16 Things Tucson is Known and Famous For

The second-biggest city in the State of Arizona, Tucson deserves a mention as one of the all-time most fascinating destinations on American soil.

Tucson is known for the breathtaking Sonoran Desert, amazing Southwestern cuisine, and for having some of the cleanest air of any major city worldwide. Tucson is also famous for its many diverse hobbyist communities, from photography and astronomy clubs to vintage car collectors and rodeo enthusiasts.

There are too many things to list that come together to make Tucson such an unforgettable place to be. To give you a little taste of what you can expect though, here are 16 things that Tucson is particularly known for.

1. A Symbol of the Old West

Western City Old West Tucson
Editorial credit: FilipTravelWorld / Shutterstock.com

The State of Arizona spent a few centuries as a Spanish, and later as a Mexican subject before joining the union.

During its early American period, from 1854 until well into the 1910s, Tucson in particular was a major flashpoint in the part-national fairy tale, part-dark chapter of history that we like to call the Old West.

Many famous swashbuckling gunslingers like Wyatt Earp were active in and around Tucson.

In fact, Tucson is the closest major city to the location of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and for this reason many classic Westerns, from the Golden Age of Hollywood all the way to Revisionist Westerns from the 90s, were filmed in this general area.

2. This Town Is Big Enough for The Two of Us

Aerial view of Tucson and the University of Arizona campus looking towards the east

Particularly if you’re not born and raised in the United States, a trip to Tucson will seem jarring at first. Although just about half a million people call this city home, it feels like more than three times that number when you set foot in it for the first time.

This is because Tucson is two things: incredibly flat, and incredibly sparse. The population density here is far below what is common for larger cities not just in the US, but pretty much anywhere.

With the financial district being a notable exception, almost nowhere in Tucson can you expect large crowds or bumper-to-bumper traffic. The distances between literally everything are simply far too great.

3. Starry Nights

The Milky Way galaxy Tucson arizona

Because of the low population density, as well as Tucson’s unique climate (more on that below), this is one of America’s top spots for stargazing.

Skies are clear year-round, and pretty much every major constellation is easily visible with the naked eye on an average night.

With this rare kind of clean air, it’s no wonder that Tucson has developed into what some call “the astronomy capital of the world”. Many local astronomy clubs are basically as old as the city itself, and Tucson also harbors an incredible number of observatories.

This includes Kitt Peak, an array of both optical and radio-telescopes that is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.

4. Beautiful Trails

Tucson Arizona in the distance at the Windy Point Vista overlook along the Sky Island Scenic Byway 

If you’re a fan of hiking, Tucson is a place chock-full of good news for you. Not only is the entire city surrounded by acres upon acres of gorgeous desert landscapes, largely untouched even to this day, but there are also many great mountain trails to explore.

Yes, that’s right! While most of Tucson is a relatively flat and dry desert, just outside of the center you will find Mt. Lemmon, the highest peak of the Santa Catalina mountain range.

The mountain is known as the tallest of the Southwestern “sky islands”. These are places that are so sharply elevated compared to the surrounding area that they have developed their own unique climate.

In and around Mt. Lemmon (and throughout the Santa Catalinas if you are willing to take more of a trip outside of town), some of the best hiking in the nation can be had, and it’s all practically in Tucson’s backyard!

5. A Unique Climate

Overflowing Rillito River in Tucson after heavy rain during monsoon season

As I mentioned before, Tucson’s climate is pretty notorious, even within Arizona, a state not known to be particularly hospitable when it comes to the weather.

Yes, temperatures here run in the three-digit zone for most of the year, and yes, the air humidity generally hovers somewhere around… zero.

However, the particular sub-climate of Pima county, where Tucson is located, has one defining feature not found so much in other major Arizonan cities.

Namely, the monsoons. Most of Arizona experiences a wet season in the summer, where rainfall drastically increases for some time.

But barely anywhere does this get as aggressive as in Tucson.

Within seconds and without much prior warning, roads can become completely flooded, and all life in the city stops for a moment during the average monsoon, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours.

6. Native American Heritage

Vintage Southwestern jewelry display with large chunky turquoise cuff bracelet and large old cluster turquoise ring.

Tucson was founded on the territory of the Yaqui, Pima, Apache, and other Native American tribes. In fact, the name of the place derives from an O’Odham word. Settlement on this land stretches back millenia, possibly further back than any other region on the continent north of Mexico City.

Today, centuries after disenfranchisement and genocide at the hands of the Spanish, and later wars and conflict with American pioneers, many Native tribal members still live in the area, forming a vital part of the local community.

Arguably Tucson’s most widely exported and famous souvenir, a style of turquoise jewelry, comes from Native traditions.

7. Excellent Food

View of Tumerico, a vegan vegetarian restaurant located near the campus of the University of Arizona, a public research university in Tucson, Arizona.
Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

Tucson is the first and to date only city in the United States to be designated a “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO, and for good reason. Probably nowhere else in the nation will you find a local cuisine that is as varied and at the same time as distinctive.

Tucson’s food culture is defined by an eclectic blend of Anglo-Saxon, Mexican, Spanish, and Native American traditions, blended with many influences from elsewhere.

To name just one, a small but notable number of Ethiopian immigrants reside in Tucson, and they have made the city famous throughout North America for some of the best Ethiopian restaurants you will ever find outside of their home country.

8. Chimichangas

A close up of a broken open beef and bean chimichanga

While we’re on the subject of food, nobody could do Tucson any proper service without mentioning the chimiganga.

A Mexican-American invention that evolved over a long period of time before culminating in the form we know today in Tucson, it’s a fried tortilla recipe that can only be described as an absolute joy.

It’s also absolutely filling, as authentic chimichangas tend to be stuffed with just about as much as you could possibly fit inside a tortilla.

Still, no matter how much your stomach might protest, you would be missing out on Tucson’s greatest contribution to the world of food by not trying a real chimichanga at least once.

9. A Capital of Education

Tucson, Arizona, USA downtown skyline with Sentinel Peak at dusk.

Tucson is known for being the seat of the University of Arizona’s main campus. This means that the demographics of the city are surprisingly young, with a big chunk of the city’s adult residents being students.

The University of Arizona is famous for its strong academics, vibrant campus life, and their sports team, the Wildcats. The Wildcats’ symbol, the red-and-blue capital letter “A”, is proudly displayed for every Tucsonian to see at the top of Sentinel Peak.

Because of this, the latter is often referred to these days as “A” Mountain.

10. The Sonoran Desert Museum

Agave Garden at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

Tucson lies smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a vast expanse that stretches from the Southwest of the United States all the way to the North-Central region of Sonora in Mexico.

This not only defines the local climate, but also gives rise to an extremely unique flora and fauna that you won’t find anywhere else. To display this in all its purity and beauty, the Sonoran Desert Museum was founded in 1952.

Unlike traditional museums, the Sonoran Desert Museum covers a gigantic area of about 40 acres, the vast majority of which is outdoors and on protected public land.

In this sense, it is more akin to a nature reserve with limited access to the public, though on the grounds you will also find a few more traditional indoor exhibits.

11. Javelinas

javelina or skunk pigs drinking from pond

Just one of the many many species that the geography of Tucson is famous for are javelinas. These unique animals inhabit a range starting just outside of Tucson proper and extending to much of Latin America.

While they might look similar to wild pigs, the two aren’t closely related at all.

Javelinas are calm, quiet, and generally quite adorable animals, though just like boars they can charge and be quite dangerous if they’re provoked.

In the safe and authentic environment of the Sonoran Desert Museum however, you can easily spot small packs of javelinas roaming the desert.

12. The Spirit of Flight

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter aircraft, in mothballs at the Aircraft Boneyard.
Editorial credit: PICTOR PICTURE COMPANY / Shutterstock.com

One more major sight that is located just at Tucson’s doorstep is one of the country’s most fascinating destinations for aviation buffs.

Davis-Monthan AFB was founded in the 1920s, but only since 1964 has it been the location of “The Boneyard”, a gigantic, mostly open-air storage facility for retired Air Force machinery and other government planes.

The climate of Tucson made it the perfect choice for this kind of installation – extremely low levels of humidity coupled with alkaline soil means that basically nothing rusts here, and so old, used aircraft are simply discarded and put on display out in the open.

Of course, most of the Boneyard is not officially accessible to the public. However, the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, which has its own impressive collection, regularly conducts authorized tours guiding visitors across the premises.

13. Car Culture

Classic Car Show at U of A.
Editorial credit: Mucky38 / Shutterstock.com

Because of the aforementioned benefits of the local climate on everything metal, it should come as no surprise that Tucson is also famous for being one of the country’s centers of car culture.

As the appeal of vintage automobiles has grown and become its own sort of niche, Tucson plays an important role in maintaining the hobby – and, as many would say, the art – of vintage car collecting and appreciation.

There are many clubs and associations to be part of for anyone who enjoys old steel on four wheels, not to mention the world-class museums, shows, and exhibits on automotive history you can find here.

And, of course, expect all the classics to be looking just about perfect. Not a speck of rust in sight.

14. A Mecca for Photographers

Center for Creative Photography exterior on the campus of University of Arizona
Editorial credit: Underawesternsky / Shutterstock.com

Tucson, perhaps more so than any other city you could name in the States, represents the object of a sacred pilgrimage for photographers from the world over.

While American photography in general thrived in the Southwest since the 1800s, Tucson in particular became famous because of one man: Ansel Adams.

If you know a thing or two about this subject, then this man needs no introduction. Probably nobody else, especially no other American photographer, has contributed as much to the development of the art as he has with his incredibly beautiful renditions of landscapes.

And it just so happens that Adams didn’t just live and work in Tucson for a big chunk of his life. He also co-founded the Creative Center for Photography there, which today forms part of the University of Arizona.

Most of the Center is a gallery space exhibiting the works of some of the most famous and renowned photographers that have ever lived, including almost all of Ansel Adams’ prints.

They also offer educational photography courses available to the public, as well as lots and lots of studio space, equipment, and research facilities that photography students at the University of Arizona can benefit from.

15. World-Class Rodeo

Tucson cowboy rodeo

Every year for about a week, Tucson hosts La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros, a rodeo event that is considered to be one of the most important in the world. The competition often features famous faces in the rodeo scene, making it a key destination for fans of the sport.

In general, the traditional cowboy culture that made the Old West famous has always been strong in Tucson. As a former Spanish subject and later a part of Mexico, Tucson came into very early contact with the so-called “vaquero” culture, which later formed a basis for the Americanized phenomenon that we now call cowboyhood.

On an average stroll downtown, you will surely notice the many, many souvenir stores, bars, pubs, galleries, and other sights dedicated to keeping this spirit alive.

In fact, Tucson ranks pretty highly worldwide in number of cowboy hats sold per capita each year!

16. Eegee’s

Eegee's is a chain of 29 restaurants located in Tucson, Casa Grande, and Gilbert, Arizona
Editorial credit: Rosemarie Mosteller / Shutterstock.com

If the chimichanga is Tucson’s culinary pride and joy, then the eegee is the same for the world of cool beverages.

Exclusively sold at the Eegee’s line of chain stores in the Tucson area, it’s a sweet, somewhat crunchy iced drink that tastes like a blend between fruity ice cream, fro-yo, and frozen lemonade.

In any case, a cup of eegee is probably the best cure for Tucson’s desert heat that anybody could have invented!

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