There’s plenty of fun to be had in the old pueblo without breaking the bank. From hiking a scenic trail to ogling awesome architecture, here are some of Tucson’s top free attractions.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
One of the city’s most beautiful destinations—and arguably one of country’s finest examples of mission architecture—Mission San Xavier Del Bac is a blend of Moorish, Byzantine, Renaissance and Mexican styles, resulting in an impressive church known as the White Dove of the Desert.
Started in 1783 and completed in 1797, the mission today is a National Historic Landmark and a fully functioning Roman Catholic church led by Franciscan friars. Visitors to San Xavier del Bac can attend a mass, admire the architecture, watch a video about the church’s history, explore the elaborate interior and its numerous artifacts—when there’s no service in progress—and browse at the gift shop. Donations are welcome.
Downtown Tucson turns into a family-friendly street fair on the second Saturday evening of each month. There are food vendors on-site, and restaurants and boutiques offer specials and discounts. But you’ll also find a lineup of free outdoor concerts by up-and-coming bands on stages throughout the streets.
Friday Night Live Jazz Concert Series
Each summer, Main Gate Square’s Geronimo Plaza in the University District hosts a series of free Friday-night concerts, brought to you by Main Gate Square, KXCI Community Radio and Jonas Hunter Productions. From May to August, enjoy jazz from the likes of Reno del Mar and Rob Resetar every other Friday. Make a reservation at one of the plaza’s restaurants and enjoy the music from the patio, or bring your own lawn chair and a picnic and settle in for a relaxing night of melodies at the beautiful outdoor venue. Parking in the Tyndall Garage is free after 5 pm with validation from the concert.
Get some exercise while sightseeing as you hike this historic downtown Tucson trail, formerly called the Presidio Trail. The 2.5-mile self-guided walking tour will take you past 23 of the city’s historical landmarks—including Hotel Congress—where members of John Dillinger’s gang once rented rooms—Armory Park, the Pima County Courthouse and Fox Tucson Theatre, as well as several restaurants. Just follow the turquoise-colored line that traces the trail, stopping to read the informative plaques along the way. The tour begins at the northeast corner of the reconstructed Presidio San Agustín del Tucson and lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. You can pick up a free brochure for the trail at the Presidio or at the Tucson Visitors Center. 811 N. Euclid Ave.
Center for Creative Photography
The brainchild of legendary photographer Ansel Adams and University President Dr. John P. Schaefer, this fine-art photography gallery is located on the University of Arizona campus. The museum/library/research institution houses more than 90,000 works by over 2,200 photographers, as well as the archives of more than 50 renowned 20th century artists, making it a must for shutterbugs. Catch one of the center's exhibitions of photographs by the likes of Wynn Bullock, or stop in for a special print viewing or a lecture.
Tucson Museum of Art
Though the Tucson Museum of Art typically charges for admission, every first Thursday night of the month from 5-8 pm, the museum’s "Free First Thursdays" program allows you to meet featured artists and tour the museum’s permanent collection of over 8,000 works of Western, Latin American and contemporary art at no cost. There’s also live music and themed activities. If you’re a resident of Arizona or Sonora, Mexico, you can also get in for free on the second Sunday of the month and enjoy drop-in art-making activities for all ages. The galleries are currently closed for renovation through mid-October 2017, but visitors can check out the adjacent Historic Block—a collection of five houses built between the 1850s and 1907—admission-free and take a tour of the properties.
Children’s Museum Tucson
The Tucson location of this fun, interactive museum for kids and their families offers free admission from 5:30-8 pm on the second Saturday of each month as part of its Art After Dark program. Two special guests from the Southern Arizona arts community lend their talents to each installment of the after-hours program, which also offers hands-on activities, performances and demonstrations.
Southern Arizona Transportation Museum
Learn all about the region’s railroad culture at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, located in the former Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in downtown Tucson.
The boutique museum is chock-full of railroad artifacts, photographs and information. Special exhibits explore the impact of the railroad on Tucson. Outside, you’ll find steam locomotive Southern Pacific 1673, which had a starring turn in the 1955 film "Oklahoma." Visit every Saturday from 10 am-1 pm for special Locomotive Saturdays, where you can watch modern-day freight trains pass by, ring the locomotive bell, take a picture with the museum’s life-sized sculpture of “Doc” Holliday and Wyatt Earp and get your questions answered by knowledgeable volunteers.
Brandi Fenton Splash Pad
Open annually from the third Saturday in April until Halloween, Brandi Fenton Splash Pad is the perfect place for kids to cool off in the summer. 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, which also offers covered basketball courts, dog parks, exercise stations and playgrounds.
Agua Caliente Park
This 101-acre desert oasis has a perennial hot spring—Agua Caliente means hot water—and pond, which make it home to a rich variety of birds and other wildlife. Tour the park on a naturalist-led walk, picnic under the palm and mesquite trees, enjoy the beautiful mountain views or head indoors to the renovated 1870s Ranch House Visitor Center and Art Gallery. A network of paved and gravel trails are dotted with signs that explain the site's geology and history.
Santa Cruz River Park
Another beautiful local park is Santa Cruz River Park—the perfect place to bike around the dry Santa Cruz River. It offers a disc-golf course, a sculpture garden that displays religious works by artist Felix Lucero and the commemorative El Paseo de los Arboles, a tree-lined memorial walk.
Sentinel Peak Park
Also known as “A” Mountain, this park is most recognizable for its giant “A” painted on the side of the mountain by University of Arizona fans. The local landmark is located on the former site of an ancestral Pima village. Today, visitors head here to hike and enjoy fantastic views of Tucson.
Tucson Mountain Park and Gates Pass Scenic Overlook
This 20,000-acre park boasts 62 miles of trails that are open to hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. Make your way up to Gates Pass, which is widely considered one of the best places to take in a blood-orange Tucson sunset; arrive an hour before sunset to stake out a spot in the little stone house, and wait to be dazzled.
Cyclists, take note: The Loop is an in-progress Pima County path that will let you bike practically around the entirety of Tucson, connecting Rillito River Park, Santa Cruz River Park and Pantano River Park with Julian Wash and Harrison greenways—131 miles in all. The shared-use paths are also open for walking, running, skating and horseback riding. Travel down a segment of the path, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, try and make it around the city’s perimeter.
Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center
Although it’s located on the Tohono O’odham Reservation 56 miles southwest of Tucson, stargazers will want to make the trek to Kitt Peak National Observatory, part of National Optical Astronomy Observatory and home to the largest array of optical and radio telescopes in the world—as well as the world’s largest solar telescope!
There’s a fee for guided tours and programs, but the observatory’s visitor center is free; pick up a map and go on a self-guided tour, explore interactive exhibits and learn about astronomy. Or just take in the panoramic views from the summit of the nearly 7,000-foot-high mountaintop.