These packed areas highlight the darker side of Sin City

Las Vegas isn’t only a destination for gamblers. Trade shows, conventions and festivals lure visitors to the desert metropolis year-round. If you read a typical compilation of top Vegas tourist sites, it will invariably include the Strip — with its dazzling lights and random assortment of imitation structures — and the Fremont Street Experience, a valiant attempt to bolster Sin City’s aging core with its own light spectacle, live music and ziplines. If you aren’t heading to Vegas primarily to casino-hop, however, you can skip both spots without regret.

The Strip isn’t entirely devoid of charms, such as the dancing fountains of Bellagio, swaying to the horns of “In the Mood.” But if you keep marching with the nighttime sidewalk throngs — as snarled traffic belches carbon monoxide and mobile billboards and hooded hawkers peddle flesh in thinly veiled code (“discreet,” “20 minutes or less”) — any vestiges of a buoyant mood evaporate in clouds of desperation and cigarette smoke. The Strip is best experienced from afar, from a high hotel room window at Bellagio or the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas or Rivea restaurant atop the Delano Las Vegas hotel.

An even darker glimpse of the city’s seamy side lurks downtown at the Fremont Street Experience, which to me more resembles a zombie apocalypse. A Friday night visit seared these images on my memory: smoke-filled casinos, two scantily clad women (complete with whips) posing for dominatrix photos, a woman in a nun’s habit exposing fake breasts, endless peals of loud and drunken laughter, and homeless people trolling through the crowd with signs in hand and suitcases in tow. As we left, we passed a man leading a friend by the arm and promising, “Wait till you see Fremont Street . . . woo-hoo!” Woo-hoo, indeed.

Location: South Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Russell Road; Fremont Street between North Las Vegas Boulevard and South Main Street, downtown Las Vegas;

Find respite from Vegas’s noise, crowds and grittiness

For a more refreshing Vegas experience, seek out these two oases, one near-new and part of the city’s constant evolution, another two decades old but always changing with the seasons.

In a drastic departure from the traditional Vegas approach of cramming city visitors into indoor gambling venues, MGM Resorts International has invested $100 million into an urban outdoor venue right off the Strip. Known simply as the Park, it is anchored by a double water wall at one end and an oversize (40-foot-tall) stainless steel mesh sculpture of a dancing woman at the other. It provides a welcome space for visitors to escape the noisy throngs for a tree-lined stroll, or a beer and a bite, or bench-sitting and people-watching.

If the Park concept appeals, you can stay next door at the newly transformed Park MGM (formerly Monte Carlo), including the elegant rooms and suites of the top floors of the NoMad Las Vegas. You won’t go hungry: The latest outpost of Eataly, the glorious Italian food emporium, just opened at the Park MGM’s casino entryway.

Another green respite from the Strip is the two-decade-old Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden. Located in the hotel of the same name, it houses one of the best floral displays you will see anywhere — and it’s free, though sometimes packed with appreciative visitors. The display changes seasonally: In December, it featured a 42-foot-tall white fir Christmastree and toy soldiers standing guard before a rose-wrapped castle bridge; this spring (through June 15), it’s the pink and white blossoms of a Japanese garden. You can nibble on strawberry tall cake or the incredibly oversized triple-decker sandwich at the newly opened Sadelle’s, with views of the conservatory.

Location: Along Park Avenue between New York-New York Hotel & Casino and the new Park MGM;; inside Bellagio Hotel & Casino, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.;

Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

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