An Old West vibe, a location right along the Mexico border, and a mountainous setting all help to make El Paso, Texas, stand out among the state’s major cities.
While cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio may get more tourism and sightseeing hype, El Paso has a number of features that make it a unique Texas destination. For example, it is the only one of the state’s top cities to be situated along the Mexico border. It is also the only major Texas city that is surrounded by mountain ranges. And, located in the far western reaches of the state, El Paso is perhaps the Texas city that is most steeped in Western lore.
El Paso also is known for its extensive military history, which dates back to the U.S. Civil War era in the 1800s, and continues through today’s significant military presence at nearby Fort Bliss.
Adding another dimension to El Paso’s culture is the presence of the large University of Texas at El Paso, which sets itself apart as America’s largest Hispanic-serving university.
All of those features make El Paso a fantastically fun city to visit. The mountains provide a stunning backdrop and great hiking, and the proximity to the border guarantees that the Mexican cuisine is authentic and delicious. Also, while El Paso is large and sprawling with a population of nearly 950,000, the downtown retains a cool Western atmosphere.
Based on my experiences during a recent visit, here are 13 excellent things to do in El Paso, Texas.
1. Downtown El Paso
Downtown El Paso is wonderfully walkable, and I found that many of the main attractions are within an easy stroll from one another.
Located right in the midst of the Las Plazas Arts District is the picturesque El Paso Street, festooned with string lights and neon signs. In fact, the entire Arts District is a great place for a walk on a warm evening, and the area features a host of trendy places to stop in for a cocktail or appetizer, such as Anson 11 and Sabor.
Also nearby is Pioneer Plaza, with its statues, historic hotels, and the iconic Spanish Colonial Revival-style Plaza Theatre, which offers a regular schedule of live entertainment and Broadway productions. Once the center of downtown, Pioneer Plaza is still a vibrant spot, with groups of bicyclists on the streets and pedestrians filling the sidewalks.
2. San Jacinto Plaza
Just north of Pioneer Plaza is the San Jacinto Plaza, a lovely urban park at the corner of Oregon and Mills streets that features fountains, concessions, and sculptures.
Families gravitate to the plaza, which was refurbished in recent years and includes a splash pad, game tables, and a small open-air café. I recommend sitting at an outdoor table and trying one of the café’s specialties like cucumber lemonade (agua fresca de pepino), cucumber spears dusted with chile (pepinos con chile), or rolled tacos in red sauce.
Fun Fact: One of the fountains in the San Jacinto Plaza features a sculpture that commemorates the legendary alligators that once called the park’s pond home and were a major attraction for visitors in the early 1900s.
3. Dome Bar
Hotel Paso Del Norte, Autograph Collection
No walk through downtown El Paso would be complete without checking out the Dome Bar at the historic Hotel Paso Del Norte, Autograph Collection. With a circular bar and a 25-foot Tiffany-style glass dome as the centerpiece, the bar is a sight to see.
When I visited on a summer Friday night, the Dome Bar was buzzing with activity, with a piano player providing entertainment from the corner and customers chatting from the circular bar and surrounding booths.
Although all of the cocktails looked amazing, I loved the pretty pink-grapefruit mezcal paloma – especially after discovering that the El Paso-based founders of the mezcal, MaybeWest Mezcal, were seated next to me at the bar promoting their new label. It was fascinating to hear about the origin of MaybeWest’s product in the remote areas of the Sierra Madre in western Mexico, and then tasting the smoky woodfire flavor of the mezcal against the tart grapefruit juice.
4. Union Plaza District
For a bit of Texas railroad history, head to the Union Plaza District, the home of the El Paso Union Depot that was built between 1905 and 1906. The district is now a center for entertainment and nightlife downtown.
On Saturday mornings, stop by the Union Plaza area to take in the Anthony Street Downtown Artist and Farmers Market, where you’ll find a variety of local products like hand-painted metal mugs, paintings, and unique salsas.
5. El Paso Museum Of Art
A peek into the soul of the community awaits at the El Paso Museum of Art, a light-filled complex that houses a collection of more than 7,000 works of art – ranging from the Byzantine era to the present.
On the museum’s upper level, visitors are met with the gorgeous Beyond the Blue Door, a piece created by artist Sam Gilliam for the El Paso Museum. The billowing artwork combines various painting techniques of staining and splattering unique to Gilliam’s style. Exhibits inside include everything from paintings of the Madonna and Child to colorful El Paso street scenes to Mexican graphic art.
6. Additional El Paso Museums To Explore
Along with its active art scene, El Paso is home to a number of other worthwhile museums that help to tell the compelling story of the city that grew up along the U.S./Mexico border. Several of the museums worth checking out include:
El Paso Museum Of Archaeology
Billed as a place to “step forward into the past,” the El Paso Museum of Archaeology showcases 14,000 years of prehistory of the El Paso area, the U.S. Southwest, and northern Mexico. The museum tells a fascinating tale of the region through exhibits and dioramas showing the details of the lives of the Native American people, “From the Paleoindian hunters of the Ice Age to their modern descendants,” says the museum’s website.
El Paso Museum Of History
With a goal of preserving and presenting the border region’s “intercultural and multinational history, the El Paso Museum of History explores more than 1,000 years of history in the heart of El Paso’s Downtown Arts District. The museum is especially known for its unique interactive digital wall of history.
National Border Patrol Museum
Billed as the only one of its kind in the U.S., the National Border Patrol Museum illustrates El Paso’s unique place as an international border town. The museum covers a range of eras, including the Old West, prohibition, and World War II, and continues through to current operations. The museum’s exhibits feature weapons, paintings, documents, and photographs to tell the story of border patrol.
El Paso Holocaust Museum
Located in El Paso’s downtown museum district, the El Paso Holocaust Museum aims to teach the history of Nazi Germany’s horrific genocide of European Jews during World War II in an effort “to combat prejudice and intolerance through education, community outreach, and community activities,” says its website. The museum is one of 13 free-standing Holocaust museums in the United States, and it sets itself apart as the only fully bilingual Holocaust museum. Among the stories told at the museum are those of local holocaust survivors.
Pro Tip: Other significant historic and cultural sites in El Paso include the following:
7. Concordia Cemetery
Gunfight Capital Of The World
With several of the Old West’s most notorious gunslingers buried in the Concordia Cemetery, it’s no wonder that El Paso claims the title as the Gunfight Capital of America. Among those buried in the graveyard is John Wesley Hardin, who “is said to have more than 30 notches on his gun, evidence that no more dangerous gunman ever operated in Texas,” says the Visit El Paso website.
The cemetery, located not far from Interstate 10 in central El Paso, is a Texas State Historic site. More than 60,000 people are buried there, including members of the Buffalo Soldiers’ 9th and 10th Cavalry – regiments that saw combat during the Indian and Spanish-American Wars.
Pro Tip: Located just across the street from the Concordia Cemetery is the L&J Café, a local favorite that is famous for serving classic Southwestern dishes like green chile chicken enchiladas and chile rellenos.
8. Mission Trail
Located in El Paso’s Lower Valley, the Historic Mission Trail dates back 400 years and features three beautifully preserved adobe churches from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Ysleta Mission, established in 1682, is the cornerstone of the Ysleta del Sur Indian Pueblo. The trail also includes the Socorro Mission and the San Elizario Chapel, which was established in 1789.
Described as “a nine-mile stretch across time in El Paso County’s Mission Valley,” the scenic drive features the oldest churches in the state of Texas.
9. Authentic Mexican Cuisine
El Paso bills itself as the Mexican Food Capital of America, and there are countless spots to check out authentic Mexican cuisine.
In the downtown area, head to ELEMI, a hip spot on Kansas Street dedicated to sourcing heirloom varieties of native maíz (corn) from sustainable farming communities in Mexico. ELEMI’s tacos are great, but I especially enjoyed the esquites, a deconstructed Mexican street-corn dish that includes white corn, herbs, chiles, and lime aioli.
Also on Kansas Street, located at the street level of downtown’s Hotel Indigo, Mamacitas is a great spot for innovative and excellently prepared Mexican classics in a lively setting. Try the hearty and wholesome chicken tortilla soup, the shrimp tacos, or the Azteca rajas, a starter of layered corn tortilla, poblano peppers, corn, and Mexican cheese.
Fun Fact: A number of El Paso dining spots have been featured on Food Network programs. The list is featured on the Visit El Paso website.
10. El Paso Chihuahuas Baseball
When I arrived in downtown El Paso on a warm Friday evening in June, I was surprised to see the streets filled with people, many of whom were on their way to Southwest University Park, an outdoor stadium located in the middle of downtown.
I learned later that the stadium is the home of the El Paso Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team of the Triple-A West and an affiliate of the San Diego Padres. It looked like the perfect activity as the sun was setting over the Chihuahuan Desert, and I wished I had planned ahead and reserved tickets.
Southwest University Park is also the venue for a variety of other sporting events and concerts, and the ballpark’s convenient location near hotels and restaurants makes it a great addition to a visit to El Paso.
11. Franklin Mountain State Park
Looming over El Paso to the north, the rugged Franklin Mountains serve as an outdoorsy playground for the city. The Franklin Mountains State Park features 125 miles of multi-use trails that are especially popular with mountain bikers.
Trails range from the easy Nature Walk, a three-fourths-mile loop in the Tom Mays Unit of the park, to the strenuous North Franklin Peak, an 8-mile trek to El Paso’s highest peak, ascending to an elevation of 7,192 feet.
12. El Paso Zoo
Home to exotic animals from around the world, the El Paso Zoo is known locally as among the city’s best spots for a family outing. The zoo sits on 35 acres of green space and features attractions like the African Star Train, the Hunt Family Splash Pad, Foster Treehouse Playground, and the Hunt Endangered Species Carousel.
Pro Tip: Other fun things to do are available all over El Paso, including at the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, the El Paso Municipal Rose Garden, and the Western Playland Amusement Park with its popular steel roller coaster El Bandido. In addition, a variety of guided tours are available for exploring El Paso and the neighboring town of Juarez, Mexico.
13. Hueco Tanks State Park
Located about 40 minutes northeast of El Paso, the Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site makes a great day trip from the city.
Over the millennia, native people used the spectacular rock basins of the Hueco Tanks as a water source. Today, the region is a popular spot for hiking, rock climbing, bird watching, and stargazing. In addition, visitors can take self-guided or guided tours to view the rock imagery at the ancient pictographs.
When To Visit: Spring and fall months tend to be the most pleasant in El Paso, with March, April, September, and October posting average highs in the 80s Fahrenheit. Summers are hot, with average highs climbing well into the 90-degree range in June, July, and August, while the winter months are cool with average highs in the 50s and 60s.
Pro Tip: Located on the western edge of Texas, El Paso operates under Mountain Standard Time – the only Texas city to do so. That means that if you’re traveling virtually anywhere else in Texas you will need to switch from Mountain time to Central time.