When it comes to unusual things to see and do, Tucson is lucky to possess both cultural and natural riches. 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.
A desert city it may be, but there’s nothing sparse about Tucson’s culture and entertainment landscape. The main hub of activity is centred around Fourth Avenue near the city’s university campus, where vintage shops, nightclubs and restaurants create a buzzing atmosphere, day and night. Tucson also hosts a number of excellent festivals, so it’s worth checking out what’s on when you’re planning to be in the area. Meanwhile restored mansions and adobe row houses, dating back to Tucson’s 19th century genesis, help give the city a striking visual appearance.
Tucson is also blessed by nature, surrounded by various mountain ranges, the vast stretches of Sonoran Desert sands, and flanked either side by the Saguaro National Park, named after the towering saguaro cactus plant that is one of the most familiar emblems of the American Wild West. Here are some of the most unique things to do in Tucson.
Find magic through kindness at 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.
2544 E Allen Rd; www.tucsonvalleyofthemoon.com
Opens the first Saturday and third Sunday of every month
See the world condensed at 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.
4455 E Camp Lowell Dr; www.theminitimemachine.org
Tue–Sat 9am–4pm; Sun 10am–4pm ; Adults $10.50; Youths (ages 4-17) $7; Children 3 & under go free
Get to know the area on a local tour via Getyourguide
Explore the wild countryside between Tucson and Phoenix on an ATV, accessing remote canyons and valleys, and head out onto the open water in a kayak. Or stay urban and roam through the city centre using a family-friendly smartphone-guided scavenger hunt that connects you to the history and culture of the city. There are many options out there to interact with Tucson’s nature or to get a better understanding of the city, and booking a tour is sometimes the best way to go in order to save researching time. For a look at some of the tours available in Tucson, check out Getyourguide.com here.
Explore the desert in Saguaro National Park
Split in two by the city, Saguaro National Park, and Saguaro National Park East, are barren arid, rocky places that are packed with wildlife like bobcats, coatis and collared peccaries (which looks like a small type of pig but is a different species). The national park has designated trails and campsites, where it’s worth proceeding with caution as hikers occasionally may also come across desert tortoises and rattlesnakes. Beyond the fauna, the park is perhaps best known for its huge saguaro cacti, the largest type in the USA, that litter the landscape for miles on end. The national park makes for an easy day trip from the city, but is also great for a longer camping trip too, especially if you want to see the colours change during sunrise and sunset. Be sure to take plenty of water with you.
Saddle up for Tucson Rodeo Parade
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 so deeply woven into the fabric of rural American culture. Dating back to 1925, the Tucson Rodeo Parade is one of the region’s longest-standing rodeo events, drawing large crowds in February 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. Tickets can be purchased at booths near the grandstands or in advance at the parade office. If you will miss the parade but are likely to be in Tucson between January and early April, there’s a chance to learn more about the parade at the parade museum. See the website for further details.
Watch a show at Fox Tucson Theatre
This is more than just a theatre, it is a veritable crown jewel of Tucson’s cultural scene. First opened in the 1930s 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 national and international artists from comedy and music in particular. 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.
17 W Congress St; www.foxtucson.com
Connect with cultures at Tucson Meet Yourself festival
Arizona has long since been a thriving melting pot of ethnic cultures, and each year in October, downtown Tucson hosts an event that celebrates the living traditional and culinary arts of Southern Arizona’s and Northern Mexico’s diverse ethnic and folk communities. Taking place over only three days, this 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.
Venues across downtown Tucson
Celebrate the written word at Tucson Festival of Books
Arizona’s largest literary event, this annual festival, taking place in March, 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. Often, the 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.
University of Arizona Campus; www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org
Discover classic vehicles at 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.
1405 East Kleindale Road; http://franklinmuseum.org
Mid Oct-late May; Wed-Sat 10am-4pm
See thousands of decommissioned aircraft at a boneyard
Airplane aficionados will find themselves in paradise at the Davis-Monathan 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 specialised tours are offered by the Pima Air and Space Museum.
Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 E Valencia Road; https://pimaair.org
Encounter Tucson’s historic side on a bike tour
Over a century ago, Tucson was a town at the frontier of the West and with Mexico. As such, there was a certain lawlessness that pervaded the region. Prior to that, most settlers were of Spanish origin. Learn about this past on a guided bike tour that provides all the essentials and weaves through the historic regions of the city, over the Rattlesnake Bridge – built in 2002 and designed by a local artist who wanted to incorporate the local wildlife into his city project – then along Barrio Kroger Lane and beside the Santa Cruz River over the course of two hours. You can learn more about one of the best bike tours in Tucson by following this link to Viator.com.
See beauty crystallised at Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
For two weeks in February 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 admire the array of charms and trinkets on display. Free seminars and a Junior Education Area with hands-on activities also feature.