12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Tucson
Tucson, the "City of Sunshine" and metropolis of the desert-like region of southeastern Arizona, lies in the wide valley of the Santa River, flanked by high hills. The warm, dry climate has long attracted tourists and people seeking an escape from winter in less favorable areas.
Popular outings from Tucson including day trips to the historic Western town of Tombstone and, further afield, the mining town of Bisbee. Both of these are located southeast of the city. Directly south of Tucson is the little community of Tubac, an artists colony. This is a popular outing, particularly for people interested in shopping for art and trinkets.
A Jesuit mission station was established here at the end of the 17th century. In the 18th century a permanent settlement was founded, which in 1857 became a posting station on the route from San Antonio in Texas to San Diego in California. In the second half of the 19th century Tucson was for a time capital of the territory of Arizona. The construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad increased the importance of the town, in which the University of Arizona was founded in 1891. After the Second World War Tucson developed at an explosive pace, its population rising from 46,000 in 1950 to six times as much in the mid seventies.
1 Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers an close up and detailed look at the desert landscape. This museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all in one. Displays of living animals and plants native to the Sonoran Desert are featured, including some endangered species such as the Mexican wolf, thick-billed parrot, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, desert pupfish, Sonora chub, bonytail chub, razorback sucker, and Gila topminnow. There are over 40,000 plants representing 1,200 species as well as a gem, mineral, and fossil collection.
One of the highlights is the bird show, with hawks flying over the audience. Afterwards, information on the birds is provided, and an opportunity to see them close up.
2 Mission San Xavier del Bac
This mission station in the southwest of Tucson was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1770. The mission buildings of San Xavier del Bac, in particular the richly furnished church, are fine examples of the Baroque architecture of the colonial period. Also known as the "White Dove of the Desert", it is still used by the Tohono O'odham Indians as a spiritual center. Visitors can walk through the old church. The museum contains artifacts highlighting the history of the Mission.
3 Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park, part of the Sonoran Desert, extends east and west of Tucson. The characteristic feature of this desert area, the lowest in North America, is the abundant and varied flora and fauna which flourish in spite of the great heat. Visitors can see the typical saguaro or candelabra cactuses, which are the tallest species in North America, as well as birds like the Gila woodpecker and cactus wren which live on the cactuses, rattlesnakes, desert tortoises and the Gila monster (a large lizard). There are numerous hiking trails of different lengths.
4 Tucson Mountain Park
Tucson Mountain Park is home to Old Tucson Movie Studios and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The park covers about 20,000 acres of Sonoran Desert landscape, just west of Tucson. There is an extensive trail system for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, although many people come here simply to use the picnic areas and enjoy the sunsets. This is a day use park with picnic areas. Mountain lions and bobcats, along with a host of other wildlife, live in the park, although some of these tend to frequent the most remote areas.
5 Old Tucson Studios
The little make-believe Western town of Old Tucson, in the style of the late 19th century, was reconstructed in 1940 as the setting for numerous Western films. It is located out on its own in the desert, with surrounding hills. These sets have been used for decades, with movies like Young Guns, and many films starring John Wayne, being shot here. There is a concert series and dance hall revue, along with other forms of live entertainment. Wild shoot-ups are re-enacted by actors. Visitors can take a guided tour to see which sets were used in various films and learn about the history. You can also wander through the "town" on your own or have lunch. Attractions for kids include a mini-train, antique cars, panning for gold, and trail rides.
6 El Presidio Historic District
History upon history resides in the El Presidio Historic District. Although this area was once inhabited by the Hohokam Indians, what visitors will see is a mix of Spanish-Mexican and Anglo-American architecture, with adobe houses and other architectural styles. The area is home to artisans, shops, museums, and historic buildings.
7 Pima Air and Space Museum
The Pima Air and Space Museum is the largest privately funded air museum in the world, with more than 300 aircraft as well as spacecraft. The collection includes historical aircraft as well as some of the most advanced models. Featured attractions include John F Kennedy's presidential plane and a replica of a 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer. For an additional fee visitors can take a bus tour to the adjacent "Boneyard", the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center.
8 University of Arizona
The University of Arizona in Tucson is home to the impressive Arizona State Museum, Mineral Museum, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Museum of Art, and the Flandrau Science Center. Visitors can spend a couple hours or a couple days seeing the sights on this campus.
9 St Augustine Cathedral
The St Augustine Cathedral was designed in Mexican Baroque architectural style. Built in 1896, the cast stone facade was completed in 1928 and is similar to the Cathedral of Queretaro in Mexico. The facade and towers are all that remain of the original structure after the cathedral was rebuilt in the late 1960s.
10 Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park, north of Tucson, is a desert region with picnic areas, and hiking and horseback riding trails. Visitors also come to the park to enjoy camping, plant and wildlife viewing, and to see the Romero Ruin archeological site. These are the remains of a Hohokam Indian village that was occupied between AD 500 and AD 1450. The site also contains rooms of mud and rock borrowed from the abandoned Hohokam village. These structures were built by rancher Francisco Romero late in the 19th C.
11 Reid Park Zoo
The Reid Park Zoo is a relatively small zoo with a surprisingly good collection of exotic animals. It houses such favorites as elephants, polar bears, lions, and many others. The facility is spread out on 17 acres with nature exhibits. One of the interactive experiences available at the zoo is the Giraffe Encounters, where for a small fee you can hand feed a giraffe. There is also the Reid Park Zoo Express train, a wet play area, and changing daily activities.
12 International Wildlife Museum
The International Wildlife Museum in Tucson features temporary exhibits focusing on wildlife from all over the world. Preserved specimens and dioramas allow visitors a close up look at animals and their natural settings. The museum offers a chance to learn about animal behavior, habitat, and much more.
Other Points of Interest
Tucson Children's Museum
Families will enjoy this museum. The hands-on, interactive exhibits include a variety of topics, from the arts and sciences to nature and construction. The Tucson Children's Museum is housed in a 1901 building designed by architect Henry Trost.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
The Colossal Cave in Vail, located east of Tucson on Highway 10, is one of the largest dry caverns in the United States. Parts of it have yet to be explored. Local legend has it that the loot from an old stagecoach robbery is still buried somewhere inside. The park also features a museum, butterfly garden, stagecoach rides as well as hiking and horse trails.