Unique Things to do in Tucson, Arizona

by Paul Joseph  |  Published March 30, 2017

A desert city it may be, but there’s nothing sparse about Tucson’s cultural and entertainment landscape. The main hub of activity is centered around Fourth Avenue near the city’s University campus, where vintage shops, nightclubs and restaurants create a buzzing atmosphere day and night. Meanwhile restored mansions and adobe row houses dating back to Tucson’s 19th century genesis help give the city a striking visual appearance.

Sunset on the Mica View Trail in Saguaro National Park east of Tucson, Arizona (Photo: Greg McCown via Flickr)

Tucson is also a city that has been blessed by nature, surrounded by numerous mountain ranges, the vast sands of the Sonoran Desert and flanked either side by the Saguaro National Park, named after the towering saguaro cactus plant that is perhaps the most familiar emblem of the American Southwest.

Moreover, when it comes to unusual things to see and do, Tucson is similarly well endowed. Below, we’ve picked out 12 of the most unique activities and attractions that visitors to this fascinating city may wish to add to their itinerary.

1. Valley of the Moon

One of the most unusual landmarks in Tucson owes its existence to the benevolence of one man. In the 1920s, an artist named George Legler set about creating a world of fantasy with the goal of imparting a message of kindness and peace to all visitors. He purchased a plot of land in the desert and, with the help of a couple of friends, began transforming it into a magical landscape of meandering paths, stone towers and walls, and secret grottoes. Over the ensuing years, he expanded the site while offering tours with the aid of friends and local children. After Legler became ill in the 1960s, the tours were stopped and the site fell into disrepair. Fortunately, a group of high school students befriended Legler and, soon after, they took over maintenance of the site. Today their organisation still runs Valley of the Moon, which continues to attract visitors throughout the year.
ADDRESS 2544 E Allen Rd, Tucson CONTACT OPENING HOURS First Saturday of every month, plus for special events throughout the year

Valley of the Moon

A curious, figurative tree at the Valley of the Moon (Photo: Gene Spesard via Flickr)

2. The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures

This quirky, beguiling museum is the permanent home of over 400 miniature houses and roomboxes displayed across three intriguing galleries: the Enchanted Realm, The History Gallery and Exploring the World. The founder of the museum, Patricia Arnell, became an avid miniature collector when she and her husband Walter moved to Tucson in the late 1970s. They envisioned a way to share her immense collection in a creative, educational and interactive environment. In 2009, after two years of planning, exhibit design and construction, Patricia and Walter Arnell’s vision came to fruition and the museum quickly became one of the city’s most unusual and beloved attractions, which it remains to this day.
ADDRESS 4455 E Camp Lowell Dr, Tucson CONTACT OPENING HOURS Tues–Sat 9am–4pm; Sun 12pm–4pm PRICING Adults $9; Youth (age 4-17) $6; Children 3 & under go free

The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures

A domestic scene at the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures (Photo: cactusbillaz via Flickr)

3. Tucson Rodeo Parade

Even in our modern, technology-obsessed world, there is still plenty of affection for the rich heritage of rodeo, a sport that arose out of the working practices of cattle herding, and that is so deeply woven into the fabric of rural American culture. With its origins dating back to 1924, the Tucson Rodeo Parade is one of the region’s most long-standing rodeo events and draws large crowds each year. Said to be the largest non-motorised parade in the country, it passes through large swathes of the city, with designated seating areas dotted along the route. Ticketing can be purchased at Ticket Booths near the Grandstands or in advance at The Rodeo Parade Office. For those who wish to take a more prominent role in proceedings, the Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee offers a variety of vehicles for rent, including flatbed wagons, carriages and buggies.

Tucson Rodeo Parade

A flag-wielding parade on horse-back at the Tucson Rodeo Parade (Photo: Pima County, Arizona via Flickr)

4. Fox Tucson Theatre

This is more than just a theatre – it is a veritable crown jewel of Tucson’s cultural scene. First opened in 1930 as a dual vaudeville/movie house, the venue boasts an intimate connection with the history of performing arts in Tucson and has been at the heart of the city’s cultural resurgence of recent years. It has gone through various revamps over the years, but today retains its distinctive “Southwestern Art Deco” décor that is almost as captivating as the performances staged here, which attracts both national and international talent. If you’re a film buff, be sure to catch one of the theatre’s regular screenings of classic films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
ADDRESS 17 W Congress St, Tucson CONTACT

Fox Tucson Theatre

The stunning interior of Fox Tucson Theatre (Photo: Julius Schlosburg)

5. Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival

Arizona has long since been a thriving melting pot of ethnic cultures, and each year downtown Tucson hosts an event that celebrates the living traditional arts of Southern Arizona’s and Northern Mexico’s diverse ethnic and folk communities. Each October, this three-day event features hundreds of artisans, home cooks, dancers, musicians and special exhibits that celebrate and honour beauty in all its forms. Free to enter, the family-friendly festival welcomes over 200 performers and artists, plus 60 ethnic clubs sharing their traditional foods, music, dances, stories and heritage.
ADDRESS Venues across downtown Tucson DATES 13 – 15 October 2017 OPENING HOURS Fri-Sat 11.00am-10.00pm; Sun 11am-6pm

Tucson Meet Yourself

A chef wielding delicious-looking food at a previous edition of Tucson Meet Yourself (Photo: Steven Meckler and Southwest Folklife Alliance)

6. Hotel Congress

Everyone loves staying in a hotel with an intriguing history, and there are few with a more colourful back-story than Hotel Congress. Opened in 1919 during the Depression era, it quickly become known as one of Arizona’s swankiest hotels and was soon a favourite of the great and the good – and the not so good. Swindlers, gangsters and other characters of ill repute became regular patrons, one of whom was a notorious figure called John Dillinger who fell from grace after trying to escape from the hotel during a fire, leaving his possessions for the police to find, who swiftly identified and arrested him. Today the hotel has been restored to its original regal splendour, ensuring that a stay here is truly like stepping back into a murky but fascinating past.
ADDRESS: 311 East Congress Street, Tucson CONTACT

Hotel Congress

The eye-catching lobby of the Hotel Congress (Photo: Pete Zarria via Flickr)

7. Tucson Festival of Books

Arizona’s largest literary event, this annual festival is a bibliophile’s dream. Held on the University of Arizona campus, the event spans dozens of themes, including poetry, politics, fiction, fantasy, music, military, spirituality and outdoor adventures. The 2017 festival programme includes a diverse range of talks, with best-sellers, emerging authors and researchers speaking about topics such as the experience of women writers, Navajo rug weaving, folklore associated with dragons, race relations in America, old and new epidemics, and political legacies. There’ll also be a literary circus, a poetry venue, exhibitor booths and two food courts, plus various activities for children and teenagers.
ADDRESS University of Arizona Campus DATES 10–11 March 2017 CONTACT

Tucson Festival of Books

Crowds gathered outdoors at the Tucson Festival of Books (Photo: James S. Wood Photography)

8. Franklin Auto Museum

The rich history of the Franklin Automobile Company is celebrated at this superb museum which houses a huge array of cars, along with various artefacts and materials relating to the company’s operations across the early 20th century. The museum was founded by prominent American lawyer and public official Thomas H. Hubbard, whose entire Franklin automobile collection is housed here. It’s a great day out for classic car enthusiasts who can come to admire and learn about the prolific output and inner workings of one of America’s pre-war manufacturing giants.
ADDRESS 1405 East Kleindale Road, Tucson OPENING HOURS Mid Oct-29 May. Wed-Sat 10am-4pm PRICING Adults $10; Under 12s go freee

Rosa Khutor Ski Resort

One of the numerous classic cars on display at the Franklin Auto Museum (Photo: Photo Club of Quail Creek Follow via Flickr)

9. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base

Airplane aficionados will find themselves in paradise at this Air Force Base in Tucson. Described as “the world’s largest military aircraft cemetery”, the 2,600-acre site is filled with retired aircraft, including almost every type of plane flown by the United States Armed Forces since World War II. Immediately after that conflict, B-29 and C-74 airplanes were parked here in order to salvage parts and the aerospace junkyard has been growing ever since. Furthermore, due to its unique landscape, the site is regularly used by Hollywood to stage post-apocalyptic and action movies. General public access is not permitted, though tours are offered by the Pima Air and Space Museum.

10. Tucson Gem and Mineral Show

For two weeks each year, Tucson becomes a playground for the world of international gem and mineral trading, collecting, and bargain hunting when it plays host to the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Show. Comprising more than 40 different shows at dozens of locations around town, from exhibit halls to hotels and sprawling camps of roadside exhibit tents, the event draws thousands of treasure-hunters from around the globe who come to gawp at and admire the array of charms and trinkets on display. Free seminars and a Junior Education Area with hands-on activities also feature.

Sochi Art Museum

Crystal skulls at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (Photo: Lars Hammar via Flickr)

11. Heart of Tucson Art

This popular event is part of the Fall Open Studio Tours in Southern Arizona programme, which invites visitors to participate in self-guided tours of artists’ studios and creative workspaces across the region with the goal of strengthening the burgeoning cultural community. The Tucson edition takes place on 8 – 9 April and opens the doors to various studios across the city, giving artists a platform for showcasing and selling their work, while offering visitors a mesmerising insight into Arizona’s cultural landscape as well as the chance to engage directly with regional artists and learn more about the creative process that lies behind their work.

12. Diamondback Bridge

Tucson is a city with a laudable commitment to public art, having spent millions on various projects around the city over the past couple of decades. Perhaps the most eye-catching of these creative endeavours is the Diamondback Bridge which was constructed in the impressively accurate image of a giant rattlesnake. Built in 2002, the bridge was designed by a local artist who wanted to incorporate the local wildlife into his city project. Covered by a metal mesh which forms the snake’s body, cars passing beneath are given a dramatic view of the snake’s belly, while pedestrians exiting the tunnel receive a rasping “goodbye” rattle from hidden speakers.