First established in the 17th and 18th centuries, three historic Spanish missions provide a link to El Paso's colonial past. All three are among the oldest continually active missions in the country, and warrant a visit for their architectural and historic merit. But if you have time to hit only one, drive out to San Elceario; unlike Ysleta and Socorro, it's removed from the modern urban development and still feels like it's from a different era and culture.
From I-10, exit Zaragosa Road (exit 32) and head south 3 miles to Mission Ysleta, 9501 Socorro Rd. at Zaragosa Road (tel. 915/859-9848; www.ysletamission.org), established in 1682 in what was then Mexico. The silver-domed chapel here was built in 1851 after floods shifted the Rio Grande and washed away all of the previous structure, save the foundation.
Heading southeast on Socorro Road for 3 miles takes you to Mission Socorro (tel. 915/859-7718), established in 1682, 1 day after Mission Ysleta. The original adobe chapel (1692) was washed away by a flood in the 1740s, rebuilt, destroyed again in 1829, and finally replaced in 1843 by the current restored structure.
The most impressive of the three, Presidio Chapel San Elceario (tel. 915/851-2333) was established at its present location in 1789 as a Spanish military outpost 6 miles south of Mission Socorro on Socorro Road. Parishioners built the present-day church in 1877 as the centerpiece of the village plaza, which retains its historical charm to this day. This structure is the largest of the three missions, and an excellent example of the merging of American Indian and Spanish architectural styles with majestic arches and a pressed-tin ceiling. The surrounding village has been gaining fame in recent years as the site of "The First Thanksgiving," said to have taken place in 1598, 23 years before the Plymouth Thanksgiving.
Visitors are welcome to tour the missions on their own; expect to spend at least 3 hours if you visit all three.