Tucson, Arizona is a big little city.
Although it’s spread out with over 1 million people, it still has that feel of a small town with a laid-back atmosphere.
Tucson is a college town, being the home to The University of Arizona, and a snowbird destination in the winter months due to its legendary year-round sunshine.
But it’s stunning natural landscapes, foodie scene, and arts and culture attracts travelers from all walks of life, even families like us!
Tucson AZ is famous for its dramatic beauty, and the Sonoran Desert introduced us to our first ever experience with the giant saguaro cactus, a symbol of the American Southwest.
Yet it’s not just desert landscapes, there are mountain ranges in all directions offering spectacular hiking, scenic drives, and even snow skiing.
We enjoyed our week long stay.
Below are our tips on what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and all the fun things to do in Tucson with kids, or even without kids!
Things to Do in Tucson Arizona
Saguaro National Park (East and West)
Saguaro National Park is amazing but unusual as it is divided into two parks – East and West – which are separated by the city of Tucson.
Both sides of these Tucson parks offer something special and are worth visiting.
If you had to choose one, Saguaro National Park West would probably offer a little more in terms of interesting hikes and stunning landscapes.
Of course, the Saguaro National Park is home to the saguaro cactus, which I just can’t get enough of seeing, and getting up close and learning about these plants is one of the best things to do in Arizona with kids – I only wish I could hug one!
Be warned cactus can hurt, as Kalyra discovered when she was attached by a jumping cholla.
Read more about that and our visit to these National Parks here.
Hike Sabino Canyon
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Santa Catalina Mountains is a delightful place to spend a few hours or even a few days.
I can understand why this is a playground for the locals, and hiking here is one of the most popular things to do in Tucson AZ.
Filled with hiking trails, saguaro forests, riparian creeks, waterfalls and swimming holes, there is plenty to do in Sabino Canyon.
We spent the afternoon hiking one of the Sabino Canyon trails through quite diverse environments and enjoying a picnic under the shade of a few trees. The girls loved the creek crossings here.
You can read more about our time and things to do in Sabino Canyon here.
Catalina State Park Hiking
Catalina State Park is a gorgeous place to enjoy one of the top Tucson activities, hiking! And we also recommend staying and camping.
We LOVED the campsite here but unfortunately it was full and we could only get one night.
I loved the natural beauty of this state park. It felt very magical with its bubbling creeks running through the valley and saguaro cactus standing sentinel on the hills.
The trails can be easily accessed from the camp site with a couple you can also bike on.
We cycled along the trail from our campsite, then hiked the Canyon Loop Trail which started by quite a large river crossing. There were a couple more creek crossings along the way.
Explore Downtown Tucson
Go mural hunting
We weren’t overly excited by Downtown Tucson.
We didn’t explore it in-depth though so can’t offer too much of an opinion, I think younger college students will love it for that fun, funky vibe that it has.
We weren’t really in the mood for urban exploration when we visited as well.
Though we did enjoy the murals that we kept running into while downtown, so keep an eye out for them and cameras at the ready!
So go mural hunting all over town and see the historical (and colorful) adobe homes near Five Points.
We also had quite a delicious lunch at HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery.
Bars & Nightlife
Looking for things to do in Tucson at night?
If you’re up for some nightlife, one of the fun things to do in Tucson Arizona is head to 4th Avenue and you’ll find plenty of bars.
Best bars are Che’s Lounge on 4th Avenue and Saint Charles Tavern downtown.
Epic Tucson Views at “A” Mountain, or Sentinel Peak
“A” Mountain as the locals call it due to the giant A on the side of the mountain, or in proper form, Sentinel Peak offers a fantastic view of the city of Tucson and surrounding mountains.
The large A on its side was painted by the University of Arizona football team to celebrate a victory.
We came up late afternoon close to sunset. Although we didn’t stay for sunset as the girls were tired after a long day of saguaro cactus hiking.
I can imagine how special those 360 degree views with the colors of the setting sun will be.
Be sure to climb to the very top of A-Mountain as it has the most open and striking views. Jump on the rock and do your best Instagram poses.
Explore Tucson Mountains
We stayed in the Tucson Mountains at Gilbert Ray Campground and loved the gorgeous cactus scenery and serene atmosphere.
There are plenty of hiking and biking trails here. It’s also right best door to Saguaro National Park West and the Arizona Sonora Desert museum and where you’ll find the stunning Gates Pass Road.
The park has approximately 62 miles of non-motorized shared-use trials, which are open to hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers,
Sunset at Gates Pass
Gates Pass is a mountain pass at an elevation of 3,172ft located on the crest of the Tucson Mountains.
Gates Pass Road is lined with scenic overlooks, and is well known as one of the best sunset spots in Tucson. We missed it as we had our check out dates wrong and were forced to leave the day we were going there to watch!
We were so disappointed as the views from up here driving through of the day time was just exquisite.
This is now on our Tucson things to do list for our return visit!
Sunset and Tequila Toasts at the J.W. Marriott Tucson Star Pass Resort & Spa
A few people recommended we go to the J.W. Marriott Star Pass Resort & Spa to experience sunset.
We visited on an afternoon where the clouds decided to block the natural splendor of the sun. The views out over the valley were pretty nonetheless.
The highlight was experiencing the nightly 5pm tequila toast, which accompanies a tequila toast given nightly at sunset
Free tequila shots were handed out – and on each night are different flavors.
A tequila aficionado comes out to share the Legend of Arriba Abajo, the charming story of Pancho Villa asking for his love’s hand in marriage. Only able to win her father’s approval by out-drinking him in tequila, Villa comes up with the “world’s most difficult tequila toast”: Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro.
Then following the fashion of the fable we raised our glasses and toasted in the same way.
The cantaloupe and lime tequila was very smooth and did not give me any of the face pulling and dry reaching that the old lip sick suck did back in my twenties having tequila shots with my friends.
Sunset at The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain
We also received the tip from a fellow traveler that the sunset at The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain is child friendly and also worth checking out. We didn’t get there unfortunately.
We didn’t get to visit Mt Lemmon. We left it too late to go after our Sabino Canyon hiking adventures.
It came highly recommended as one of the best things to do in Tucson Arizona. Mt Lemmon is north of Tucson and here you can go hiking, bicycling, horse riding, scenic driving, skiing, camping, fishing and much more!
Explore the University of Arizona
We spent an hour wandering around the campus of The University of Arizona. It’s a nice campus, and living in a college area in Raleigh, NC, we always like to experience other college towns.
We also walked up and down E. University Blvd which has several bars and cafes right off campus.
If you don’t like walking, you can also jump on the free streetcar to take a ride around the area.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
We opted out of visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, despite it being recommended by numerous people within our community.
It’s meant to be an incredible museum and one of the top Tucson attractions, but you can’t do everything when you travel so you want to be sure you know exactly what you want to experience when you visit Tucson AZ, especially considering your budget.
What would we gain from visiting the museum that we wouldn’t from visiting the actual desert it sits right in the middle of?
We spent 9 months in the desert of Australia, and the past week in the Chihuahua Desert in Texas and were now exploring the Sonoran Desert.
How could the museum teach my girls more than their real experiences walking amongst the saguaro cactus and the red dusty plains.
The desert taught them by just being in it. And that’s enough. Some times we can force “learning” too much on our kids and not enough being and absorbing.
Your child, or you, may not have as much experience with the desert so a visit to this museum maybe good for you.
Within the Saguaro National Parks are plenty of plaques teaching you more about the desert as well.
Drive out to Kitt Peak National Observatory
We had several readers highly recommend Kitt Peak National Observatory. They suggested that it’s beautiful and full of mystery, and interesting even in the daytime.
There’s also a solar telescope as well as the night ones.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures
We didn’t end up going here, but the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures was recommended as one of the fun things to do in Tucson with kids.
There’s a permanent collection of 400 miniature houses and room boxes as well as other collectibles. It does sound fascinating!
Tucson Gem Show
If you’re in town during the Tucson Gem Show (February), it is the largest, oldest, and most prestigious gem show in the world.
It was suggested that you visit some of the tents along the west side of the Interstate for trinkets and to see the rocks/geodes.
Go Lawless in Tombstone
The Wildest Town in the West is sure to entertain you and take you back in time to a land of lawlessness.
I loved our visit to Tombstone, wandering the streets of the preserved 1880’s town, watching the reenactment of the O.K. Corral gun fight and getting an insight into the craziness of this silver mining town.
It’s one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona. You can read our post on things to do in Tombstone here.
We didn’t visit here either, but we had several of our blog readers and social media followers recommend Biosphere 2.
Its mission is to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe.
Pima Air & Space Museum
If you’re interested in aviation and space, a few readers suggested that the Pima Air & Space Museum is fantastic so you might want to look into it.
Bonus Travel Video of Tucson
Places to Eat in Tucson
Eat, eat, eat…this city is well known as a foodie town and one of the main reasons people visit Tucson!
If you like Mexican food and tamales, we ate at Tucson Tamales which is very popular with the locals and there are several locations around the city. It’s very casual and family friendly!
Below are several recommendations of other Tucson restaurants from travelers in our community:
- Daisy Mae’s Steakhouse – it doesn’t look like much from outside but the steaks, chicken, ribs etc are amazing.
- Five Points Market
- Sonoran dogs at El Guero Camelot
- Burgers and salads at Truland Burgers and Greens
- Elliot’s on Congress downtown
- Great Ethiopian at Cafe Desta
- Any of the Fox Restaurants
- Find a food truck and eat Sonoran hot dogs. Welcome to Tucson!
Tips for Visiting Tucson
- Tucson is a sprawling city which means it takes longer than you realize to go from one point of interest to another. Careful planning is needed to ensure you are exploring one region at a time to avoid long driving times.
- As mentioned, Tucson is a snowbird destination so if you’re looking for RV campsites during winter months, they can be hard to come by so plan ahead.
- And campgrounds on the weekends can be especially hard to find with locals and tourists seeking them out.
- Tucson residents – check out the Tucson Cultural Pass from the library for two admissions at participating arts and cultural institutions.
- Discount sites like Groupon and Living Social can have deals.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Tucson Hotels & Apartments
For Tucson hotels or Tucsan resorts, check out the options through our partner, Booking.com.
We find they have the widest range of properties. You get free cancellation on most rooms, a best price guarantee, and they have verified reviews from guests who have actually stayed at the property!
If you fancy a home and living like a local, or have a large family or traveling with a group of friends, consider Airbnb. They can be a better option than booking several hotel rooms.
Gilbert Ray Campground
We loved Gilbert Ray Campground in the middle of the Tucson Mountain wilderness.
Our campsite was big and the campground serene and beautiful – and a bargain at only $20 per night.
Although it does not have showers, and there is a limited water supply.
So if you’re looking for camping near Saguaro National Park, you are only a five minute drive to the West entrance gate!
Catalina State Park
Unfortunately we only stayed one night at Catalina State Park as they were booked out.
We highly recommend this campground, but book in advance as it’s popular. The scenery and SUNSETS are stunning at the base of the Catalina Mountains.
There are a few trails straight from the campsite that are easy for walking or biking. The sites are clean, level and spacious and the bathrooms clean with warm showers and it’s only $35 a night.
They also have free wifi and the cell service (Verizon) is fast.
More Arizona Travel Tips
- Planning a trip to the Grand Canyon with kids (or without kids)
- Things to do in Sedona
- 8 things to do in Saguaro National Park
- Guide to Sabino Canyon