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Top 25 Things to do in Tucson, Arizona
Tucson, home to the University of Arizona, sits in Arizona’s imposing Sonoran Desert which is surrounded by plentiful mountain ranges. Its Spanish name, Tucsón, derives from the name Cuk Ṣon meaning ‘at the base of the black hill’ and was chosen by its original native inhabitants, the O’Odham Indians. The city is second in size to Arizona’s capital, Phoenix, with an approximate population, as of 2013, of nearly a million. About 150 companies in Tuscon are involved in the manufacture and design of optoelectronics and optics systems, hence its nickname, ‘Optics Valley.’
Besides the awesome scenery at its doorstep and fascinating museums filled with local history, Tuscon’s student population has helped make it into a lively, fun town with its unique shops and eateries. Let’s have a look and see what’s on offer!
1. Back to nature
The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is home to a fascinating variety of natural history, botanical garden, art gallery and aquarium, all within 98 acres of remarkable desert backdrop. The museum’s mission was built with the sole purpose of inspiring folk to live in harmony with the desert and natural world, by their understanding of the Sonoran Desert.
Different from the norm, the museum experience is about 85% outside and consists of 21 interpreted acres with two miles of walking paths through an assortment of desert habitats, 1,200 types of plants, one of the world’s most thorough regional mineral collections, 230 animal species and much more.
2. Cleared for take off
The Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the world’s biggest aerospace museum, and home to over 300 air & spacecraft. Here there are 80 acres worth of exhibits, including rare aircraft such as an A-10 Warthog, SR-71A Blackbird and other giants of aviation as well as a control tower mock up. Home also to the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, this is a very moving accolade to those Arizonans who have made noteworthy contributions to aerospace and aviation history.
Adjacent to the museum and nicknamed “The Boneyard” or “Graveyard of Planes” is the world’s largest preservation and storage facility. You can even take a bus tour around the massive area.
3. You’ll never forget the elephants
Reid Park Zoo showcases more than 500 animals, in 24 acres of land. The zoo consists of four zones, each one organized by the sort of home the animals would normally reside in.
The kids will have great fun visiting all the zones, in particular the African Animal Zone which houses elephants, lions, giraffes and others, and which was also the proud host to a female elephant calf, born in 2014! They can meet the Malayan sun bear, and explore the Adaptation Zone complete with grizzly bear and Aldabra giant tortoise. The zoo’s Flight Connection is home to dozens of bird species from Africa, Asia and Australia. It is an easy saunter through the zoo, therefore comfortable for old and young alike.
4. Fox Theatre
The Fox Tucson Theatre, originally planned to be named “The Tower, was one of the originals in its day, opening in 1930. It is home to a wide variety of concerts and shows, ranging from pop, jazz, rock, world music and ballet. Built at the same time as the Rialto and Congress Hotel, it plays a prominent role in Tuscon history.
Presenting an amazing variety of performances, and everything from its original showing of the Movietone short Chasing Rainbows, together with a Mickey Mouse Cartoon, this beautifully restored theater will hopefully be a fixture for many more years to come.
5. Catalina State Park
Adjacent to Coronado National Forest on the slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park offers fabulous camping, bird watching and picnicking and is a wonderful location for all the family to explore. With more than 150 species of bird, miles of hiking and equestrian trails as well as an absorbing track to a prehistoric Hokokam village, there is something here of interest for the whole family. If you’re planning to overnight, expect incredible sunrises and sunsets. And for the local astronomers in the family, remember to bring your telescopes so you can enjoy a bit of star gazing!
6. Tucson Museum of Art
Be enthralled by the museum’s eclectic mix of old and new, modern and contemporary. As you tour, you will be impressed by the extensive collection of American West, Latin American and modern and contemporary art. The historical block provides visitors with a different look into Tucson’s past with its permanent Western treasure trove of collections. From thought provoking refugee artwork to kinetic glass work, there are plenty of things to fascinate. After the exhibitions, take time to relax in the museum’s café. A great place for the family to have an enjoyable outing.
7. I’ll be Bach
The Tuscon Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1928, and has grown from strength to strength, performing all manner of music styles including big band, folk, jazz, classical, pop and mariachi, as well as musical works by existing composers. Contributions by the TSO through their standing chamber ensembles has enabled them to help provide educational programming, which is accessible each season to over 40,000 school children.
When the Orchestra comes to Green Valley for special performances, try and make time for you and the family to go see them!
8. The Titan Missile Museum
A tour through this museum will certainly give you and your family a taste of what could have happened in the cold war days, and how America made provisions to avoid it. The Museum, also known as Air Force Facility Missile Site 8 or Titan II ICBM Site 571-7, is the only remaining Titan II site remaining open to the public, and houses many interesting relics of the cold war, including the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile, still in its silo.
The Titan II could launch from its underground silo in 58 seconds, delivering a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead in less than thirty minutes to its target more than 6300 miles away. The Museum Store is worth a visit with its fascinating collection of pocket dosimeters once used to detect radiation, to replicas of an actual Titan II launch key. There are also educational books, toys, tee shirts, caps and more.
9. Going where I’ve just been?
At the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, you’ll think you’re being transported to different lands and times, as you lose yourself in the stories told by over 300 miniature houses. The Museum proudly houses an antique dolls house that dates back to 1742, together with many contemporary miniatures and collectibles. The temporary exhibitions are frequently changed so you are bound to see something new each time you visit. This is a destination that is full of magic for all the family.
10. Its all clear to me now
Ever wanted to mold your own glass? The Sonoran Glass School is a wonderful place that teaches and helps to inspire folk of every age in discovering and appreciating the wonder of glass and its art. Here you can learn all about kiln-firing, torch working and glass blowing, and then at the end, take home your contribution (once it has cooled down of course!).
The school’s knowledgeable instructors will assist you in designing and creating your own masterpiece, which is available to everyone from individuals to families. The glass school hosts a lot of fun and family friendly events year round as well as glass competitions hosted by visiting artists.
11. The Jewish History Museum
Once known as the Jewish Heritage Center of the Southwest, this is a museum housed in a building that was originally the first synagogue in Tuscon, and also the oldest in the state of Arizona. The building, original home of Temple Emanu-El, was built in 1910. Sadly, the original stained glass windows have been lost but the building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and consequently, great care is taken to preserve it.
Whether or not you are a follower of the faith, you are bound to be impressed by the (new) stunning floor to ceiling windows and artifacts from each era illustrating the events of the time, which help depict the history and early beginning of Tucson’s Jewish culture.
12. Tucson Desert Art Museum
The Tucson Desert Art Museum tells the unusual history of the Desert Southwest through the talent of some of its most highly thought of artists and artisans. These include famous personalities such as Thomas Moran, Maynard Dixon and Albert Bierstadt. The museum also includes the Four Corners Gallery.
The exhibits are colorful and full of wonderful stories in themselves; like the intricately woven wall hangings and ceremonial blankets. Even the story of the first Atlantic crossing made by the Wright Brothers has been woven into a wall hanging!
The museum isn’t that well known, having only opened in 2013. As you admire the beautiful Hopi and Navajo displays, you’ll be very glad that you dropped by.
13. Return to Sender
Within the central building of Tucson’s Postal History Foundation, lies the carefully preserved historic post office structure from Naco, Arizona. Dating back to 1895, this acted as a the town’s post office for approximately 30 years. In olden times things were a little different; in order to set a post office, the postmaster had to order is own kit from a Wells Fargo freight office!
Today, the Postal History Foundation uses the area to display some fascinating postal memorabilia, some of which include a hand operated cancellation machine from Tyrone, New Mexico and fascinating Civil War memorabilia.
14. Old Tucson Studio
Old Tucson is a theme park and movie studio just west of Tucson. Originally constructed in 1939 for the movie Arizona, the location remained popular for the filming of TV westerns and movies and series like Rio Bravo, The Lone Ranger and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The kids (and you!) will have great fun taking one of the historical tours on offer, as well as viewing the live cast entertainment with its lively stunt shows, saloon musicals, shootouts, living history presentations, as well as games and rides. There is also shopping and a dining area to enjoy. Kids under 3 go free.
15. Talking of shoot outs …
Take the family to see what really happened! An hour and a half away from Tucson will see you in Tombstone, where you can literally follow in the footsteps of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Virgil and Morgan Earp and see where they fought the McLaurys and Clantons back in the days of 1881.
There are three daily reenactment shows, as well as the opportunity to stand besides life size figures on the very spot where the gunfight began, and what ensued during the famous 30 second showdown. Take a jeep tour or trail ride to get a feel of the town’s old wild and turbulent past and see the amusing epitaphs on the grave markers, like: “Here lies Lester Moore, 4 slugs from a 44, No Les, no more.” The town’s streets are full of souvenir shops so you’re guaranteed to return home with a great memento!
16. Southern Arizona Transport Museum
To learn all about the history of railroad transportation, a visit to the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum should certainly be on the cards! Located in the former records vault building at the former Southern Pacific Depot, the museum has, over time preserved, collected and now exhibits the history of transportation in Southern Arizona. Originally constructed in 1907, the depot was restored in 2004 to what it looked like in 1942 and includes a passenger train lobby, an Amtrak office and a restaurant.
On display is a cosmetically restored locomotive originally built in 1900, that the kids are sure to love! They can even walk into one of the cabs, too. Everyone including adults, teenagers and children will find something of interest here.
17. Digging Deep
Taking a tour of the Queen Mine Tours in Bisbee (an easy 1 hour 37 minute drive from Tucson) will be a real eye opener into copper mining. The mine operated from 1877 to 1975, and incorporates 143 miles of winding passageway over seven levels,. The tour is narrated by retired Phelps Dodge workers who will show you how the mine used to operate as they lead you down 1,500 feet. You are firstly issued with slickers, hard hats and miner’s headlamps before starting the tour, when you then learn all about the techniques, dramas and dangers of those mining days.
Remember to take a warm sweater or jacket; the average temperature is 47 degrees down there! The tour is suitable for children 8 years and over.
18. Funtastics Family Fun Park
The family will certainly have hours of amusement here, and be spoilt for choice with all the attractions and rides to be had! Everything from laser tag, mini golf and go karts to the three floors of Lazer tag course! You can even purchase a wristband giving you unlimited access to many of the activities for a particular amount of time, so no need to worry about being interrupted!
For the very young members of the family, there are Rookie Go Karts available with a raceway just perfect for their size, as well as the Kiddie Roller Coaster, Air Bounce Jump Castle and fun Kiddie Land Dragon Ride. Really something for everyone!
19. It ain’t like football. (Yogi Berra)
Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium will certainly put you straight should you have had any doubts! Home at one time to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox for the Cactus League games and the Tucson Sidewinders, it was at one time known as Tucson Electric Park (TEP). It is part of the Kino Sports Complex, the biggest professional sports and entertainment site in Pima County. Besides its great location for college league games, the stadium also hosts concerts, seating 11,500 fans. A fun and relaxing way to spend some family time!
20. Children’s Museum Tuscon
The mission of The Children’s Museum’s is to provide interactive, hands on learning experience and play based fun for children and their families, and they have been doing a very good job, according to its many visitors! Some of the attention grabbing exhibits contain 13 permanent interactive ones, and include Build It, Bodyology, Pet Vet and more, enabling children to learn as they play. Specially designed for the very little ones (four years and under) there is also Wee World. Free special events, a commitment to celebrating the community’s diverse cultures and complimentary membership to those families with special needs children as well as families in crisis, make this a really special Museum in its own right.
21. Tucson Rodeo Parade and Museum
If you’re visiting Tucson in the spring (check dates) you’re in for a treat! Each year, more than 200,000 congregate of the streets of the city to enjoy the fabulous marching bands, colorful themed floats and buggies, horse-drawn coaches decorated in their historic regalia, Mexican folk dancers, and so much more! There is even a typical western themed street in which to purchase plenty of historical memorabilia.
While you are here, keep with the theme of parades and visit the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum. Formerly the old aircraft hangar, you are all guaranteed to be awestruck at the assortment of vehicles. Included are several of the Fringe Top Surreys (remember the song?) from Oklahoma, a horse trailer donated by Duncan Renaldo, the Cisco Kid, and so much more!
22. I’ll take it
When the family is in the mood for a great shopping experience, head to Park Place where you’ll be spoilt for choice with the fabulous shopping, entertainment, and dining available on offer in this busy and vibrant location. You will find over 140 exciting stores and 4 restaurants; enough to keep the whole family happy, one way or the other! If that wasn’t enough choice you can lose yourselves in the 13 vendor food court with multiplex theater. There is also a Southwest-themed children’s play area within this 1,100,000 square foot shopping haven – or should I say heaven?
23. Franklin Museum
Whether you’re a car lover, admirer of beautiful machines or merely wanting a day out with a difference, head to the Franklin Auto Museum. Established by Thomas Hubbard, the museum is a collection of his classic automobiles, and is an amazing part of American automobile history.
All the vehicles are lovingly maintained with the tour guide creating a personal and informative experience. There is a wonderful old Pueblo on display that will have you longing for a completely different time, a time when cars were made with simple love and pride.
24. The Tucson Ghost Experience
Wondering what or who might be out there? Take a Tucson Ghost Tour and you just might find out! There are three tours available, each suitable for a specific age group, so get set to be gently spooked, regardless of how old you are.
Your Ghost Host will escort you round some of the Tuscon buildings that will be of interest to anyone wanting to know a bit more about the paranormal side of things; and, even if you don’t, you’ll still have fun dropping in and out of some of the haunted building through dimly lit courtyards. You’ll be regaled with ghost stories about 12 different locations, too.
Remember to take pictures – you never know what you might bump into!
25. 4th Avenue
A really good way to get to know a town is to walk it! Take yourselves off to 4th Avenue where there is plenty of good food and drink to be had, as well as being a perfect location for people watching. Along the sidewalks you can enjoy some of the people playing music and generally having a good time.
There are many restaurants and unique shops selling everything from vintage clothes, and second hand books to used record stores and delicately designed local jewelry, where you might spot a fascinating bargain or to. A little piece of Haight Ashbury in Tucson? And if this name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll probably enjoy the street’s ambiance even more!