With 350 sunny days a year, Tucson is a wonderful place to see the great outdoors, especially at Saguaro National Park. And thanks to its eclectic mix of American, Mexican, and Native American culture, it’s also an excellent blend of Southwestern influences.
From the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, this article will guide you through some of the best indoor experiences and attractions that Tucson has to offer.
In no particular order, you’d do well to add one or all of the below to your bucket list:
1. See the world’s largest collection of grounded aircraft.
Aircraft boneyards and parked airplanes are a big deal in Tucson. This is because the dry, clear, and mostly smog-free climate is an ideal place to minimize corrosion while storing them. What’s more, Tucson’s alkaline soil is so firm that airplanes can be towed and parked on it without the need of a tarmac.
Which is why the U.S. Air Force keeps an astonishing 4,400 reusable aircraft parked here. Although the government boneyards are closed to the public, you can get an impressive and up-close taste of them at the Pima Air & Space Museum, home to more than 350 specialty airplanes sitting on 80 acres of both indoor and outdoor display.
2. Learn how life survives in the desert.
As indicated by the extreme temperatures and lack of perceivable life, it takes one tough cookie to survive the Sonora and greater Arizona deserts. That fight for survival is on full display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is a 98-acre outdoor zoo, indoor aquarium, botanical garden, art gallery, and natural history museum not far from the west entrance of Saguaro National Park.
With two miles of designated trails, shade cover, and ice cream on site, it’s an enlightening way to soak in both state and Tucson history. It’s also a great way to see local wildlife, whether at one of two aviaries on display or at one of the coyotes, bears, mountain lions, or reptile exhibits.
3. Get campy at the award-winning Gaslight Theatre.
For more than 40 years, the Gaslight Theatre has been spoofing pop culture, movies, and performing arts in a wonderful saloon-type setting. Known for its music (especially its talented pianist), laugh-out-loud acting, audience participation, and free popcom, its an unexpected but pleasant surprise.
To get a taste of the variety on display, the theatre is currently parodying both Star Trek and James Bond, as well as cover concerts celebrating the music of Dolly Parton, Barbara Streisand, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
4. Go back in time at the museum of miniatures.
Even better than the famous Miniature Rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago, the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is a magical experience through time and place, as told by more than 300 miniature houses and decor in over 10,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Looking at miniature houses dating back to 1742 might not seem like much, but most visitors stay up to two hours and leave unexpectedly delighted. “Jaw dropping,” wrote one recent visitor. “I was a little skeptical at first but will definitely go back,” wrote another.
5. See great southwestern art in a beautiful desert setting.
Named a “National Register of Historic Places,” the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum rates just as well among visitors as it does art historians. Designed and built by acclaimed Arizona artist and architect Ted DeGrazia, the 10-acre site features world-famous painting, a mission, adobe gallery, and cactus courtyard just to name a few.
Built in 1951, the setting and artwork on display is as surreal as it is inspiring.
6. Take the scenic car route.
If you want to see the great outdoors while still beating the heat, consider scenic drives by car through either Saguaro National Park (both east and west sections), Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, or the stunning Gates Pass via the Tucson Mountains.
For even more good looks, you’d do well to visit the Franklin Auto Museum. For over 40 years, the classic car collection has displayed more than 20 antique Franklin automobiles in the center of Tucson. It’s only open from October to May, however, so plan accordingly.
7. Eat your heart out.
Not fully Mexican and not quite Tex-Mex, Tucson has its own Southwestern flavor. You can try that first hand at Boca Tacos. Or at the oldest Mexican restaurant in the country at El Charros. But if you really want to go big, you could attempt the full 23 miles of the best Mexican food in America, as rated by UNESCO.
BONUS: For an excellent and recently restored Spanish colonial church, visit Mission San Xavier del Bac.
This article was independently commissioned for sponsorship by Visit Tucson. All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.