Explore Tucson

5 Ways to Get a Taste of Tucson’s History

These tours, museums, historic sites and Wild West-style towns all combine to tell the city's story.

With a recognized history dating back as far as A.D. 450, Tucson has many tales to tell. The land has been called home by many over the years, including the Hohokam, Tohono O’odham and Apache tribes, Spanish explorers, Mexicans and Americans. Of course, the changing of hands did not usually take place peacefully, and a few battle sites and ruins remain today. 

Tucson’s list of other historical interests includes its prohibition era, the capture of John Dillinger at Hotel Congress, and Old Tucson Studios, which served as a popular Old West movie set. Today, architectural elements, cultural and culinary influences, traditions and art from Tucson’s past live on and are readily available for visitors to explore. 

Begin with institutions like the Arizona History Museum in order to gain a firm grasp on the background of the area. Then, check out historical sites like a U.S. Army post at Fort Lowell Museum, the only Titan II missile site left in the country at the Titan Missile Museum and the architectural wonder known as Mission San Xavier del Bac. Visit a miniature Old West town at Trail Dust Town or the set of Western Hollywood films at Old Tucson. Self-tour historic downtown sites along the Turquoise Trail, or hop on a bike with a guide leading the way with Tucson Bike Tours. And for foodies, learn the area’s history between tastes at local eateries during popular downtown food tours. 

Meander the Museums

An in-depth historical journey through Tucson begins at the museums. Gain a broader perspective—from Spanish Colonial to territorial eras, mining to transportation topics—at the Arizona History Museum on the University of Arizona campus. Next, head to the Downtown History Museum to narrow in on the development of downtown Tucson and its businesses. While in town, visit the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, located inside the former Southern Pacific Railroad Depot at the north end of downtown on Toole Avenue. This site features a steam locomotive, a sculpture of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, exhibits about Tucson’s rail history and a restored depot lobby. 

Southern Arizona Transportation Museum
See a steam locomotive at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. (©Bill Morrow/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Visit the Historical Sites

Ruins of a U.S. Army post and a replica of the Commanding Officer’s quarters from during the Apache Wars sit within the center of Tucson, northeast of Craycroft Road and Glenn Street. Fort Lowell Museum is located inside the quarters, and displays a variety of rotating military artifacts.

For more local military history, drive south of Tucson on Interstate 19; exit Duval Mine Road and follow the road west to the Titan Missile Museum. Of the 54 U.S. Titan II missile sites that awaited launch orders during the Cold War, this is the only one that remains—though none others actually launched. Visitors tour the grounds, learn the operating procedure of those who were posted here and get an up-close view of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Also along I-19 is Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the most visited historical sites in Southern Arizona. The mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 and construction was completed in 1797. Upon arrival, take a few moments to admire its glowing white façade against the beauty of the desert before continuing inside to examining the Byzantine and Moorish architecture styles and the unique murals and details. 

Titan Missile Museum
The intercontinental ballistic missile at the Titan Missile Museum. (Courtesy Titan Missile Museum)

Wander the Old West

Trail Dust Town is a miniature town within the city, showcasing an authentic Old West atmosphere. The town, which first opened in 1962 and rebuilt after a fire in 1971, features shops, amusement rides, stunt shows, the popular Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse—no ties allowed!—and Silver Dollar Saloon.

Stunt shows are also found at Old Tucson. West of the city on Kinney and Gates Pass roads, Old Tucson has acted as the set of a number of Western movies and shows over the years, including  “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Joe Kidd,” “Gunsmoke,” “Three Amigos” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Today, it attracts the occasional indie film and plenty of visitors. Historic tours are offered, Old West shows are performed, games and rides entertain kids, and Western shopping posts engage souvenir seekers. 

Old Tucson
Experience the Wild West at Old Tucson. (Courtesy Old Tucson)

Walk or Bike the City

There are plenty of sites to see around downtown Tucson and plenty of ways to explore them. For a leisurely self-tour, pick up a Turquoise Trail map at the Tucson Visitor Center at 110 S. Church Ave. The Turquoise Trail follows a 2.5-mile loop and visits 23 sites, including the Pima County Courthouse, Scottish Rite Cathedral, Tucson Museum of Art & Historic Block, and Armory Park. The map includes a paragraph of detail for each stop. For those feeling more adventuresome, Tucson Bike Tours explores historically rich neighborhoods along its sunrise, daytime and nighttime tours. Each tour includes a bike, helmet and water, and a guide offers plenty of historical insights as the group rides through neighborhoods like Barrio Viejo, downtown and Presidio. 

Tucson Bike Tours
A tour with Tucson Bike Tours is an active way to explore the city’s history. (Courtesy Tucson Bike Tours)

Take Tours and Tastings 

Sometimes, the best way to learn a city is through its food, or food tours in this case. Culinary endeavours are extraordinary in Tucson—the city was recently designated as a “World City of Gastronomy” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The guides at Taste of Tucson Downtown take groups along a historical tour of the city with stop-offs for tastings and talks with the chefs at popular downtown eateries like Agustin Kitchen and Maynards Market & Kitchen. The four-hour journey stops at Hotel Congress and Fox Tucson Theatre among other sites of significance, and includes a ride on the streetcar.

Be sure to take note of the architectural highlights and cultural sites pointed out during the Downtown Tucson Walking Tour with Tucson Food Tours. Six restaurants are visited during this lunchtime adventure, including La Cocina in the historic Presidio district. Two of Reisen Arizona’s day tours visit foodie destinations. Explore the Old Pueblo and make a stop for lunch at El Charro Café or Tucson Tamale Company during the Tucson City Tour, or head south to visit the Rose Bush Museum and Bird Cage Theatre with a lunch break at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon during the Tombstone tour. 

Tucson Food Tours
Tour by taste with Tucson Food Tours. (©Therea Delaney)