Tucson is an interesting place. Its 520,000 city-proper inhabitants and 1 million metro area denizens more than secure its status as Arizona’s second-largest city and metro. It sprawls across hundreds of square miles between two mountain ranges and some isolated peaks. It’s home to the main campus of the University of Arizona, one of the largest public universities in the United States (known locally as the U of A).
And yet Tucson somehow retains a small-town, two-degrees-of-separation vibe. Everyone seems to know each other, or at least feel like they have enough in common to nod as they pass on the street. (Note: Not everyone in Tucson nods as they pass on the street.)
Tucson is also absolutely beautiful. Though the city’s urban core is remarkably flat, at least one peak or range is visible down just about every major thoroughfare (at least, in my experience). The low-elevation, saguaro-studded desert lands just outside town have their own stark appeal as well, whether they’re desiccated (most of the year) or freshly abloom after a soaking monsoon rain.
As a major college town, southeastern Arizona’s economic hub, and the gateway to more protected areas than you’d believe, Tucson appeals to youthful adventurers, business travelers, and outdoorsy vacationers alike.
Overview of Tucson: We’re Not in Phoenix Anymore
Affectionately known as the Old Pueblo, Tucson is better preserved and a whole lot more charming than Phoenix, where you really have to seek out the Old West stuff. It’s also a lot closer to high peaks than Phoenix: Drive north for 30 to 45 minutes from downtown Tucson and you’ll find yourself in a verdant Ponderosa pine forest on the slopes of Mount Lemmon, one of several high-altitude “sky islands” dotting southeastern Arizona. There’s a working ski resort up here too – the continental United States’ southernmost.
Why stop at Mount Lemmon? Drive a little farther in the right direction and you’ll come across eerie ghost towns, otherworldly rock formations colored with every hue of the rainbow, stark desert landscapes monitored by forlorn saguaro cacti, and artsy outposts that defy common sense. Back in town, the vibrant neighborhoods around the University of Arizona’s main campus are rife with things to do and sights to see, from eclectic coffeehouses perfect for squeezing in some work on the road to noisy dives that keep the region’s dynamic, distinctive music scene alive.
You could spend a busy week around here and barely scratch the surface. Then again, if you ever get bored of Tucson and its environs, Phoenix is 100 miles up the road.
A Note About Tucson’s Climate
I’ll talk about climate and weather in more depth in the Logistical Considerations section. For now, my two cents: I spent nearly a week in central and southern Arizona in late May and early June. It was consistently hot, especially in Phoenix, but not unbearable.
The trick is remembering that you lose a little water with every breath you take, and the only way to replace it is to hydrate. Simple, right? You’ll get the hang of it, or you’ll have a bad time. Also, bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunblock (for the fair-skinned among us).
Discounts and Resources for Tucson Travelers
Opportunities to save abound in global tourist magnets like New York and San Francisco. Tucson isn’t quite on the same level, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of discounts and package deals.
Before you arrive in Tucson, check out Visit Tucson, the official convention and visitor bureau website for business and leisure travelers. It’s the ultimate trip-planning tool – a comprehensive look at attractions in and around Tucson and southern Arizona, complete with suggested half- and full-day itineraries and common-sense travel tips.
Tucson Attractions Passport
Visit Tucson is also the best source of discounts and deals for Tucson visitors. Its blockbuster Tucson Attractions Passport includes discounted admission and sales at dozens of attractions in and around Tucson. (See the full list here. Many are explained in greater detail below.)
You need one passport for every two visitors. At $20, plus $2 shipping when you buy in advance, it quickly pays for itself. Most participating attractions sell passport booklets on-site as well, so you don’t necessarily have to buy before you arrive in Tucson. If you’re not sure how many sights you’ll fit into your trip, you can download the mobile passport app for free and purchase deals à la carte.
Historic Sites In and Around Tucson
Arizona might have been part of the last crop of states to join the contiguous U.S., but the Tucson area can trace its history thousands of years into the past. These historic sites and museums offer a taste of life in long-ago Tucson, from the Western film era all the way back to prehistory.
1. Old Tucson
- Adult admission: $18.95
- Hours: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10am to 5pm year-round; weekdays, 10am to 5pm during the winter and spring
“History” is a loose term at Old Tucson, a kid-friendly Old West theme park. It’s a popular destination for classic film buffs, thanks to a 75-year run as a backdrop for Western films (including three John Wayne flicks). Today, you can tour a well-preserved outdoor set that occasionally erupts in staged gun battles and stunt shows. Living history presentations provide more sober takes on various facets of frontier life, from law enforcement to cattle herding.
2. Arizona History Museum
- Adult admission: $10 ($3 after 4pm on Fridays)
- Hours: Monday through Thursday, 9am to 4pm; Friday, 9am to 8pm; Saturday, 11am to 4pm
The Arizona History Museum is one of several Tucson-area museums operated by the excellent Arizona Historical Society. Though small and spare, it offers a comprehensive overview of Arizona’s Spanish colonial and U.S. territorial (pre-1912) history. Spend an hour here and learn why Tucson looks, sounds, and feels the way it does – and why it’s so important to preserve the city’s heritage for future generations.
3. Fort Lowell
- Adult admission: Free (donations welcome)
- Hours: Variable, especially in summer – call ahead
Fort Lowell is another Arizona Historical Society property. Located on the northeastern outskirts of town, it’s a well-preserved 19th century fort that saw serious action during the violent (and consequential) Apache Wars. The museum itself is housed in the old commanding officers’ quarters. For such a small space, there’s a surprisingly rich collection of military artifacts here. Swing by on your way up to Mount Lemmon or Saguaro National Park – it’s free, after all.
4. Presidio San Agustin del Tucson
- Adult admission: $4
- Hours: Variable – call ahead (tours at 11am daily)
Presidio San Agustin del Tucson is the oldest European artifact in old Tucson (not to be confused with Old Tucson, mind you). Perched on the banks of the once-lively Santa Cruz River, it’s a partial replica of an 11-acre Spanish fort first built before the opening shots of the U.S. Revolutionary War were fired on the other side of the continent.
The fort displaced a far older settlement: the 2,000-year-old village of Chuk-son, whence Tucson took its name. All that “remains” of Chuk-son is a replica pit house. The fort itself held up better – on the guided tour, you’ll see food stores, officers’ quarters, barracks, military equipment, and other cool stuff.
5. Sosa-Fremont-Carillo House
- Adult admission: Free (donations welcome)
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 12pm to 5pm (hours may vary)
Sosa-Fremont-Carillo House is one of the oldest surviving homes in Tucson. Built in the 1870s, it’s an immaculately preserved relic that stands in jarring contrast to the air-conditioned palaces dotting the foothills above town. Marvel at the spare touches in the cool central hallway, then make your way into a shady central courtyard dominated by a majestic fig tree.
6. Arizona Inn
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Variable (call ahead)
The Arizona Inn is a Tucson institution. Independently owned and operated by the same family since 1930, its sprawling courtyards and lush lawns harken back to those heady pre-air-conditioning days when anything seemed possible and all it took to make the desert bloom was a deep well. As the city grew up around it, the Arizona Inn has remained stubbornly frozen in time.
The inn’s 14-acre grounds are free to explore. For best results, book a room there for a night or make friends with a guest. The shaded pool area is amazing on hot days. When it’s milder, hang out on one of the sunny patios off the main building.
Museums and Cultural Attractions
Tucson’s vibrant cultural tapestry more than holds its own against bigger cities’ – and at a fraction of the cost. Check out as many of these museums and institutions as you have time for.
7. Pima Air & Space Museum
- Adult admission: $15.50 ($20 for a two-day ticket)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
Pima Air & Space Museum is the United States’ largest privately funded air and space museum. The centerpiece is an 80-acre outdoor exhibition area featuring more than 300 aircraft. The collection spans the full breadth of the air age, from the days of the Wright brothers to the cutting edge of commercial aviation. (There’s a 787 Dreamliner on-site.) Free and ticketed events, including kid-friendly demonstrations and shows, round out the offerings here.
If you have time, check out the 2,600-acre military boneyard out in the desert. Pima Air & Space Museum is the sole vendor approved to give bus tours of the vast, secure space; for aviation buffs, it’s a once-in-a-great-while opportunity to see decommissioned planes in every imaginable state of repair. You’ll need a two-day ticket to see the main collection and boneyard together.
8. Tucson Botanical Gardens
- Adult admission: June through September, $9; October through May, $13
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 4:30pm (open until 8pm Thursday and Friday)
If you’re new to the desert, Tucson Botanical Gardens is a must-see. Though it’s $4 dearer, it’s worth your while to visit during the cooler months, when many of the park’s blooms make their appearance. For a slightly cooler evening experience, visit on Thursday or Friday. The Canadian Garden Council named Tucson Botanical Gardens a “top 10 garden worth traveling for,” so you know it’s legit.
In My Experience: $13 per adult is nothing to sneeze at, but full-price admission to Tucson Botanical Gardens is still just half the price of Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. If you’re visiting both cities on your trip to the desert, but only have the budget for one world-class xeriscape, make it Tucson’s.
9. University of Arizona Museum of Art
- Adult admission: $8
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm (Thursdays until 7pm); Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
University of Arizona Museum of Art is a first-rate institution with a well-curated mix of permanent and temporary collections. When I visited, the rotating exhibitions included work from little-known German painter Hans Hofmann and disciples, a thematic homage to small-d democracy, and an eclectic spray of “formed, molded, carved, cast, or arranged” works. Check out the Tinkerlab, a pop-up maker space that’s free (with admission) and open to the public.
10. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson
- Adult admission: $8
- Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 12pm to 5pm (hours may vary)
Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucso (MOCA) is a relatively new addition to the city’s arts scene. The temporary collections are almost totally given over to single-artist exhibitions, and there’s a definite local bias to the work. (When I visited, one of the exhibitors was named Tucson John.) If you’re around on a Wednesday evening, unwind at Yoga @ MOCA, held conspicuously in the museum’s main exhibition hall.
11. Tucson Museum of Art
- Adult admission: $12 (free on the first Thursday of each month)
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm (open until 8pm on the first Thursday); Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
Tucson Museum of Art is Tucson’s flagship art museum, not that the others aren’t worth your time or the price of admission. Its collection spans centuries, from the late Renaissance through the modern and postmodern periods. Some temporary collections are downright challenging: The Native American portraits exhibit is sure to stick with you long after you leave. Don’t miss the Historic Block, an outdoor collection of vintage adobe homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
12. Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium
- Adult admission: $14
- Hours: Monday through Thursday, 9am to 5pm; Friday, 9am to 10pm; Saturday, 10am to 10pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
Located on the University of Arizona’s main campus, Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium is Tucson’s foremost science museum. While you’re here, don’t miss the Arizona Mineral Museum, a separate space devoted to the Grand Canyon State’s endless geological diversity. Standard admission includes one free planetarium show, which is rare for a first-rate science museum.
13. Arizona State Museum
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm
Arizona State Museum is another University of Arizona museum. This one is all about the human history of Tucson and the Sonoran Desert, with a heavy focus on the region’s vibrant native cultures. Be sure to check out “Pieces of the Puzzle: New Perspectives on the Hohokam,” a thought-provoking look at a local culture that thrived for more than a millennium before suddenly disappearing in mid-1400s A.D.
14. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Adult admission: $20.50
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am or 8:30am to 5pm; weekend hours may vary
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is hard to categorize: part zoo, part aquarium, part art museum, part theater, it’s one of Tucson’s most interesting (and all-ages-friendly) public attractions.
You’ll need at least four hours to experience the place properly, and if you’re set on paying the pricey admission fee, you might as well get your money’s worth. Highlights include complimentary tours, two miles of walking paths through native habitats, a seasonal raptor demonstration show, a stingray touch tank, an extensive geology exhibit, a (controlled) show featuring free-ranging venomous reptiles, zoo-like animal habitats, and an impressive art gallery with rotating nature-themed exhibits.
15. Reid Park Zoo
- Adult admission: $10.50
- Hours: June through September, daily, 8am to 3pm; October through May, daily, 9am to 4pm
Reid Park Zoo is your classic urban zoo: a range of indoor and outdoor habitats and enclosures showcasing hundreds of different animal species. From tiny, colorful birds to charismatic megafauna like rhinos and lions, Reid Park Zoo has it all. And it’s a steal compared with big-city zoos. If shuttling the kids around Tucson has you at your wits’ end, you can take a couple hours off here.
Urban & Regional Parks and Natural Areas
Tucson doesn’t have a ton of green (or brown) space in the center of town, but you don’t have to travel very far to spend some quality time in the great outdoors. Under normal conditions, it’s less than 90 minutes by car from downtown Tucson to these spots. Most are closer.
Tucson city parks generally open at sunrise and close before midnight. Regional parks may be open 24 hours. Observe all posted signs and camp only in designated areas.
16. Reid Park
Reid Park Zoo isn’t the only reason to visit Reid Park. If Tucson had an answer to New York’s Central Park (it doesn’t), Reid Park would be it. It’s technically part of Randolph Park, a larger green space complex that features two 18-hole golf courses, several miles of paved recreation trails, and an impressive recreation center.
In addition to the zoo, Reid Park itself boasts a 10,000-seat baseball stadium (once home to MLB spring training), two small man-made ponds, a grassy hill that’s perfect for picnicking on cooler days, and a tidy rose garden with more than 800 individual plants.
17. Iron Horse Park
Iron Horse Park is a small, lively space on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, just across the way from Tucson’s central business district. If you’re staying downtown and the sun isn’t too formidable, it’s a great place to stretch out and re-center. Use caution here after dark.
18. Himmel Park
Himmel Park is a medium-sized parcel in central Tucson. The traditionally landscaped areas are nice on temperate days, but the pool is the main attraction here. If you’re trying to stay fit and don’t have time to head up into the mountains, check the lap swimming schedule, don your trunks, and head Himmel Park way.
19. Sentinel Peak Park (“A” Mountain)
Anchoring one of Tucson’s finest gastronomic districts, Sentinel Peak (better known as “A” Mountain, for the multihued nod to the University of Arizona near its summit) is a popular day hike with stunning views of central Tucson and the mountains beyond. If you don’t have time or energy, you can drive to the summit too. Don’t leave the area without checking out Mission Garden, a precolonial farm.
20. Tucson Mountain Park
Tucson Mountain Park is a bigger, wilder, “A”-less version of Sentinel Peak. Though it’s farther from town, the mountain itself is much higher than Sentinel, so the views are arguably even more impressive. And the park is massive – at 20,000 acres, it’s one of the largest municipally managed open areas in the United States. Its 60-odd miles of trail wind through scrubland, scree, and vibrant saguaro forests – classic Sonoran Desert landscapes within sight of downtown Tucson.
A Note About Wildlife In and Around Tucson
Southeastern Arizona’s wildlands are blessed with abundant wildlife. Some native critters, like coyotes and cougars (mountain lions), are pretty cute. But they’re not friendly.
Study trailhead signage and mid-trail warning signs carefully for advice on protecting yourself in the relatively unlikely event that you encounter a dangerous critter. Know that your intuition isn’t always your best guide: Many people assume it’s best to curl into a ball or back away from a mountain lion, but the best approach is to scare the beast with lots of noise and arm-waving.
Also, watch where you step and reach. Scorpions and rattlesnakes love rocky desert areas. A good rule of thumb: Don’t put your foot or hand anywhere you can’t see.
21. Saguaro National Park (East and West)
As a symbol of Arizona, the majestic saguaro cactus is right up there with the Grand Canyon. That’s a testament to its magnetic, ageless quality, not its ubiquity: The more time you spend driving around Arizona’s desert lands, the clearer it becomes that saguaros aren’t all that common. Like pretty much every desert denizen, they’re pressured by relentless suburban development, hotter summers, and increasingly common multiyear droughts.
If Saguaro National Park has anything to say about it, they’ll be around a little while longer. The park is divided into an east and west unit, with the Tucson metropolitan area in the middle. The east unit stretches well up the slopes of the Rincon Mountains, into the cool pine forests. During the summer, arrive early to snag a spot at Manning Camp, elevation 8,000 feet. All hike-in sites are first-come, first-served, and cost $8 per night. Bring plenty of water, as potable supplies are scarce within the park.
Entering Saguaro National Park
I’m a big supporter of the National Park Service, whose work is increasingly under threat from miserly Congressional appropriators. When I entered Saguaro National Park for the first time, I happily paid $15 for a 7-day vehicle pass.
That said, I found at least one way to potentially avoid entry fees at the park’s east unit. Rather than drive up to the gate on Old Spanish Trail Road, take Speedway Boulevard east from Tucson until it dead-ends at the Douglas Spring Trailhead. (Allow 30 to 45 minutes from downtown Tucson.)
There’s a gated parking area here, but street parking is allowed just outside, and I didn’t see anyone checking passes – though I did get a once-over from a park ranger I passed on the trail. From the lot, you can access the whole east unit on foot here via the Douglas Spring trail and its tributaries. Download a trail map ahead of time in case you lose cell service in the steep foothills.
Fair warning: Vehicle break-ins occur with some regularity at the Douglas Spring Trailhead. Don’t leave anything valuable in your car, especially if you plan to camp overnight. And know that you can’t access the amazing Cactus Forest Loop from here. If you want to experience that majestic eight-mile drive, which traverses stunning desert scrubland and mature cactus forests, you have to drive through the main gate and pay the entrance fee.
22. Mount Lemmon
Topping out above 9,000 feet, Mount Lemmon is the high point of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which tower over Tucson to the north and east. You need to spend days on the slopes of Mount Lemmon to get a true sense of the place, but if you don’t have that long, do an up-and-back drive along the stunning Catalina Highway (Mount Lemmon Highway).
Reliably 20 degrees cooler than Tucson, the alpine village of Summerhaven is appropriately named, and the local general store is worth a quick stop. If you have time, check out Butterfly Peak Natural Area, just east of Mount Lemmon. Mount Lemmon Ski Valley is the southernmost operational ski area in the continental U.S., though snowfall has been erratic in recent years and summer wildfires routinely threaten the area.
23. Rincon Mountains
The Rincon Mountains stretch southeast of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Mica Mountain, the most prominent point, reaches 8,664 feet above sea level – plenty high enough to escape the valley’s summer heat.
Most of the range is protected by Saguaro National Park or Coronado National Forest. Hiking opportunities abound here – you’re limited only by your willingness to camp in the backcountry and your ability to carry your own water. Colossal Cave, a bit farther east, is worth a side trip.
Dealing With Desert Heat in Tucson
Tucson locals eagerly remind visitors that their hometown isn’t quite as hot as Phoenix. True, but that’s a distinction without much of a difference: When it’s -20 in Minneapolis, does it really matter that it’s -25 up in Fargo? It’s still dangerously cold.
If you’re planning an early summer visit to Tucson, you’re likely to encounter triple-digit heat and very low humidity. When I visited in early June, daytime highs ranged from 100 to 105. I strongly recommend scheduling outdoor physical activity in the early morning or evening, shortly after sunup or before sundown. (Mornings are cooler; I went for a run one day at about 6:30pm, when it was still in the 90s, and did not enjoy it.)
If you can’t avoid exerting yourself in the middle of the day, be sure to wear protective clothing, lather up exposed skin with sunblock, and bring more water than you think you need. Stop exercising (or turn back on the trail) if you notice signs of dehydration, like dry mouth, headache, confusion, or cessation of sweating. There’s more on hot weather safety in the Logistical Considerations section below.
24. Ventana Canyon
Ventana Canyon is a picturesque ravine in the Santa Catalina foothills. It’s accessible from the grounds of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, off North Craycroft Road, but lies almost completely within Coronado National Forest, a vast protected area. Be sure to park in the fenced-off parking area closest to the trailhead. The rest of the lot is reserved for resort guests, and your car will be towed if it’s left there for an extended period. Parking is free, and there’s no park entrance fee.
Despite its super-convenient location, Ventana Canyon isn’t a popular hiking destination. That’s probably because it’s not for the faint of heart. The trail climbs relentlessly up the canyon toward Mount Kimball (a worthy destination for ambitious day hikers) and eventually connects to other trails in the heart of the Santa Catalina Mountains. With camping gear and food, you can easily spend several days exploring up there. Otherwise, shoot for the canyon’s namesake, a large rock opening that offers sweeping views of Tucson and the mountains beyond.
Neighborhoods and Local Attractions In and Around Tucson
Tucson is a big place. This is by no means an exhaustive list of neighborhoods and districts worth visiting – merely a collection of spots around town with historic architecture, vibrant street life, great views, or all three.
25. Barrio Viejo
Barrio Viejo literally means “old neighborhood.” That’s an apt descriptor: First platted in the 1870s and 80s, and designated a National Historic District about a century later, Barrio Viejo is one of the best-preserved corners of town. It’d be even more impressive had half of it not been leveled to accommodate the Tucson Convention Center, which hulks over its southern edge.
26. West University
Developed at the turn of the 20th century, West University was a streetcar suburb without the streetcar – until the 2010s, when the SunLink modern streetcar finally started rolling down 4th Avenue. Strategically located between downtown Tucson and the U of A, West University is vibrant – especially in the evenings, when the 4th Avenue corridor gets downright rowdy. If hole-in-the-wall restaurants, dive bars, and cute shops set against a semi-historic backdrop sound appealing to you, West University is your speed.
27. El Presidio
Built around Presidio San Agustin del Tucson and basically frozen in time since then, El Presidio is another immaculately preserved historic district in the heart of Tucson. So quintessentially Tucson is El Presidio that our bride and groom chose it as the backdrop for their solo wedding photos. If your schedule aligns, take a Presidio walking tour – it’s well worth the modest investment.
28. Armory Park
Anchored by a small, eponymous park on its northern edge, Armory Park Historic Residential District is a 98-acre trapezoid that’s been inhabited since Tucson’s opening act. The actual city neighborhood is much larger; centered on 4th Avenue, it’s a laid-back alternative to occasionally raucous West University. If you’re thirsty, check out Barrio Brewing, Tucson’s oldest brewhouse in continuous operation.
29. Mercado San Agustin (Mercado District)
Situated on downtown Tucson’s fast-developing western fringe, the Mercado District contains hundreds of units of new housing and a bustling outdoor shopping and dining area known locally as Mercado San Agustin.
Visitors not acquainted with residents of the district’s residential precincts will be most interested in Mercado San Agustin, which – in my experience – is a great place to grab a reasonably priced brunch. On weekends, arrive early and prepare to wait: The place is packed by mid-morning most Saturdays.
30. MSA Annex
A quarter-mile down the street from Mercado San Agustin is the Mercado San Agustin Annex, a lower-key cluster of craft shops, coffee shops, pastelerias, and burger joints with beer on tap.
Unlike the main Mercado, which has some climate-controlled indoor spaces, the Annex’s public spaces are almost entirely exposed to the elements. Each business occupies a repurposed shipping container, but indoor seating is very limited, so this isn’t the ideal place for a midday coffee at the height of summer. The Annex’s outdoor seating areas do have adequate shading, and cooling fans are present, but it’s nevertheless best to visit on cooler days or in the evening, when the bars and restaurants are livelier anyway.
Blenman-Elm (or Blenman Elm) was once a semi-rural outpost on Tucson’s eastern edge. After a multi-decade growth spurt punctuated by World War II, it subsumed into the rapidly growing city. Today, it’s a quiet, middle-class district defined by relatively large lots, eclectic architecture, and the proximity of the Arizona Inn, which seems to radiate prosperity (or at least tranquility) outward.
Blenman-Elm is decidedly residential. If you’re not staying at the Arizona Inn or a nearby short-term rental, you’ll need to manufacture a reason to visit. How about an early morning walk along its leafy side streets?
32. Catalina Foothills
Studded with five-star resorts and unabashedly self-assured, Catalina Foothills is a stunningly beautiful suburb just north of Tucson proper. It’s among the most upscale (and expensive) precincts in all of Arizona, but that shouldn’t stop you from driving through on your way to the Santa Catalina Mountains.
For a lark, check out La Encantada, a comically upscale shopping mall with great views of central Tucson. Feel free to squeeze in a quick (and free) hike through Pima Canyon, a picturesque natural landmark at the base of the mountains. Or check out Seven Falls, a surprisingly lively waterfall in Sabino Canyon, just beyond the developed area’s edge.
Day Trips and Excursions From Tucson
Tucson is the de facto gateway to southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern Sonora. I regret not having more time to explore this region, whose unexpected ecological diversity and frozen-in-time settlements are perennial sources of pleasure for those who know it well.
Anyway, you can do it for me. These points of interest are all within an easy day’s drive of the city – though some, like Silver City and Puerto Peñasco, are best with at least two days to spare.
33. Kitt Peak National Observatory
A little over an hour southwest of Tucson, Kitt Peak National Observatory boasts the world’s largest collection of optical and radio telescopes. The visitor center is free and open to the public from 9am to 4pm daily, though hours are less reliable during the summer. Even if you’re not an astronomy buff, the mountaintop setting is well worth the drive.
I didn’t have time for one of Kitt Peak’s nighttime programs, but from what I’ve heard, they’re worth every penny of the admission fee and every minute of your time. The most affordable option is the Nightly Observing Program, which costs about $50 per adult when you reserve online. It’s a four-hour overview of astronomy basics: star charts, binocular observation, and telescope operation, plus a light dinner to keep you alert.
Located just north of the Mexican border, south-southeast of Tucson, the isolated settlement of Ruby is southern Arizona’s best-preserved ghost town. In the 1870s, prospectors discovered gold and copper at nearby Montana Peak, and the rush was on. Within a generation, Ruby was thriving.
By the 1930s, when the mine was Arizona’s most productive by some measures, more than 1,000 souls lived in town. Then the mine went belly up. Less than a decade later, Ruby was abandoned, save for a few stubborn holdouts. Today, the town has about two dozen buildings in good condition, plus a slew of mine machinery and some old artifacts. It’s open Thursday through Sunday at $12 per head. Call ahead during the monsoon season, when the mountain road leading up to town turns to impassable sludge.
Tucked in the high desert of the Mule Mountains, a few miles north of the Mexican border, Bisbee claims to be the prettiest town in Arizona. That’s a bold and controversial claim that you’ll have to judge for yourself when you get here.
Less in dispute is Bisbee’s dynamic history: Like Ruby, it began life as a late-19th century mining camp, swelled to become the largest settlement between San Francisco and St. Louis (Phoenix and Tucson were dusty cow towns at the time), and somehow managed to establish itself as the Southwest’s foremost cultural hub.
The boom times didn’t outlive the mine, but Bisbee managed to survive. Today, it’s an artsy outpost that feels larger than its 5,000 or so souls. Spanning dozens of blocks, the handsome downtown is alone worth the drive. Stay for the affordable cafés, vibrant galleries, and temperate weather.
According to its official city website, Tombstone is “the town too tough to die.” Based on what I’ve learned of its history, that’s an understatement. If Bisbee was the Paris of the Old West, Tombstone was its Las Vegas.
Tombstone’s boom was short-lived, spanning less than 10 years in the 1870s and 1880s. But the town achieved immortality in 1881, barely two years after its founding, when Wyatt Earp’s posse took on the outlaw Cowboy gang at the O.K. Corral. Since then, it’s coasted on its reputation as the baddest town in Arizona – perhaps the entire Sonoran Desert. Due to its relative isolation, it’s not overrun with tourists, though you won’t be the only gawkers around when you pass through.
37. Fort Huachuca
Established in 1877, Fort Huachuca was a critical beachhead for the U.S. government in territory that was then very much up for grabs. Until 1886, when Apache forces surrendered, it was the main source of firepower against a fierce native insurgency.
Today, Fort Huachuca is an active Army base like any other in the American interior. With one exception: the 110-acre Old Post area, a frozen-in-time National Historic District with an old barracks, hospital, officers’ quarters, and museum. If you’re into military history, Fort Huachuca is worth an hour or two of your time – and it’s on the way to Bisbee and Tombstone, so you can make a day of it. Just remember to bring your official government ID (U.S. driver’s license or passport) – you can’t get onto the base without it.
38. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is a mysterious, centuries-old hulk in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix, near the city of Casa Grande. Built by the Hohokam people and abandoned sometime in 1400s A.D., the heavily eroded structure’s purpose remains unclear. The dry canal beds and dilapidated ruins around it are equally mysterious. Researchers are still trying to determine what sort of calamity was responsible for the complex’s sudden vacation (and its builders’ disappearance). Maybe you can figure it out – it’s $5 per person to get in.
39. Mount Wrightson (Coronado National Forest)
Like Mount Lemmon, Mount Wrightson is a sky island – a high-elevation ecosystem characterized by deep pine forests, rushing streams, and delicate alpine flowers. In other words, the opposite of the desert lowlands surrounding it.
Wrightson is even higher than Lemmon, but since it’s more isolated – more than an hour from Tucson by road – it’s not as well known, even to locals. It’s certainly not as popular with out-of-town tourists. That’s a good thing: Thanks to the protective embrace of the vast Coronado National Forest, and the antidevelopment strictures of the Mount Wrightson Wilderness Area, Wrightson looks pretty much as it did before the first Europeans arrived on the scene.
Another perk of Mount Wrightson’s low profile: limited competition for campsites. Check out Bog Springs Campground, at 5,200 feet – high enough to escape the heat, but not so high that you have to worry about freezing weather during the warm season. Sites start at $10 per night.
Logistical Considerations Before You Visit
Now for the less fun part: This is what you need to know to make the most of your time in Tucson.
When to Visit
In addition to any personal considerations, the timing of your visit to Tucson may be influenced by two major factors: weather and crowds.
If it wasn’t already clear, Tucson is hot and dry.
The good news is that it’s nowhere near the hottest place in Arizona: At 2,400 feet above sea level, downtown Tucson is 1,000 feet or more above the floor of the Valley of the Sun, the oven-like bowl that houses the sprawling Phoenix metro area. Phoenix is reliably five to eight degrees hotter than Tucson – on the interminable drive from Tucson to Phoenix on my way out, it was fun to watch the car thermometer creep up and up as I barreled northwest.
The bad news is that Tucson is still really hot, especially for unaccustomed northerners. Average highs exceed 90 degrees from May through September; June is the hottest month. Unlike Phoenix, which is notorious for oppressively hot nights, Tucson’s late evenings and early mornings are pleasant: Even at the height of summer, lows above 85 degrees are rare (70 to 75 is more common). As long as you wear sun protection, pack plenty of water, and conduct the bulk of your physical activity in the morning or evening, summer in Tucson is comparatively bearable.
That said, why bear it if you don’t have to? The best time of year to visit Tucson is spring break season, when temperatures remain mild and the winter rains taper off.
Avoid visiting during the July-August-September monsoon season, when oppressive humidity offsets slightly cooler temperatures and infrequent but violent thunderstorms render outdoor activity unpredictable at best and hazardous at worst. (Monsoon storms flare up with little warning, usually in the afternoon.)
If you’re sticking to low elevations and don’t mind the threat of occasional showers, winter is a fine time to visit Tucson as well. At higher elevations, winter is cold and surprisingly snowy. If you’re planning a long-distance hike or camping trip in the mountains, you’ll want to wait until spring.
Dealing With Flash Floods in Tucson
Monsoon storms are no joke. Since storm sewer coverage is spotty to nonexistent in much of the Tucson area, and the default surface types in developed districts are semi-permeable gravel and impermeable asphalt, urban flash flooding is routine.
If you’re caught on the road during a storm and you see ponded water ahead of you, do not continue driving. Turn around! Underpasses are especially flood-prone; water can quickly top car roofs there.
Flash flooding isn’t merely life-threatening – it can also impact your budget. Arizona’s “stupid motorist law” holds you financially liable for your own rescue (up to $2,000) when you drive around flood barricades.
Crowds and Other Considerations
Locals I’ve spoken with tell me Tucson never really feels overrun, but there’s a definite ebb and flow to traffic and crowd patterns here.
During the University of Arizona’s school year, the city’s population swells by tens of thousands, compounding traffic and parking woes around the U of A’s campus in central Tucson. Tourists tend to come in greater numbers when the weather is milder, roughly October through April. With students gone and locals who can afford to escape the heat choosing to do so more frequently, summer is the low season.
Unlike Phoenix, Tucson doesn’t have an active spring training program for Major League Baseball – the area’s last exhibition season was 2010. That means the February-March corridor, when the weather is close to perfect, isn’t as busy here as you might expect. If you’re looking for an ideal mix of warm and sunny days, cool nights, and the possibility of snow at higher elevations, that’s your window.
What to Bring
Your Tucson packing list should include:
- Sun Protection. Most of the year, bright sunshine is Tucson’s default. Pack plenty of protection: sunblock, SPF moisturizer, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat. Just remember to pack travel-size sunblock and moisturizer containers if you’re not checking a bag.
- Hydration Gear. Fun fact: Tucson receives about 12 inches of rainfall each year, more than the upper cutoff for true deserts (eight to ten inches). But its abundant sunshine and persistently low relative humidity (most of the time – monsoon season is the exception) raise the valley’s evaporation rate enough to earn honorary desert status, at least for climate classification purposes (according to the Köppen scale). Bottom line: To stay hydrated here, you need to drink more water than you think you should. Keep a refillable water bottle on your person or in your car throughout the day. If you plan to hike, bike, or otherwise exert yourself, bring along a hydration pack (like a Camelbak). The rule of thumb is no less than one gallon of water per day on the trail. If it’s hot, bring much more.
- Umbrella. From November through March, and again during the July and August monsoon, you’ll want to have an umbrella on hand. “It’s a warm rain” is little consolation when a parking lot deluge catches you unprepared.
- Sandals or Flip-Flops. For the bulk of the year, open-toed shoes are Tucson’s daytime footwear of choice. If you plan to hike in natural environments, pack a sturdier pair with good sole traction.
- Trail-Ready Footwear. Anticipating a more rugged hike, maybe up on Mount Lemmon? Bring sturdy, closed-toed shoes or hiking boots. Hiking sandals simply don’t cut it in the super-steep terrain that surrounds Tucson. Though I didn’t get up on Mount Lemmon myself, I talked to a group that did, and they were glad to have real hiking boots.
- Comfortable Backpack. Unless you’re planning a sedentary trip, bring a comfortable, ample backpack capable of fitting everything you’ll need while you’re out and about: water, snacks, camera, change of shoes, a weather-appropriate outer layer. If you’re flying in and space is an issue, use your backpack as your carry-on.
- Seasonally Appropriate Outerwear. On hot summer days, you won’t want to wear much more than a light shirt (preferably sleeveless) and shorts or a skirt. On summer nights and early mornings, you might want a light outer layer, depending on your tolerance for cool air. A light jacket or windbreaker is a good idea in spring and fall. During the winter, throw in a heavier jacket. If you plan to spend time at elevation during the winter, bring additional cold-weather gear: hat, gloves, under layers, and waterproof boots (if you can fit them).
Getting There and Getting Around
This is your guide to transportation into and around Tucson.
Arriving in Tucson
Most Tucson visitors arrive by air or car:
Tucson’s undersized airport, Tucson International (TUS), has nonstop service to about 20 destinations – mostly larger cities in the western U.S.
If you’re coming in from the eastern half of the country, you’ll likely need to connect in Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, or Atlanta. Some routes are seasonal: You can only fly direct at certain times of year from Portland, Oakland, and Minneapolis, for example.
All other things being equal, flights to Tucson are generally more expensive than flights to Phoenix. On one occasion, my wife and I flew separately from Minneapolis to Arizona, I to Phoenix and she to Tucson. Both were direct, but my round-trip fare was about 40% lower than hers. Unless you’re coming in on a short hop – from, say, Los Angeles or Las Vegas – you should expect to pay at least $200 per round-trip, and probably more.
On a shorter trip, use a blind-booking site like Hotwire to snag whatever economical rental offers the best price at the time and you’ll probably pay less in gas and rental fees combined on the round-trip drive from Phoenix. I paid about $120 combined in car rental fees and gas on a recent three-day trip to Tucson through Phoenix, significantly less than the $250 premium to fly direct from Minneapolis to Tucson.
Tucson is a great road trip destination or stopover. It’s served by two Interstate highways: I-10, Arizona’s main east-west freeway, and I-19, which runs from the Mexican border at Nogales up to Tucson.
By road, Tucson is two hours or less (traffic permitting) from Phoenix, about four hours thirty minutes from El Paso, and about six hours thirty minutes from San Diego. So, if you live in the southwestern United States, from southern California through west Texas, it’s probably more cost-effective to drive to Tucson. Alternatively, you can fly into Phoenix (potentially saving hundreds on your flight) and rent a car or take a Greyhound bus down to Tucson.
Public Transportation in Tucson
Tucson’s public transportation system is operated by Sun Tran, a city agency. Its 40 bus routes and one streetcar line (Sun Link) cover wide swathes of the valley, but service is most extensive and reliable in close-in neighborhoods around downtown Tucson and the University of Arizona.
If you’re staying in downtown Tucson, near the U of A, or within walking distance of a major thoroughfare in Tucson proper, check out Sun Tran’s system map. Depending on the route and time of day, buses run every 10 to 60 minutes. Most routes begin service by 7am and end service by early morning. See Sun Tran’s route schedules for route-specific information.
Sun Tran has a simple fare schedule. All rates are subject to change:
- Regular Bus and Streetcar: $1.75 single rides, each way
- Express Buses: $2.35 single rides, each way
- SunGO Smart Card: $1.50 single rides, each way (plus $2 card purchase fee)
If you’re staying near a Sun Tran route, I’d recommend buying a SunGO card, a stored-value RFID product that works on any Sun Tran vehicle. The $2 purchase fee is waived when you register your card, which you should do anyway – that’s the only way to protect your stored value if the card is lost or stolen. Check Sun Tran’s SunGO page for more information.
Like other desert Southwest cities, Tucson is a sprawling place. Unless you plan to confine your activities to central Tucson, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get around the city and its environs on public transit alone. For trips up into the foothills or mountains, forget it – you’ll need a personal car, whether driven by you or someone else.
Personal Vehicles in Tucson
Tucson is a car-centric city. Unless you’re very intentional about how you plan your trip, you’re going to need a private car to get around.
If you’re staying in a hotel, check ahead of time to make sure you can park your car on the grounds with no restrictions. In downtown Tuscon, you may be required to pay for garage or pay-lot parking, depending on your hotel’s policies. Elsewhere, most hotels have free parking for guests.
If you’re staying in a short-term rental, ask the host or landlord about street parking policies. In central Tucson, I encountered a few neighborhoods with permit-restricted overnight parking that put nonresidents at risk of ticketing and towing. I parked on a permit-restricted street for about an hour and returned to a ticketless car, but I can’t guarantee you’ll be so lucky. Permit parking and general street parking restrictions are more likely in central Tucson and in the affluent northern foothills.
On commercial streets in central Tucson, expect to pay no more than $2 per hour (and probably less) for street parking during the week. Garage parking rates are comparable – look for early bird specials and other discounts that can drive down your out-of-pocket cost. The garages I used in downtown Tucson and near the U of A were free on Saturdays and Sundays, but I’m not sure if that’s the norm citywide.
Rental Cars in Tucson
I rented a car in Phoenix and drove down to Tucson, so I can’t speak from personal experience about renting a car in Tucson. That said, Tucson International’s car rental center is served by most major rental companies, including Alamo, Hertz, and National. It’s a short shuttle ride from the airport. Prices are comparable to other airport car rental hubs, though they’re likely to fluctuate seasonally and with short-term demand.
If you’re not picky about your rental, I always recommend using a blind-booking site like Hotwire to snag the best possible deal. Rental car companies use these sites to slough off excess inventory on laid-back renters, meaning you’re equally likely to get a minivan or a subcompact. You can further reduce the net cost of your rental by paying with a travel rewards credit card and declining the company’s optional insurance policy, which your credit card’s loss damage waiver should obviate.
Tucson has good ridesharing coverage. I always rent a car when I’m in town, but on the rare occasions when I’ve needed a Lyft, I’ve never waited longer than five minutes for a pickup in the urban core.
On Tucson’s sprawling fringes, pickup windows are longer, so I’d recommend using your app’s ride scheduling feature to ensure prompt pickup. in the urban core, demand surcharges are common during busy periods, such as the weekday morning rush, early evening, and weekend late nights.
Without demand surcharges, regular Lyft and Uber rides are priced competitively with those in larger cities, like Chicago and San Francisco. Lyft Plus and UberXL are ideal for larger groups, but there’s no Lyft Line or UberPOOL – meaning no opportunities to cut costs further by carpooling with people you don’t know.
The University of Arizona has operated its own bikesharing program since the early 2010s. The city of Tucson has been slow to jump on the bandwagon, but that changed in 2017: The city launched its own bikeshare network in late 2017 with about 40 stations and just over 300 bikes. Coverage is limited to central Tucson and the U of A area. Before your visit, check back for updates on the nascent network’s progress.
Where to Stay
Tucson is a big place. Where you choose to stay will depend on your budget, the type of lodging you prefer, the primary reason you’re in town, and the sights you’re most interested in checking out while you’re around. These are among the most popular parts of town to put down temporary roots:
I’m defining downtown Tucson generously here – from Grant Road in the north to the enclave of South Tucson in the south, bounded on the west and east by “A” Mountain and the University of Arizona, respectively. There’s a wide variety of lodging options around here, from low-cost motels along North Stone Avenue to decades-old institutions in the central business district.
On a trip to Tucson in mid-2017, I found a great place for less than $100 per night along North Stone. The location couldn’t have been more convenient for my purposes. Several Airbnb-dwelling friends stayed nearby and spent even less, so that’s a viable option too.
University of Arizona
The University of Arizona’s campus and environs have a decent selection of name-brand hotels, like the prominently placed Aloft property on Speedway. If you have business on campus or downtown, look for short-term rentals in this area. They’re especially plentiful during the summer as an alternative to sublets.
Tucked away in Tucson’s beautiful northern foothills, Casas Adobes is an upscale neighborhood with great views of central Tucson and easy access to the mountains. The foothills region is generally not suited to budget-friendly travel, but the stretch of North Oracle Road passing through Casas Adobes has at least a dozen motels and hotels with standard rooms under $100 per night. You’ll definitely want to rent a car if you stay in this part of town.
A few miles east of downtown, the bustling intersection of Broadway and Craycroft anchors a sprawling commercial district with big-box stores, warehouse clubs, and chain eateries. South of Broadway, there’s a compact cluster of name-brand, two- and three-star hotels and extended-stay properties.
If you have business on the east side of town, or don’t mind driving 15 to 20 minutes to get downtown or onto the U of A’s campus, this is a good home base. A cursory search returned nightly rates as low as $89 per night at the Marriott TownePlace Suites. A mile or so west, Alvernon has a dissociated strip of similar properties. I’ve stayed in this part of town on two separate occasions, and on both I’ve felt like a local; the same can’t always be said for visitors confined downtown.
Like most airports of any size, TUS has an airport hotel cluster. Most are on Tucson Boulevard between Valencia and Corona, just north of the drop-off zone. I found rooms for $50 per night here – an irresistible proposition for early bird travelers or those for whom prime location near historic sites, restaurants, and entertainment isn’t a priority.
Other Areas to Stay in Tucson
This is not a complete list of visitor-friendly neighborhoods and towns in the Tucson area. In the age of Airbnb and HomeAway, pretty much any residential neighborhood is fair game for tourists. And, in my limited experience, Tucson has plenty of isolated, tucked-away hotels and motels outside the main clusters outlined above.
Since we’re trying to be budget-friendly here, I’ve intentionally favored diverse neighborhoods with low to moderate lodging costs. Large swathes of Tucson, particularly the beautiful but expensive Catalina Foothills, aren’t suitable for cost-conscious travelers.
I’ve also left out more rustic areas outside Tucson. Camping is a great option for frugal, adventurous travelers, but it’s not for everyone. Nor is it suited to every type of travel – if you’re giving a high-stakes presentation to a potential client, you’re not going to want to sleep in a dusty mountainside campsite the night before (however appealing that might sound). If you’re serious about camping in and around the Tucson area, refer to the list of day trips and excursions above for ideas.
Confining your visit to Tucson proper? Planning to split your time between the city and mountains? Curious what life is like up in Phoenix?
No matter how you envision your next trip to Arizona panning out, you can stretch your limited budget further by seeking out cost-effective hotels or rentals, snagging the lowest possible rate on your rental car, and scouring the resources I outlined up top for discounts and deals.
If you travel more than once in a great while, there’s one more thing you can do: Apply for a credit card that pays you back for every dollar you spend on travel. Check out our ever-changing list of the top travel rewards credit cards for ideas.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Tucson?