Top places to visit in Tucson, AZ

Are you planning to attend the TABazona nuCamp Rally in Arizona in January 2024? If so, you might want to bookend your stay with a couple of side trips to interesting locales in and around Tucson.

Nestled in Pima County since 1864, Tucson boasts an extraordinary tapestry of life, with a captivating mix of flora, fauna, and geological wonders. Tucson, the vibrant county seat and Arizona’s second-largest city, beckons with its sun-kissed charm, boasting a population of 546,019 as per the World Population Review.

Picture this: over 350 days of sunshine, where even the summer heat is tamed by the dry desert breeze. The lake of humidity makes it easy to cool down from the heat. Rainfall, a rare but welcome visitor, graces late summer and early winter, transforming the desert into an unexpected oasis of greenery.

Tucson, a city pulsating with life, unveils a smorgasbord of choices for the eager adventurer. From cultural and historic gems to botanical wonders and zoological delights, the only challenge is deciding where to begin.

And, of course, dining is always a treat, with cuisine selections from Mexican and American fare to global offerings brought by the many immigrants who make the city their home. It’s not surprising that Tucson was designated the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the country, given its commitment to traditional food preparation techniques and the presence of award-winning chefs who pride themselves on using local foods to create incredible dishes. Tucson is also home to more than a dozen craft breweries, while just a day trip away from the city, you can also explore Southern Arizona’s wine country.

So, whether you’re gearing up for TABazona or simply finding an excuse to explore Tucson, here’s a curated list of enchanting locales to consider, either as a prelude or encore to your TABazona adventure.

Museums, Arts and Cultural Centers

Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center—115 N. Church Ave. Tucson, 800-638-8350

Located in the Pima County Historic Courthouse in downtown Tucson, the Center features seven Storytelling Portals highlighting the region’s culture, food, flora and fauna, land, and history. The Diversity Theater offers rotating signature films on the region’s history and culture-rich community, while the Changing Gallery has temporary exhibits from local artists in the Tucson area. The Center also has a Topo Model and Diorama if you want to create a customized Southern Arizona itinerary.

Hours: The Center is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for specific holidays.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum—2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, 520-883-2702

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum calls itself a “fusion experience,” and when you explore what is available on its 98 acres, you can understand why. Its zoo is home to 242 animal species, while its botanical garden features 56,000 individual specimens of plants from 1,200 taxa. There’s also the Warden Aquarium with two galleries: one highlighting the region’s freshwater rivers and aquatic life and the other featuring the Sea of Cortez and representative sea life. Other features include the Earth Sciences Center and Art Institute as well as one of the world’s most comprehensive regional mineral collections.

Hours: The Museum is open October to May: 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., and June to September: 7:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

Center for Creative Photography (CCP)—1030 North Olive Road, Tucson, 520-621-7968

Recognized as one of the world’s finest academic art museums and study centers for the history of photography, CCP opened in 1975. It has 270 archival collections with over eight million archival objects as well as more than 110,000 works by over 2,200 modern and contemporary photographers. The Alice Chaiten Baker Interdisciplinary Gallery, a groundbreaking space for programming, education, and exhibition, is CCP’s most recent addition. CPP also presents academic and public programs, from lectures and workshops to film screenings and print viewings, with a list of upcoming programs available on the Events page.

Hours: CCP is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for specific holidays.

Tucson Museum of Art—140 North Main Avenue, Tucson, 520-624-2333

Encompassing an entire city block in historic downtown Tucson, the Museum houses a growing collection of nearly 12,000 works of art spanning over 3,000 years of history. It also has a selection of programs, from First Thursday and Second Sundaze to lectures, tours, and Art Camp, as well as seasonal activities. For more details, check the Events page.

Hours: The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Monday and Tuesday.

San Xavier Mission 1950 W San Xavier Rd, Tucson, 520-294-2624

San Xavier Mission, a National Historic Landmark, was founded in 1692 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. It is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. Inside the church are original statuary and mural paintings, while the structure itself is considered the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. The grounds on which the church is located are on Tribal Land (Tohono O’odham Nation) and follow Tribal Regulations. More details about visiting Mission San Xavier are available here.

Hours: Tours are held Monday through Friday at 9:15 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.; Saturday at 9:15 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. Call ahead at 520-294-2624 in case a tour is not scheduled. There are no tours on Sunday.

The Presidio San Agustin del Tucson Museum—196 N. Court Ave., Tucson, 520-622-0594

The Presidio is a re-creation of the Tucson Presidio built in 1775 and other historic spaces, where you can learn about the lives of early Native Americans. Among the many sites are a 150-year-old classic Sonoran Row house, archaeological remains of a pit house, and the original Presidio wall. You can also watch historical re-enactments and demonstrations. The Tucson Presidio Museum also offers a variety of walking tours with experienced guides, while the demonstrations during the Living History Days (held annually from October through April) illustrate what life was like during the late 18th-century New Spain Period and the 19th-century Territorial Period.

Hours: The Museum is open October 3 through April 30, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; May 1 through June 30, Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and August 21 to October 1, Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Museum is closed July 1 through August 20.

Entertainment

Loft Cinema—3233 E Speedway Blvd., Tucson, 520-795-0844

Loft Cinema is a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to bringing new independent and foreign films, documentaries, and classic art films to the Tucson area. The Loft also has interactive events and hosts two festivals each year: an annual international film festival in the fall (the Loft Film Fest) and a free children’s film festival every July (the Loft Kids Fest). Check the website for current and upcoming attractions and special events.

Hotel Congress—311 East Congress Street, Tucson, 520-622-8848

Built in 1919 (learn about its history here) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Hotel Congress is a cultural landmark in downtown Tucson. You can enjoy a drink in the Tap Room bar, dine in Cup Cafe or Maynards, and enjoy world-class entertainment at The Century Room jazz club, Club Congress, and the Plaza Stage. Hotel Congress is also a strong supporter of nonprofits serving the Tucson community and works with sustainability partners to implement green initiatives.

Old Tucson—201 Kinney Rd, Tucson, 520-883-0100

If you’re a fan of the Old West, then make Old Tucson one of your must-stop locations. The renowned film set and family theme park, built in 1939, has a variety of immersive experiences, special events, and tours. Old Tucson events run from Christmas to Halloween. Old Tucson is also an active movie studio with productions consistently in operation, and while you may catch a glimpse of a movie in production, you may not take pictures of make video recordings.

Hours: Details about the various events and tours can be found here.

Science Centers

Pima Air and Space Museum6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, 520-365-1971

The Pima Air and Space Museum is one of the largest non-government-funded aviation and space museums in the world and houses about 400 historic aircraft with six indoor exhibit hangars. The Arizona Aerospace Foundation operates the Museum, the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame in Tucson, and the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita.

Hours: The Museum is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through May, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June through September.

Kitt Peak National Observatory—end of route 386 on the Tohono O’odham Nation, Tucson, 520-318-8726

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), a Program of the NOIRLab, hosts the facilities of consortia that, between them, operate more than a dozen optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Kitt Peak Visitor Center is home to the largest and most diverse collection of research telescopes in any one place in the world. Its nearly two dozen active telescopes on Kitt Peak are dedicated solely to public viewing in the nightly stargazing programs. The Observatory also has guided daytime tours.

Hours: The Observatory is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday except for the Overnight Telescope Observing Program. Guided Daytime and nighttime tickets must be booked on Eventbrite.

Botanical Centers, Parks

Saguaro National Park—Rincon Mountain District (EAST): 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, 520-733-5153; Tucson Mountain District (WEST): 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, 520-733-5158

Tucson is home to the giant saguaro—the nation’s largest cacti and the universal symbol of the American west. At Saguaro National Park, you can see these enormous cacti as well as all the other natural features and wildlife throughout the park. Each season brings something new to see: cactus and wildflower blooming from late February into March, the flowering of the Saguaro in April, ripening fruits in June, and, during the start of the monsoon season in July, more wildflowers and breeding wildlife fill the Sonoran desert. The Park itself has two districts—the Rincon Mountain District (RMD) (also called Saguaro East) and the Tucson Mountain District (TMD) (referred to as Saguaro West)—geographically separated by the city of Tucson.

Hours: The Park is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Visitor Center information is available here. Information about fees and passes is available here.

Tucson Botanical Gardens—2150 North Alvernon Way, Tucson, 520-326-9686

Located on the site of the historic Porter property, Tucson Botanical Gardens is a tranquil oasis in the heart of the city. It covers five and a half acres and has 20 themed garden spaces as well as rotating art displays, community classes, events, and international exhibits. Among its many features is the Cox Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion, southern Arizona’s first and only tropical butterfly exhibit that is home to hundreds of butterflies, tropical plants, and orchids from around the world. The Gardens ranked fourth in USA Today’s 10 Best Botanical Gardens Readers’ Choice Awards for 2023,

Hours: The Gardens are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Butterfly Magic Hours are from 9:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Gardens are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, January 1st (New Year’s Day), and July 4th.

Tohono Chul—7366 North Paseo del Norte, Tucson, 520-742-6455

Named “One of the World’s Ten Best Botanical Gardens” by Travel + Leisure Magazine, Tohono Chul is set on 49 acres of lush desert, combining nature, art, and culture in one location. Its winding paths, themed botanical gardens, and art and garden exhibits showcase the unique qualities and beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Lectures, guided tours, workshops, concerts, and special events provide an education about the natural and cultural heritage of the region.

Hours: Tohono Chul grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Holiday Hours (Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve) are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tohono Chul is closed New Year’s Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

For more ideas on what to do and where to go, check out Visit Tucson, the official destination marketing organization for the City of Tucson, Pima County, and Town of Oro Valley.

Tucson Adventures

So, whether you choose to wander through historic sites, marvel at the biodiversity, or indulge in the gastronomic delights, let the spirit of Tucson infuse your TABazona experience with a touch of magic. As the rally concludes, carry the memories of these pre and post-event explorations, weaving them into the fabric of your TABazona adventure, making it not just a rally but a journey filled with discovery, flavor, and the warm embrace of the Arizona sun.

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