If you think you hate Las Vegas, you might be blinded by the lights on the Strip.
“Our official advertising has been: We’ve adjusted the rules so you can party all night. But there’s a lot more nuance to the city,” said entertainment columnist John Katsilometes, who has lived in Vegas since 1996. “It’s not just people carrying a three-yard margarita down the Strip.”
As I learned while living in Vegas for nearly four years, there’s so much beyond the four-mile stretch of fountains, ringing slot machines and faux landmarks.
You’ll find hiking that rivals popular Southwest destinations, a growing art scene and award-winning food from chefs who aren’t named Gordon Ramsay or Bobby Flay. And there’s an often-overlooked community that makes this tourism machine run 24/7. These are just a few of the reasons I’ve been back five times since I moved to D.C. more than a decade ago.
If you profess to loathe Las Vegas, this guide is for you. You can visit the city without spending a single dollar on a table game (I never have) or eating at an overpriced steakhouse.
Let the conversion begin.
Las Vegas is a hotel town. It’s not an Airbnb town — or not in the way you think. You won’t find lots of little homey apartments to rent like you would in D.C. or New York.
That doesn’t mean you have to snake through the smoky gaming floor of a mega hotel-casino to get to your room. I often opt for Vdara, a hotel and condo tower on the Strip. Some owners list their units on rental sites for lower rates than the hotel, and you can also avoid the dreaded $45-per-night resort fee. The latest one I rented included free parking. Overall, I saved hundreds of dollars.
Vdara is nonsmoking, nongaming and every room is a suite with a kitchen. It’s steps away from luxury casino-hotels such as the Cosmopolitan, Bellagio and Aria, where Vdara guests have access to even bigger pools than the one at their home tower — clutch on 100-plus-degree days.
I’ve recommended similar options to friends, such as the Signature, a non-casino hotel with suites and condos attached to the MGM Grand. If you want to go all out, the Waldorf Astoria and Four Seasons are other casino-free options. For more of a boutique style, there’s the English, a new hotel downtown by chef Todd English.
If the lights of the Strip are the first thing you notice when landing in Vegas, the mountains are surely the second. About 20 minutes from the Strip is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area — nearly 196,000 protected acres of red sandstone peaks and limestone that have become a booming destination for rock climbing.
According to Erin McDermott, executive director of Friends of Red Rock Canyon, more than 4 million people visit each year.
“It’s so fun that I can see John Legend on the Strip one day, and the next day go out to Red Rock and have a national park experience,” McDermott said. The area’s popularity is growing, she said, thanks to social media and famous climbers such as Alex Honnold, who highlighted his move to Vegas in the film “Free Solo.”
Don’t let its rock-climbing reputation scare you; there are hikes for every skill level. McDermott recommends the Moenkopi trail, which is about two miles and connects to the Calico area (a favorite of mine because of its concentration of red rocks). For more experienced hikers, McDermott suggests the six-mile Windy Peak hike. Reservations are required October through May for the 13-mile scenic loop drive.
Ride-hailing can get you to Red Rock’s visitor center, but getting a ride back can be a challenge, McDermott said; cell service is spotty or nonexistent. If you don’t have a rental car, McDermott suggests finding scooter, e-bike or driving tours, such as Pink Jeep.
If you have a rental car, consider Valley of Fire State Park. A chance to see petroglyphs carved by Native Americans at least 2,000 years ago is well worth the hour-long drive from the city. The ¾-mile Mouse’s Tank hike (more like a walk) is one of the best ways to see them. Then do the spectacular drive through the valley that will make you feel like you’re in a car commercial.
Of course, there’s more beyond these desert landscapes. Mount Charleston, about an hour from Vegas, offers skiing in the winter and a cooler escape during summers. You can also kayak Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam.
Yes, the heat is dry but the warmer months are brutal, so explore in the morning. McDermott suggests bringing more water than you actually need, along with lots of sunscreen and a hat.
On a weekend afternoon, gallery and shop owners in the communal Arts Factory have their doors open while music pumps from a drag brunch at the Garden. People drink microbrews on patios while the smell of smoked meats from SoulBelly BBQ fills the air.
You almost have to ask yourself: Am I in Austin or Vegas?
One of the biggest changes in Vegas in recent years has been the explosion of the Arts District. Originally 18 blocks between the Strat Hotel and Casino (the space needle-looking one) and Fremont Street (“old Vegas”), the neighborhood of galleries, thrift stores, restaurants and bars has almost doubled in size, Arts District president Abby Stroot said. Murals cover once abandoned and industrial buildings where new owners have moved in. They still coexist with auto and upholstery shops and long-standing antique shops.
“The core of the Arts District is small business. … It’s people who are passionate about what they do, their business, community, and that’s really what started,” said Stroot, whose sewing business Pincushion began in the district.
The area is constantly changing, Katsilometes said. “If there are few months between visits, there are things down here that are going to take you by surprise.”
Katsilometes noted the boom in performance spaces in the Arts District and downtown — a side effect of when performers from Strip productions had to get creative during the pandemic shutdown.
The Arts District alone is home to the Majestic Repertory Theatre and Particle Ink — both immersive experiences in different ways. AREA15, off Interstate 15, is a giant mixed-use space devoted to virtual reality, rides and interactive art. Downtown, Cheapshot hosts raunchy, circus-like performances in an intimate space.
“People don’t think Vegas has culture, and I think that is so wrong,” Stroot said.
Restaurant heavyweights flock to Vegas. Instagram-famous Carbone? It’s at Aria. Three Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon? Bring your formal wear. Guy Fieri’s Kitchen and Bar? You can dine in his college town. But you’ll find most locally loved (and owned) spots away from the Strip.
Lotus of Siam may already be on your radar. James Beard-award-winning chef Saipin Chutima’s Thai restaurant specializes in northern dishes with an extensive wine list. Its current location on Flamingo Road is a quick Uber from the Strip, or a long walk if you feel motivated. The original restaurant — inside a strip mall on Sahara Avenue with the Green Door swingers club — is under renovation.
Chinatown, marked by an archway on Spring Mountain Road, comprises more than three miles of markets, karaoke bars and various Asian restaurants. Some perpetual recs from locals include Raku sushi, the kitschy Golden Tiki, and Sparrow + Wolf, though the food at the latter is a mix of new American, not Asian.
After a day of hiking on my last visit, I stopped at Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina, a small Mexican spot in the Arts District, recommended by locals, with 11 tables that were full and had others waiting on a Sunday afternoon.
Esther’s Kitchen, a few blocks away, was on everyone’s list. It is unassuming from the front, and don’t let street construction deter you. Inside, pasta is made fresh every morning, along with sourdough loaves that rest on racks outside the kitchen. The best part of the meal was listening to my server — a Vegas native — talk about how the neighborhood has changed.
As Ryan Doherty, who runs several bars and restaurants downtown, reminded me: Vegas is a hospitality town, which sets it apart from other cities.
“I think we have some of the best service in the world here,” Doherty said. “In L.A. … that server is waiting for their callback. This server, it’s their career.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could easily spend thousands of dollars on bottle service at a nightclub in one trip. I promise you’ll have a truer local — and more affordable — experience downtown.
“We are always telling people, ‘Hey, it’s $50 to get into that nightclub, but if you take a $20 Uber to the Arts District, you can get in instantly to any of the bars down here,’” Stroot said. The area includes the Jamaican cocktail bar and restaurant Jammyland, the vintage-inspired Velveteen Rabbit and the dive-y ReBar, home of $3 beers.
If you’ve ever walked through the Fremont Street Experience, you may have gotten to the end of the lit-up canopy and turned around. Doherty said that changed around 2016, when there was just enough twinkle to get visitors to cross into Fremont East. Doherty’s Corner Bar Management group has been a key part of the growth in the area, opening seven venues in the city in the past two years.
Commonwealth, the group’s original bar downtown, has a rooftop overlooking El Cortez, the hotel and casino once owned by mobster Bugsy Siegel. Inside is a speakeasy called the Laundry Room — once an actual laundry room — where guests agree to rules, like no talking politics or religion, before entering the tiny, dark bar.
It’s a stark contrast with Corner Bar’s newest venue, We All Scream, a colorful and ice cream-serving nightclub. There’s more, and no two venues serve the same crowd. They sit beside longtime favorite bars including Atomic Liquors, Downtown Cocktail Room and the Griffin.
In a city that often implodes its history to make room for the shinier new things, the Neon Museum is an important part of preserving the past. The nonprofit preserves neon signs and tells the evolution of Vegas through them.
“Las Vegas is a city like no other in the sense that we build up, and we tear down. We are so focused on innovation that the subject of history preservation can be overlooked,” said Neon Museum executive director Aaron Berger.
Visitors can get as much or as little of a history lesson as they want: There are guided tours and virtual experiences, or you can just straight-up book a photo session for your Instagram.
I toured the museum’s Neon Boneyard on the city’s 117th birthday (purely coincidence), guided by Frank DeFrancesco, who is Vegas born and raised.
Berger said one of their goals is to tell the story of underrepresented people. A massive piece in the museum’s collection is the bright pink Moulin Rouge sign, which DeFrancesco tells us was the first desegregated casino — open only for six months in 1955. It later became the site of a meeting to integrate all Vegas casinos.
The Neon Museum’s oldest sign is from the Green Shack on Fremont Street — advertising steaks, chicken and cocktails — either from 1933 or 1934, DeFrancesco says, after prohibition. One of its biggest treasures is the 188-foot-tall Hard Rock Casino and Hotel guitar, which tunes itself with a sequence of neon lights.
Ask Berger what Vegas sign he’s eyeing the most, and he’ll tell you the Hacienda Horseman — a man riding a bucking horse in the downtown area. Berger said he believes the 1940s sign shows the first person of color depicted in neon.
Beyond the Neon Museum, you’ll find history scattered throughout the valley, including pop culture anomalies like the Burlesque Hall of Fame in the Arts District and hundreds of games at the Pinball Hall of Fame, with machines dating to the 1930s. You can also explore the valley’s earliest days at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort — the first non-Native American settlement — or the city’s dark past at the Mob Museum.