“I can’t wait to get back to El Paso,” said the young man sitting in the next seat. He was flying back alone from a long weekend in California with his girlfriend. They’d spent time on beaches, played at Disneyland and relished fish tacos. Still home was calling, ‘There’s so much to do in El Paso,’ he said as we parted at the airport. He was telling the truth.
El Paso is a city on the verge. It’s not just the edge of the country, a short bridge span over the Rio Grande from Mexico, but it’s poised for glory. There’s an energy in the city that grabs you. The surprises include: a burgeoning craft beer scene, murals, a hillside of Bhutanese architecture, bike and running trails over mountains less than half an hour from downtown, a wine trail and vast green swaths of desert at the end of the monsoon season. The historical architecture downtown hosts bold lobbies by noted architects and retro, neon signs that still look new. Over three days I walked and drove, shopped and ate, drank and marveled from East to West. There’s still so much to see when you visit El Paso.
Downtown was the biggest surprise. Before I checked into my room at the sleek Hotel Indigo, rooftop lights caught my eye.
Less than two blocks away an expansive neon sign shone. Electricity, spelt out in tall glowing letters, sits on the top of the historic Martin Building. It’s an adaptation of the original neon work from the 1940’s and one example of the revitalization going on. Originally it spelt out: Use Electricity.
Original Use Electricity sign in downtown El Paso
Today the sign shines proudly from dusk to dawn. Local businessman, Lane Gaddy, is behind the renovation of the sign, and the building it tops, with a small group of local entrepreneurs.
Refurbished Electricity Sign in downtown El Paso
The Martin building has great bones and Gaddy’s turned it into a residential, commercial and retail blend, keeping the best features. He admits, “I love the juxtaposition of historic and old (features) contrasting with future and modern elements.” The Martin is filling up with downtown dwellers taking advantage of the great restaurants, theaters, shopping and services within walking distance of work. While his determination is taking time and persistence there’s still much to savor now downtown.
The original El Caminio Real lobby
Step into the El Camino Real Hotel, under arches created in an expansion from the 1970’s and you might miss the best features entirely. Walk past the stucco add-on and into a room overflowing with embellishments from the early Industrial Age. The original “Million Dollar” lobby, named for its pink marble and gold leaf, was supplanted and turned into the Dome Bar. Over a circular bar that rises in the center of the room, a giant dome refracts shifting light through petals of glass in faceted jewel tones. It rivals the sister Tiffany dome in Chicago and has been authenticated by the Library of Congress.
Tiffany dome in the El Camino Hotel
When the Camino Real Hotel was new guests could tip bell men and watch the Mexican American War raging across the border fron the rooftop. North American imperialism finally won and over time a wide bridge was built to bring commerce and workers between Juarez and El Paso. Tourists would shop and eat in the Mexican plazas. Goods moved freely. It all shifted, of course, when 9/11 brought border closures and then rival cartels began their reign of terror. Today things have calmed and business men like Lane Gaddy still move back and forth across the border daily. Gaddy sees glimmers that tourism is returning too. I was tempted to set up a day tour but there was so much more to see and my time to visit El Paso was short.
Building facades downtown in El Paso
Top of the Kress Building in downtown El Paso
One evening just before dusk my sister and I grabbed our cameras and took to the streets. Downtown architecture and vintage signage had me curious. We found a large Kress store facade looming next to one of the first independent Hilton ‘sky scrapers.’ It’s currently under contract with the Hilton Corporation for renovation into a multi-use facility. The days of architect Henry Troost are visible all around the main, San Jacinto Square.
Henry Trost designed the elements inside the Hotel Cortez
My favorite find? The Cortez Building. Stepping inside was a time traveling trip. So many details remain and still look new. There were alcoves in the main lobby set with vintage furniture and the elevator exterior was a wonder of artful tile work, brass and sconces.
Nearby the Plaza Theater has been completely renovated and I can’t recommend a tour or attending an event in the vintage performance palace enough.
A few blocks away the new baseball stadium is open on one side. A wrought iron gate stands between the field and street, where, as part of a compassionate civic mandate, those who can’t afford tickets can watch a game. It’s a short walk from the Chavez Theater, built to resemble a sombrero and the adjacent convention center.
Museum of History El Paso
Just north of the stadium, the Museum of History looms. It’s no stuffy showcase. Visitors first walk past the Digital Wall where, with a finger tip, they can touch a lengthy collage and open up notes from photographers, historians, culinary experts and artists. The vast art museum sits next to the Plaza theater filled with Texas creative works and rotating exhibits from both sides of the border.
The Rio Grande River marks the area still. Just outside of downtown since the 1990’s, Heritage Gardens volunteers have been working to preserve wetlands and native vegetation in a graceful park laced with trails featuring sculptures, ponds, and rock walls set with a gallery of mosaic murals. There are play areas and picnic tables, benches to sit and ponder upon, plus a raised platform over tidal pools that fill with migrating ducks and wildlife.
Looming over El Paso is the Franklin Mountain range. It’s inside the city limits! When you visit El Paso you must head for the hills. The mountains above town offer a network of trails and roads and it’s close. The Wyler Mountain Tramway winds up the east side and from the west, the Franklin Mountains State Park is a wildlife refuge. Outdoor experts like Don Baumgartner, founder of Geo Betty Tours, leads groups and bike rides. Climbers are fond of granite outcroppings. When you visit, bring plenty of water and snacks, better yet plan a picnic in one of the many shaded seating areas and scan the hills for goats and other wildlife.
Don Baumgartner, GeoBetty founder and guide in the Franklin Mountain State Park
Ivonne near the Sneed’s Cory climbing rock in the Franklin State Park
Once the trolley is back in service it’ll be easier to move from downtown to the University District Entertainment Center. The campus stands out from a distance as most of the buildings were built on dimensions from Bhutanese temples. Founded in 1914 the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy took its inspiration from Kathleen Worrell, wife of the first dean. She was fascinated with a National Geographic magazine photo-essay about the ancient kingdom and convinced her husband that the new campus be built in the same style.
Bhutanese Temple in the center of University of Texas El Paso
The homage is more than skin deep as many Bhutanese artifacts are housed there. The University sponsors bi-annual Bhutan Days and enrolls a growing number of Bhutanese students each year. In the center of campus sits an authentic Bhutanese Ihakhang, house of god, but it’s not there as a working temple. Made with no nails or modern machinery the building was slated for demolition after a show at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I walked around it and peered in windows. The campus and the temple are things of beauty and the closest I’ll probably get to the kingdom of Bhutan.
The biggest boots! Guiness World Record winners inside the Rocket Buster workshop. More about El Paso’s cowboy boot workshops in the next post!
Getting around when you visit El Paso:
From the airport: Visit the Airport Ground Transportation pages for schedules and options.
The Trolley Returns
Once El Paso and its neighbor Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River had reached a detente the two regions and countries worked together. They supplied each other with labor, jobs, shopping, restaurantes, tourism and an efficient transnational trolley line was in use before every family had a car.
Unfortunately once cars and freeways ruled, public transportation declined across the Americas. One reason for the El Paso – Juarez line’s demise is cecause it was “too successful!” A cross-border rivalry between merchants cut the service. Finally, in 1977, Mayor Ray Salazar ordered the El Paso trolley tracks removed.
If only those lines were still intact! New tracks are being laid and stations set. After retiring the line, a half dozen of the original Art Deco cars had been baking in a field near the airport.The good news is that by 2018 the historical Trolley system will be back in service with the line extended from downtown out to the University.
I’m looking forward to returning to ride and discover more when I visit El Paso again.
Next post we’ll be dipping into the craft brewery and food scene in El Paso. Subscribe and don’t miss a story!
Special thanks to Visit El Paso for making this trip possible.As always, all views are my own.
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Elaine J. Masters
Whether you're taking a short road trip or zipping across the planet, I'm be here to help. Learn from my years of travel for work and pleasure, solo, family and a few tours. The Tripwellgal mission remains: To help us connect with our beautiful planet and each other with care and wonder. Stay in touch and happy travels!
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I didn’t realize El Paso had so much to offer. It certainly looks well worth visiting. I was surprised to read about the Bhutanese temple and artifacts. Very interesting.
Thanks, Donna! It’s a fascinating place to be sure.
Thx for giving us a good look at the architecture and highlights of El Paso, Elaine. It’s been so long since I’ve been there, it all looks new to me! Love the photo of the lobby of the El Camino Real Hotel. It looks so stately!
You’re welcome, Doreen. There’s much to see and taste in El Paso. We just need to find you some chocolate experiences there!
I definitely want to explore more of Texas and El Paso looks like a fascinating place! Great photos and post, thanks for sharing 🙂 Happy travels!
Thank you, Carmen. There’s luxury there too!
I want those cow boy boots. Lol, This is a great post and I want to visit. Very interesting.
Why thanks, Christopher. I loved everything inside Rocket Buster, but afford the custom soles, another lifetime perhaps!
I’ve heard about El Paso before. From I can read, I’m sure it will become a very desirable tourist destination. In fact, I think it already is. Great hiking trails very close to the city center. Somehow it reminds me of Arizona.
I think there’s an elegance and nod to old world style that you’d really enjoy in El Paso, Anda.
I was just talking about what to do with all of my Southwest Rapid Rewards and El Paso came up. I didn’t know much about it, but now I’m on board. El Paso just made the short list.
I hope you visit. Watch weather for the best time that suits you.
You had me at Bhutanese architecture! That’s the last thing I expected to see in a story about El Paso. What a gorgeous city! I can’t get over how there’s such beautiful hiking and amazing architecture so close to each other. It looks like the perfect place to escape from the Canadian winter (as I’m based in Ottawa, I always have my eyes open for warm weather destinations 😉
I hope you do make it out of the Canadian winter and have some time explore more of El Paso and West Texas too.
I have to admit I haven’t heard of this place but it was interesting to learn so much about it. Curious to see so many interesting places. The spectacular elaborated dome was what caught my eye at the first and I can imagine walking around the round bar and enjoying the light coming through. It is probably quite the experience to be in such a historic building!
That Dome Bar has quite the Martini menu as well!
I love towns that are artsy and also look from another era! Looks like El Paso is a must see!
That downtown is filled with visions. Loved the artsy feeling of it all.
This city sounds so interesting, even feels like it could be the setting of a Stephen King’s movie. Love the way the curious parts of the architecture photographed, makes me want to see it for myself!
Cool idea, Mar, El Paso could be a movie set! The hills were probably featured in cowboy movies and the hotels could be sets for film noir remakes.
I admit I hadn’t given much thought about El Paso before but it looks like there’s a ton to do here.
I think you’d find it enchanting, Brianna. I look forward to returning once some of the renovations are complete. The old Hilton, the El Camino Real and Cortez are set for glamorous renovations.
Nice post about El Paso. I always thought, being a border town, it was a bit rowdy and crime-prone!
The old reputation still hangs on but those who avoid visiting are missing out. I think you’d enjoy it – in the cooler months especially.
I would have never thought to visit El Paso before, but this post makes me want to go. That Plaza Theater is beautiful. And that Bhutanese Temple looks amazing.
If you love vintage architecture, or the combining of old and new styles, you’d love what they’re doing with the place!
So I grew up in Dallas. I have driven though El Paso several times but I have not really explored it to be honest. Will have to reconsider that! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.
Cool that you’re from Dallas. It’s on my list. I hope you get a chance to explore El Paso one day. I loved everything about West Texas.
I like the Tex Mex vibe of this city. The hotel you stayed in looked so lovely. I’d like to visit.
The Hotel Indigo is definitely a great place to lay your head in El Paso. It’s also perfect for walking the downtown area. I hope you do visit.
El Paso looks like it has an interesting mix of history and culture. I love that locals like Lane Gaddy are keeping some of the original charm of the buildings and facades in the mix! Franklin Mountain State Park looks like a nice place for some scenic walks too!
Thanks, Kim-Ling, El Paso is one unique mix of delights for certain.
What a lovely little town – there really is so much going on. I love the giant cowboy boots and the renovated sign – a perfect combination of nodding to the past whist embracing the future!
Glad you enjoyed the post, Vicki. The city doesn’t take itself too seriously and the mix of old with new is very cool.
I had never really considered El Paso before, but your photos have really drawn me in. I had no idea there was so much going on. Awesome!
I bet you’d enjoy visiting El Paso, Jim. Summers are pretty hot but lots of outdoor concerts and activities keep things percolating year round.
What an interesting place, it’s always nice to visit places that have hiking trails so close to the city centre. They seem to be finding a balance in retaining their history and positioning themselves for the future.
Thanks, Toni. The city really charmed me, especially seeing it on the verge of being updated. So much effort is going into keeping the best of the past and blending it with the new. I think El Paso has found the right balance.
What a great mix of old and new with so much character in both. El Paso has never really been on my radar, until now!
You’d love all the activities in the Franklin State Park as well, Skye. The trails and climbing rocks are within a half hour of downtown!
I love the architecture and vintage feel! I never knew there was so much to do in El Paso! Definitely adding it to our places to visit list.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the post, Bryanna. Lots for families too.
Ok, so El Paso is not the first city I think of when I think of Texas but now you have planted some curiosity in me. I see Texas a little bit like I see California. Both states are really big. Therefore, great places and cities are scattered everywhere. I enjoyed reading your post. Next time, I am visiting Southern Arizona (Tucson area), I will continue towards El Paso.
I think you’re onto something, Ruth. Both California and Texas are huge states with a lot of variety. I hadn’t expected to be so charmed by West Texas and can’t wait to return to explore other areas as well.