10 Things to See and Do in Tucson

Tucson, Arizona is a city of over 500,000 and is the second-highest populated city in Arizona behind Phoenix. It has been nicknamed Optic valley because of its roughly 150 companies involved in the design and manufacturing of optics and optoelectronics systems. The Spanish name Tucson comes from the O’odham word Cuk Son meaning “at the base of the black hill” for the volcanic mountain in the vicinity. It has more to offer than just the desert and surrounding mountain range however, with its fascinating history. You can visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson Studios or Kitt Peak National Observatory to name a few featured here. It will feel like you’ve entered another planet in this surreal setting.

10. El Tiradito

The El Tiradito wishing shrine is located in the Old Barrio area of Tucson and consists of the remains of a brick building and offers a large metal rack. On the stand and along the building, large candles depicting Roman Catholic Saints are left burning. Small slips of paper containing prayers and messages of thanks are pressed into the cracks in the walls or left elsewhere in the shrine.

The name El Tiradito translates to “the little throwaway or castaway” and for the last 140 years, has served as a place for prayers and wishes for Tucson believers and thousands of others. The irony behind the symbolism of the shrine is that it pays homage to a married man, Juan Oliveras, who had a torrid affair with his mother-in-law in the 1870s. His father-in-law killed him with an ax and he was then buried where he was killed. The ‘Curse of The Wishing Shrine’ dictates that if people go there with an open and forgiving heart, they will pass the test and possibly have their wishes come true. However, for others it could be the start of history repeating itself. An intriguing place to visit with a very rich history.

Photo by: this lucid moment
Photo by: this lucid moment

9. Pusch Ridge

Located in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Pusch Ridge is the most prominent feature. It was named after George Pusch who in 1874, established a large cattle ranch known as the Steam Pump Ranch at the base of the ridge in what is now known as Oro Valley. The ridge primarily consists of three peaks – Pusch Peak which rises to 5,361 feet, Bighorn Mountain at a height of 5,633 and Table Mountain at an elevation of 6,265 feet. There is also a less significant peak located between Pusch Peak and Bighorn Mountain called the Cleaver which rises to a height of 4,910 feet.

Pusch Ridge serves as one of the last places where you will see Desert Bighorn Sheep in Arizona. The area features impressive ridges, deep canyons and lots of biodiversity caused by the dramatic changes in elevation and the view of the Oro Valley and the city of Tucson is breathtaking. There are trails from Tucson that lead to heavenly natural phenomenon not to be missed. Just be sure to check on restrictions due to the Bighorn Sheep breeding seasons.

Pusch Ridge

8. Rialto Theater

The Rialto Theater, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, is a performance theater and concert venue located in downtown Tucson. When it opened in 1922, it was one of the first movie theaters, primarily playing silent movies and hosting Vaudeville shows. By the 1930s, the Rialto was showing talking pictures along with their Vaudeville shows and plays. During the recession in 1963, the Rialto was closed as a motion-picture house and then served as storage for a furniture store until 1971. After re-opening in 1971, it became a Spanish movie-house until 1973 when it became an adult film movie-house for five years. It then changed back to a Spanish-language movie-house until 1984 when an explosion caused it to be condemned. In 1995 it was re-opened as a very successful concert venue and has been ever since.

The Rialto is host to music concerts of all genres as well as dance, performance theater and occasional film screenings. To give you some perspective on the quality of performances held there, some of the 2014 performers include, Jonny Lang, Leon Russell, BB King, the 2nd Annual Rialto Gala, Stirling, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Los Lonely Boys and YES to name a few.

Photo by: Ross Griff
Photo by: Ross Griff

7. Fox Tucson Theater

Fox Tucson Theater hosts live concerts, theater and more and is reputed to be the “Crowned Jewel” of downtown Tucson. Originally called “The Tower”, the theater was opened on April 11, 1930 and closed June 18, 1974 becoming a rather rundown home to over 40 homeless people. After sitting empty for 25 years, the theater, then almost beyond restoration, was sold to the non-profit organization, Fox Tucson Theater Foundation for $250,000 in 1999. Following a six-year, $14 million restoration, it reopened December 31, 2005 and has become the hub of cultural entertainment for Tucson.

The building has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places because of its “Southwestern Art Deco” decor and world-class acoustics. The theater seats 1,164…just the right size to attract national and international talent and still offering an intimate show. You can check out the big screen 35 mm classic movies shown there or enjoy a live concert with some great names in music like Don Williams, Zap Mama & Antibalas and comedienne Paula Poundstone who is known for her one of a kind shows where she improvises and interacts with the audience. This is a must-see destination in Tucson so don’t miss out.

Photo by: Randy Heinitz
Photo by: Randy Heinitz

6. Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium

Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, formerly known as Tucson Electric Park (TEP) is a baseball stadium with a seating capacity of 11,500 and located in the city of Tuscon. Teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago White Sox have used the park for Cactus League games each March and it was a temporary home to the Tucson Padres (formerly the Portland Beavers) until 2013 when they moved to El Paso, Texas. It’s also a venue for many spectacular concerts and music festivals and is home to the Pima Community College Aztec football team.

The entire complex consists of 12 practice fields and three practice in-fields making it a very popular place for little league and soccer games. The stadium is well-known as the place where Randy Johnson hit a bird with a pitch during spring training for the Diamondbacks. Parking at the stadium is easy and free of charge and the stadium is easy to navigate. Some of the concerts you might get to see include Monster Jam, Audra McDonald, Alton Brown and more. There are music festivals, farmers’ markets, the Pima County Fair and book fairs hosted there as well. It’s worth adding this as a stop when visiting Tucson.

Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com
Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

5. Sentinel Peak

Sentinel Peak also known as “A” Mountain, is a ridge prominent in the Tucson Mountains. The peak is 2,901 feet (884 m) and is west of the Santa Cruz River. Because the underground ridge once pushed groundwater to the surface creating a floodplain, agricultural fields were able to be developed from about 4,000 years ago to the 1930s. The peak was used by sentinels to keep watch over the newly built Presidio of Tucson in 1775 for raiding Apache warriors.

The mountain is known as “A” mountain for the large, painted, man-made basalt rock formation in the shape of the letter “A”, created by students of the University of Arizona. There are many interesting species of cacti in the area and the peak is comprised of lava rock. The view of the city from peak is amazing and not to be missed. You can drive up to the top of the peak on a narrow winding road and park at the top where a rocky 360º foot trail awaits for an amazing view of the scenery all around you. There are also overlooks that feature information boards about Tucson and the Peak’s history. It’s a wonderful place to stop and take in nature’s raw beauty.

Tuscon Az

4. Cathedral of Saint Augustine

Located in Tucson is the Cathedral of Saint Augustine which is the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson. The cathedral has a rich history in the Catholic Church and has been dramatically transformed over the years to become what it is like now. The incredible stone facade and large 12th or 13th century crucifix hanging in the vestibule are two of the beautiful features of the church.

When you approach the front doors of the cathedral, you will be greeted by an elaborate cast stone facade of desert plants and the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI, who was pope at the time of its construction. You will be awestruck by the beauty of the Pamplona Crucifix which was carved in Spain about 600 years ago and installed in the church behind the altar in 1981. It stands 7 ft (5.2 m) tall and weighs 2,000 lbs (910 kg). All of the stained-glass windows have been refreshed and feature the apostles and first four bishops of Tucson. Trompe l’oeil style paintings and ornamental art create a warm and beautiful setting when you enter the church. It is a pleasure to the eyes and the soul and definitely worth the visit.

meunierd / Shutterstock.com
meunierd / Shutterstock.com

3. Kitt Peak National Observatory

Located at an elevation of 2,096 m (6,880 ft) on Kitt Peak, the Kitt Peak National Observatory is a United States astronomical observatory. It’s the largest and most diverse collection of astronomical instruments in the world with 24 optical and two radio telescopes. Kitt Peak is most famous for being the first telescope to search for near-Earth asteroids and calculating the possibility of impact with the planet Earth. Recently, the Southeastern Association for Research and Astronomy (SARA) Telescope, part of the collection at Kitt Peak, was featured in the documentary Seeing Stars in Indiana.

The public can take part in any of three tours daily guided by staff who speak about the history of the observatory while touring a major research telescope. A Nightly Observing Program lets visitors watch the sunset and observe the cosmos using binoculars and telescopes. For amateur astronomers, there is the Advanced Observing Program (AOP), a one-on-one full-night tour which allows guests to use any of the visitor’s center’s telescopes. You will never look at the skies the same way after seeing it through the telescopes located at the observatory where the sky seems to be within your reach.

Kitt Peak Observatory

2. Old Tucson Studios

Old Tucson Studios is a movie studio and theme park located just west of Tucson. It was built in 1939 for the movie Arizona and has since been used in several more Western movies. It was opened to the public in 1960 and features live stunt shows and shootouts. On April 25, 1995 a fire set by an arsonist destroyed many of the buildings, costumes and memorabilia at a cost of over $10 million. After being closed for 20 months for reconstruction, the Old Tucson Studios re-opened on January 2, 1997.

If you’d like to experience the old west as seen in over 300 movies and TV shows, then Old Tucson is the place to visit. The rich film history adds to the charm of this fun and authentic feeling Western experience. You can check out the living history presentations with original costumes worn by stars in shows like Little House on the Prairie and Gunsmoke, historic tours that will help you explore the streets that many movie stars have traveled in over 70 years of film and television history and special events.

meunierd / Shutterstock.com
meunierd / Shutterstock.com

1. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Opened in 1952, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a 98 acre (40 hectare) zoo and art gallery. There are 2 miles (3.2 km) of walking trails crossing 21 acres (8.5 hectares) of desert. The zoo focuses on the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert and is home to over 230 animal species and 1,200 varieties of plant life. The museum is open all year round and is a non-profit organization.

Some of the museum exhibits include Earth Sciences which focuses on geology and how the earth is actually constantly changing and reshaping itself, Mountain Woodland which serves as a refuge for plants and animals that would otherwise not survive in the desert, Desert Grasslands which is home to prairie dogs and a replica of a mammoth kill site, Warden Aquarium which lets you get up close and personal with creatures of the Gulf of California tide pool like sea stars, crabs and turbo snails, Cactus Garden which features a regional collection of dozens of species of cacti and succulents and Earth from Space: A Satellite’s View of Earth which shows videos of a satellite view of wildfires, extreme weather and more – which all makes for a fascinating desert experience.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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