One of the reasons we love Tucson is because there are quirky attractions here that you won’t find anywhere else. Whether it’s the best Mexican food in America or the world’s largest collection of military aircraft, here are our top 12 unique things to do in Tucson Az.
1. Munch through the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America
It’s no secret that Tucson offers up the best Mexican food in America. We’re not talking chain restaurants in mall parking lots, this is the real deal. Tuscon is part of the Sonoran Desert, which extends down to the state of Sonora Mexico to the south. The region has been sharing culinary treasures since long before there was a border wall. They’re so proud of this culinary achievement that there’s even a Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America route you can take, a tasty journey, and one of the unique things to do in Tucson Az.
2. Plane-spot at The Boneyard
The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson is the largest military aircraft repository in the world and the final resting place of more than 3,000 (yes, three thousand ) aircraft. Officially known in military-speak as the “309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center” (AMARG), you can catch glimpses of the aircraft liked up in neat rows as you drive around southeast Tucson, particularly on S. Kolb Road. But to really see them up close the best thing to do is take a guided bus tour on the grounds of this Tucson airplane graveyard. This is definitely one of the things to do in Tucson AZ that you cannot do. Anywhere. Else.
3. Reach for the stars at Kitt Peak National Observatory
If you’re looking for things to do in Tucson AZ, but want a different perspective, you can always look up at the stars. Located one hour southwest of downtown Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory hosts the widest range of research telescopes on the world. Three of the nearly two-dozen telescopes are set aside for public viewing events. After winding their way up the curvy road, stargazers take part in nighttime observing programs peering into the farthest reaches of the universe. If you’re not a night owl, there are also daytime activities.
4. Chow down on some Sonoran Hot Dogs
Okay, so maybe this is not one of the things to DO in Tucson AZ, but more one of the things to EAT. The Sonoran hot dog is so popular that it ranges from southern Arizona across the border to Mexico where they originated. But what is a Sonoran hot dog? In a nutshell, take a top-split bolillo roll then stuff it with a bacon-wrapped hot dog, pinto beans, chopped fresh tomatoes & onions (or pico de gallo), jalapenos, mustard AND mayonnaise. They are found all over town from humble street carts to the James-Beard-award-winning El Guero Canelo.
Here’s our rundown of Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson, based on eating way too many of these yummy treats. (Actually, there’s no such thing as too many!)
5. Soak up the Mid-Century Vibe
In some ways Tucson feels like the land that time forgot. I mean that in a good way. Where many cities have plowed over their history for new development, Tucson enjoys a wealth of surviving Mid-Century architecture and cool neon signs that make you feel like you’ve snuck onto the set of Mad Men. There’s even an annual Tucson Modernism Week that celebrates the city’s Mid-Century architecture and design.
One of the really fun things to do in Tucson Az is to drive around town to see the neon signs in their original locations. Make sure to cruise the Miracle Mile Historic District north of downtown, then check out the many preserved signs at the Ignite Sign Art Museum, one of several unusual museums in Tucson.
6. Tickle your tastebuds in America’s First UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
In 2015 UNESCO designated Tucson a Creative City of Gastronomy, joining such foodie destinations as Parma, Italy and Chengdu, China. This selection is based on Tucson’s status as one of the oldest settlements in North America. With 4,000 years of agricultural history, its blend of Indigenous ingredients and Old World traditions form a unique and contemporary Southwestern cuisine.
All this foodie heritage is supported by a wealth of farmers markets, community gardens and food festivals that promote eating local, providing endless good eats on your quest for things to do in Tucson AZ. For a visitor this means you’ll eat very well here; the plethora of locally owned restaurants offer plenty of unique dining experiences.
7. Hunt for Truly Nolen Cars on Tucson’s Corners
One of our favorite things to do in Tucson Az is go on a sort of classic car “scavenger hunt.” Tucson is the world’s largest open-air classic car museum due to the efforts of a man truly named Truly Nolen. In the 1950s Nolen started setting up the antique cars to advertise his exterminating company. The fleet has grown to 50 Truly Nolen cars parked around town. It’s difficult to miss them parked in strategic locations with TRULY NOLEN emblazoned on the side. During your visit you might run into a 1923 Dodge Roadster, a 1934 Hudson, or a 1939 Ford Deluxe like the one above. You can see more classic cars park outside their offices at 3636 E. Speedway Boulevard, Tucson, AZ 85716.
8. Pedal the Chuck Huckleberry Loop
How many cities offer more than 136 miles of interconnecting paths almost completely without street crossings? The Chuck Huckleberry Loop (known locally as simply “The Loop”) is a system of mostly paved paths that connects parks throughout the city. A system of over-and under-passes make it a terrific way to get around town. In January 2018 the County completed a connection on the north side of town that turned created an actual “loop”, with a complete circuit of 53.9 miles.
There’s a reason why so many professional cyclists train in Tucson during the winter. Although amateurs like us, along with joggers, walkers, wheelchairs, and parents pushing strollers use the Chuck Huckleberry Loop too. And since this is Tucson after all, you might even see a horse along the way, along with Farmer’s Markets and outdoor public art along the route. The Loop is one of the truly unique things to do in Tucson AZ.
9. Drive up to Mount Lemmon
Mount Lemmon is a unique Sky Island that rises 7,000 feet over Tucson, providing a cooling respite during the summer heat wave. There’s even a community called Summerhaven, along with ski activities in the winter, plus hiking, rock climbing and generally enjoying nature year-round. On a relatively balmy winter day it’s pretty cool to wake up to 65 degree weather in Tucson and see snow from a storm dusting the peak of Mount Lemmon.
What makes a drive up to Mount Lemmon one of the really unique things to do in Tucson Az is the climate changes you’ll experience. During the hour-long 28-mile drive along the Catalina Highway scenic byway to its peak, you’ll pass through four separate ecological zones. You start in the desert surrounded by saguaro cacti and end up in an area lush with conifer trees that feels like the Rockies. It’s the climate equivalent of driving from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada, and all in one hour! Think of all the fuel you saved. The views from the top at Windy Vista Point (shown above) are incredible . . . and perfect at sunset.
The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory atop Mount Lemmon provides SkyNights StarGazing programs using their Schulman 32-inch and Phillips 24-inch telescopes, two of the largest telescopes available for public viewing in the Southwest. If you’re not a night owl–or if perhaps driving down a steep, curvy mountain road in pitch black darkness isn’t your thing–there are also daytime programs.
10. Rock out at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show
For many people this tops the list of things to do in Tucson Az. According to the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society, the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show is “the largest, oldest and most prestigious gem and mineral show in the world.” We used to think that was just hyperbole, but we have been in town for the annual winter extravaganza and can attest that it truly is a one-of-kind event. Thousands of hobbyists and professionals descend on Tucson to shop, mingle and scratch their lapidary urges. If bling is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.
11. Reflect on space at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab
Tucked below the University of Arizona football stadium, the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab produces the largest and most advanced giant telescope mirrors in the world. A 90-minute tour reveals the leading edge technology producing the next generation of telescopes to explore deep outer space. Personally, I would think a location right underneath the stomping feet of thousands of fired-up football fans would upset such a delicate manufacturing process, but what do I know?
12. Catch a flick at Cactus Carpool Cinema
Tucson’s dry climate provides the perfect setting for a long lost art that the Covid shutdowns have revived: drive-in movies. The folks at Cactus Drive-In have capitalized on this by acquiring a site at 6201 S. Wilmot Road in southeast Tucson, hard by the runway for Davis Monthan Air Force Base and the Pima Air & Space Museum. So perhaps you’ll be watching Top Gun on the 40′ inflatable screen while an actual fighter plane goes roaring overhead. Or maybe it’ll be an old western while you sit nestled among the cacti and ocotillos. Overall it’s one of the truly unique things to do in Tucson Az.
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