As native Arizonans, we never understood why people would visit Tucson. Its a dry place with a lot of sharp trees and deadly snakes. The weather and landscape never seem to change with the seasons. It’s just brown. At least, these were all things we thought when growing up in Tucson. Today, after almost 5 years on the east coast, we get it. Tucson is an understated city with so much to offer travelers. I now actually put it at the top of my list of towns to visit in the U.S. A list that includes places like Charleston, San Diego, and Portland, Maine. There is so much Tucson has to offer – from upscale shopping, to some of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to, to hiking and culture, to a pretty deep appreciation for the sciences, Tucson has it all. We’ve created a list of our top 25 reasons to visit – and things to do – in Tucson for the first time visitor.
Eat Like a Local
Tucson gets a lot of influence from neighbors to the south, so Mexican food reigns in Tucson. But there’s also a deep food culture rooted in local ingredients and farm-to-table. This sounds weird for a town located in the middle of the desert, but somehow it’s true. Even the New York Times saw this, recently publishing a piece about how Tucson has become an unlikely food star. It has been designated a “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO – the only city in the United States with this designation. There are about 20 different restaurants that come to mind when I think of home, but these five are stars that everyone from Tucson has visited at least once – and for a reason.
1. Guadalajara Grill – Known for their salsa and guacamole made fresh at the table, Guadalajara Grill is everything Tucson looks for in good Mexican food. Fresh, local, and with a mean margarita selection.
2. El Charro – Our personal favorite, El Charro is thought to be the place where Chimichangas (fried burritos) were invented. Get your chimichanga “enchilada style” for the true border Mexican experience.
3. Beyond Bread – A local sandwich shop with fresh made bread, stacked sandwiches, and amazing pastries, Beyond Bread is the Tucson lunch spot. They have great breakfasts too.
4. Eegees – Skip the subs and just stop here for a mid-day treat. Eegees is a fast food sub shop that has mediocre food but amazing cold beverages called Eegees – they’re a local creation and nothing else like it. It’s a fruity, icy treat/beverage that is perfect for cooling down on a hot summer day.
5. Frost Gelato – I remember when this shop opened 12 years ago and it has been a Tucson sensation ever since. With in-house made gelato in more than a dozen flavors, it’s been voted Best Ice Cream in Tucson several years in a row.
Honorable Mentions: We’d feel guilty for leaving off some of our favorite restaurants in Tucson. Not local institutions like the ones above but well worth the calories are: HiFalutin, Nook, Catalina Barbecue Co., Cayton’s, The B Line, Blue Willow, and No Anchovies.
Take in City Views
6. A Mountain – With a giant letter “A,” this mountain is the closest to downtown and arguably the most iconic. Views of the city are just a short drive away.
7. Mount Lemon – The place where all locals go to escape the heat, Mount Lemon is a beautiful drive and climb in elevation. You start in the desert and gradually climb and wind through rocky mountain side until you get to crisp pine forests, a ski lodge, and the Cookie Cabin at the top. A perfect mountain escape just 45 minutes away from Tucson.
Connect with Nature
8. Saguaro National Park – One of the 59 National Parks, Saguaro is split into two separate sections on opposite sides of the city. We’re partial to the western portion of the park that borders the Desert Museum, but there’s beauty to find in both and over 165 miles of trail to keep you busy.
9. Sabino Canyon – The trail to Seven Falls is one of the most popular trails in Tucson, likely because it involves an increasingly rare resource – water. Sabino Canyon is beloved among locals and a must-see during any visit to Tucson.
10. Madera Canyon – Part of the Coronado National Forest, Madera Canyon is about an hour south of Tucson and features hundreds of different trails that are perfect for connecting with desert wildlife and plant life.
11. Desert Museum – A sort of open air desert zoo, the Desert Museum is all about the plants and wildlife that call the Sonoran Desert home. The animals are most visible when it’s cooler out, so visit early in the morning or during the cooler winter months.
12. Kartchner Caverns – These caves are part of the state park system and feature fun activities for adults and kids alike. These underground caves are a great way to escape the summer heat.
Explore the Sciences
13. Stargaze at Kitt Peak – Tucson has had a long history with space exploration and has laws in place to limit light pollution at night, making it a great place to go star gazing. You can visit the national observatory on Kitt Peak and gaze at the stars with the pros.
14. Biosphere 2 – In 1991 and 1994, Biosphere 2 was sealed and used as a research experiment for sustaining life in enclosed spaces. The facility has been operated by Columbia University and now the University of Arizona for research ever since. It is open to the public and tours are available.
15. University of Arizona Flandrau Science Center – A hands-on science center and planetarium operated by the University of Arizona.
16. San Xavier Mission – This beautiful architectural site is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The current church was built in the 1700s by Spanish settlers. You can walk through the church and visit the museum.
17. Gaslight Theater – A quirky theater in downtown Tucson that produces original comical musicals. Gaslight Theater is a Tucson institution that was established by University of Arizona graduates in 1977.
18. 4th Avenue – Located less than a mile away from the University, 4th Ave is an eclectic street with funky shops and restaurants. A favorite among university students and locals. Just the right amount of grunge with a lot of local heart.
19. La Encantada – Upscale shopping in an outdoor, marketplace-like setting. There are also several great restaurants to chose from.
20. Casas Adobes Shopping Center – A small and unassuming shopping center north of Tucson with small, local shops and a few upscale restaurants.
Attend a Tucson Festival
There are dozens of festivals that bring Tucson together throughout the year. Some bring visitors from across the world while others are local grown.
21. Gem and Mineral Show – The biggest gem and mineral show in the world, you might not go to buy anything, but it’s fun to look at all of the unique gems and rocks that make an appearance. Locals visit for the festival-like atmosphere, food, and crafts. Beads, jewelry, and other unique finds keep people coming year after year.
22. Rodeo – Tucson schools get two days off every February for the Tucson Rodeo. Before Arizona was a state, Tucson was overrun with cowboys. For one week out of the year, Tucsonans dig out their cowboy hats and boots and attend the rodeo.
23. All Souls Procession – The first weekend in November is home to the All Souls Procession where Tucsonans come together to celebrate those who have passed. One of the best and most unique Tucson festivals, this is one to plan your trip around.
24. Tucson Meet Yourself – A celebration of food, art, and culture of Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. This is a festival that celebrates everything that makes Tucson great.
25. 4th Ave. Street Fair – Artisans from around the country travel to Tucson twice a year to participate in the 4th Avenue Street Fair – an arts and crafts festival that spans several blocks on 4th Avenue in downtown Tucson.
We love Tucson and have come to appreciate the desert life for all that it has to offer. We always look forward to visiting this unique city and re-experiencing our childhood. There are certainly more than 25 things that make this city great. Tucson is not an obvious city; it’s gems are understated and hidden in plain sight. But when you stumble upon something great, it really makes an impression.