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Lost in the headlines from across the border, El Paso remains the country’s safest big city and, perhaps, its least discovered.

Perched on the western tip of Texas, just across the Rio Grande from Juárez, El Paso is known as the “Sun City.” Indeed, the blue sky over the Chihuahuan Desert is almost always cloud free, while the hilly landscape underneath is filled with an alternately rugged terrain and an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, along with students from the University of Texas at El Paso, working cowboys, local musicians and soldiers from Fort Bliss. With the Juárez Mountains in one direction (letters on the mountains spelling out “la Biblia es la verdad, leela”) and the Franklin Mountains in the other, the vibe in the border town is a mix of old west (cowboy hats are not worn ironically) stirred with heavy Mexican influences and a heapin’ helpin’ of college-kid energy.

For a good weekend in El Paso, you’ll need about 48 hours, a comfortable pair of hiking shoes and a large appetite. And maybe an extra bag to bring home some good loot.

EAT
Crave Kitchen and Bar
300 Cincinnati Ave.
(915) 351-3677
A great place to get your bearings on the first night is Crave. This trendy local boite on the west side of town, off the main drag, Mesa, is the perfect place to get started. The outdoor patio is usually stocked with well-heeled women, their slouchy designer handbags heaped on the patio next to Chloe wedges. This is the spot to get your trendy night on, with specialty cocktails (try a Jalapeño Margarita or a Rosemary Watermelon Fizz) and hearty fare (chicken and waffles are a Crave signature, but I recommend the 808 burger, with Hatch chiles and pineapple). Grab a drink at the bar and talk to some locals. On the way out, be sure and pick up one of several local free magazines that highlight the city’s thriving live music scene.

Dome Bar
101 South El Paso St.
(915) 534-3010
At the end of the day (perhaps after a trip to the El Paso Museum of Art, right across the street) or the beginning of a great night (maybe before a meal at Cafe Central, down the street), the bar at the El Camino Real is the place to reflect or plan. Inside the oldest hotel in the Southwest (it’s a National Historic Landmark, built in 1912) is the Dome Bar. Look up. The ceiling is actual Tiffany stained glass, two stories up. The bar is both swank and soaring and the drinks are poured deep. They know what they’re doing here—GQ named the Dome one of the 12 best places in the world to get a cocktail. During the week, it’s filled with business travelers but on weekends the locals turn out for the El Camino Real’s signature mojito, served with a rock candy stirrer.

L&JCafe
3622 E. Missouri Ave.
(915) 566-8418
When visiting any town, you want to find the spot where locals eat lunch. “The old place next to the graveyard” is it. Indeed, this El Paso standard is across the street from the Concordia cemetery. But be patient; you will have to wait. There’s good reason for the line out the door: mole enchiladas, caldillo (beef and potato stew with green chiles) and, for the carbo-phobic, tortilla-free enchiladas. It’s a little bit of a drive over to the east side of town, but the food and the local color are worth it. Sit at the bar, grab a Tecate and chat up some locals. Afterwards, check out the random goodness at the thrift shop next door.

Hiker in the Franklin Mountains, overlooking west El Paso and Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dennis McElveen.

Hiker in the Franklin Mountains, overlooking west El Paso and Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dennis McElveen.

HIKE
Franklin Mountains State Park
1331 McKelligon Canyon Rd.
(915) 566-6441
The best way to end a weekend in El Paso is to get outside. Take the 10-minute drive to Franklin State Park, park the car, and start walking up. There is an extensive network of hiking trails in the largest sustained mountain range in Texas. Stop after the gate to grab a trail map and talk to a park ranger. Let the ranger know how long you want to hike, and he can recommend the right trails for your skill level. Novices, take note of the “beginner’s loop,” which includes the “lower sunset” trail and offers 5.6 miles of breathtaking views. Some of the trails are loose rock, so be sure and wear proper hiking shoes. And be sure to look down.

SHOP
Shopping in El Paso is a mix of high and low, western and Mexican, and requires a little bit of driving. But, like the city itself, the results are charming.

Starr Western Wear
112 East Overland Avenue
(915) 533-0113
In historic downtown El Paso, around the corner from the El Camino Real hotel, the nearly-a-block-large Star Western Wear is the city’s destination for raw-denim Levi’s, pearl-snap Western shirts and ten-gallon Stetsons. It’s also a place to pick up a handful of well-priced and unique souvenirs, such as rugged-cool Nocona wallets and copper horseshoe key chains—the best $8 spent in all of El Paso. The store is a stop for farmers and ranchers from both sides of the border—notice the display of ranch brands burned into the walls. Take some time to peruse the array of cowboy hats. They make for good Facebook moments.

Second Hand Market Casitas
Placita Santa Fe 5034 Doniphan Dr.
(915) 585-9296
Thrifters rejoice! On the edge of town is a little shopping center with a great mix of $20 Mexican pottery, $40 kitschy paintings and a Hoarders-amount of secondhand junk. If you get some thrill out of a hunt, it’s worth it to spend an afternoon out at the Casitas. Take your time and find a perfect one-of-a-kind souvenir or gift. The inventory is always changing, but expect a good selection of handmade jewelry, silver furnishings and vintage china. The hours for each casita vary, and, take note, most stores don’t open until 12:30.

Cinco Puntos Press
701 Texas Ave.
(915) 838-1625
El Paso’s signature publishing house, Cinco Puntos Press, has been printing bilingual fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books on social justice issues around the world since 1985. The owners and founders are novelist Lee Merrill Byrd and poet Bobby Byrd. Their brightly colored storefront is hard to miss on a lonely downtown street. Inside, nab a few children’s books as gifts (recommended: The King of Things/El Rey de las Cosas) and maybe find a new favorite author. All the books are created on the premises. Bonus: Cinco Puntos also sells prickly pear cactus soaps.

The multi-colored, multi-cultural Cinco Puntos Press. Photo courtesy of Cinco Puntos Press.

The multi-colored, multi-cultural Cinco Puntos Press. Photo courtesy of Cinco Puntos Press.

El Paso Museum of Art store
1 Arts Festival Plaza
(915) 532-1707

Through the bright blue entrance are works by such well-known artists as Donald Judd and Diego Rivera. (Note: On the third Thursday of the month, the museum offers drinks and live music.) After a stroll through the galleries, head to the museum store, which has some of the best shopping in El Paso. Inside the store are some of the usual museum store finds—coffee table books, artsy board games, wacky jewelry—and some unusual goods: handcrafted Mexican art that could be mistaken for museum works and what might be the sleekest clay chicken you’ve ever seen.

Rocketbuster Boots
115 South Anthony St.
(915) 541-1300
There’s really only one way to explain the kind of multicolored boots that sell for $5,000: They are the kind of boots worn to the Country Music Awards. With a showroom filled with boots made from kangaroo leather, adorned with crystals and Native American motifs, a stop by Rocketbuster boots is a one- of-a-kind experience. Which makes sense, as they only make one-of-a-kind boots. Each pair, with a price starting at $850, is made by hand and on-site. Be sure and check out the largest pair in the store—and in the world. They’re size 328D and are in the Guinness World Records.

 

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