Sin City is not all it seems. Beyond the intoxicating whirligig of casinos, concerts and costumed performers, local neighbourhoods are blooming with street art, while hiking trails offer desert vistas.
Published July 16, 2022
• 15 min read
This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Las Vegas is a monument to human ingenuity and vice; capitalist performance art let loose in the outer reaches of the Mojave Desert; a neon-lit oasis existing solely to entertain us. Each year, up to 40 million people visit the city of just 635,000 residents that’s home to the world’s biggest tourist trap: the Strip. Many travellers might feel predisposed to dislike Sin City for its brashness, its lurid aesthetic, its populist appeal — but I find its unique brew of hedonism and heart intoxicating.
My first stop is the residential Arts District. In March 2020, when casinos on the Stripwere closed for an record six weeks inresponse to the pandemic, the focus shifted to other neighbourhoods. Consequentially, here and in Downtown, local artists were hired to paint murals. Today, Frida Kahlo smiles down on me on a Main Street full of small businesses, including craft breweries and vintage clothes shops. Many Americans are now moving to Vegas; it’s not just the sunshine, good salaries and affordable housing that lure them, but the thriving culinary scene and community feel.
The Vegas that most visitors flock to is the Strip, a cartoonish theme park of a boulevard serving up a sensory overload. As a blonde American gondolier sings to me, beautifully, in Italian, as she paddles me around The Venetian Las Vegas hotel, it dawns on me: this place isn’t meant to be authentic; it’s a world of make-believe.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real thrills to be had. At dusk, I drink delicious cocktails covered in glittery pop rocks, at a bar made to look like a fantasy facsimile of 19th-century Europe; I watch The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil, and am brought to tears by its intensity; then, almost as a rite of passage, I forfeit the contents of my purse to a slot machine. There are worlds here to explore, and, when it comes time to leave, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
To entice new people to visit and others to return, Las Vegas continues to grow and change, launching bigger casinos, more exotic restaurants and sexier shows. Dozens of new attractions and events will open this week and dozens more the next. Vegas rolls with novelty and innovation, and the house always wins.
See & do
Cruise The Strip at night: Where else can you find a pyramid-shaped hotel shooting a beam of light into space, a shimmering, half-size Eiffel Tower and a thousand dancing, lit-up fountains, all within a four-mile stroll? Join the throngs for the must-see, most Vegasy part of Vegas: the Strip. The bridge linking the MGM Grand and New York-New York Hotel & Casino has some of the best views over the cacophony of neon lights. Next, weave through audacious, air-conditioned casinos where slot machines chortle and ping, snapping photos with costumed staff — from feather-clad dancers to Roman legionaries.
See a show: There’s always something new on (Katy Perry, Sting and Usher are some of the musicians set to perform this summer), but there are classic residencies, too: opt for magician Criss Angel or the Blue Man Group for an evening to remember. The fiveCirque du Soleil shows currently playing, each at a different resort, are unique to Vegas, with over-the-top, water-based O being the hottest ticket.
Experience Fremont Street:North of the Strip in Downtown, this is the original gambling district — and it could easily feel like a 1970s time capsule but for that fact the world’s largest (1,500ft long) video screen serves as a canopy, covering all five blocks. The gambling and entertainment hub capitalises on the area’s seedy roots: here, electric guitar players busk next to lingerie-clad women holding signs proclaiming ‘dances for cigarettes and vodka’. Continue east, and you’ll come to the open-air section of the street, the Fremont East District, which brims with bars and restaurants.
Explore AREA15: Discover alternate universes at this vast, immersive entertainment zone. They include Omega Mart, a ‘supermarket’ where a fridge leads to an alien world of slides and staircases. Expand your mind in the mirror rooms of Wink World, or head to Lost Spirits Distillery, where an immersive distillery tour takes you through a recreation of 19th-century London. Next door, newly opened Illuminarium offers virtual safaris, undersea adventures and more, via ‘video transport technology’.
Visit ‘foreign cities’: Las Vegas serves up the European dream in spades. Crooning gondoliers paddle punters past a replica Saint Mark’s Square at The Venetian Las Vegas, while at the new Vanderpump à Paris restaurant at the Paris Las Vegas hotel, settle into a belle époque sofa for cocktails served in Louvre Pyramid-shaped glasses. You can also time travel: sample ancient Rome at Caesars Palace, or the era of the Egyptian pharaohs at the Luxor Hotel & Casino. For a conceptual hop across the US, grab a drink at a corner bar off Times Square at theNew York-New York Hotel & Casino.
Day trip to the Hoover Dam: This 726ft-high dam provides electricity to around 1.3 million households. Visit the Boulder City-Hoover Dam Museum before taking a tour of the inner workings of this engineering masterpiece. Adjacent Lake Mead has myriad tours, from cruises on a Mississippi-style paddle steamer to kayaking. It’s all a 40-minute drive from the Strip.
Fergusons downtown: The rooms of this former motel host local artists and fashion designers, as well as artisans selling handmade T-shirts, soap and more. There’s also a cafe, a regular pop-up craft market and the Vegas Test Kitchen, where local chefs can try out their recipes during three-month residencies.
Shopping malls: Casino winners love to spend their spoils at high-roller malls like the Grande Canal Shoppes or The Shops at Crystal. Fashion Show Las Vegas is a mall for clothes hounds looking to dress to impress, while at opposite ends of the city,Las Vegas North and South Premium Outlets are where to go for brands from Prada to Levi’s.
The Writer’s Block: Need to get away from the lights and the hubbub of the Strip? There’s no better place than this bookshop, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, potted plants and aroma of freshly ground arabica wafting from the coffee shop.
Golden Nugget: Lovers of kitsch will adore Fremont Street’s most distinctive hotel. Rooms are run-of-the-mill, but amenities include a swimming pool surrounding a fish tank, and one of the most lively and colourful casinos on the ground floor. Don’t stay here if sleep is a priority, but fun is right on your doorstep.
Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace:This sumptuous hotel is hidden away inside the massive, bustling Caesars Palace, making it feel like a secret and serene oasis. The Japanese aesthetic adds class and creativity to the good-value rooms.
ARIA Sky Suites: Superlative in both its physical height and luxury, these ultra-modern, apartment-sized suites offer a dedicated concierge service, pool access and deluxe airport transfers. The expansive views over the city from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the bedroom, dining and living rooms are postcard-perfect.
Famous Foods Street Eats:This globe-trotting food court has everything from sushi and fried chicken to authentic Southeast Asian noodle dishes. At night, slip into the well-hidden speakeasy — the discrete entrance is behind a shelf lined with lucky cat figurines.
Esther’s Kitchen:When renowned chef James Trees opened his restaurant in the Arts District in 2018, people thought his choice of location was lunacy. But the food — simple, Italian-inspired fare with a focus on fine ingredients — attracted so many accolades that Esther’s Kitchen sparked a wave of interest in the neighbourhood. Don’t miss the sourdough bread with a whipped basil ricotta topping.
Delilahs: Get your Great Gatsby on at this ritzy supper club where a diva belts out jazz tunes under crystal chandeliers to tables of finely dressed diners. The beef wellington is a rival to Gordon Ramsay’s and there’s a strict no-photo policy, owing to the fact that many celebrities like to spend their evenings here.
Atomic Liquors: Opened in 1952, Las Vegas’s oldest bar was a favourite watering hole for workers at an atomic bomb test site 50 miles away. It’s said that nuclear explosions could be watched from the roof, and it later became a hangout for the Rat Pack.
Lake of Dreams:At this surreal lakeside show at Wynn Las Vegas, hop between three cocktail bars: the opulent Overlook Lounge, Asia-inspired Bar Parasol, and Aft Cocktail Deck, which has superyacht vibes. The cocktails mixed here by Mariena Mercer Boarini are as creative as they are delicious, and you’ll have the surreal perk of being serenaded across the lake by a giant, mechanical frog.
Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub: Celebrity DJs spin EDM, house and hip hop amid light shows to crowds of up to 5,000 revellers dancing the night away. It morphs into a day club in the morning when the party rolls on in infinity pools and at an outdoor party deck.
Like a local
Take a hike: Las Vegas has outstanding desert hiking, with many trailheads under an hour’s drive from Downtown. Try the 2.2-mile trail from Calico Tanks into Red Rock Canyon, which winds over pink sandstone hills and ends at a magnificent viewpoint overlooking the Strip.
Chinatown:This three-mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road, commonly known as Chinatown Vegas, is lined with strip malls. But behind this shabby veneer are some of Vegas’s most interesting bars and restaurants. Head to kitschy The Golden Tiki, where any drink can be set on fire for $1 (80p); the Sand Dollar Lounge for blues and occasional surprise performances by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons; or restaurants like Shanghai Taste for authentic xiao long bao.
Arts District: Covered with murals by local artists and famous for its monthly First Friday street festival, which features live music and food trucks, this up-and-coming neighbourhood is the place to go for craft beer, art galleries and eclectic shops.
Getting there & around
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer nonstop daily flights from Heathrow. Other carriers such as Iberia, American Airlines andUnited Airlines offer one-stop flights via US hubs.
Average flight time: 10h30m.
It’s possible to explore most of Las Vegas’s main attractions on foot, by taxi or by monorail. The latter is the best way to travel around the Strip, with a two-day pass costing $29 (£23).Many hotels outside of the centre offer free shuttle buses to the Strip. For sights further afield, book a tour or rent a car from companies such as Sixtand Budget.
When to go
September to October and March to April have the most comfortable temperatures and clear skies. Peak summer (June to mid September) can be scalding, with temperatures climbing to around 38C, while December to February can cool to as low as 7C, with more chance of rain.
Visit Las Vegas
Fodor’s Las Vegas, £14.99
How to do it
Five nights in Las Vegas with Audley Travel costs from £2,230 per person. The price includes economy flights, accommodation on a room-only basis in a Luxury King Suite at the Venetian Las Vegas, a Downtown food tour and tickets to a Cirque du Soleil show.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue ofNational Geographic Traveller (UK)
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