SITUATED at the intersection of Texas, Mexico and New Mexico, El Paso is a city with a distinct flavor. It juxtaposes authentic Mexican culture with a growing hipster scene, and though it’s one of the largest cities in Texas, it still often ends up as a mere pit stop on I-10. Once the storied heart of the Old West (and playground of Billy the Kid), El Paso has recently gained much of the big-city feel of its neighbor across the border, Ciudad Juárez. It has come into its own with new theaters, restaurants and nightclubs, many of them transplants from its sister city, the epicenter of the Mexican drug war.
1. WINE COUNTRY
Though El Paso’s summers, with days that often reach into the 100s, may seem an unforgiving setting for grape-growing, it turns out that zinfandels take quite nicely to the sun. Stop by Zin Valle Vineyards (7315 Canutillo La Union Road; 915-877-4544; zinvalle.com) or the neighboring La Viña Winery (4201 South Highway 28; 575-882-7632; lavinawinery.com) for generous wine tastings (free at Zin Valle or $5 at La Viña). Both sit along the historic Don Juan de Oñate Trail, a section of El Camino Real, which marks the route that Oñate, the explorer and conquistador, forged in 1598 to settle north of the Rio Grande. A drive down this road reveals majestic pecan groves and vast fields of cotton, chile peppers and corn.
2. EAT LOCAL
With Juárez right across the highway, it’s a no-brainer that El Paso has always been a prime spot for Mexican food. And though enchiladas and tortas still prevail, the past few years have begun to see a locavore, foodie culture spread through the city. And why not? With plenty of undeveloped land still surrounding El Paso, there’s room to cultivate nearly everything. Tom’s Folk Cafe (204 Boston Avenue; 915-500-5573) epitomizes the new El Paso dining scene, and the tiny restaurant would feel at home in Brooklyn with its local meat, veggies and breads, wine-bottle candlesticks and nouveau Southern food. After an order of hush puppies stuffed with pulled pork ($14), try an oversized burger with Brie, bacon and blueberry jam ($10.50) or pan-seared snapper with crawfish ragout ($20).
3. INDIE SCENE
New music venues are part of El Paso’s night-life scene, and with the Coachella music festival to the west and Austin City Limits festival to the east, El Paso could be on its way to becoming a hot spot on indie bands’ tours. The Lowbrow Palace (111 Robinson Avenue; thelowbrowpalace.com) caters to the college crowd and regularly features local bands as well as touring acts. Tricky Falls (209 South El Paso Street; 915-351-9938; trickyfalls.com) is a brand-new music space in a gorgeous historic building; right above it is Bowie Feathers (209 South El Paso Street; 915-351-9909), a bar and hipster haven with black leather booths and funky wall art that also hosts musicians.
Since Mexico’s drug war pushed night life over the border from Juárez to El Paso, new bars are packed with thirsty customers. Choose among drink specials at Hope and Anchor (4012 North Mesa Street; 915-533-8010; hopeandanchorelpaso.com) on the large back patio strung with lights and paper lanterns, or if beer is your thing, go down the street to the Hoppy Monk (4141 North Mesa Street; 915-307-3263; thehoppymonk.com) and try one of the 70 or so craft brews on tap.
5. FARMERS’ MORNING
Drive into the desert for brunch at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing (1 Ardovino Drive; 575-589-0653; ardovinos.com) — and if it’s warm enough (which it often is, even in winter), hang out on the patio beneath the big, blue sky. A recent brunch included a prickly pear mimosa ($5.50), caramelized grapefruit ($2.50) and Jackpot Waffle topped with chicken, bacon and sautéed apples ($12). Leave room for red-wine-infused ice cream with chocolate cake ($9) and watch the train rumble by at the foot of Mount Cristo Rey. If you’re here between May and October, check out the adjacent Farmers’ Market, which features local produce and artisan crafts with local flair. Pick up ocotillo-flower soap ($4.50), a jar of raspberry chipotle jam ($8), or some edible desert delicacies, like cactus fruit or yucca.
6. DESERT TRAILS
El Paso’s beauty stems from the inescapable mountains that surround the city. Head to the Franklin Mountains State Park ($5; on McKelligon Canyon Road; 915-566-6441; tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/franklin-mountains) to hike desert mountain trails replete with cactuses, agaves and lizards. Explore McKelligon Canyon if you enter the park on the east side of the city, or begin a trail from the Transmountain Road entrance on the west.
7. ARTS AND CULTURE
A serious push over the last few years to revitalize the downtown is finally bearing fruit. Renovated historic buildings are getting their due, and a spate of fresh establishments is breathing new life into classic El Paso haunts. Visit the free El Paso Museum of Art (1 Arts Festival Plaza; 915-532-1707; elpasoartmuseum.org) for its collection of Southwestern and local artwork, right next to the Plaza Theater (125 Pioneer Plaza; 915-534-0600; theplazatheatre.org). The pride of El Paso when it opened in 1930, the Plaza experienced a decline in the ’50s and a near-demolition in the ’80s, but the theater has recently made a triumphant return as a beautiful, colorful setting for Broadway shows and the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. For a taste of (more lowbrow) local flavor, wander down El Paso Street, which is lined with pawn shops and Mexican stores full of cheap clothes, cowboy boots and oddities. Pancho Villa’s dismembered trigger finger has a going rate of $9,500.
8. COCKTAIL HOUR
Historic El Paso lurks in its old, classy bars. Have a mojito beneath the rotunda of vintage Tiffany glass at the Camino Real Hotel’s Dome Bar (101 South El Paso Street; 915-534-3000; caminorealelpaso.com/dining), or settle in with a top-shelf drink or cigar at the luxurious, nearly 100-year-old Café Central (109 North Oregon Street; 915-545-2233; cafecentral.com).
9. SHARING TAPAS
Across the street from an old locomotive on display in the downtown entertainment district is a cobbled block of dimly lighted restaurants. Tabla (115 Durango Street; 915-533-8935; tabla-ep.com) leaves little to be desired with its modern décor, a rotation of custom-infused liquors and an extensive menu of tapas. Its mantra is “share,” and after sharing pork confit with goat cheese polenta ($12), grilled asparagus with Serrano ham and salsa verde ($8), and huge pieces of bruschetta loaded with smoked salmon ($10), you’ll also be sharing exclamations of delight.
10. DANCE, DANCE, DANCE
Locals used to flock across the border on weekends to fill upscale Mexican nightclubs, but the clubbing scene has lately shifted to downtown El Paso. The brand-new Lotus (201 North Stanton Street; 915-503-2335; lotusep.com) is a sleek and ultramodern club with three floors, two separate D.J.’s and a huge Buddha sculpture presiding over the dance floor. The nearby Garden (511 Western Street; 915-544-4400; thegardenep.com) has a daytime dining patio that is transformed into an outdoor club on weekends.
11. BORDER-TOWN BRUNCH
Pile green chiles, chorizo, avocado and chipotle onto eggs and serve with a side of black beans, and you have a true Southwestern breakfast. A surprisingly chic spot in a nondescript strip mall, Ripe Eatery (910 East Redd Road; 915-584-7473; ripeeatery.com) stands out for its Southwest Scramble ($9) and Brisket Ranchero Eggs Benedict ($11). Wash it down with a cold Chelada (beer, Bloody Mary mix and lime, $4.75) and then stop by Valentine’s Bakery (6415 North Mesa Street; 915-585-8720) for an assortment of delicious Mexican pastries — and at 80 cents apiece, you might as well try all of them.
12. 2 COUNTRIES, 3 STATES
Take a ride along Scenic Drive, which winds through the mountains with views of the city and deposits you near the Wyler Aerial Tramway (1700 McKinley Avenue; 915-566-6622; tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/wyler-aerial-tramway). This is one of the only public trams in Texas, and the four-minute ride to the peak of the mountain ($7) ends in panoramic views of the convergence of two countries and three states (Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico).
IF YOU GO
Built 100 years ago as the ultimate in luxury, the Camino Real Hotel (101 South El Paso Street; 915-534-3000; caminorealelpaso.com), with rooms from $69, still preserves much of its prestige and history in the original, vintage lobby bedecked with chandeliers and ornate golden molding. During the Mexican Revolution, guests would gather on the hotel’s rooftop to watch battles play out below.
The DoubleTree Hotel (600 North El Paso Street; 915-532-8733; doubletreeelpasohotel.com) with rates starting at $84, is a new addition to El Paso’s downtown skyline, and its rooms and public terrace provide wonderful views of the city.