If you just have a limited time visiting Tucson, the question we’re always asked from tourists is “What are the BEST fun things to do in Tucson this weekend?” So here’s our insider perspective for our out-of-town friends. Now Tucsonans, don’t get up in arms about the order! We love them all and had to put them in some kind of list. These are the places we have on our “fun Tucson things to do” check list to take our family and friends.
Of course, it’s just our opinion but if you’d like to add some of your favorites, please add them below in the comment section and share them with Tucson visitors. Please have fun visiting our beautiful city and what the half million locals already know as… the Best City in America! Oh and by the way, just enjoy the town and don’t move here. We’re already growing too fast!
CARNIVAL OF ILLUSION – Carnival of Illusion is an evening of Magic, Mystery and OOOH La La! This top-rated attraction is “Revitalizing Magic” by blending their international theme with all the charms of a Vaudeville-inspired roadshow. Travel with the national recipients for “Excellence in Magic” and catch a lively slice of magical history with their beguiling romp around the world! This evening of old-world magic takes place in three exclusive, up-close, boutique theaters. The “Best Show in Tucson” has become so popular, Carnival of Illusion now has theaters in Phoenix and Scottsdale. Great for Date-Nights, Anniversaries, Celebrations and Special Nights Out. This is a Must-See for tourists and armchair travelers alike. Carnival of Illusion is Magic, Mystery, and OOOH La La!
The thing to do for special events such as anniversaries, date nights, and birthdays is upgrade to exclusive Front Row seats. You can’t get closer to the magic than this! Due to the intimate nature of this boutique theater, shows regularly sell out in advance. Book your seats early! Advance reservations required. No children under 10. CLICK FOR TICKET AVAILABILITY.
Amerind Foundation The Amerind Foundation received its name by combining the words American and Indian, which is exactly what you’ll find at the foundation. Originally, it was home to an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist in the stunningly beautiful Dragoon Mountains 60 minutes outside of Tucson. Now, the Amerind Foundation is a research center and museum focusing on the preservation and interpretation of Native American cultures and history. The collection inside the museum is equally as amazing as its gorgeous location. The best thing to do is absolutely be sure to bring a sack lunch and water (there are no restaurants around) and plan on a beautiful picnic behind the property on the benches under the trees.
Hotel Congress Hotel Congress was known as the hub of downtown Tucson. The historic property sits across the street from the railroad depot and in conjunction with the Radio Theater. Today it includes multiple music venues, restaurants, and a grand hotel. The hotel is a famous local hangout, featuring up and coming local artists, wannabees and hipsters, and previously known for capturing the famous outlaw John Dillinger.The thing to do once here is count the pennies on the restaurant floor. Do you have a few extra years?
Mission San Xavier Known as the White Dove of the Desert, the mission was founded in 1692. This beautiful mission appears to magically rise from the desert floor just outside of the Santa Cruz River. Due to its location, the mission was formerly known as The Place Where Water Appears as it was once surrounded by natural springs. However, the springs are now a thing of the past, but the beauty of the area is still amazing. The rustic-looking Catholic church and mission hosts Moorish, Spanish and Native American motifs, just waiting to be explored. So today, the thing to do is bring your water bottle and walking shoes as you not only walk the mission and its grounds but the hill and cemetery nearby.
Campbell Avenue Bat Colony Hidden between the concrete rafters of the bridge on Campbell Avenue spanning the Rillito river, houses a colony of 40,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. Leaving anywhere from two hours to 30 minutes before sunset, have patience and the thing to do is move on the side of Campbell in the direction the colony is departing. The colony is one of several in town formed when females migrate north following the scent of the Saguaro flowers. (That means they are mostly here during spring through summer.) They make bridges home for birthing and raising their young before heading south back to Mexico.
Vivace and Cafe Poca Cosa Definitely our two favorite restaurants to send tourists and out of towners. Vivace is an Italian style dinner that’s simple and delicious. Not heavy with fancy sauces, instead, it’s simply delightful loaded with flavor. The seafood lasagnette isn’t made from hard dried noodles, instead layers of crepes. The fun casual thing to do is eat at the bar. For Mexican food, don’t leave Cafe Poca Cosa without a house margarita and the special plate of the day. (The thing to do is NOT order your favorite tequila! Just enjoy the perfection of their house marg, it’s divine!) The chips and salsa are also the best in Tucson. This is not a taco and burrito place but it is getting overpriced and the waiters can be a bit snooty. Even if your full, the chocolate mousse is heavenly. Both restaurants are casual yet elegant. For a more ethnic and street feel, try your Spanish at Mariscos Chihuahua on Grande….
Check out Mariscos Chihuahua on Grande (half block south of Speedway. Don’t be creative and try other locations with the same name in town. They are NOT the same owners and nowhere near as meticulous with their food.) This place is wonderfully tacky with a great old-school vibe and the food is fabulous. There’s even outdoor seating to enjoy the Tucson weather with a margarita (or two) in hand. Try the ceviche or culiche on filete, our favorites, and ask for a song from the strolling musicians that might drive by. Spanish can be helpful but not necessary!
Rodeo Parade Museum This is not the big fancy new museum big city folk are used to. Instead this is a super quaint old airplane hanger that now houses possibly the largest collection of horse drawn buggies, coaches, carriages, and wagons anywhere. Most of these are impeccably restored to the original detail and connected historically to Tucson. The property is also the first municipal airport in the United States and was dedicated by the famous and heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh. The “history on display” museum is not open all year so the thing to do before visiting is check their website for hours.
Gate’s Pass Sunset View – At the summit of Speedway Boulevard as you head West to the desert, this picnic area and hiking spot overlook the expansive Saguaro National Park and is the best spot to watch the world renown Arizona sunsets setting over the Tucson horizon. Parking is limited and busy, especially on weekend evenings, so arrive at least an hour before sunset. The things to do is grab a nice spot and sit silently as the sun sets over the desert. And since you’re in the desert, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to wear a hat and watch out for rattlers either.
Tucson City Wide Festivals – In January/February we have the Gem Show which is a world more than gems. It’s like a city wide Turkish bazaar selling teapots to carpets, rings to dinosaur bones (really!) The thing to do in February is the Rodeo Parade which is the largest non-motorized parade in the United States. Super fun! If you’re here in March, the thing to do is visit the Festival of Books on the University of Arizona mall and celebrate reading. Unofficially known as Tucson Eat Yourself, Tucson Meet Yourself celebrates the ethnic diversity of our city through the cultural spectrum of inhabitants. The thing to do in November is Dia de los Muertos, our Tucson version of “day of the dead”, celebrating and remembering loved ones.
GREAT NEWS: If you’re not in town for one of these festivals, give Second Saturdays Downtown a try. It’s downtown Tucson, with music, mayhem and margaritas, very fun!
Etherton Gallery – Do you live in Tucson or Chicago or London? The quality of this gallery is stunning and you will feel like you’re in a much larger city than standing in Tucson downtown. Terry has gathered an amazing collection of contemporary and vintage photographic prints in his second story stone building. Of course it’s geared towards the present exhibition but be sure to check out the other rooms and even the drawers if possible (ask for assistance!!!) He has originals of some of our favorite photos: Edward Westin, Philippe Halsman, Edward Curtis, and more. The cool local thing to do is attend an opening with the artists.
U of A Mineral Museum – This is one of Tuscon best kept secrets, so much so that most Tucsonans don’t even know it exists. Housed in the basement of the Flandreau Science Center on the campus of the University of Arizona, this mineral museum holds some shockingly beautiful specimens. The wealth of minerals from underground is vast and the museum holds over 1,500 different species with over 2,000 specimens on display. Part of the collection dates as far back as 1892. Along with some amazing mineral specimens, you will find many meteorites on display. Rocks from outer space…how cool is that? The museum is open every day of the week and there is a reasonable fee to get in. If you’ve never seen what gold or silver looks like in its native form, have a fascination with the wonders of nature, or just want to get out of the sun for a while, then stop by this little known museum for a gander at some of nature’s gems (and I really mean gems).
Tohono Chul Park – Located inside the city limits, this lovely desert park is a quiet respite from a busy schedule. The garden paths meander amongst alien looking cactus and hardy desert plants. Tohono Chul is well known for “Bloom Night” when the amazing Queen of the Night cactus blooms. Its splendor is only seen at night for one night of the year! Most of the Night Blooming Cerius, as they are called, bloom on the same night in the garden, somewhere between late May and mid July. These huge scented cactus blossoms are a site to see. You can get on the parks email list, that alerts those waiting to see the blossoms of their imminent opening, with sometimes only as little as 12 hours notice of the event. Also host to classes, lectures and workshops and seasonal plant sales. Their garden bistro is also a favorite breakfast/lunch spot highlighting local, organic ingredients.
Tanque Verde Swap Meet – Every single weekend in Tucson you can buy or sell at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet. With 19 acres of selling space, there is a huge variety of stuff for sale at the swap meet. You never really know what you are going to find, both old and new. It’s also a fun place to take the family with rides for the kids, and if you are hungry there’s lots of food vendors, a cafeteria, a grill and a snack bar. All your favorite junk food, including funnel cakes, ice cream, hot dogs and nachos. There’s even a beer concession. You can go Friday, Saturday and Sunday, open until 11pm on Fri. and Sat.! Entry is free as is parking. You’ll even find vendor services such as hair cuts, tattoos, hair braiding, ear piercing and pony rides. Whats not to love about the swap meet?
4th Avenue Street Fair – One of Tucson’s biggest street fairs is the 4th Avenue Street Fair, which began in 1970 and has grown into a 400 plus vendor fair, including food , music and street performers. Its free and happens twice a year in Spring and Winter, usually end of March and middle of December. The fair lasts Friday through Sunday, and attracts huge crowds, so get there early in order to find parking. The winter fair is my favorite, since the weather is just perfect at that time of year. There are some amazing items for sale, perfect for Christmas shopping, with arts and crafts ranging from fine art to country crafts, including glass, clay, wood, photography, clothing, jewelry and unique food items. Tons of food vendors, two main stages and lots of street entertainment make for a full day. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you will be walking up one side of 4th Avenue and back down the other, a journey of many blocks. Sunscreen or a hat are also recommended, as well as a water bottle and leave pets at home.
Free Live Music – Tucson is the home of some wonderful local talent, and there are some great hole in the wall, local pub and small venue haunts for free live music, every night of the week. One popular hotspot for live music (often free) is Monterey Court. This once small motel, turned restaurant, bar, music hot-spot, is a lovely outdoors venue. Even in the summer, during our summer heat, it is a fun spot at night, since they have misters to keep everything cool. The food is good too. I’ve seen some great music here and most nights are free. Another favorite free live music spot is La Cocina. Another outdoors restaurant venue, this lovely courtyard in the old El Presidio Neighborhood (see Barrios above), has an incredible ambiance. The music is always free and you can come for dinner, snacks, just a drink or merely come for the music. Another favorite haunt is The Boondocks Lounge (a longstanding local pub), with live music almost ever night of the week, has free music on Mondays and Thursdays. A great place to grab a drink, dance, play pool or just listen to some fun local bands. Typical pub eats are also available.
KXCI Radio Station – One of the things one always struggles with when they arrive in a new town is what to tune in to on the radio. There’s nothing more frustrating than tuning into station after station that just isn’t it. One of our favorite stations in Tucson is community based KXCI radio. With a surprising range of musical genres and weekly “shows”, there’s always something interesting being served up on KXCI. You won’t find your typical demographically oriented station that is influenced by market concerns. Here you will also be able to hear local information about upcoming events, musical and otherwise. They host a community calender on their website, as well as listing all their programs, so you can get a handle on their eclectic programming. Having been to a few, I can attest that they host some incredible live music events! You can find them here at kxci.org.
Kitt Peak National Observatory – If what’s in the sky is more appealing to you than what’s underground, then there is Kitt Peak National Observatory. It “supports the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth for nighttime optical and infrared astronomy and daytime study of the sun”. Yikes what a mouthful. Needless to say, you can go there to observe what’s happening out there in the universe beyond our planet. There are both daytime tours and also evening programs, which include nightly observing programs. Lots to see and do. Located just outside Tucson, at an elevation of 6,875 ft, it is a wonderful drive through some lovely scenery. Just remember the temperature drops quite a lot by the time you reach the top!
Kartchner Caverns State Park – This amazing limestone cave was discovered in 1974 but was kept a secret from anyone until 1978, and it became a state park in 1988. This is a living cave, meaning it is still growing! There is a lot of conservation and education being done in order to preserve this incredible underground habitat. Located about 55 miles outside of Tucson, it is just a short drive to a spectacular natural wonder. Amazing stalactites and stalagmites (don’t ask me which is which), grow up from the floor and down from the ceiling. The tour is about 1.5 hours and afterward you can visit the Discovery Center to learn everything there is to know about limestone caves. You can even camp there, as there is a campground, hiking trails and a hummingbird garden. Who doesn’t love to see those little aerial acrobatics do their thing. Click here to visit the Kartchner Caverns State Park website for more information.
Tucson Farmer’s Markets – You’ll find a farmer’s market in Tucson every single day of the week. Some are more central, and some are found on the outskirts of town. Big or small, they all offer a variety of local produce, food products and craft goods. Some even offer services such as knife sharpening. If you are not sure which one is the best to visit, ask a local. They are sure to be able to tell you their favorite-Sundays at St. Phillips Plaza perhaps or maybe the Santa Cruz River Farmer’s Market on Thursdays. For a relatively up-to-date list of markets, go to the visittucson.org website. They even list several U-Pick farms, if you are up to picking your own. Apples from Wilcox AZ are a local favorite, or if you are around in the fall, several farms have wonderful pumpkin picking events.
Tucson’s Old Barrio Neighborhoods – The cities first neighborhoods (or barrios), date back as far as the 1860s. These barrios are predominantly located in central Tucson, and make for a fun walking tour. Structure styles include: Sonoran Row Houses, Mission Revival, bungalow style and American Territorial Adobes. One of the striking features of these styles are the long rows of buildings that are not set back from the street, creating a striking visual line of continuous housing. Barrio Viejo is Tucson’s 2nd oldest neighborhood and there you will find the El Tiradito, or wishing shrine, with its own unique history. Tucson’s oldest neighborhood is the El Presidio neighborhood, which has its own appeal as being the location of the Tucson Museum of Art and many lovely restaurants and shops. For more information about some of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods, click this link to the Downtown Tucson Partnership website.
That’s it! Those are our best picks for Tucson. Of course there are lots of other great places and you will have a different list so PLEASE offer your suggestions below. We’d love to hear from you so enter your suggestions below for an even longer and more complete list of the best things to do in Tucson for everyone!