Many people drive I-10 going across New Mexico and Texas, going through El Paso. But not many people stop long enough to discover that El Paso is a bi-national, multi-cultural city of surprises. Take the Downtown Arts District exit off the freeway and you’ll soon discover what I mean. These are my 10 reasons to visit El Paso, making it a destination in your travels.
1: Peruse the Art of El Paso
The Downtown Arts District is anchored by museums, green spaces, performing arts venues, and a multitude of vibrant murals.
The El Paso Museum of Art, conveniently located across from the Southwest University Park Stadium and El Paso Convention Center, provides free entry. It hosts fascinating exhibits such as Leo Villareal’s Early Light, a vibrant look at the art of this local artist who has won international acclaim for his work with LED lighting in places like San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and a walkway in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
But what I was struck by most was the public art featuring the culture, history, and zest for life that exists in this bi-national city. Murals on walkways, walls, and buildings tell the story of the meshing of cultures—Hispanic, indigenous, and Anglo rancher—in a colorful mixture of faces, symbols, and splashes of color. The annual Chalk the Block arts festival, a huge free three-day public arts festival, brings more than chalk art—it’s a celebration of temporary art installations, dance, and creativity.
One day, as I explored an older section of central El Paso, I walked underneath the Durango Bridge and encountered three, six-foot diameter steel piñatas hanging from the bridge decking. These multi-dimensional stars are lit from the inside and, at night, project shapes onto the structures around them.
2: Discover Where the Stars Buy Boots
Enter Rocketbuster Boots housed in a historic fur trappers’ warehouse (there are still marks on the brick walls where the furs were hung) and you enter a world of expert craftsmanship, vintage memorabilia, and cowboy boot creativity gone wild.
Photographer Marty Snortum, a lover of cowboy boots, creativity, and vintage design, kind of ended up with the Rocketbuster boot business after a night of revelry in a local bar. And, fortuitously, he met up with and married New York fashion designer, Nevena Christi, who studied at the Parsons School of Design and who also loved everything vintage, and more importantly, shared Marty’s sense of adventure.
The duo decided that Nevena would head up the custom boot business and you’ll find this down-to-earth woman in the small workshop filled with both historic cowboy boots (boots once worn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are there) and over-the-top creations destined for the feet of stars and millionaires world-wide.
When I visited, Nevena proudly showed me a pair of rather large bright red boots being custom-made for a very tall rap star. On another workbench, the silvery boots with sea life swimming around on them caught my eye. They were being made for a Houston seafood restaurant owner.
Seeing the shop and the work done there is a must-do while in El Paso, the “Boot Capital of the World.” They are open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. But call ahead if you want a tour or a custom fitting.
3: Ride the Vintage Streetcar
You’ll see the bright and shiny green restored PCC streetcars tooling around downtown and up to the University District. Hop aboard, sit back, and enjoy the tour. It takes you on a 4.8-mile route in two loops through El Paso’s uptown and downtown areas, giving you the chance to check out the neighborhoods and businesses along the way. Hop off anywhere you wish and go exploring.
The day I hopped aboard, there was no charge for the ride but they were collecting money for a memorial to the victims of the tragic shooting at the Wal Mart in El Paso. I had a friendly chat with the streetcar driver who shared with me the highlights of the ride in between furiously clanging her bell at the cars that stopped on the tracks in front of the streetcar.
The El Paso Streetcar offers unique onboard events like live music and story hours.
4: Dine Mexican at L & J Cafe
Another must-do when in El Paso is to dine on traditional Mexican food. And everyone suggested the L& J Café, just a short Uber ride from downtown. The ride-share left us off at the door, country music was broadcast outside, a vintage neon sign lit the night, and there was a short line. We went in and ordered drinks at the bar (don’t be surprised, the Margaritas are wine-based).
The restaurant, with a kind of rambling, dive-bar atmosphere, was filled with families, workers stopping in after their shifts, and the iconic guy in a cowboy hat. We were seated quickly and soon found out why “everyone” recommended L & J. They’ve been there since 1927, right across from the graveyard, the last resting place for some gunslingers and Old West lawmen.
The waiter was friendly and helpful. Soon we were savoring our appetizers—creamy queso and house-made guacamole and chips. By the time our huge entrees arrived, we weren’t quite “starving” anymore but dove into one of their specialty dishes—marvelous green chile and chicken enchiladas.
Of course, since we were trying their food for the first time, we had to have a dessert. We opted for their rather light Tres Leches cake.
By the end of the evening, we agreed, L & J is THE place to go in El Paso.
5: Walk Across the Border
Many people work and live on opposite sides of the border. The people in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez may see the border, and its checkpoints, but feel that the flow between the two cities creates a feeling of unity. Barriers between the two cities are not wanted and creative ways of saying that spring up. One event held at the border wall, which exemplifies this feeling, was the “Teeter Totter Wall,” an art installation that temporarily placed teeter-totters between the bars of a border wall. Children on both sides had a great time playing on the pink see-saws.
Another popular event is the International 10 K, a run that involves both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and crosses the border.
There is a pedestrian bridge between downtown El Paso and downtown Juarez. For a first-timer, a walking tour might be the way to go. Most any person can give you directions to the pedestrian bridge that connects Santa Fe Street in El Paso and Avenida Juárez on the other side. There are secure, pay parking lots on the El Paso side where you can leave your car. Once over the bridge, you can catch a taxi if you want to venture farther into town. There is a small charge to walk the bridge each way (50 cents or less).
Walkers probably won’t be asked for a passport but you should have it on you for the return into the U.S. If you have Global Entry you’ll breeze through!
I’ll be writing about all there is to see and do in Ciudad Juarez, but many go over just to have lunch at the historic Kentucky Club Bar and Restaurant (Avenida Benito Juarez 629). This establishment touts that the Margarita was developed there.
Margarita history aside, it’s a pleasant and fun place to go with attentive waiters and marvelous Mexican food. They are open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. but for newbies, I’d suggest doing your border crossing in the day or early evening.
6: Take in a Sports Event
Baseball and soccer fans can enjoy a game at Southwest University Park, home to the Triple-A baseball team, the El Paso Chihuahuas and the Locomotive Soccer team.
Chihuahua dog owners will want to check out the team shop for merch with cute chihuahua graphics.
7: See a Show at The Plaza
The historic Plaza Theatre was built in 1930 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and is still operational today. Inside the restored theater, you’ll find intricately painted ceilings, mosaic-tiled floors, decorative Spanish-style metal railings, and antique furniture.
The Plaza’s Mighty Wurlitzer Blaban III Organ is one of only six ever made and can simulate 15 different instruments. The Plaza Theatre holds weekly tours, open to the public, on Tuesdays at 12:00 p.m.
8: Follow the Mission Trail
Three missions along a nine-mile trail will take you through 350 years of area colonial history. On this drive, not far from central El Paso, you can visit the oldest churches in Texas. All of them still serve as community centers and Mass is celebrated on a regular basis. The religious observances are a mixture of Catholic and indigenous traditions.
On our tour, I was surprised to find out that the Tigua Puebloan people, with one of the missions on their land, were actually part of the Isleta Pueblo in Mexico until after the Pueblo Revolt when they were captured by the Spanish and forced to walk south for more than 400 miles.
The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is one of three federally recognized Native American tribes, and the only Pueblo, in the State of Texas. Thirteen miles from downtown El Paso, Ysleta, Texas has been home to the Tigua people for more than 300 years. You can visit the Ysleta Cultural Center and learn how these Puebloan people came to Texas, and about their rich culture and traditions.
The final mission on the tour is the San Elizario Mission and historic area. The mission was originally constructed in 1789 by the Spanish for use as a fort and the mission was the chapel for the military and their families. Also in the historic district of San Elizario is a museum, shops, and galleries, and the popular Old El Paso County Jail Museum. The San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society operates the museum and it is open daily, Tuesday through Sunday.
If you are there on the third Sunday of the month in March through November, you might get to see a Billy the Kid re-enactment. While people think Billy the Kid broke out of this jail, he actually broke in to try and get his friend out! When you see the thick iron cell doors and the adobe walls, you’ll wonder how anyone could break out.
There are annual celebrations and feast days at the three missions that would be worth seeing if the dates coincide with your trip to El Paso.
9: Get Coffee at the Box
When I arrived in El Paso, I was told that for great coffee, go to “the box.” Wondering what a Coffee Box might look like, I walked the short blocks over near San Jacinto Plaza to find container boxes made into a coffee shop.
They tout pastries made by one of the best local chefs, craft coffees (check out their Charcoal Latte) and interesting teas. Outside, the Coffee Box sports a colorful mural and is often the subject of Instagram photos.
10: Relax at a Rooftop Pool
Conveniently located in the downtown arts district, the Courtyard by Marriott served as my home base for exploring El Paso. I could walk to the ballpark, convention center, and theater. The spacious lobby area served as a bar in the evening and breakfast café in the morning. The hip décor was inviting and the staff, very helpful. But a real draw, especially after a day of exploring El Paso, is the rooftop outdoor swimming pool, an excellent place to relax.
When You Visit El Paso
El Paso is the largest U.S. city on our southern border. Many people live on one side of the border and work on the other side. There is a constant flow of people, commerce, and entertainment between both cities. Here are some tips for visiting El Paso:
- El Paso is known as “Sun City” for having year-round sunny weather and offers opportunities to do outdoorsy things like hiking and biking, so plan for some outdoor recreation.
- When you visit El Paso, bring your identification and plan to cross the border for an afternoon or a day.
- Although El Paso seems different from many Texas cities due to its strong relationship with Ciudad Juarez, just steps away, it is a safe, fun city to explore.
- Be sure and look through the Visit El Paso website and download the El Paso Visitors Guide for ideas on where to stay, what to do, and things to see in this vibrant border town.
For more information on traveling in Texas, have a look at our articles by Wander writers.
Note: The author toured as part of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) during the annual conference in El Paso. As is common in the travel industry, some of the accommodations, meals, and tours may have been partially subsidized. While that has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.