The Best of Tucson - Saguaro National Park

Best Things to Do in Tucson

BY Fifty Grande Editors | August 31, 2020

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” Tucson? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Tucson?”

The desert gets a bad rap. It’s marked by pop culture images of endless sand, parched wanderers and the end of the literal and figurative road. In reality, it can be a place of unbridled beauty and cultural richness. And if you mix in a big-time university and an artsy undercurrent dedicated to keeping the city “weird” — you have Tucson. This once-small town is now a taco paradise, an adventurer’s delight and a street art canvas, flanked by staggering mountain vistas. A blend of Spanish, Mexican and Native American influences inspire Tucson’s creative spirit and everything from its iconic dishes to its architecture. You’ve stumbled into an oasis, so take full advantage.

Like all of our Fifty Grande Best of the U.S. Bucket Lists, this guide will take you through the very best, most unique and quintessential experiences offered here right now.

 

You’re here for tacos

You’d think a clue might be that it’s 60 miles from the Mexican border, and yet Tucson is the most absurdly underappreciated taco destination at the national level. The web is flooded with clickbait crap that will tell you the best tacos in the U.S. are from places like New York City, L.A. (well, L.A. does have superb tacos), Providence and East Bum, Ohio — basically any place except Tucson. And they would be right, except for the fact that they’re totally wrong. Mexican culture imbues the city. That manifests in the food. Once here you’ll need to be only barely observant to notice taco options everywhere — I mean, this local Tucson writer came up with a list of freaking 50 to try — as the city’s home to a seemingly endless string of taquerias. Try as many as you can while here. Here’s a 101 guide to get you started:

BOCA Taco
#1
BOCA Taco

BOCA Tacos y Tequila

BOCA Tacos Y Tequila, 553 North 4th Avenue, Tucson, AZ, USA

Classic tacos, innovative salsas and (it’s right there in the name) a selection of tequilas. 

Tacos Apson
#2
Tacos Apson

Tacos Apson

3501 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ, USA

An unpretentious taco stand that dishes out top-notch street tacos and Sonoran dogs. 

Aqui Con El Nene Tacos
#3
Aqui Con El Nene Tacos illustration by Sophia Derry

Aqui Con El Nene

4415 N Flowing Wells Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

A food truck serving street tacos and Sonoran dogs that’s stolen the hearts of Tucson foodies from across the city.

BK Tacos in Tucson
#4
BK Tacos in Tucson. Illustration by Sophia Derry for Fifty Grande.

BK Tacos

2680 N 1st Ave, Tucson, AZ, USA

A modern restaurant serving up carne asada fusions. 

Sonoran dog
#5
Sonoran dog

Also: Make sure to try a Sonoran dog

Tucson, AZ, USA

You’ll hear Tucson get props for its Sonoran hot dogs — a frank wrapped with bacon, fried and topped with condiments like beans and salsa. These regional treats are popular throughout the Southwest and served all over in Tucson, mostly at street carts, stands and trucks. When in Rome.

OMG, OMG, OMG! Anyone else a space nerd? Over here, people!

Night sky in the desert is a beautiful thing, speckled with stars as far as you can see. And behind the lenses of a high-powered telescope, that’s pretty far. 

Kitt Peak National Observatory
#6
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Shutterstock

Kitt Peak National Observatory

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, AZ, USA

Kitt Peak lies southwest of Tucson, on the land of Tohono O’odham Nation (a collective Native American government), and offers a full scope of daytime and nighttime astronomy programs. You can take a guided tour or spend some one-on-one time with a telescope, getting lost in the stars. They even offer an overnight experience where you and a guest can stargaze to your heart’s content.

Cool and offbeat museums

Tucson is a city of eclectic interests. Its array of museums feature both traditional exhibits and peculiarities.

Ignite Sign Art Museum
#7
Ignite Sign Art Museum

Ignite Sign Art Museum

331 S Olsen Ave, Tucson, AZ, USA

It began as a private neon sign collection but grew into an eccentric museum where graphic designers, history fans and others can discover Tucson through a half-century of its iconic signage.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
#8
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

This 98-acre property is an immersive wildlife experience, a true showcase of Sonoran Desert nature and culture, complete with a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, natural history museum and art gallery.

Pima Air & Space Museum
#9
Pima Air & Space Museum, Shutterstock

Pima Air & Space Museum

6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

The perfect spot for anyone who assembled airplane models as a kid and gets distracted by passing jets. Here, you can wander hangars full of the United States’ most iconic military and commercial aircraft — over 350 in total.

Peruse Fourth Avenue

Fourth Avenue is sandwiched between the University of Arizona campus and downtown, making it the city’s nucleus of shopping, eating and nightlife. 

Fourth Avenue
#10
Fourth Avenue

Fourth Avenue District

N 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ, USA

Crowds of all ages course the street day and night, so expect that mix. Be sure to stroll and take in the boutique shops, thrift stores, trendy restaurants and cafés before drinking the night away at some of the city’s favorite bars.

Stay at Tucson’s trendiest digs

Picture Don Draper cruising the Arizona desert in a silver Coupe De Ville. He pulls up at a hotel. This is what it looks like. 

Hotel McCoy
#11
Hotel McCoy

Hotel McCoy

720 W Silverlake Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

Hotel McCoy presents a unique blend of midcentury-modern style and local Tucson spirit. It’s got chic rooms, craft beer and wine, poolside games and serious good-time vibes. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some live music, an art show, book signing or their comedy night. Fun, arts-centric and environmentally friendly, Hotel McCoy is our type of place. “Tucson is this shiny gem of a city. Amazing art scene, incredible music scene,” Nicole Dahl, the hotel’s creative director and manager, told us this year, and the same could be said about the hotel.

Experience the wild west wilderness

Tucson is a far cry from the barren, surface-of-the-sun deserts you’ve seen in movies. It’s surrounded by gorgeous mountains and canyons. And if you’ve never seen a desert sunset — add it to your bucket list. When we at “Fifty Grande” talk about our mission of inspiring people to go see the best of the U.S., this is what we mean.  

The Best of Tucson - Saguaro National Park
#12
Saguaro National Park, Shutterstock

Saguaro National Park

3693 S Old Spanish Trail Tucson , AZ

You’ve seen pronged saguaro cacti standing watch over the desert landscapes in movies, cartoons and inspirational posters. Here, you can see them in person. The park’s hiking trails are chock full of the Southwest’s gorgeous flora and fauna, stretching out against a backdrop stamped with the Tucson Mountains and Rincon Mountains.

Sabino Canyon
#13
Sabino Canyon, Shutterstock

Sabino Canyon

5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

This essential Tucson hike offers jaw-dropping views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, as well as saguaro-dotted hillsides and seasonal swimming holes.

Colossal Cave
#14
Colossal Cave, Shutterstock

Colossal Cave

16721 East Old Spanish Trail, Vail, AZ, USA

The aspiring spelunkers among us can explore the depths on safe, guided tours, examining millennia of geologic formations and, potentially, bats.

Plot out a mural walk

Tucson’s street artists go big far more often than they go home, which is why the city’s walls feature some truly awe-inspiring murals. Many pay homage to Tucson’s Mexican and Spanish cultural roots, and every piece tells a story. 

Cowboy on a Bicycle mural, Tucson
#15
Cowboy on a Bicycle mural, Tucson

Cowboy on Bicycle Mural

534 North Stone Avenue, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Start at this gigantic project by prolific muralist Joe Pagac, and you can find your way to a ton more. Many downtown Tucson murals are in close proximity, so you can catch a bunch of them on a carefully plotted biking or walking tour. 

Visit the city’s quintessential music venues

If you’ve got “see a live show” on your Tucson to-do list, these should be your first stops.

Rialto
#16
Rialto

Rialto Theatre/191 Toole

318 E Congress St, Tucson, AZ, USA

This is Tucson’s most storied entertainment venue, one that’s reinvented itself multiple times since its construction in the 1910s. Primarily a movie theater throughout the century, The Rialto shifted its focus to music in the ’90s. Since then, its stage has seen Maroon 5, The White Stripes, Modest Mouse, and The Roots, among others. And if you want a more eclectic, intimate setting, check out 191 Toole, Rialto’s other venue.

Hotel Congress
#17
Hotel Congress, Shutterstock

Hotel Congress

311 Congress St, Tucson, AZ, USA

The name says “hotel,” but this is a whole lot more than a place to crash. Hotel Congress also houses a nationally renowned music venue and four different bars, including the Tap Room, an Old West watering hole founded in 1919 (and a favorite hangout spot for ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons). With 300+ shows per year, it’s Tucson’s most prolific and high-profile venue. Publications like “Esquire,” “Playboy” and “SPIN” have all sung Hotel Congress’ praises, so you know it’s got good style and better music.

Guzzle craft beer

Here, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, is an oasis, a refuge for weary travelers — and no, it’s not a mirage. It’s a fountainhead of incredible beer. Tucson has taken full advantage of the USA’s craft beer renaissance. Day drinkers, hopheads and beverage connoisseurs can all find something to love. Local favorites include Barrio, Borderlands and Thunder Canyon, but there are plenty more to explore. 

Pueblo Vida Brewing Company
#18
Pueblo Vida Brewing Company

Pueblo Vida Brewing Company

115 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Inside a repurposed 1918 building in downtown Tucson, Pueblo Vida owns their Southwestern influence and concocts plenty of refreshing IPAs along with a weekly, limited-edition “beer infusion.” 

Explore movies, then and now

Tucson has a long history in the film industry, and that tradition continues today through Old West shows and contemporary art films. 

Old Town
#19
Old Town, Shutterstock

Old Tucson

201 Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ, USA

Films fans need to check out Old Tucson, a movie studio with a long history of gunfights, standoffs and horseback riding heroes. It’s been the backdrop for Western classics like “Tombstone,” “The Quick and the Dead,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “The Three Amigos” and hundreds of other films. If you want to watch live shows, take a film history tour, grab some BBQ or just feel like Clint Eastwood strutting into a saloon, this is the place. 

Loft Cinema, Tucson
#20
Loft Cinema, Tucson

The Loft Cinema

3233 E Speedway Blvd, Tucson, AZ, USA

If a steady diet of high-budget blockbusters has you clamoring for something different, The Loft Cinema is the perfect place to catch a flick. It’s southern Arizona’s premier venue for indie, art and international films and one of the United States’ most beloved art house cinemas. Not only do they promote some of the film world’s most unique and underrepresented voices, but they often host filmmaker Q&As, festivals, short-film contests and more.