Moving to Tucson, Arizona? Here's What You Need to Know
Whether you've been relocated for a job or you're just looking for a change of scenery, moving can be an overwhelming prospect. Aside from the work of sorting and packing your things, you want to learn as much as you can about the place you're choosing to make your new home. If Tucson, Arizona, is in your future, here's some information to help you get familiar with this desert city.
Tucson is nestled at the base of Sentinel Peak and is part of the Tucson Mountain Range. It's located about 115 miles southeast of the capital of Phoenix and about 65 miles from the northern border of Mexico. It's the home of the University of Arizona Wildcats. If you're looking for a desert landscape, a thriving metropolis, and the culture and excitement of living near a university, Tucson might be a great place for you to call home.
What's Tucson Like?
Tucson is the county seat of Pima County, which has over a million residents. Tucson proper has a population of 535,000, making it a city where you can easily access all of life's modern conveniences. The University of Arizona makes up over 35,000 of the city's residents and is a major employer.
The revitalized downtown is full of small businesses and restaurants that support the local economy. People in Tucson have small-town values, along with the diversity and access of a large city. People say they live in a city of half a million yet they feel like they know everyone. With easy access to outdoor living, arts, culture, and sports, residents can find their friends and settle in for a calm and peaceful life.
Around 40% of Tucson's residents identify as religious, with the majority affiliated with some kind of Christian tradition. But without one dominant religion, residents of Tucson let you come as you are, with or without a church. There are many churches to choose from if you're so inclined.
The Catalina Foothills Unified School District is ranked one of the best in the state, according to Niche rankings for diversity, teacher-to-student ratio, college preparation, and academics. The overall Niche grade was A. The Amphitheater Unified School District is also well-ranked by Niche for diversity, academics, and college preparation, with an overall Niche grade of B+. The Tucson Unified School District scored an overall grade of B- but does well in diversity and college preparation.
There are two K-12 charter schools, BASIS Oro Valley and BASIS Tucson North, which both received A+ grades overall from Niche.
Tucson's Semi-Arid Climate Offers Low Humidity and High Heat
If you prefer a place with four distinct seasons, the desert might not be the best home for you. Tucson's seasons blend into each other, with some cool nights in the winter and incredibly hot days in the summer. With its steppe climate, rainfall is about 12 inches annually, bringing low desert shrubs, grasses, and cacti into the landscape.
In May through July, you can expect average temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s, with low night temperatures dipping into the high 60s and low 70s. But because the humidity is so low, some of the lower-temperature nights can feel refreshing and cool. On average, 286 of the 365 days of the year are sunny with blue skies in Tucson, making it a terrific place for outdoor activities and those ready to leave behind long gray winters in other parts of the country.
June through September is known as monsoon season, though the precipitation peaks in July and August. At any time of the day or night, storm clouds can build and drop torrential rain on the desert city, bringing lightning and thunder with them. The temperature can drop 30 or 40 degrees. and roads can quickly flood, so new residents should be alert and aware, especially if they're coming from a place without this kind of weather. Cacti and other plants absorb as much water as possible during monsoon season.
People say the smell of the desert rain should be bottled, as it's so refreshing and inviting. And when the storms move through, the blue skies return, and you might be treated to a rainbow.
Winter brings highs in the 60s and 70s, with lows in the 40s. Tucson's sunny and moderate winters are why retirees spend their winters away from the punishing cold and snow of the Northeast and the Midwest. You may have heard the term "snowbird" to describe the people who make their homes in Arizona for half the year to escape the winter blues. Some snowbirds like it so much that they decide to move here full time.
Outdoor Life in the Sonoran Desert
All year long, mountain bikers, hikers, and lovers of the desert landscape beauty spend time in the recreational lands around the city of Tucson. The area is part of the Sonoran Desert, a region that covers parts of Southern California, Baja California, Southern Arizona, and the southwestern region of Mexico.
If you ever asked a child to draw a picture of a cactus, it would probably look like the saguaro, one of the most beloved plants of the Sonoran Desert. It's tall with many arms that offshoot from the main trunk. The climate around Tucson is perfect for the saguaro since they absorb most of their water during the summer monsoon season. They can live up to 200 years in this hospitable climate.
The region is home to many other cacti, such as the prickly pear, the cholla, the night-blooming cereus, and the beavertail. The cacti usually bloom in late March through June, providing a spectacular color show in the midst of the browns and sages and greens of the desert landscape. Unlike some parts of the Sonoran Desert, Tucson has mountain ranges on nearly all sides for spectacular sunset views.
Though Tucson itself is a thriving city with all kinds of modern conveniences, it's only a short trip outside the city limits to appreciate the Sonoran ecological marvel. A visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum can teach you all you need to know about this unique ecological wonder. About 85% of the Museum is outdoors, with natural zoo habitats for threatened and endangered species like the Mexican wolf, ocelot, razorback sucker, and many more. The story goes that years ago some beavers broke out of their habitat and wandered into the desert where they encountered coyotes. Museum employees tracked their abrupt about-face back to the safety of their pond.
During some parts of the year, the museum is open after dark to appreciate the nocturnal animals of the desert. Check their website to see when you can experience the deep darkness of the desert night.
Sentinel Peak ("A" Mountain)
Southwest of downtown Tucson, Sentinel Peak is a 2,897-foot peak that's part of the Tucson Mountains. Back in 1915, University of Arizona fans whitewashed a large "A" into the basalt rock native to the mountain to celebrate a win, and there's been an "A" there ever since, giving it its nickname: "A" Mountain. Now it's painted red, white, and blue to celebrate Arizona's team colors.
Though it was once used as a lookout at the peak and fertile farmland at the base and very little evidence of the earlier village and civilization remains. Now you can easily access the summit for stunning views of the city at sunset or the lights at night.
Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges, which means it's a popular destination for mountain biking. With gorgeous views, lots of trails, and moderate weather, mountain bikers from all over come to Tucson to ride. They enjoy the hospitality of the city and then head for the over 440 miles of trails of all skill levels.
If you're a serious mountain biker and you live in a place where the weather dictates when you can ride, Tucson might be your ideal landing spot. The MTB Project collects data on local trails and makes it easy to find the type and skill level that suits you best. After a long day of riding, you can easily get back to the city for a nice dinner out or a cool evening barbecue on the back deck.
Hikers and runners find easy access to trails and greenways. Though the summers are hot, with proper sunscreen and hydration, you can still enjoy the outdoors. And you can train year-round for any kind of competitive race.
Saguaro National Park
Amateur and professional photographers find ideal subjects in stunning sunsets overlaid with picturesque cacti in Saguaro National Park, just fifteen miles from the city. It's an easy trip for an afternoon hike or walk, especially if you have an annual National Parks pass. Entrance fees at the park are good for a week, which makes frequent visits easy. The park has miles of hiking trails, campgrounds, and picnic areas. Stop by the Red Hills Visitors Center to get maps and information.
When night falls, you might be shocked by the stars. Organize a small group of stargazers and head to the desert with your tripod, your camera, and some layers to keep warm while you photograph star trails. Or drop a blanket in the back of a pickup for a peaceful night watching for shooting stars.
About an hour out of town, the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tohono O'odham Reservation offers stargazing sessions if you reserve ahead. Experience the heavens through the trained eye of astronomers and truly appreciate how small we are in comparison to the astrological bodies in the galaxy.
Indoor-outdoor living is a hallmark of the desert. You can enjoy dining al fresco year-round, even in the summer once the sun goes down. Learn how to cook authentic Mexican food just miles from the border, and sit on your back deck to eat the fruits of your labors. Desert living is blissfully low on mosquitoes, gnats, ticks, and other insects that plague the more humid parts of the country.
'It's a dry heat'
It's hot in the summer, no doubt about it. But it's a dry heat that feels like you're stepping into an oven. If you're coming from the Southeast or Midwest, you know that triple digits plus humidity can zap your will to live. You get out of the shower, and your hair can stay wet until dinnertime. You hang a towel on the fence after swimming, and it not only stays wet but might actually get wetter. You're never confused about how much you've been sweating.
In Tucson, your towel dries along with your skin and wet hair. Newcomers might not realize how much they're sweating because of how quickly it evaporates. So you learn quickly to stay hydrated and keep that sunscreen handy. Don't walk across asphalt barefoot, and be careful of hot metal in your car. These things take some getting used to, but they might be a worthwhile tradeoff if you're ready for a change.
When new business comes to town, a thriving area of restaurants, hotels, bars, and luxury living is sure to follow. In the past decade, Tucson has seen its downtown fill up with the kinds of businesses that appeal to modern and discriminating residents. Look in the sky, and you'll see cranes bringing the area back to life. It's become the cultural and economic epicenter of Tucson, with plenty of exciting places to frequent.
The Mercado District is an area of row houses, single-family homes, dining, and shopping, including the weekend farmers market. It's a special place where you can find native edible plants, as well as foods such as homemade bread from ancient and traditional grains. You can experience the agricultural bounty of the area. The Mercado District lets you feel like you've wandered into the traditional architecture of times gone by. It's been carefully organized to feel like a village with easy access to public transportation and walkable amenities. It's easy to enjoy this kind of outdoor living year-round with Tucson's weather.
City of Gastronomy
UNESCO, short for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, designated Tucson as a City of Gastronomy for its ties to the 4,000-year-old regional culinary history. When you eat local at one of Tucson's many restaurants, you're supporting the preservation of Mexican and Native American influences on the food of the region.
Many award-winning chefs have made Tucson their home, and they work to share historical cuisine with a modern sensibility. Food festivals and local craft breweries round out the contemporary takes on the food of the region. Family restaurants carry on the traditions of their ancestors and serve truly authentic food.
Make sure you sample some of Tucson's iconic dishes to really feel at home here. Carne seca, green corn tamales, and red chile beef on a homemade fluffy tortilla, are just a few of the great tastes you'll experience. And once you've made your way through the Mexican-inspired cuisine, sample the takes on street food: hot dogs, steak fries, and doughnuts. New American cuisine has a home in Tucson, with chef-run restaurants serving the highest-quality dishes. With proximity to California's rich produce, Tucson chefs have access to the best ingredients.
Public Transportation in Tucson
Bicycling is a popular method of getting around in the city. Tucson is designated by the League of American Bicyclists as a gold-level bicycle-friendly community for its over 1,000 miles of bicycle lanes, routes, shared-use paths/trails. With high marks from the League in areas such as bike lanes, bicycle advocacy groups, and a share of the transportation budget applied to bike-friendly causes, Tucson is a great place to get around for casual and serious riders. All the available bicycle-friendly routes are outlined in the Pima Association of Governments Tucson Bikeways Map and App, so you can access it via your smartphone while you're on the go.
Transportation around Tucson via bus is managed by Sun-Tran, which provides about 20 million trips annually in and around Tucson. All the vehicles in the fleet operate on 100% clean-burning fuels, such as biodiesel, hybrid technologies, and natural gas. All buses are equipped with bike racks for up to two bicycles, so you can combine the bus routes plus the bike routes for a low-carbon footprint as you travel. There are even bicycle lockers available for rent around Tucson for a reasonable fee.
In 2014, Tucson completed construction on a streetcar called SunLink. It's a single 4-mile loop connecting The University of Arizona to downtown and the Mercado San Augustin. That means easy access to hundreds of eateries, shops, and cultural centers, including the Tucson Convention Center and government and court offices. With the SunGO card, you load your fare electronically at locations all over town, which makes it easy to connect your SunLink and Sun-Tran trips. You can leave your car at one of the park and ride lots for a day of avoiding traffic altogether.
Education, Sports, and Art at the University of Arizona
The University of Arizona is a public university founded in 1885, with an undergraduate enrollment of about 35,000 students. It's ranked 106 of 312 in U.S. News & World Report's National University Rankings. Popular undergraduate majors include business, marketing, management, biological and biomedical sciences, health professions, and social sciences.
Because of the university's size, you'll likely be able to find a group of friends that fits your personality. With a male-female ratio of close to 50% and lots of campus life social activities, students find time both for studying and for college fun.
There's also a robust field of graduate work offered at the University of Arizona, with master's degrees and Ph.D.s in many diverse fields, including medicine, management information systems, speech-language pathology, and aerospace engineering. Graduate students have helped with NASA projects and gone on to have valuable and productive careers.
The University of Arizona is in the Pac-12 athletic conference. If you're an NCAA men's basketball fan, Arizona's conference opponents promise lots of excitement. The team has had many years of NCAA tournament success, even going to the national championship game twice. Since they play in a mid-size arena, the atmosphere can be thrilling. The McKale Center seats 14,644 fans, and Arizona has led the Pac-12 in conference game attendance. Students and locals alike love cheering on the Wildcats.
The basketball team has produced some terrific athletes in the NBA, too. Deandre Ayton, Jerryd Bayless, Aaron Gordon, Channing Frye, Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, and many others have had success in professional basketball careers. The community gives great support to the Wildcats.
The students at the university take their sports fandom seriously. They can join the ZonaZoo to go wild in the student sections at football and basketball games and get discounts on tickets to all the sporting events on campus.
If you're a college football fan, the hometown Division I team has been consistently good for many years. The Pac-12 sets up some wild matchups during the season, with opponents such as the University of Oregon Ducks, the UCLA Bruins, and the Washington Huskies. The Wildcats play outdoors in Arizona Stadium, which has a seating capacity of 55,675. Fans enjoy tailgating in the parking lot before games, and you'll rarely have to worry about the weather ruining a football game in Tucson.
The University of Arizona Museum of Art is the city's premier museum, with rotating exhibitions and a permanent collection that includes valuable pieces from artists such as Mark Rothko, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Auguste Rodin, and many others. The museum is small but filled with relevant and well-curated pieces. You can spend a leisurely afternoon there and see all the art.
Things to Do in and Around Tucson
If you're trying to decide whether to move to Tucson, you can get a feel for the old and the new by taking The Old Pueblo City Tour. Sort of like how New York is called The Big Apple, Tucson is known as Old Pueblo. It got its name from the Pima village established at the base of Sentinel Peak in the 1700s. In Spanish, the word "pueblo" means Indian village, but ironically, it was the white settlers who gave the place its nickname to encourage tourism.
The Old Pueblo City Tour makes stops at the University of Arizona, downtown old and new, "A" Mountain, and Mission San Xavier del Bac, known as the White Dove of the Desert. Built in the 1700s, it's located about 9 miles from downtown Tucson and stands as the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The church still primarily exists to serve the needs of its parishioners, for Mass, baptisms, and marriages, while also standing as a sacred architectural example from the Spanish Colonial period. Visitors are welcome to view the art and religious relics and attend Mass.
The tour will give you a feel for the modern city, the old city, and the desert landscapes that surround Tucson. You can see how the University of Arizona looks to the future by educating the rising generations and participating in important scientific research. You can see where you might live and shop, where you might ride your bike to and from your job, or how you'd enjoy the nightlife of the revitalized downtown. It's a great way to see so many of the things that make Tucson a desirable place to be.
Pima Air & Space Museum
After you visit the Mission, fast forward hundreds of years to modern aerospace technology at the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the world's largest non-government funded aerospace museums. With over 300 aircraft spread out over 80 acres, airplane enthusiasts will enjoy hours touring. It's next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which houses a huge aircraft storage and preservation facility known as "The Boneyard" or "Graveyard of Planes." Buses leave from the museum for visitors to see this vast collection.
Trail Dust Town
Sometimes a day of kitsch is fun, especially when the weather is sunny and clear. Trail Dust Town is a replica village from the Old West, with immersive activities that let you feel like you're living in the dusty days of the early westward expansion. With classic false-front architecture on the saloon and the restaurant, a miniature train, rides, and stunt shows, this little spot of historical exuberance can be fun for all ages. Grownups can enjoy good food, and kids can enjoy all the trappings of the Old West experience.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
In the garden district of northeast Tucson, you'll find a little desert oasis in the middle of neighborhoods and retail. The Tucson Botanical Gardens are located on a 5-acre plot full of beautiful flowers and plants. Founder Bernice Porter had a vision for a garden that would be both visually stunning and educational, a place where the community could gather for a shared natural experience. From May through October, garden admission includes access to Butterfly Magic, a fully immersive experience with tropical plants and butterflies in the greenhouse.
Tanque Verde Falls
Tucson and the surrounding mountain ranges are filled with hiking trails. For a nice day hike, visit Tanque Verde Falls, a moderate 1.8-mile out-and-back hike with a waterfall at the end. Your best times to visit are in May through October, and dogs are welcome as long as they're leashed. The trail includes some climbing over rocks and boulders, and you'll cross the creek when it's running. But a gorgeous waterfall so near the city is worth it, especially if it's hot and you can cool off in the pools.
Hotels and Motels
When you visit, Tucson has a wide variety of places to stay. If you're coming from the Northeast and it's your first time out West, you can stay at White Stallion Ranch for a true adventure. For over 50 years, guests have experienced a taste of the Old West at this all-inclusive resort, with old-time ranch activities such as horseback riding, shooting, roping, and rodeos. Enjoy a taste of the new West with rock climbing and fat tire bikes for a taste of the ranch's beautiful landscape.
Amenities include a heated pool, a sport court, and even a spa for when you come back from ranch life dusty and hot and ready for some pampering. You'll find a bar, a movie theater showing old Western movies, and even a petting zoo with rescued animals for the kids to enjoy. Guestrooms are decorated with authentic touches and views of the landscape. It's a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.
But if ranching isn't your thing, Tucson's downtown has the AC by Marriott, a luxurious and modern space in the heart of downtown and near all the shops, bars, and restaurants.
Split the difference between ranch living and minimalist luxury at the Downtown Clifton Hotel, a vintage-inspired hip hotel with authentic and thoughtful Arizona decor in each of its guest rooms. It's located in a neighborhood with interesting adobe homes and a nice feel, and it's within walking distance of attractions and the bus line.
For a rock 'n' roll experience, try the Hotel Congress, with rooms above a music venue and lots of urban noise and bustle. The rooms are tastefully decorated with vintage charm and touches of the West, and you can feel feel the thump and bang of the bass from the club below. If you want a nice quiet night, this hotel isn't for you, but if you're looking to experience the thrill of a crazy night, it might be a great choice.
And scattered all around Tucson are the hotel and motel chains you know and respect: Holiday Inn Express, Hyatt Place, Sheraton, and many more. Whether you're in town scouting out your upcoming move or going for the weekend to watch the Wildcats play football, Tucson is ready to roll out the welcome mat.
Tucson is a rich city surrounded by the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Whether you're moving to study at the University of Arizona, for work, or for a change of scenery, Tucson will definitely welcome you with lots of heat and spectacular storms for a few months, but you'll enjoy sunny clear blue skies for the rest of the year.