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Top Tucson Attractions

The first time you visit Tucson, or any new destination, the question asked isn’t usually what attractions should be scene but what attraction to see first, what to expect, how to get there, and how much time is needed. We’ve provided tips, advice, and other information about the top tourist attractions in Tucson to help with your itinerary planning.

The Barrio Viejo The Barrio Viejo
Sonora Desert Museum Sonora Desert Museum
Mission San Xavier del Bac Mission San Xavier del Bac
University of Arizona Museums University of Arizona Museums
Mount Lemmon Mount Lemmon

The Barrio Viejo

 Address 100 S. Church Ave.
 Hours 9-5 M-F
 Phone (520) 624-1817

One neighborhood in downtown Tucson, the Barrio Viejo (or Barrio Historico), is so unique and beautiful that it has become an attraction unto itself. Situated just south of the Convention Center and government buildings, these quiet residential grounds make an ideal morning or late afternoon walking tour. Incorporating one of Tucson’s inimitable sunrises or sunsets can only make the tour more memorable. Walking south on Meyer or Convent Street, you’ll take in the many eccentric adobe houses, with bright murals on their walls and xeriscaped desert gardens in their yards. Pay special attention to the details of these homes as many feature artistic touches in wrought iron or tile. Walk east to Stone Avenue to visit the grand St. Augustine Cathedral in classic Spanish Mission style and the historic Stone Avenue Synagogue, newly restored and open for visits. As you walk back north, your camera almost out of film, visit the altar to El Tiradito (the Castaway) on Main Street, the only Catholic shrine to a person who was not a saint. After the walk, cap your tour with a drink and a meal in the patios of El Minuto Café or the Cushing Street Bar and Grill. The cooing of doves from the palms and mesquite trees will still be clear in the air. It’s these unchanged charms of the Barrio Viejo that are the true essence of Tucson.


Sonora Desert Museum

 Address 2021 North Kinney Road
 Admission $9 Adults May - Oct, $12 Adults Nov - Apr
 Hours 8:30 AM - 5:00 PM
 Phone (520) 883-1380

Reached by a narrow road that winds out of the city toward Saguaro National Park, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has long been the favorite destination for visitors interested in the desert world of the southwest. All the notable plant and animal life of the Sonora Desert are present in this well-maintained zoo and botanical garden. (“Museum” is rather a misnomer.) Here are all the cacti, shrub-life, and trees with information about their distinct adaptations to a waterless land. More exciting is the chance to see a javelinas (a variant of a wild pig), mountain lions, gila monsters, and rattlesnakes. In spring the wildflowers bloom gorgeously and in one walk-in apiary the air will buzz from the flight of dozens of hummingbirds.

There is more to find in the desert beyond the confines of this zoo, if you’ve got the time and energy. Drive and park in a dirt lot directly across the street from the museum entrance. Walk down the dry wash, keeping eyes open for birds and reptiles, and after about a quarter-mile you will find a ledge covered with ancient petroglyphs. Finally, if you want an even less supervised desert experience, drive on to the National Park (here it is free) and chose any of the dozens of hiking trails. And though it should be the rule with everything you do in Tucson, it is absolutely essential that you bring water and keep well-hydrated throughout your time in the desert. You can’t over-prepare for the heat that you’ll find.


Mission San Xavier del Bac

 Address 1950 W. San Xavier Rd.
 Phone (520) 294-2624

The historical differences between the British-colonized east coast of the United States and the Spanish-owned southwest are even wider than their geographical distances. No landmark epitomizes the Spanish Empire’s bygone presence in this land like the Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the greatest extant examples of Spanish Missionary architecture in the country. Formerly a self-sustaining community of Franciscan friars and indigenous Pima Indians, the Mission is located in the current-day Tohono O’odham Reservation, about ten miles southwest of Tucson by Rte. 19. The reservation is in an extremely barren rugged landscape; the rivers long ago dried up and the ground is covered by grisly cholla cactus. By contrast, the gold and whitewashed stucco steeples of San Xavier del Bac stand out conspicuously. Inside, the walls of the nave are covered by splendid frescoes representing the Native American heritage. There are serene porticoes around the inner courtyard and a few nearby hills that offer distant overlooks. A lot of work has been done restoring the Mission in the past years and the results of this effort are impressive; it appears quite timeless. Mass is still conducted and is open to visitors; however, if you go strictly as a tourist, be sure to be respectful in this place of worship. There are nice local crafts sold around the parking area of the Mission, which provide a good way of giving back to this host community.


Museums at the University of Arizona

 Admission Free, Suggested $3 donation
 Phone 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Tucson is too young of a modern city to have museums that can rival those in art meccas like New York or Chicago – but because of the large resources of the University of Arizona, there are a number of cultural landmarks of originality and distinction. A visit to this sprawling campus is worthwhile.

Two museums, the Arizona State Museum and Arizona Historical Society, are dedicated to the history of the southwest, both its geological evolution and its inhabitation by humans. The Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium offers exhibits, shows, and night viewings through its telescope. Because of the cloudless, unpolluted skies, Tucson (and its environs) is the best astronomical site in the country, and these viewings are a special treat.

The Center for Creative Photography is one of UA’s rarest gems. The revolving exhibits showcase the world’s most famous photographers, many of the pictures coming straight from the University’s unparalleled photography library. But the most coveted and difficult tickets to get are for the football and basketball games of the Arizona Wildcats. If you should visit during either of these seasons, the spectacle that surroundings each game is fairly remarkable; city-wide street parties follow each big victory.


Mount Lemmon


One of the amazing aspects of Tucson is the extreme shift in climate and ecology that you can experience by driving from the city to the top of Mount Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains. As you drive up the slow serpentine road you’ll leave the hills of Saguaro Cactus, cross through intermediary zones of Live Oaks and Pinyon Pines, and finally emerge at nine thousand feet in a forest of Ponderosa Pines, Aspens, and even some Douglas Firs. In the winter the mountain is snowbound and there are some minor slopes for skiing. In the summer, Mount Lemmon is a gorgeous – if crowded – haven from the heat of the valley. Depending on your ambitions, your activities can range from a rugged full-day hike to scenic strolls and picnicking to simple enjoyment of the rock formations and spectacular cliffside views of the city. Fires ravaged this mountain in 2003, but there are still plenty of trails and overlooks open for use. There is also a small chalet-town called Summerhaven near the summit that has some overpriced restaurants and lodges. The pie at Mt. Lemmon Café is quite locally renowned. If you’ve got the time and don’t mind a little initial traffic, a day in Mount Lemmon is a wonderful way to round off your time in Tucson.


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