to a lush conifer wilderness. With its many switchbacks and an elevation gain of more than 6,000 feet, the road weaves past stunning rock formations and green valley views, offering head-spinning beautiful scenery at every point. A downloadable app offers a narrated tour along the drive. Mount Lemmon is a slam dunk for outdoors enthusiasts wanting to hike, bike, rock climb, camp, picnic, or even ski come wintertime at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. Advanced hikers might consider the Bug Springs Trail, which loops up a mountain before descending down a canyon to the forest floor (full of pines, oaks, and sycamores); or the rugged Mount Lemmon Trail, which starts near the summit and heads down a ridge, offering breathtaking views of Wilderness of Rock, Romero Canyon, and Pusch Ridge.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
Known as The White Dove of the Desert, this eighteenth-century Spanish Catholic mission is the oldest European structure in the state. The elegant Baroque architecture features a Moorish-inspired façade, front doors carved from mesquite wood, and elaborate interiors with frescoes and sculptures. Set against a classic Southwest backdrop and bright blue skies, this strikingly pretty mission is a moving experience for many of its visitors. Don’t forget to treat yourself to traditional Native American fry bread from one of the booths out front on your way out.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The word “museum” may be right there in the name, but you’re better off considering this the Arizona-Sonora Desert Experience. The 98-acre outdoor mecca, filled with 230 species of wildlife (prairie dogs, lizards, snakes, owls) and over 1,000 types of plants, is like a zoo, botanical garden, and aquarium rolled into one. The kid-friendly attraction features a walk-in hummingbird aviary, sting ray pool, daily raptor shows, Cat Canyon (home to the mountain lions, ocelots, and bobcats), and two miles of walking trails.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
The night sky is a magnificent sight to behold, but it’s not always easy to see it in all its splendor, thanks to electricity and light pollution. Tucson’s Kitt Peak National Observatory offers a nighttime program with incredible views of the dark sky—it’s the perfect place to spot planets, galaxies, star clusters, zodiac constellations, and more. Be aware that the observatory can be chilly at night (so be sure to dress warmly).
Hotel Congress (Downtown Tucson)
Though the historic Hotel Congress is a Tucson landmark dating to 1919, it’s no musty relic. In fact, the 39-room charmer is home to one of the hottest music scenes in town, with regular DJs and an onsite club hosting everything from punk bands to synth-pop soloists to album-release parties. (The hotel’s retro game show nights are another local favorite.) As if there weren’t enough going on here, Hotel Congress’ central location puts it within spitting distance of downtown’s bars, clubs, and music venues.
Historic Fourth Avenue
Proving there’s much more to Tucson than wondrous natural beauty and outdoor activities galore, the town’s bohemian Historic Fourth Avenue District is packed with one-of-a-kind shops, lively bars, and funky eateries. This is where wine bars neighbor vintage stores and cute cafes with outdoor seating border independent bookshops. There’s always something going on in this quirky oasis, from taco happy hours and bar trivia nights to DJ parties and drag shows.