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Unique Things to do in Tucson
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Unique Things to do in Tucson

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Getaway Staff

Once upon a time, the vibrantly bustling City of Tucson was once a quaint and sleepy desert town. These days, if you reside in the city, you can sometimes forget that there’s a vast desert surrounding you. Whereas many might think the desert is dull, those who appreciate the wild landscape that makes up such a large part of America will find so much to love and things to do in gorgeous Tucson, Arizona.

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01 Visit the Mission of San Xavier del Bac

The mission of San Xavier del Bac is one of more than 20 Spanish Catholic missions across the deserts of Arizona. Located a mere 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, the church sits on the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation. It's also one of the most recognizable architectural structures in the area. The church, which is still fully functional and active, was opened in 1797, which makes it the oldest European structure in the state, though the O'odham provided the labor.

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02 Hike Sabino Canyon

If you need a day in the sunshine and desert landscapes, take a cue from the locals and head for Sabino Canyon. This picturesque canyon is a haven for a variety of wildlife and desert foliage, including the famed saguaro cactus. Photograph the sunrise illuminating the spines of cholla cacti, then head for the trails to search for jackrabbits or a red cardinal. A hike to the Seven Falls waterfall is eight miles round trip, or you can take an informative tram tour.

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03 Drink Cocktails in a Former Funeral Home

There are dozens of great cocktail bars around Tucson, but one of the most unique also has one of the craziest stories. The Owls Club was originally started by a group of rich railroad bachelors but has since been revived as a cocktail bar for all types of Tucson residents. Ironically, the club has also been revived in the chapel of a former funeral home. The fancy cocktail bar provides quite a lively atmosphere, particularly in comparison with its former usage.

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04 Tour the Tucson Botanical Garden

Beautiful and educational, the lush greenery at the Tucson Botanical Garden provides a peaceful respite amid the activity of the city. Take your family out for an afternoon touring specialty gardens like the Cactus and Succulent Garden, the Butterfly Greenhouse, and Nuestro Jardín, which honors traditional Mexican-American gardening. Have a glimpse of the famed corpse flower, then stop at Café Botanica. The restaurant serves traditional dishes using locally-sourced ingredients and herbs from the Herb Garden.

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05 Go on a Yummy Taco Tour

Outside of Latin America, you haven't tasted a taco in the US until you've done so in Tucson. You might not know it, but Tucson has the best selection of legitimate Sonaroan Mexican fare. Thanks to its proximity to the Mexican border, you'll find no shortage of fluffy corn shells, spicy salsas, or grilled meats. There are so many spots to get tacos in Tucson that you might find it better to take a taco tour. Grab some friends and go taco shop-hopping. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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06 Explore the Hills and Trails of Saguaro National Park

The majestic plains of Saguaro National Park are unlike anything you've ever seen. With the park itself in southern Arizona, it has two sections; both of which border Tucson. This desert park is 92,000 acres and is named after the large cacti that dominate its landscape. If you hike through the park, there's more to discover than first meets the eye. One trail, for example, leads to ancient petroglyphs of the Hohokam people. In the eastern part of the park, on the other hand, there's a road that will show you the best of what Saguaro's scenery has to offer.

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07 Visit the Pima Air & Space Museum

The Pima Air & Space Museum houses one of the world's largest aircraft collections, with over 80 acres of exhibits. Take a narrated tram tour for some backstory, reserving a spot on the AMARG tour for exclusive access to the "Boneyard." View thousands of artifacts and touch hundreds of air vehicles in six indoor hangars, three of which feature WWII aircraft. Museum highlights include the capsule from the Apollo 13 movie at the Aerospace Gallery and the SR-71, the fastest airplane in the world.

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08 Dine in a Submarine

Although El Berraco isn't technically a submarine, the building itself is shaped like one. Its menu is jam-packed with traditional Latin seafood. Foodie tourists to Tucson really shouldn't miss out on this unique dining experience. El Berraco took interviews with 12 Latin chefs to pick the perfect person to make the restaurant everything that Benjamin Galaz, its owner, wanted it to be. Try one of the three ceviches and regret nothing.

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09 Hike Mount Lemmon

The highest point in the Catalina Mountains, Mount Lemmon, is a part of the sky islands that arise from the Sonoran Desert. Hot sands give way to grasslands, then lush alpine woods where you might even see snow. Take a drive up Catalina Highway, stopping at vista points for some spectacular views. The elevation results in a temperature drop of about 30 degrees, so get started early and take a jacket. Don't forget to stop at Hoodoo Vista to check out the unique rock formations.

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10 See the Stars at Kitt Peak National Observatory

The Kitt Peak Observatory is on the peak of the same name in the Quinlan Mountains. The desert provides some of the most awe-inspiring views into the cosmos available, with the telescopes available making it even more incredible. Get together with your family for a guided tour, then see which constellations you can spot in the seemingly neverending skies above you. Just be sure you do the night tours.

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11 Go Spelunking at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

You might not have even thought that spelunking was a thing you could do, but in Tucson, it is. Colossal Cave Mountain Park has several different tours of the caves. The tours take roughly an hour and share the folklore and legends of your surroundings as you walk. If you're looking for something slightly different for your Arizona vacation, this might be just the thing you never knew you needed to do. You also don't need to be a professional to explore the caves. Anyone can do it, and the fact not everybody will should make it a driving force in your opting to.

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12 Strike a Fortune While Gold Panning

The gold rush led people to Arizona from far and wide, and Tucson was one of the best sources of it in the West. There are many gold mines around that you can choose from. If you're feeling adventurous and lucky, you might even want to try out a few. Gold panning allows you to learn about the geology of the area, get a tan, and possibly walk away with some pure gold, to boot. What's even better is that you can rent metal detectors from tons of places around the city, so anyone can go along for the ride.

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13 The University of Arizona Museum of Art

The University of Arizona Museum of Art has an astonishingly impressive collection spanning seven centuries, from the Renaissance era to the present. In addition to rotating exhibits, the permanent collection includes paintings by Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock and the surviving 26 panels of the Altarpiece of Ciudad Rodrigo, a 15th-century masterpiece.

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14 Mosey on Down to Tombstone

A mere hour's drive by car and you'll be able to visit the one and only Tombstone. Remaining largely unchanged from its glory days of the Wild West Tombstone provides tons of options for the curious visitor. As well as the Tombstone Courthouse, there are replica gallows, live reenactments of the O.K. Corral, and many ghosts are also said to haunt the streets. With such a rich history, it would be more surprising if you didn't see one.

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15 Attend a rodeo at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds

Experience the adventure of a lifetime at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, one of the top rodeo events on the continent. Over 200 organizations participate in the enchanting 2.5-mile parade preceding all the commotion, including horse-drawn carriages, riders in Western attire, folk dancers, and live music — making it the longest non-motorized parade route on earth. Afterward, get in on the action as cowboys perform in adrenaline-pumping events ranging from roping calves to performing stunts while riding 2,000-pound bulls.

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16 Visit Biosphere 2 for a unique research and education facility

Biosphere 2 isn't just one-of-a-kind; it's the largest controlled environment dedicated to climate change in the world. Inside, you'll discover five synthetic ecosystems recreated in minute detail, including desert, savanna, ocean, mangrove, and tropical rainforest. State-of-the-art research is actively taking place at all times, so you can learn more about sustainability, conservation, and the impact of everyday actions on the environment. View eye-catching flora and fauna as you explore these meso-environments and understand what master researchers are doing to protect the planet.

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17 Take a hot air balloon ride over Tucson's Sonoran Desert

Soar over the Sonoran skies in a hot air balloon, and capture breathtaking views of the desert below. If you're a thrill seeker craving an adrenaline rush, book an afternoon trip and see the city in a way no one else can. Romantic excursion? Celebrate with a champagne toast as you drift over the mountains at sunset. Regardless of vacation type, it's easy to check this mind-blowing experience off your bucket list.

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18 Explore the exhibits at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Embrace an innovative combination of a zoo, art gallery, aquarium, botanical garden, and natural history museum in one. Get close to desert animals galore at the zoo, then head to the gardens where 56,000 individual plants await. At the art gallery, view masterpieces or learn how to create your own through engaging courses in painting and drawing. The Natural History Museum features an artificial cave with dim passages, tunnels, and chambers, and it's home to one of the world's best mineral collections.

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19 Experience Tucson's rich arts scene at the Tucson Museum of Art

The Tucson Museum of Art takes over a city block's worth of engaging exhibitions, immersive tours, studio classes, and so much more. Delight the senses with pieces from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Indigenous cultures, plus contemporary, modern, and decorative art. Relive history at La Casa Cordova, the city's oldest adobe home with a historical exhibit exploring its past, or take pottery classes at Romero House, which contains pieces of the original Presidio wall.

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20 Go on a tasting tour of Tucson's craft breweries and distilleries

Come thirsty because Tucson's thriving craft beer scene is bustling year-round. Go on a tasting tour and get behind-the-scenes access to premier breweries and distilleries. At each one, you'll not only learn how the spirits are made but get to sample a flight, tour the premises, and discover what makes each beer unique.

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21 Take a guided bike tour of Tucson's historic neighborhoods

Step (or ride) back in time with an engaging tour through Tucson's oldest and most iconic neighborhoods. The city was first established in the El Presidio Historic District, which still features the remains of an 18th-century Spanish fort complete with artifacts and reenactments. In Armory Park, you'll notice immersive art and music exhibits, followed by vibrant adobe homes and shrines scattered throughout Barrio Viejo. If you're an active traveler, these lively tours take you beyond the tourist trail.

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22 Enjoy a sunset horseback ride through the desert with a local guide.

Horseback riding is an Arizona tradition and an excellent way to experience extraordinary desert views. Sign up for a sunset excursion to catch the breathtaking sky against a backdrop of pristine mountains and cacti. With hundreds of trails available, there's one for everyone, from first-time riders to experienced athletes who want to soar toward the summit. From grassland to woodland and conifer forests, these scenic trails give you unparalleled access to nature with a stunning array of plants and wildlife en route.

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