Our picks for the 5 best things to do in Tucson, Arizona

What are the five best things to do in Tucson? It depends on who you are. For us, they involve the landscape, art, food and history. But if you don’t share our sensibilities, the city offers a lot of other things to do. Visitors can enjoy outdoor activities such as nature-watching, hiking and biking; explore scientific sites such as the Pima Air & Space Museum and Kitt Peak National Observatory; visit  an art museum; check out Old Tucson, a movie studio/theme park where westerns were shot or walk through Tucson’s historic neighborhoods.  Pretty much, something for everyone!

best things to do in Tucson - Saguaro cacti outside of Tucson, photo Billie Frank

Saguaro cacti outside of Tucson, photo/Billie Frank

For us, the most amazing thing about Tucson is its desert landscape. The city sits at the northern end of the Sonoran Desert; the only place in the US that saguaro cactus grows. These majestic and otherworldly cacti are everywhere, growing as tall as 60 feet with up to 25 arms. Their lifespan can be as much as 200 years. They are totally worth the trip! But Tucson is more than its landscape. It’s got history, art, culture, outdoor activities and great food. Here are our picks for the five best things to do in Tucson.

Tohono Chul Park

best things to do in Tucson - Cacti and other lush plants at Tohono Chul, photo Steve Collins

Cacti and other lush plants at Tohono Chul, photo/Steve Collins

We’d heard about Tohono Chul Park (“Desert Elbow” in the language of the native Tohono O’odham people) from a number of travel bloggers so it was high our list of places to visit. On the drive from their gate to their parking lot we passed a profusion of saguaros; I had to get a few photos. Just before the ticket booth I discovered hummingbirds and butterflies hovering over a bunch of bushes. Both fascinate me and I could have stayed right there all day but we had a park to explore.

We slowly ambled through the park visiting a number of the gardens including the Sin Agua Garden (without water), a haven for plants that thrive in desert environments; the Sonoran Seasons Garden and the new Desert Palm Oasis, home to several species of native palms; the Butterfly Garden (an official Monarch way-station) attracts seasonally migrating Monarch butterflies. I mentioned that I love hummingbirds. Both the Penstemon Garden and the Hummingbird Garden (planted with salvia, desert honeysuckle, desert willow and many other flute-shaped flowers perfect for their long beaks to access) attract these tiny, hypnotic creatures with their constantly vibrating wings. Other gardens at Tohono Chul include the Demonstration Garden, the Ethnobotanical Garden, the Performance Garden and the Children’s Garden. There’s also an art museum and a café. Allow at least two hours for your visit although you could easily spend the entire day. If you want to spend the day, the Tohono Chul Garden Bistro serves breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch and cocktails.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

best things to do in Tucson - Can you spot the monarch butterfly I captured at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum? photo Billie Frank

Can you spot the monarch butterfly I captured at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum? photo/Billie Frank

We found the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum by accident. We were headed for the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park west of the city. When we saw the sign for the desert museum we had to stop to check it out. Their mission: to interpret the Sonoran Desert and its varied biotic communities. The desert, which starts in southern Arizona and extends into southern California and central Mexico, is a treasure of flora, fauna, distinct landscapes and diverse ecosystems. About 85% of the museum’s exhibits are outdoors. There’s also a theater that hosts live animal presentations, an aquarium and an art institute and gallery. I got waylaid by the butterflies and hummingbirds. I spent way too much time in the hummingbird aviary watching these amazing creatures. Then spent a bunch of time in the butterfly garden (another certified Monarch way station), trying to photograph these elusive flyers. I could have stayed there all afternoon. My advice: allow at least two hours for your visit, though you could easily spend most of a day at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Bring a picnic or eat at their food court or café or grab a something quick in their snack shop or coffee bar.

Visit Mission San Xavier del Bac

best things to do in Tucson - San Xavier del Bac, photo Billie Frank

San Xavier del Bac, photo/Billie Frank

While the first official Spanish settlement in southern Arizona wasn’t until the mid 18th century, the Catholic Church arrived in the area in the 17the century. Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, about 20 minutes southwest of Tucson, was founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino. The mission, located on the Tohono O’odham reservation, is the oldest European building still standing in Arizona. It’s a beauty! The interior of the church is spectacular, especially the towering altar adorned with vividly-colored retablos and the frescoed ceiling. Hand-carved santos are spaced in nichos throughout the church. If you have time it’s worth taking the free tours offered Monday through Saturday mornings on the half-hour. The docents are very knowledgeable. We piggybacked on one and learned quite a lot about the mission’s history. Before leaving, check out the gift shop. The Tohono O’odham are known for their basketry. I treated myself to a lovely split-stitch basket. Hungry? Don’t leave without trying fry bread from one of the Tohono O’odham vendors in the parking lot.

Visit Tubac

best things to do in Tucsin - A garden of brightly painted metal flowers and garden decor makes for a popular shopping place in Tubac, photo courtesy: Elizabeth R. Rose

Brightly painted metal flowers and garden decor in a Tubac shop. photo courtesy Elizabeth R. Rose

We didn’t get to Tubac because we ran out of time but it’s on our list for next Tucson visit. The small town, set in the Santa Cruz River Valley, was founded as a fort (presidio) by the Spanish in 1752. It’s the oldest European settlement in the Arizona. Today it’s known as an art colony. A short-lived, post WWII art school attracted artists to the area; many stayed and more came. The town’s motto: “Where Art and History Meet!” Today, over 100 shops, galleries, working studios and restaurants, most set in historic adobes, line the town’s quaint dirt roads. You can also visit the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and tour the ruins of the fort. If, like us, you’re a fan of Spanish Colonial missions Tumacácori National Historical Park is a few miles down the road. Here you’ll find the ruins of the oldest mission in Arizona, San José de Tumacácori, founded in 1691. Like hiking? There’s a 4-mile section of the 1,200 mile Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail that goes from Tubac to Tumacácori (but, remember, you have to walk back).

Eat a Sonoran hot dog

best things to do in Tucson - El Guero Canelo, photo Billie Frank

El Guero Canelo, photo Billie Frank

Almost anyplace you visit has a regional food that you just have to try. In Santa Fe it’s anything with chile, Philly has its cheese steak, NOLA its beignets, in Iowa it’s loose meat, Buffalo has its chicken wings and Chicago has deep dish pizza. Everyone who heard we were headed to Tucson said we had to try a Sonoran hot dog, so we did. We were told to go either BK Tacos or El Guero Canelo. After checking out both eateries’ websites we opted for El Guero. There was something about their less slick site appealed to us. We headed for their original 12th Avenue location. El Guero  Canelo (the blond guy) started as a hot dog cart in 1993 and claims to have introduced the Sonoran hot dog to Tucson. Whether they did or not, they sure got it right. What is a Sonoran hot dog? It’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled until crispy served in a steamed bolillo (pronounced boh-lee-yoh), a Mexican-style sweet-tasting roll. It’s topped with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, grilled and raw onions, scallions, jalapeño salsa and mustard with an artistic squiggle of mayonnaise on top. All this came to a mere $2.78. Order at the window, get a number and wait to be called. Once you have your dog, stop at the buffet counter in the dining room to load cheese, pico de gallo, pickled onions, scallions or salsa verde onto you’re already full dog. We were both a bit hungry after our hot dogs and decided to split another. Our tip: if it’s busy order two per person, at that price you can afford it! If you find yourself with an extra dog you can probably give it away.

Where to stay

best things to do in Tucson - One of the historic guest buildings at Arizona Inn, photo Steve Collins

One of the historic guest buildings at Arizona Inn, photo/Steve Collins

A hotel can make or break a trip. We stayed in the historic Arizona Inn where the rich and famous once wintered. Today that lifestyle is gone, but the inn still attracts an upscale clientele. Other vintage lodgings (our favorite kind of place to stay) include the newly refurbished Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort or the trendy downtown Hotel Congress, built in 1919. Or perhaps you prefer something more contemporary or more budget-friendly. The range of Tucson hotels will meet just about every budget and travel-style.

If you don’t like really hot weather, visit Tucson in the winter months. We were there in late October; temperatures were in the 80s. If you want better hotel rates, visit during the summer but be prepared for daytime temperatures topping 100 degrees; it goes down into the 70s at night. We hope you check out our five best things to do in Tucson if your travels take you to this vibrant desert city. Maybe you’ll agree or perhaps you’ll come up with your own favorites. We fell in love with Tucson; maybe you will too. We’ll be back!

What do you think are the best things to do in Tucson?

Thanks to Elizabeth R. Rose of Southwest Liz

for the Tubac photo.

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3 Responses to “Our picks for the 5 best things to do in Tucson, Arizona”

  1. Billie Frank
    June 12, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    If you plan well you will!

  2. Ryan Biddulph
    June 12, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    Hi Billie,

    I’d have to enjoy that hot dog. From the toppings alone. Sounds like a meal in itself, with all the beans and other rich offerings. Actually I may scrape off the fried dog and just eat the toppings LOL. Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

    • Billie Frank
      June 13, 2017 at 8:58 am #

      It was a great dog- leave it on the bun (unless you’re a vegetarian).

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