Tucson is More Than Just a Pretty Place
By Jon Bailey - April 17, 2020
This post about things to do in Tucson is sponsored by Visit Tucson, and was created in collaboration with Blog Meets Brand. All thoughts and views are my own.
We’ve visited Tucson, Arizona several times now, and our family loves this vibrant, interesting city for its intersection of desert beauty and modern tastes. With so much to see and do, Tucson is one of those places we could return to again and again. The rocky desert vistas, cactus standing tall and sun brightening every nook and cranny, are unmatched anywhere else in the world. But Tucson is more than just a pretty place.
Originally founded as a Spanish military site, Tucson is a great place to relax and recharge, unplug and explore. Home of the University of Arizona and the first American city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Tucson is the perfect place to feed your soul – and your tastebuds.
Tucson Has Something For Every Taste
Whenever we travel, the beauty of the destination is something we seek in our decision to visit. That can come in many forms including flavor, history, knowledge and nature. Tucson is a place where you are surrounded by experiences that speak clearly to this unique location. Working together, they create an oasis to relax, refresh and explore.
As you’re planning your next visit to Tucson, here are some suggestions of things to do while you’re there.
Historical Tour of Tucson
Located 60 miles north of the United States/Mexico border, Tucson has a rich history for visitors to explore.
Dating back to its Spanish history, Tucson has many churches and missions, some of which are hundreds of years old. Construction on Mission San Xavier del Bac was finished in 1797 and it is the oldest intact European structure in the state of Arizona. Catholic church services are still held there and tours are available. Tumacácori National Park, located 45 miles south of Tucson, protects the ruins of three missions that were built during the Spanish colonial era.
Interested in military history? Visit Fort Lowell Museum, which is a branch of the Arizona Historical Society.
Interested in learning how early residents of Tucson, including indigenous people, would have lived? The Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum provides reenactments and docent tours.
Western lovers can even take a 70-minute road trip to Tombstone, which was the location of the famed Gunfight at The O.K. Corral and home to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. We have yet to do this, and can’t wait to visit Tucson again so we can take this day trip and witness the daily reenactment of the historic gunfight.
Originally constructed as an experimental research facility, Biosphere 2 was inhabited in the 1990s by two separate crews who lived in an enclosed space for research purposes. Built with various climates structures and intended to be entirely self-sufficient, today Biosphere 2 is now open to the public.
The first Biosphere mission was conducted for 2 years and consisted of scientists, ecologists and other experts living within the self-contained structure without leaving the facility and living on anything grown within. Consisting of over 3 acres of land, Biosphere contains different types of terrain including an internal rainforest, mangroves, beach, fog desert and savannah grassland. There are also staff quarters and greenhouses.
After two missions and various owners, the University of Arizona obtained ownership in 2011. While still conducting experiments and research projects, Biosphere 2 provides visitors with information about the state of the planet Earth. Visitors can learn how they are trying to help save our natural resources.
Visitors have the option of taking several tours. The Under The Glass Tour and Family Tour (designed for children ages 10 and under) are both included with the cost of admission. The History Tour, which discusses what it was like to be on a Biosphere 2 mission, and the Ocean and Beach Tour, which gives an in-depth look at how researchers are helping to save coral reefs, both cost $10 on top of the admission ticket.
Biosphere 2 is located 40 miles north of downtown Tucson. Admission is $21 for adults, $14 for children under 12 and $19 for seniors.
With 300+ days of sun per year and only 52 days of precipitation, Tucson is a true outdoor Mecca.
The Santa Catalina Mountains are located in the Coronado National Forest. The mountain chain’s highest point is Mt. Lemmon, which has an altitude of 9,147 feet. With a variety of hiking trails, the area offers climates from the desert up to snow at the top peaks during the winter months. The Santa Catalina Mountains give you the freedom to roam and be surrounded with nature.
Tucson is home to more than 40 golf courses and the Cologuard Classic, a PGA Tour Champions event. There are courses for beginners and those with the lowest handicap. Golf courses in the area include ones with amazing views, those with challenging holes and even five municipal courses maintained by the City of Tucson.
Love the outdoors at night? Check out one of Tucson’s acclaimed observatories. Often called the astronomy capital of the world, Tucson has some of the clearest views of the night sky in the United States. Kitt Peak is one of the most famous and provides daytime, nighttime and even overnight activities. Also be sure to visit the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium or, if you’re up for a road trip, the Mt. Graham International Observatory.
Food Tour of Tucson
Tucson’s food game is beyond our wildest expectations. If you’re looking for a place that values food, its history and how it is enjoyed, Tucson is definitely for you. Tucson is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) City of Gastronomy. Named in 2015 (the first in the US), Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value what role food has historically provided to the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years. Others are using farm to table techniques and providing community gardens in the area, so there are plenty of food choices to choose from.
Eating in Tucson is a cultural experience unlike anything you’ll have in other places. Eating local here really means something. Dishes composed of items such as cactus and prickly pears picked in the nearby desert are common. Plus being located so close to the border, the Mexican influence on food and flavors is huge.
The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food – Really!
In fact, Mexican food in Tucson is so big that Visit Tucson has designated an area of the city as The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food. We can attest after having sampled several of the stops along this route – it’s absolutely true. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico. If you think Mexican food is just tacos and burritos, you’ve got a wonderful surprise coming. Dishes such as ceviche, barbacoa, chicharrones, tortas, mole and a multitude of botanas (appetizers) are ready for the tasting in Tuscan restaurants.
And with great food comes great drinks – Mexico is known for its tequila and mezcal. You’ll have plenty of options to sample both while visiting the 23 Miles of Mexican Food.
Our first stop was El Charro, which is known as the oldest Mexican restaurant in the US. A mixture of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites, the menu at El Charro has something for everybody. The kids loved their enchiladas and guacamole, while the grownups enjoyed a sampling of chili rellenos, chicken mole and more. A true specialty here is the carne seca – lean beef dried in the desert sun and shredded. It’s cooked with green chilis, tomatoes and onions, and served with guacamole, salsa and more.
More than Mexican Food
Not a huge fan of Mexican food? Not to worry. Tucson is a very diverse city and has food offerings from countries such as Ethiopia, India and Puerto Rico while also offering Southwest American options and seafood. With over 1,000 restaurants in Southern Arizona, you’ll find something to help you create your own culinary experience.
We loved our dinner at Welcome Diner, a reimagined 1950s diner with old timey architecture and an artsy modern vibe. Buttermilk fried chicken, pot roast special, delicious burger and macaroni and cheese are all on the menu at Welcome Diner- with a twist. And remember to save room for dessert – ours was better than grandma used to make.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Tucson is home to a variety of accommodations that aim to please within any size pocketbook. Those who want to get a feel of the Southwest can stay at a dude ranch like Tanque Verde Ranch or White Stallion Ranch. Folks visiting with their families may need the flexibility of an RV park or vacation rental. Or perhaps you are a couple on a romantic getaway who want to escape to a resort and spa such as Loews Ventana Canyon Resort or the exclusive Canyon Ranch. There are literally dozens of options for every type of traveler in Tucson.
How to Get to Tucson
Located in southern Arizona, Tucson is 485 miles from Los Angeles, CA, 400 miles from San Diego, CA, 110 miles from Phoenix, AZ and 315 miles from El Paso, TX. Major highways I-19 and I-10 go through Tucson .
Tucson International Airport (TUS) is located 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. Eight major airlines have gates there.
Amtrak has a station in Tucson, where three times a week the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle trains make stops.
Tucson is the perfect place to explore without boundaries – what’s the first thing you’ll do when you visit?