Tucson has been a worthy destination since Spanish conquistadors roamed the region, looking for gold and other riches. Today, this diverse city holds a different kind of treasure for modern-day explorers, as they search for things to do, the Old Pueblo’s lesser-known locales for a glimpse of the city’s history, science, art, and one-of-a-kind culture.
Tohono Chul Park
Spread across 49 acres, Tohono Chul Park finds inspiration in its Sonoran Desert surroundings. Visitors stroll through multiple botanical gardens where hummingbirds and butterflies flit and flutter near the paths. The art gallery features colorful exhibitions influenced by Spanish, Native American, Mexican, and American cowboy stories and tradition. Take a break to indulge in a chicken, blue corn, and green chile waffle and a prickly pear margarita, on the Garden Bistro’s expansive patio.
Mount Lemmon SkyCenter
Watch the moon hiding in the desert sky at this observatory atop Mount Lemmon. The SkyCenter is located 27 miles from Tucson on Catalina Highway at an altitude of more than 9,157 feet, the highest point in the Catalina mountain range. The observatory’s after-dark program brings the heavens up close and personal through Arizona's largest public-viewing telescopes—a 32-inch Schulman and 24-inch Phillips. Visitors can observe the cosmos' brightest stars and constellations, the moon and planets, and atmospheric phenomena, as well as galaxies and nebulae. Reservations are required, and be sure to dress warmly—even in the summer months.
Pima Air & Space Museum
The Pima Air & Space Museum is home to more than 300 aircraft, which are displayed alongside other exhibits throughout the museum, including Women in Flight, Sea Planes and Amphibians, WWII, Vietnam War, and a space gallery. You can also reserve a spot to tour the “Boneyard,” or as it’s officially known, the Air Force 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, where nearly 4,000 U.S. military aircraft headed for scrap, storage, or potential rebirth, are parked on 2,600 acres of desert landscape.
DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun
In the early 1960s, artist Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia became known for his colorful, iconic images of children, the Southwest, and Mexico, including his painting Los Niños, which was chosen as a UNICEF greeting card in 1960. Today, DeGrazia’s beloved gallery sits in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the gallery holds more than 15,000 DeGrazia works, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, etchings, and sketches, which are on rotating display. During the winter months, visiting artists' exhibitions are also featured in DeGrazia's original Little Gallery, located on the grounds.
Center for Creative Photography
In 1975, Ansel Adams, along with the University of Arizona leadership, established the Center for Creative Photography. It holds Adams’ archives as well as collections of some of the most recognizable names in 20th-century photography, including Wynn Bullock, Aaron Siskind, Edward Weston, and Frederick Sommer. Located on the dynamic University of Arizona campus, the center holds on-going exhibitions that are free and open to the public.
The UA Mineral Museum
Housed in the basement of the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, this exhibition highlights stunningly beautiful examples of nature’s gems and minerals. More than 2,000 specimens are on display, including precious metals, unusual quartz pieces, meteorites, and turquoise. The current exhibit—a Modern Gem and Jewelry Collection—features dazzling diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, along with information about the history of gem cutting. While you’re there, check out the other exhibits within the science museum and planetarium.
This charming restaurant in South Tucson has been serving up traditional Sonoran-style Mexican cuisine for more than 50 years. Bill Clinton dined there during his presidency, and you can eat what he ordered in 1995: a whopping dish now called the President's Plate that features a bean tostada, birria taco, chile relleno, chicken enchilada, and beef tamale.
Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.
Check out Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.’s downtown tasting room, and order up one of several Northeast-style IPAs or a seasonal brew such as the prickly pear pale ale. Each week, local farmers, cheese makers, and coffee roasters rotate for CSA Mondays, or pop in on Tuesdays for special cask infusions such as black currant, pumpkin spice, or blueberry white tea.
While you’re downtown, make a stop at the Hotel Congress, where Public Enemy #1—John Dillinger and his gang—stayed just before they were captured in 1934. The hotel itself still displays 1920s Jazz Age splendor with a long wooden bar, copper penny floor, and art deco chandeliers. Order a Dillinger sidecar with whiskey, Cointreau, lemon, and agave syrup in any of the hotel’s four bars.
Stroll through Barrio Viejo, one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods, for a look at historic 19th-century adobe buildings. Colorfully painted doors and gates of homes along the streets beckon photographers to create stunning images. The shrine known as El Tiradito (the wishing well) is a popular local spot for candle and prayer offerings. Some of the crumbling brick wall’s nooks and crannies hold the notes of brokenhearted lovers.