This story was created by #ThisIsTucson and underwritten by the University of Arizona Orientation & New Student Services in 2022. We're republishing it in 2023 because the fall semester is about to begin!
Welcome home, Wildcats! Even if you only call the Old Pueblo your home for the next four years, you’ve come to the right place.
Tucson is filled with plenty of things to do, places to see and food to eat (after all, we were the first U.S. city to earn the UNESCO City of Gastronomy title. Just saying.).
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about life in Tucson, both on and off the University of Arizona campus. We hope you’ll fall in love with the city, just as much as we have. 💖
Places to check out on campus 🏫
One of the first places you should visit on campus is the face of the UA — Old Main. The building was initially erected in 1887 as one of the college’s first buildings. Even though it’s seen plenty of facelifts over the years, the building has remained an iconic landmark of the university. Take a gander around the building and walk in the footsteps of former Wildcats. Old Main is also a go-to place for seniors to take graduation photos!
The UA has a bunch of libraries on campus, including the fine arts library and the science-engineering library, but the main library is a must-see. The place has five stories of library goodness, including thousands upon thousands of books and plenty of places to take a breather between classes or to cram in a last-minute study session. Plus, the main library features a seed library that offers free seeds for students and faculty who want to start or add to their own garden.
The turtle pond near North Park Avenue and East Second Street at the campus arboretum is like a tiny oasis that gives you a break from the hustle and bustle of campus life. For an instant serotonin boost, watch some Slider turtles sunbathing on rocks or taking a dip in the pond to cool off.
Places to check out off campus 🌵
This section could practically be a whole story on its own since there are so many amazing places around Tucson that you should explore while you’re here. Oh hey, we’ve already done that — which you can read here and here! If you’re looking for more activity-based things, that will be in the following section. But here are a few places you have to check out in Tucson.
Take a trip to Tucson’s east side, where you can see the best of the Sonoran Desert’s flora, take a hike with your friends and experience the waterfalls at Seven Falls. We have a handy Sabino Canyon FAQ here.
When you find yourself overheating like an old car because of the Tucson heat, take a mini trip up to Mount Lemmon. The scenic drive up the mountain is worth the trip alone, especially at stops like Windy Point Vista. Up there, you can find cooler weather, fresh mountainous air, pine trees and warm cookies at the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin. Here's a whole list of things to do and eat on the mountain!
“A” Mountain/Sentinel Peak
In case you missed it on your way into Tucson, the city is surrounded by mountains. Even though the mountains are near and dear to our heart, there’s one particular mountain on the city’s west side that we hold a little closer — “A” Mountain, where you can find one of the best views of the city. In 1914, UA students began work to put the “A” on the mountain as a way to represent the college during football games, according to the Pima County Public Library. Check out our guide to "A" Mountain here!
While you’re in the area, check out Mission Garden too. The garden is described as Tucson’s birthplace, located at the foot of Sentinel Peak at Native American village S-cuk Son, which is a place sacred to the Tohono O'odham.
There are a lot of places to watch our stunning sunsets (and we mean stunning), but Gates Pass on Tucson’s west side might just take the cake. Since Gates Pass is housed in the Tucson Mountain Park, get there before the sunset to take in some of the other beautiful sights at the park.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
Dubbed the “White Dove of the Desert,” the San Xavier del Bac Mission is less than 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. The mission was completed in 1797 and is the “oldest intact European structure in Arizona,” according to the mission’s website. Even if you’re not a spiritual person, the mission is worth checking out for its architecture alone.
Tucson has 27 historic neighborhoods that are each filled with their own unique stories and cultures. You can also find some of the best art and food in these neighborhoods. Some include Barrio Viejo, Menlo Park and Barrio Hollywood. It’s important to remember that people live in these neighborhoods, so please be respectful while exploring the areas!
Things to do on and off campus 🌆
Buy a ZonaZoo pass and go to sporting events
Purchasing a ZonaZoo pass is one of the best ways to show your Wildcat spirit with other students. There’s nothing like sitting in the Zoo on a Saturday night and screaming your lungs out while the Wildcats play football. Passes start at $125 a year and give you admission to home football, baseball, softball, women’s basketball, volleyball, soccer and gymnastics events.
Check out the new UA e-sports arena
The UA e-sports arena is one of the newer additions on campus. The nearly $1 million arena transforms part of the student union into a gaming haven for dedicated and newbie gamers. With your CatCard, you can play games like Rocket League, Overwatch and League of Legends for only $4 an hour.
Go to one of the many museums on campus
From art to history to science, there are a wide variety of museums on the UA campus, many of which you get free or discounted admission to with your CatCard. Some local favorites are the Center for Creative Photography, Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium and the UA Museum of Art. If you’re into live performances, check out Centennial Hall for Broadway shows and other events.
While you can have fun on the UA campus, it’s only a tiny fraction of the fun that the rest of the city has to offer. Even though we can’t list every Tucson activity on this guide, check out our Tucson bucket list, plus our monthly and weekly event lists to stay up to date on all of the best Tucson events and activities.
Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
When I asked around our newsroom, “What is the one thing that every new UA student should experience while here?” almost everybody told me, the Desert Museum. And I have to agree. The museum offers the best of Tucson plants, wildlife and more on a 98-acre lot of land. In addition, the museum houses a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden and plenty of saguaro cacti.
Take a Tucson mural tour
Tucson has a lot of murals — murals on restaurants, schools, houses, churches and almost any place you can think of. You can take a guided mural tour through Tucson Bike Tours or Mainly Murals Downtown Walking Tours to check out the works of art. Or, if you feel like taking a self-guided tour, we have a whole mural gallery with photos and locations. 👏
Visit one of the many museums we have in the city
The UA has worthy museums to check out, but Tucson has even more museums to choose from. Aside from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, some favorites include the Tucson Museum of Art, Pima Air & Space Museum, The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun and the Ignite Sign Art Museum.
Take a bike ride along The Loop
This one is for all of our outdoorsy people. Taking a bike ride along the Chuck Huckelberry Loop is a good way to learn about Tucson and its huge cycling community. The Loop is a total of 137 miles, but the main route is around 54 miles. The best part? You can hop off almost anytime and grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants near The Loop, including this one!
Visit a Tucson market
Fun fact: Tucson loves markets. Farmers markets or art markets, we love them all. Since we have sunny, clear skies about 95% of the year, you can find outdoor markets almost every weekend. Plus, markets are one of the best ways to support local artists while finding one-of-a-kind creations.
Experience the best of Tucson’s nightlife
Once you’re 21, experience a night out on the town in downtown Tucson and the historic Fourth Avenue with drinks and dancing. We love grabbing a drink from The Boxyard, Bawker Bawker Cider House and Cobra Arcade Bar. If you’re not quite 21 yet, don’t worry, there are still plenty of things to do at night. You can experience Second Saturdays, a big downtown street party on the second Saturday of every month, take a night tour of Sabino Canyon or catch an outdoor movie.
Go to local seasonal events
Tucson has some of the best events around. From rocks to rodeos, here are some go-to events to keep an eye out for throughout the year:
- Dillinger Days at Hotel Congress.
- Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.
- Tucson Rodeo.
- Tucson Festival of Books.
- The Fourth Avenue spring and winter street fairs.
- Made In Tucson markets.
- Pima County Fair.
- Tucson Comic-Con.
- Tucson Meet Yourself.
- Film Fest Tucson.
- All Souls Procession.
- El Tour de Tucson.
- Winterhaven Festival of Lights.
- Reid Park Zoo Lights.
- Tucson Tamal & Heritage Festival.
Where to eat in Tucson 🌮
Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and local chefs and restaurants have proven it’s a well-deserved title. We have everything from Mexican food from all regions, Asian cuisine, Italian delicacies and Middle Eastern and African cooking. But despite all of the national and international cuisine you can find here, Tucson is known for its Mexican food. Here are a few of our favorite restaurants and dining areas in Tucson. Also, check out #ThisIsTucson food writer Ellice Lueders’ giant Tucson food bucket list for even more foodie recommendations.
Sonoran hot dogs
If there’s one thing you’re going to eat while in Tucson, it has to be a Sonoran hot dog. As for who makes the best Sonoran hot dog in Tucson... well, that’s a bit of a hot topic around here. Some swear by El Güero Canelo, while others may claim their rival, BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, is the best. Then, of course, there are Aqui Con El Nene fans who have their say in the matter or the many fans of other local hot dog carts across the city. While we can’t give you a definite winner, the best way to find your winner is to try them all out and see who comes out as a champion.
Pretty much anywhere on South 12th Avenue
South 12th Avenue, known as “La Doce,” has some of the best Mexican food around (in addition to Grande Avenue, but we’ll get there in a second). Experience birria ramen or crunchy rolled tacos at Rollies Mexican Patio, meaty tacos at Tacos Apson or bacon-wrapped burritos at the original Percheron Mexican Grill, all on South 12th Avenue.
St. Mary’s Mexican Food
St. Mary’s Mexican Food has been a Tucson staple for nearly 45 years. This west-side restaurant brings back childhood memories for a lot of Tucsonans. Despite the sentimental value, St. Mary’s Mexican Food has been around for a long time for good reason: it’s delicious. We recommend trying the red chile chimichanga combo with rice and beans.
Experience the food of North Grande Avenue
Remember Grande Avenue that we mentioned a few paragraphs ago? You can find great Mexican food there, too. On North Grande Avenue, you can enjoy fresh seafood at Mariscos Chihuahua, breakfast burritos and fresh coffee, including a mazapán latte, at Barista del Barrio, or a molcajete filled with meats, cheese, cactus and onions at Taco Giro. If you need a break from Mexican food, check out Pat’s Chili Dogs, which has been around since 1961, for chili dogs and burgers.
Seis Kitchen has multiple locations in Tucson and Oro Valley, but the original location is located in the Mercado San Agustin on the city’s west side. The restaurant offers cuisine from numerous Mexican regions with fresh, homemade corn tortillas and salsas. Even if you're not a vegetarian, the fried avocado tacos are to die for. And of course, you can’t forget to snag a large horchata with your meal, which may very well be the best horchata you will ever have in your life.
Become a foodie on Historic Fourth Avenue
If you want to stay closer to campus, hit up North Fourth Avenue for some yummy, late-night meals. We recommend checking out the 4th Avenue Deli for a fresh sandwich made with Boar’s Head meats, any of the unique burgers at Lindy’s on 4th (think Honey Buns or grilled cheese sandwiches as buns), or half a sandwich and a warm soup in a bread bowl at Bison Witches.
Find international cuisine across the city
Even though Tucson is known for its fantastic Mexican food, we have some pretty stellar international options here, too. Unfortunately, our international cuisine can’t be pinpointed to one area of town, but you can find a good variety no matter what side of town you’re on. Some favorites include Jewel’s Noodle Kitchen (we highly recommend the beef buns or any of their dumplings), Sher-e-Punjab, Polish Cottage, Banhdicted, Selena's Salvadorian Restaurant, Roma Imports and HeeMee Coffee + Bakery, just to name a few. Again, check out Ellice's food bucket list for more suggestions!
End your meal on a sweet note
Another must-have food item while in Tucson is a raspado. You can find them just about anywhere on the south side of the city, but some of our favorites are from Paleteria y Neveria La Michoacana, Marymar and Oasis Fruit Cones. (You can also find Tostitos preparados at most of these places, too!)
Of course, we couldn’t forget about Eegee’s, which has become a Tucson icon over the years. The slushy-like drink comes in traditional flavors like lemon, piña colada and strawberry, but the Tucson-born restaurant offers one unique flavor each month. If you’re looking for old-school-style Italian ice, we recommend checking out Slice & Ice, which is owned by one of the original Eegee's founders.
If cold treats aren’t your thing, try some fresh pan dulce (sweet Mexican pastries) from La Estrella Bakery. Don’t forget to pick up a pack of fresh flour tortillas while you’re there!
Where to shop in Tucson 🛍️
Tucsonans love supporting local businesses. Here are a few brick-and-mortar shops to consider when shopping in Tucson. Keep in mind that their hours may change with the seasons, so double check their operating hours before you head out! If you like thrifting or antiquing, check out our thrift shop and antique store guides.
- Why I Love Where I Live, 267 S. Avenida del Convento.
- Pop Cycle, 422 N. Fourth Ave.
- Cero, 228 S. Tucson Blvd.
- Galeria Mitotera, 1802 S. Fourth Ave.
- El Be Goods, 160 S. Avenida del Convento.
- Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.
- Kira Kira Collectibles, 2903 E. Speedway.
- Wooden Tooth Records, 426 E. Seventh St.
- Arizona Poppy Shop, 150 S. Fourth Ave.
- Hola Chingona, 412 E. Seventh St.
Places to study in Tucson 📚
As a student, early-morning and late-night study sessions will become essential in your weekly routine. Here are some great spots for those much-needed study sessions:
- The Korean Rose, 6118 E. Speedway.
- Black Crown Coffee Co., 4024 E. Speedway.
- Scented Leaf Tea House & Lounge, 943 E. University Blvd. and 308 E. Congress St.
- Caffe Luce, 943 E. University Blvd., 4205 N. Campbell Ave. and 245 E. Congress St.
Transportation in Tucson 🚎
If you’ve made it this far in the list, you might be thinking to yourself, “I wish I could try all of these Tucson-centric things, but how can I get around Tucson if I didn’t bring my car with me?” Don’t worry. Tucson has plenty of transportation options to help you see the best of the city. Here are just a few ways to get around Tucson.
The Sun Link Streetcar
The Sun Link Streetcar can take you anywhere along the University of Arizona, Fourth Avenue, downtown Tucson and the Mercado District. The streetcar’s route is around 4 miles long. Currently, streetcar fares are free until at least the end of the year.
The Sun Tran bus line is Tucson’s public transportation, like the Metro if you’re from the Phoenix area. The bus line has over 40 routes to get you across Tucson. Like the Sun Link Streetcar, fares are free until the end of this year.
TuGo Bike Share
This bike share program has 41 stations across Tucson. You can rent a bike for $1 and an additional 25 cents per minute of riding time. Or, you can get a monthly pass for $18 or an annual pass for $80.
If you need to get around on campus, there’s also the Cat Tran option.
No matter how you get around Tucson and explore and eat your way through the city, it’s going to be a great academic year. Welcome home, Wildcats. Bear Down! 🐻⬇️