Last Updated on March 9, 2023

Let me make it very clear that I do not, and have never, considered myself a desert person. But when my husband, who was an active-duty naval officer at the time, received orders to Tucson, we moved there ready for yet another dose of life’s adventures. Tucson became an exotic adventure for this beach-loving girl, but before living there, I had no idea what to do in Tucson.

Tucson is a valley ringed by mountains: the Santa Catalinas to the north, Santa Ritas to the south, Rincons to the east and the Tucson Mountains to the west. The city is also bookended by two units of the Saguaro National Park.

As the second largest city in Arizona (Phoenix being number one), Tucson is much different than Phoenix in more ways than one. It’s an outdoor lover’s nirvana especially for bicyclists and hikers, Tucson has a more laid-back live-and-live ambience and it’s definitely cooler during those ‘dry heat’ months than Phoenix. A lot cooler.

Tucson is also a fun and vibrant college town, thanks to the University of Arizona.

My husband and I used our two years in Tucson to get to know this desert town and the places and experiences that make it uniquely special. It’s no wonder it receives so many accolades for being Arizona’s most beautiful and most-livable city. Here are my recommendations for what to do in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park

Without a doubt, the saguaro cactus symbolizes the desert Southwest – they grow nowhere else on earth – and you’ll never see more of these beauties covering the rolling landscape than at Tucson’s Saguaro National Park.

This 92,867-acre park is dedicated to the saguaro, the largest cactus in the U.S. It is divided into two districts, Rincon Mountain District east of the city and Tucson Mountain District to the west. Each section features a visitor center, miles of hiking trails, and of course hundreds of these towering cacti.

If you’re not in the mood to hike, the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive is a paved road with several trailheads, scenic vistas and pullouts on the eastern side. Both sections of the park are worth your time as the western side is renowned for its spectacular sunsets.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

More zoo, art gallery and botanical gardens than museum, this is one of the best of its kind in the country, celebrating the beauty of the Sonoran Desert which spans central southern Arizona and parts of northern Mexico.

The museum covers 98 acres and includes 230 animal species along with 1,200 local plant species. It’s also home to an aquarium, reptile and amphibian hall, with two miles of hiking trails. Guide books tell visitors to plan for at least two hours here, but you’ll need at least a half day as this park is just breathtaking and totally fascinating.

85% of the museum is outdoors so arriving in the morning on a warmer day is a good plan, along with wearing comfortable walking shoes.

Coyotes and javelinas (peccaries) seem completely content in their compounds surrounded by nearly invisible fences. Visitors will also see black bears, mountain lions, tarantulas, scorpions, prairie dogs and desert bighorn sheep. Volunteer guides are amazingly informative and offer special programming for all ages.

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Tucson sunset with silhouette of Saguaro cactus.
Tucson sunset with silhouette of Saguaro cactus. Photo by Noreen Kompanik.

Located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s northeast edge, Sabino Canyon’s numerous hiking trails and wildlife viewing opportunities make this area extremely popular with both locals and visitors alike. It’s also an ideal place to commune with the desert, especially in the early morning.

This desert oasis has impressive scenery, hiking trails, and a stream where you can splash in the canyon’s waterfalls and swim in natural pools (water conditions permitting). Springtime brings the incredible wildflowers in full colorful bloom.

There are numerous picnic tables throughout the canyone, and many miles of hiking trails winding their way into the mountains, making it one of the best places in the city for a day hike.

The narrated Sabino Canyon Crawler tram shuttles visitors up and down the lower canyon throughout the day between April and November. There are moonlight tram rides three times a month (usually the nights before the full moon). The Bear Canyon tram is used by hikers heading up the 2.5-mile trail to the picturesque Seven Falls, a favorite destination within this recreation area especially during or after monsoon season when the water flow is at full force.

With any hiking in this area, guests should be on the watch for possible rattlesnakes, the Gila monster or flash flooding. And always stay on the paths.

Pima Air and Space Museum

Located just south of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, this museum houses one of the largest collections of historic aircraft in the world with more than 400 aircraft and spacecraft combined.

Sprawling over 80 acres with indoor and outdoor exhibits, visitors can see the mock-up of an X-15A-2 (the world’s fastest aircraft), an SR-71 Blackbird, several Russian MIGs, a “Superguppy,” and a B-17G “Flying Fortress.”

What we also love about this museum is the ‘Boneyard’ with thousands of moth ball planes lined up in neat rows under the Arizona sun. After all, with no humidity, these planes are definitely in the right place for historic keeping and remembrance.

Guided tours lasting about 90 minutes including a choice of walking or tram tours.  

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway

This is another absolute must-do for so many reasons.

The byway is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona and the only paved road leading to the upper reaches of Mount Lemmon sitting at an almost 9,200-foot elevation in the Santa Catalina range.

On the 30-mile drive to the top, there are so many panoramic vistas and photo ops from scenic overlooks that it may take a while to get there. On one of our trips up the mountain in October, we saw a 45-degree temperature change from the valley to the top, leaving behind 80 degrees, bluebird skies and sunshine to a welcome of sleet and snow. But it’s all part of the fun. And yes, skiers can hit the slopes here during the winter season.

Tohono Chul Park

Tohono Chul Park.
Tohono Chul Park. Photo by Noreen Kompanik.

Tohono Chul translates to ‘desert corner’ in the Tohono O’odham language and though this park contains fewer than 50 acres, what it includes is massively impressive.

Desert plants are combined with themed gardens introducing guests to the plant and animal life of the desert. There are so many different types of cacti it’s hard to keep count or remember the the names, but the landscaping here is lovely and so well-designed.

From mid-February to April, the wildflowers here are gorgeous. We love them and so do the butterflies that have their very own special garden. The park also includes an ethnobotanical garden for children that encourages them to touch, listen and smell. Tohono Chul has expanded to include several art galleries, shops, a retail greenhouse and a bistro café that serves some impressive locally-sourced dishes with a decidedly gourmet Southwestern twist.

Historic Downtown Tucson

As one of the oldest continually inhabited areas of the country, Downtown Tucson has no shortage of history.

Turquoise Trail is a 2.5-mile loop through the downtown that highlights structures and sites of historic interest, marked by a turquoise stripe on the sidewalk. The Presidio District includes El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson, a partially restored Spanish fort established in 1775. Old Town Artisans located in a 150-year-old building features the arts and crafts of hundreds of local and Southwestern artists.

Historic 4th Avenue offers a myriad of vintage boutiques and eclectic restaurants and a four-mile route on a refurbished street car.

And you’ll definitely want to ride through Barrio Historico, with nearly 20 blocks of Sonoran-style architecture comprised of thick-walled, original adobe row houses painted in a Crayola box of vibrant colors. The area that feels more like a Mexican village more than a turn-of-the-century American city is one of the hottest sought-after real estate in the Tucson area.

Historic Barrio District home.
Historic Barrio District home. Photo by Noreen Kompanik

El Tour de Tucson

This yearly event held every fall brings bikers from all over the world to one of the premier bicycling events in the country with over 7,500 participants.

2023 is the tour’s 40th year and it’s all about community awareness, health promotion and fundraising, as the Tour enables nonprofit, charitable agencies to raise funds for their perspective organizations.

Participants can choose between 28, 57 or 100-mile routes with course profiles ranging from flat or rolling to somewhat hillier. Bikers ride through scenic landscapes on a crisp cool November Tucson morning surrounded by stunning mountain ranges, saguaro and other local cacti.

Mission Xavier del Bac

Located just south of Tucson on the San Xavier Indian Reservation, this mission is known as the White Dove of the Desert due to its blindingly white adobe building rising from an arid and stark landscape. The mission is one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in the U.S. and it is quite impressive.

Built between 1783 and 1787 the church incorporates Moorish, Byzantine and Mexican Renaissance architectural styles and is still an active Roman Catholic Church and National Historic Landmark. While the exterior features white stucco, the interior houses elaborate frescos and carved religious figures.

Why We Love Tucson

So why are we always excited for a return trip here? Tucson beautifully blends the old and the new in a cultural and natural hub where visitors can experience the Southwest as it was meant to be. In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Tucson offers a modern perspective of the Old West and it’s magnificent.

The cuisine is absolutely amazing and each time we come back for a visit, our heart does a little pitter-patter.

Author

  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 1,000 published articles in a variety of digital and print publications.