11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson

Barrio Bread

Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

By Rebecca L. Rhoades

December 6, 2022

From historic buildings to one-of-a-kind experiences, you’ll never be bored in Arizona’s southern gem.

Established in 1877, Arizona’s second-largest city is also its oldest. Affectionately referred to as the “Old Pueblo,” Tucson is a thriving university town filled with Native American, Spanish, and Mexican cultural influences, including history, art, good food, and outdoor fun. 

Whether you’re a regular visitor or are planning your first vacation to this southwestern city, there’s always something to do and see; the list is endless. While we couldn’t cover everything, we’ve selected 11 of our favorite attractions that we feel embody Tucson’s natural beauty, creativity, diverse heritage, and vibrant spirit.

It’s a safe bet that knocking just a couple of these off your to-do list will inspire a return trip or two, at the least.

1. San Xavier del Bac Mission 

1950 W. San Xavier Road

Website | 520-294-2624

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo by Rebecca L. Rhoades

Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this National Historic Landmark, famously photographed by Ansel Adams, was founded in 1700 by Jesuit priest Father Francisco Kino and named after his patron saint, St. Francis Xavier.

The structure that is seen today was built between 1783 and 1797 and sits on the San Xavier Reservation, part of the Tohono O’odham nation, about 15 minutes south of downtown Tucson. An active Catholic church, it is a well-known pilgrimage site. Guests are welcome to explore the intricately frescoed and carved chapel and xeriscaped gardens.

2. Saguaro National Park

Maps to Hiking Trails

Website | 520-733-5153

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
A forest of Saguaro Cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by: Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Saguaros are one of the world’s largest and most recognized cacti. A staple of Western movies and imprinted on generations that grew up watching the exploits of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, these towering columns only grow in one region: the Sonoran Desert.

This 92,000-acre park is split into two separate districts to the east and west of Tucson. Both feature hundreds of miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding—or simply enjoying the scenery from your vehicle as you wind along the serpentine roadways. Camping is allowed in the Rincon Mountain District to the east.

The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including cougars, javelinas, white-nosed coatis, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, Mexican spotted owls, and rattlesnakes.

3. Tohono Chul 

7366 N. Paseo del Norte

Website | 520-742-6455

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy Visit Tucson

Set on 49 acres of Sonoran landscape about 12 minutes north of downtown Tucson, Tohono Chul began in 1966 as the personal gardens of University of Arizona professor Richard Wilson and his wife, Jean.

More than 500 species of rare cacti, succulents, trees, bushes, and flowers are scattered throughout themed botanical gardens. That includes the world’s largest collection of Queen of the Night, the night-blooming cereus Peniocereus greggii, which blossom en masse only one night each year. Complement your visit to Tohono Chul with a stop at Tucson Botanical Gardens, a petite desert landscape in the center of town.

4. Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum 

2021 N. Kinney Road

Website | 520-883-2702

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy Visit Tucson

It may be called a museum, but this 98-acre facility in the Tucson Mountains on the southwest border of Saguaro National Park is more of a blend of zoological park and botanical garden.

Here, guests will find 242 native fauna species and 1,200 local flora species. Two miles of trails take you through mountain woodland, grassland, and riparian corridors, where you can see indigenous animals in their natural habitats. An aquarium, stingray experience, reptile hall, and earth sciences center add to the family-friendly experience.

The museum also offers a catalog of hands-on educational classes, including cactus fruit harvesting, desert foraging, raptor flights, and Native American cultural programming.

5. Center for Creative Photography

1030 N. Olive Road

Website | 520-621-7968

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy Visit Tucson

Located on the University of Arizona campus, the CCP is more than a museum; it’s one of the world’s most respected preservation centers and academic research institutions for the history of photography.

The three-story building is open to the public and displays works by some of the most esteemed photographers in the world—past and present—including Richard Avedon, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Curtis, Jay Dusard, Aaron Siskand, and Dorothea Lange, among others.

It also houses the entire archive of master photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams. For more world-class photography, visit Etherton Gallery, where you can see works by Adams, Diane Arbus, Mark Klett, Steve McCurrey, Bunny Yeager, Rodrigo Moya, and many more iconic and contemporary artists.

6. Barrio Bread 

18 S. Eastbourne Ave.

Website | 520-327-1292

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo by Rebecca L. Rhoades

Baker Don Guerra is one of Tucson’s most renowned food ambassadors—he recently received the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, Southwest—and folks line up around the block every morning at a tiny strip mall storefront in order to pick up some of his fresh, hearty sourdough-based bread.

Try the signature Heritage or the classic Pain au Levain, or expand your palate with breads made from locally grown ancient grains such as einkorn, khorasan, or white Sonoran.

Guerra’s breads also can be found at the two restaurants he recently opened with legendary Tucson chef Carlotta Flores: Barrio Charro in north Tucson and The Monica downtown.

7. The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures

4455 E. Camp Lowell Drive

Website | 520-881-0606

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy Visit Tucson

This museum, dedicated to all things Lilliputian, began with the founder’s fondness for wooden dollhouse furniture. That collection has now grown to more than 500 miniature houses and roomboxes, each containing dozens to hundreds of itty-bitty objects, which are displayed in a series of captivating exhibits that transport visitors to different lands and times.

Children will enjoy exploring the tiny worlds, while adults will marvel at the artistry involved in creating everything from microscopic genuine silver cutlery to elaborate Japanese netsuke.

8. Barrio Viejo


11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy Visit Tucson

This historic neighborhood was established when Tucson was still part of Mexico. Today, it is known for its colorful adobe homes that have been preserved and restored.

Guided tours are available, or you can simply park and wander the streets on your own. Stop by the 1915 Sonoran mission-style Teatro Carmen. Although it is no longer open to the public, its ochre yellow façade and arched windows are a reminder of the city’s Mexican heritage.

Don’t forget to bring your camera so you can capture the community’s many multicolored doors, ornately carved gates, and distinctive architecture.

9. Mercado San Agustin 

100 S. Avenida del Convento

Website | 520-461-1107

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo courtesy of Mellow Dawn Lund

Located on the city’s west side, Mercado San Agustin is home to a handful of independent specialty stores, eateries, and coffee shops surrounding a verdant Mexican-influenced courtyard.

Here you can find authentic handmade Hopi and Navajo moccasins at San Agustin Trading Co.; and trendy boho home goods, clothing, and leatherwear at local favorite Mast. Just down the block, the Mercado’s Annex is the place to go for merch that proudly displays your affection for the Old Pueblo.

Stop by Why I Love Where I Live, which sells locally-made gifts, toys, books, clothing, and more.

10. HF Coors

1600 S. Cherrybell Stravenue

Website | 520-903-1010

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
Photo Courtesy Visit Tucson

Learn how some of your favorite restaurants’ dinnerware is made on a one-hour tour of this unique manufacturing facility.

HF Coors was founded in California in 1925 by the son of the renowned Coors brewery magnate. In 2003, it moved to Tucson, where it continues to craft high-quality ceramic dishes for commercial and home use. A small gift shop inside the main entrance offers a colorful array of plates, mugs, bowls, ornaments, and one-of-a-kind hand-painted pieces.

11. Madaras Gallery 

3035 N. Swan Road

Website | 520-615-3001

11 of the Best Things to Do When You’re in Tucson
“First Light” by Diana Madaras | courtesy of Diana Madaras

Painter Diana Madaras’ 2,800-square-foot eponymous gallery is a showcase of Tucson art.

Featured are Madaras’ own colorful landscapes, including original canvases as well as giclees, gift cards, ornaments, and more. There’s more than Madaras, too, with works by 26 other local artists in a variety of genres, sizes, and price ranges.

For more exquisitely crafted treasures, check out Philabaum Glass. The former studio of renowned glassblower Tom Philabaum, it remains Southern Arizona’s only all-glass gallery and spotlights work by more than 50 artists from around the country.

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