Tucson gets attention for it’s quality of life, social diversity, infrastructure, stunning beauty, and unique restaurants and breweries. In addition, Tucson is one of America’s favorite places to vacation because there are so many different types of attractions.
Tucson — with a population of a half a million people in the Sonoran Desert — has experienced a sort of renaissance over the last decade or so. It’s a wonderful place to visit.
It’s also renowned for it’s environmental focus. Here you will see water conservation, solar panels, rainwater harvesting, and many eco-friendly practices as everyone works to conserve this area.
In addition to being a fun destination, Tucson has quickly evolved in its approach to its own natural beauty, embracing and highlighting it at every possible turn.
The result is a thriving, buzzing town with a great atmosphere, elevated culture, and great respect for mother nature. While everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, there are wondrous attractions in Tucson, no matter what your interests.
Tucson nature attractions
It’s difficult to put nature in one category, as so many of Tucson’s attractions involve nature and overlap with other areas of interest. The desert landscape is part of the infrastructure in so many areas throughout Tucson.
Saguaro National Park
You can drive through the park or enjoy walking around — or both! There are two locations (districts) for Saguaro National Park. They are both marvelous, so chose the one that works out better for your location and whatever else you plan to do in Tucson.
- Saguaro National Park East – Rincon Mountain District
- Saguaro National Park West – Tucson Mountain District
Bring plenty of water in a reusable water bottle. You can refill at one of their refilling stations in the Visitor Center. As part of their Reduce, ReUse, Refill program, there aren’t restaurants, concession stands, or snack, water, or soda machines.
Camping is available at Rincon Mountain District on a first come, first serve basis.
Both locations have guides, gift shop, visitor center, movie, and more.
There are different trails for varying levels of hiking as well. Pick up a map in the Visitor Center. You will learn about the mammals, reptiles, cactus, plants, and other living things you can see in this area.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
This is a glorious space to learn more about the native plants that grow in Tucson and in the Sonoran Desert. You will find smaller gardens as well as learn all about the individual plants.
They offer classes and workshops as well as guided-tours. It’s a great place for the family to wander around. Children will enjoy exploring in a this smaller setting. Be sure to walk through the Butterfly Garden.
We’ve been here during some exhibits in which sculptures adorn the grounds, making it even more magical.
Tucson science, geology, air & space attractions
Tucson wonders never cease.
Situated in a valley basin that, due to its unusual altitude, can be considered a high desert, Tucson is one of the most geologically-unusual cities in all of Arizona (and, by extension, the United States).
Apart from providing the city with a dry climate, this location creates a sort of secluded habitat that encapsulates the unique aesthetics of the Arizona desert, boasting wonderous mountain ranges which surround the city much like a palisade.
You will enjoy seeing all the formations on your own when you take hikes throughout Tucson and even just driving through many parts of town.
Learn more and experience some of these Tucson attractions:
Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium
Tucson gets all the benefits that a great university brings with it. The renouned University of Arizona offers amazing opportunities to residents and Tucson visitors.
One of the many things is the Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium.
Here you can enjoy:
- UA Mineral Museum: Enjoy viewing the extensive rocks and minerals collection
- Planetarium Theater: See a planetarium and laser Show
- Hands-on science exhibits in a small hands-on museum-type setting
Many local schools use this as a resource for school field trips.
Plan to stay the day and eat on campus at one of the many restaurants.
Afterwards, take some time to walk around the campus and admire the landscaping, take in the buildings, and see the Hall of Champions Athletics Heritage Museum which celebrates the university’s athletes. There are parking garages which make it convenient no matter where you go on campus.
Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research
Also on the University of Arizona campus is the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. You must look online in advance; they offer a few scheduled docent-led tours each month as well as by appointment. Tours are free.
Tucson Gem & Mineral Show
This renowned Tucson attraction is a destination for visitors from around the world. Tucson’s Gem and Mineral Show is an annual event in February which attracts visitors from all over the world.
Note it’s often a bit more expensive to come during this time and the hotels book up fast. If you want to plan your trip during this time, be sure to book your hotel well in advance.
Karchner Caverns (50 minutes from Tucson)
It’s worth noting you will be somewhat close to Karchner Caverns when you visit Tucson. Book online in advance. You can choose between two tours.
Get there early to explore the area; there are hiking paths. In addition, there is a gift shop and a Visitor Center with many displays and information. Be sure to go to the theater to see the interesting movie about how the two men found the caverns.
Colossal Cave (really close to Tucson)
If you want to visit a cave closer to Tucson, check Colossal Cave in Vail, AZ. It’s very close to the Saguaro National Park East location. They offer cave tours, a gift shop, hiking around the surrounding areas, and camping. Even if you just come for the cave tour, it will be a worthwhile visit.
Kitt Peak Observatory (an hour outside of Tucson)
This is located on the Tohono O’odham Nation about 55 miles southwest of Tucson. Many areas of Tucson do not have nighttime street lighting in order to keep the skies clear for Kitt Peak Observatory.
During the day, allow for ample time to enjoy their Visitor Center. The views are astounding. There are guided and self-guided tours which take you inside and outside. You can also enjoy telescope viewing programs and amazing exhibits inside and outside.
There are nighttime activities as well. You must be registered for one to be there in the evening. They offer a 4-hour family stargazing program along with other programs.
Mt Lemmon SkyCenter through U of A
You can also drive to the top of Mount Lemmon to enjoy an astronomy evening. Dress warm for the evening; you will be at 9,000+ ft in elevation.
You should book both the Kitt Peak and the SkyCenter in advance. Both are family friendly but not recommended for younger children.
Pima Air & Space Museum
You will be amazed at what you will get to see here. There are six indoor hangers (air-conditioned) as well as an outdoor space. There is a gift shop as well.
This museum houses over 350 aircraft. You can get into some of the cockpits and get up close to many one-of-a-kind aircraft. They have a large collection of planes from WW II. In addition, there are displays with highlights and details about the aircraft and pilots over the years.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
This is another piece of heaven in Tucson.
You may decide to pay one time admission or to get a yearly park pass. If you get a park pass, it’s good at Saguaro National Park as well as all the national parks across the country, including the Grand Canyon.
Sabino Canyon Crawler
One of the highlights is the Sabino Canyon tram. This is a pre-recorded, narrated ride to the top and back down.
You can decide to remain on the tram for the duration of the ride (all the way up and down) or get off at any point.
If you choose to get off and explore the area, you can walk to a new stop or walk the way back down. Note, trams are often filled up. They come every hour throughout most of the year.
They will give you ear buds so you can listen to the narrated tour as you please.
You can schedule the Sabino Canyon Crawler online in advance.
If you don’t want to book your time online in advance, you can do it when you get to the park. Just be sure to do it as soon as possible after you get out of your car. Go up to the booth which is to the left of the Visitor’s Center.
Schedule your time and pay so you can plan your time at Sabino Canyon. Perhaps there will be one soon or maybe it won’t be for a few hours.
Once you have your time slot, you will know how to spend your time the most effectively. You may have time to go on a longer hike. If there is a slot open soon after you arrive, you may opt to spend time nearby in the Visitor’s Center and in the gift shop.
In the past, this used to be narrated by a live tour operator. What was nice about this is we would always learn something new.
Now, it’s pre-recorded. It was still good, but not as personal and fun as when it was a live human giving the tour.So while there will be a person on the tram ride, he or she won’t be narrating the tour.
Before you start out on a hike, be sure you look at a map of the area. There are many different hikes, distances, levels, etc.
Also, no matter when you visit, be sure to wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water.We’ve been on the tram three times. Once in September, once in December, and once in January. Each time, the tram/crawler was filled to capacity.
One thing we learned on the pre-recorded tour narration was that 1.3 million people visit Sabino Canyon Recreation Center annually. We were shocked that number was so high.
While there is plenty of parking and lots of space, at times it does get crowded.
You can ride bikes during the less busy times, early in the morning, and later in the evening. Otherwise, you can only walk around.
Tucson animals attractions
The natural beauty of the city does not limit itself to geology. There are certainly noteworthy characteristics to Tucson’s unique flora and fauna.
Even in the most urban areas of the city, unique forms of vegetation abound, providing color and injecting life into the environment. Furthermore, a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians inhabit the streets along with the people, creating an atmosphere that induces a lively sort of calm.
You might be fortunate enough to see wildlife on your hikes throughout Tucson. However, if you want to be sure to see some of the native animals, visit:
Sonoran-Arizona Desert Museum
You can walk around the park and see the animals in their natural settings. While you are walking through the acreage, you will also get the benefit of seeing the cactus and other native plants and trees which make up the animals’ habitats.
It opens early in the hotter months, so plan to go early so the animals will be out. There are plenty of indoor spaces with exhibits as well. Be sure to walk through the Aviary. Schools in the area travel great distances to go to the Desert Museum.
Reid Park Zoo
The Reid Park Zoo is a wonderland with over 500 animals. They are all about conservation here as well. Note their green buildings and composting along with their water harvesting and grey water capture, solar panels and more.
Before you plan your trip, look online to see if there is a special attraction you want to see. They have many activities, including special events at night when it’s cooler.
Seeing wildlife in Tucson
Keep in mind when you visit Tucson that it gets very hot. If you venture out hiking, you will have a better chance to see animals early in the morning and at dusk. Be sure to bring a refillable water bottle with you.
You may also have luck if you visit Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Mt. Lemmon, as well as the scores of other trails and nature areas throughout the city.
Tucson diversity and architecture
There are many ecceltic areas and neighborhoods in Tucson, each bringing their own vibe.
There is the downtown area with it’s interesting array of shops, restaurants, cafes, breweries, yoga studios and festivals. The area surrounding the University of Arizona thrives with locals and students. This area has different types of shops and restaurants as well as an array of cultural and sports events.
Something else which makes Tucson so interesting is it is so close to the bordering country of Mexico. Because of this, Tucson enjoys a healthy amount of cultural exchange that enriches and revitalizes its daily social interactions in a multitude of ways.
There is also an influence from the Native Indian tribes in the surrounding areas.
If you plan to stay in Tucson for any length of time, you will get to experience the small-town feel and supportive communities here.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the combination of Tucson’s colonial past and its proximity to Mexico has greatly affected its architecture. While it can’t be denied that mid-century Modernist architecture prevails as one of the city’s biggest influences, it’s also true that many other styles have a strong presence throughout the entire town.
Out of these, the most important is, arguably, the Spanish colonial style that infuses buildings with overpowering stucco walls, clay-tiled or flat roofs, over-the-top arches and wood (or wrought) iron balconies.
Among some of the other architectural styles that make up the city, you can find Sonoran, Mediterranean Revival, Pueblo Revival and even Moorish. Despite being very different, these styles have a way of blending perfectly, providing the city with a unique look that is, somehow, eccentric and harmonious at the same time.
Much like nature itself, this blend of style and cultures results in a sort of architectural ecosystem that is perfectly balanced.
Mission San Xavier del Blanc
Be sure to check out the San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. You can check the website for information on mass times if you would like to attend a Catholic mass.
There are also tours of the grounds and a fairly sizable gift shop. When we were there on a Sunday morning, there were also several tents set up with local vendors.
Fourth Avenue Street Fair
This December tradition brings local vendors and the town together for a weekend enjoying Tucson’s historic Fourth Avenue.
With free admission, it’s a sought-after event each year. Wander through the booths featuring artists, listen to the bands, and pop in and out of Tucson’s vibrant downtown shops. They do bring in food trucks; be sure to find one that is local if you want to enjoy some of Tucson’s classic eats.
They’ve added a spring festival as well.
As if all that wasn’t great enough by itself, bring your camera for the sunsets. They are phemenomenal.
When it gets dark, take some time to take in Tucson’s extravagant skies. Depending on where you are visiting from, you may see stars here like nowhere else.
You will be hard-pressed to find a city with as much natural beauty as this crown jewel of Arizona.
One thing that not many outsiders know about Tucson is that it has one of the liveliest and most diverse music scenes in the country, if not all of North America. Renowned bands such as Calexico hail from this city, a testament to the incessant creativity of its inhabitants. Without a doubt, live music plays a huge role in the city’s cultural panorama, resulting in an impressive number of big and small venues that showcase the local musical groupings’ talent.
Tucson art attractions
In addition to music, this wonderful Arizona city has many options for lovers of traditional, classical and orchestral music.
Ensembles like the Tucson Symphony, the Southern Arizona Symphony and Arizona Friends of Chamber Music Orchestra provide plenty of beautiful shows throughout the year. The latter, in particular, manages to captivate the imagination of the entire city (and its visitors) every year during its renowned Winter Festival. Broadway in Tucson brings amazing entertainment as well.
Visual art is also a very important form of expression in this beautiful city. It has one of the most important contemporary art museums in the region: the Tucson Museum of Art. More than that, when you are in this city, you can visit the renowned University of Arizona Museum of Art, home to large collections of very important paintings.
Apart from renowned art museums, the city is bursting with local galleries, many of which showcase the talent and creativity of young, up and coming artists with fresh takes and a new vision.
In reality, it’s not even necessary to go into a gallery to see wonderful new art in this city: Featuring beautiful murals all over its most urban areas, the city acts as a museum in itself.
Due to its hot climate, the city allows visitors and locals to walk from cultural hot spot to cultural hot spot until late at night.
As a result, it is buzzing with activity and fun throughout most of the day’s 24 hours. Even better, the climate is very conducive to people feeling happy, chatty and comfortable meeting new friends. As a result, the nightlife in this city is particularly exciting.
Visiting Tucson, Arizona
As a result of all the environmental factors that were just described, this place has a unique atmosphere that is very hard to put into words. Ample and airy, the city provides people with a sense of expectant calm. At points, walking down the city’s most vibrant urban hot spots, that expectancy turns itself into reality when you walk across a crowded pop-up gastro-pub or a mesmerizing street art performance.
And yet, if you see quiet and want to experience nature, Tucson has hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and biking, for exercise and recreation.
Visitors can experience the atmosphere and culture of this fantastic city in Arizona. The University of Arizona enriches the Tucson culture with all of the programming available there as well.
Luckily, there is no lack of cultural features and destinations in Tucson. Ranging from museums to famous restaurants and legendary nightclubs, the city certainly has something for everyone.
That is not to say, however, that the city is touristy or excessively commercial. To the contrary, somehow, it has managed to retain its unique town-like personality and charisma while simultaneously providing plenty of activities for visitors and locals alike.
Speaking of visitors, those who are interested in the rich history of this city will have a great time visiting its many historical locations. Places like the Anza Trail, the Arizona Museum and many others provide visitors with a clearer understanding of the city, its origins and its culture.
It’s even possible to visit famous locations that once were frequented by the likes of Wyatt Earp, Pancho Villa and Cochise. People who are interested in military history will undoubtedly enjoy the many museums that feature everything from Native American warrior artifacts to Cold War missiles.
Remember, depending on the time of year you visit Tucson, it gets hot at certain hours of the day. For that reason, many of the locals find refuge indoors during these hours, resulting in a large number of establishments dedicated to the lofty goal of providing day-time shade, refreshments and entertainment.
Then, once the sun has gone down, you can go out and enjoy the cooling night breeze as you take in the beautiful sunset.
And remember, there is Tucson International Airport which makes it very easy to visit. Many choose to come in from Phoenix because it will have more direct flights.
If you want to truly connect with nature, however, you only need to step a little bit outside the city in order to find the most amazing wildflowers and blooming cacti. While this is true all year long, without a doubt, the most awe-inducing blooms happen during the spring months. Note that late in summer you will see the bright purple prickly pears and the barrel cactus blooming — adding rich colors to the desert landscape.
Despite (or perhaps due to) featuring such hard living conditions, the Arizona desert has some of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in the world.
Tucson is an ideal vacation destination for families, couples, friend groups, solos, retirees, cyclists, nature lovers for vacations. These are a just of the few highlights when it comes to Tucson attractions to consider. You will never run out of things to do in this glorious town.