Gone are the days when Tucson was at one point a sleepy little desert town. But today, real estate prices continue to climb as more and more 2nd homeowners flock to the area for a mild winter escape. Luckily, there are still tons of freebies lurking at you might want to know.
A desert by any other name is just as beautiful. Especially when it’s the Sonoran Desert in winter. When you’re itching for a quick getaway but don’t want to leave balmy sunshine-filled winter days behind, aim for Tucson.
Not only is Tucson a quick, exciting, warm-weather destination, but it’s also perfect for anyone pinching pennies.
There’s so much free stuff to do during the day that you can visit there on the cheap. Or use the money you save to splurge on Tucson’s eclectic dining and nightlife scene.
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Located in southern Arizona, Tucson’s fantastic weather, national parks, and forests and desert provide the perfect environment for tons of outdoor recreational activities.
It’s a city of half a million people, one million in the region, also has its share of history and culture.
With a history that goes back much further than many of its southwestern neighbors, Tucson boasts turn-of-the-century architecture, historic neighborhoods, and museums.
The Mission San Xavier del Bac, a still-functioning 18th-century mission considered one of the most beautiful in the U.S. Mexican and Native American influences are pervasive, and the city has a distinctly Western flavor.
There’s also a college-town atmosphere, thanks to the University of Arizona, which has its own share of museums and a science center.
Whether golfing at a world-class golf resort, horseback riding, hiking in the wilderness, discovering desert flora and fauna at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, or exploring pre-Columbian and other art at the Tucson Art Museum, you’ll have a mind-boggling array of things to do.
Free Things to do in Tucson
Tucson Museum of Art
Every First Thursday of the month, the Tucson Museum of Art opens its’ doors free to all. This is a pretty great deal as admission is usually 12 bucks. This 74,000 square foot museum is pretty impressive for such a small city.
The main focus here is on modern and contemporary art with special sections dedicated to Western and Native American, Latin, and Asian art.
You will find lots of gorgeous Southwestern-style pieces, which definitely gives this museum (and others in the Southwest in general) an interesting twist.
The layout is pretty unique with a ramp-style walk that will take you through the 3 different levels. Overall, a visit to the museum is a great way to kill a few hours indoors in the air on a hot summer afternoon!
The museum is located downtown and free parking is usually available unless it happens to be a really busy night.
The on-site Cafe A’La Carte is pretty good and was recently ranked as one of the best museum restaurants in the country. The food is pretty decent and the outdoor patio gorgeous and shady, although the coffee is just mediocre.
Santa Cruz River Park
Winding along the dry Santa Cruz River, this park is a fun place to forget the woes of the day.
The park features a very popular disc golf course as well as the Garden of Gethsemane, a peaceful little corner created as a repository for the works of sculptor Felix Lucero.
On Thursdays the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market sets up here, offering the best local fruits, vegetables and herbs. Be sure to stroll along El Paseo de Los Arboles (“The Pathway of the Trees”) a special memorial walk with beautiful tiled walls. The park is currently being renovated to add more bike trails.
Center for Creative Photography
Although quite limited in hours, this free art gallery is worth a look if you happen to be anywhere near the downtown/U of A area as it is just minutes away.
If you are an aspiring photographer, it’s definitely a must-see while in town. The collection includes over 90,000 photos by over 2000 photographers.
The center was founded in 1975 by renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Full archives of dozens of the most famous photographers can be found here.
University Of Arizona
The University of Arizona campus is an excellent place for a scenic stroll, with groves of mature olive trees and shaded pathways surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens full of palm trees and cacti.
Start at the UA visitor center, where you can learn more about the campus and pick up a map. Highlights include the arts complex with its nationally known photo repository featuring the work of Ansel Adams, the Arizona State Museum, Centennial Hall, and the Flandreau Planetarium.
Don’t miss the Old Main building, the university’s first building and a great example of territorial-era architecture. The university’s student union offers several dining options.
Southern Arizona Transportation Museum
While the Tucson of today doesn’t seem like a bustling railroad hub, it would be hard to overstate the impact the big iron horses had on the once-sleepy hamlet. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880 led to Tucson’s growth in size and significance.
That history is part of what makes a visit to the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum worthwhile. But the other part is simply that trains are fun. The museum is chock-full of railroad artifacts, photographs and information.
Outside, the steam locomotive from the movie “Oklahoma!” is parked. Wild West buffs will want to check out the life-size sculptures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. They mark the spot where the two men gunned down Frank Stilwell after the murder of Morgan Earp.
Sentinel Peak Park
Sentinel Peak, also known as “A” Mountain, is local landmark, as well as a city park. It is is often referred to as Tucson’s birthplace, because it is the former site of an ancestral Pima Village.
Although this is a non-traditional park, it’s certainly worth the hike up simply for the dazzling views of the Tucson valley.
Plus, the park recently received several upgrades, including two shaded plazas, new park entry signs, handicapped-accessible parking spaces, and a new paved path.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
One of Tucson’s most stunning attractions, the beautiful Mission San Xavier del Bac, is completely free to visit. It is the oldest standing European structure in Arizona and was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
The inside is very extravagant with ornate decor, gorgeous murals, and unique statues and carvings from the 17th century.
It really is an amazing place to check out, particularly if you are interested in old architecture or churches in general.
Tucson Mountain Park
Within its boundaries, this 20,000-acre park has miles of hiking trails and numerous incredible desert vistas. Other outdoor activities within the park include horseback riding, picnic areas, camping, and archery/rifle/pistol ranges.
The park is conveniently located on the road to some of Tucson’s most popular attractions, including the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios.
The park offers plenty of pull-out points for motorists looking for the perfect spot to capture that postcard-perfect desert sunset.
Brandi Fenton Splash Pad
Brandi Fenton Splash Pad is the perfect place for kids to cool off in the summer. It’s open annually from the third Saturday in April until Halloween.
Little ones under 12 and their accompanying guardians can play among spray arches, water geysers, and more aquatic features.
The pad is located at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park. This also offers covered basketball courts, dog parks, exercise stations, and playgrounds.
DeGrazia Gallery in The sun
Ted DeGrazia is a Tucson legend. His home and the surrounding buildings, originally built in open country in the foothills of the Catalinas, are now surrounded by the city.
The gallery, his former home, his workshop, and the roofless chapel were all built by hand from native materials. The “gallery” now serves as a museum to the famed artist.
1. How big is Tucson?
Tuscon is the 33rd largest city in the United States and the 52nd largest metropolitan area. Has an estimated population of 545,975.
2. Is it always sunny in Tucson?
Tucson is primarily a dry climate, thanks to our location in the middle of the desert. Our monsoon rainy season stretches from mid-July through mid-September, producing epic thunderstorms and microbursts.
3. What’s the best way to get around in Tucson?
Tucson has many options for getting around, from taxis, and rental cars to public buses and the Sun Link Streetcar.
4. Where can you exchange currency in Tucson?
International travelers can obtain US currency prior to arrival in Tucson. Although ATMs from major US banks with locations in the area may also be an option depending on your home banking arrangement.
While many find the desert landscapes boring and barren, others find it enchanting and peaceful. If you fall into the latter, then you will definitely appreciate the uniqueness of the trails found throughout the region.
Much of the beauty found at pricey national & state parks can be enjoyed via community parks and trails for free.
Did we miss any of your favorite events or activities? Let us know in the comments section!