Las Vegas is all about over-the-top glitz and having fun — and about that fine line between naughty and nice that’s earned the place its “Sin City” moniker.
Some people love it; others find it appalling. The latter come out of curiosity and often find themselves simply overwhelmed, especially by the Strip, where much of the action takes place. (And the massive CityCenter complex is particularly astonishing, even by Vegas standards.) But beneath the glare of the neon lights lies much to explore, including world-class restaurants, tropical pools awash in tan bodies and pulsing music, designer shopping, top-rated spas, and mega-shows in mega-theaters — all surrounded by a stunning desert landscape.
For a time, Vegas was creatively marketed to families. Not surprisingly, the city’s wilder side won out, and today most marketing is geared toward adults (e.g. “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”). That doesn’t mean kids can’t be wowed and families can’t have fun — as long as parents are aware that this is no Disneyland. Children are not allowed in casino gaming areas (the gambling age is 21), and kids under age 18 can’t walk the streets without an adult after 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends because of a city curfew.
Visitors should be aware it gets hot here in summer, as July and August temperatures regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (forget the “It’s a dry heat” argument; it’s still hot). But the sun shines year-round, and in winter the climate can be pleasant if you time it right, downright cold if you don’t. Fall and spring are the best times to visit weather-wise.
Most visitors are immediately drawn to the Strip, though the relatively un-modernized Downtown area offers a compelling taste of Old Vegas (think older hotels, cheaper meals and local crowds). If you’re concentrating your travels on one portion of the city, you don’t really need a car, though be advised there are great distances between some of the casinos. There are double-decker buses that stop at most major resorts, a monorail system, a torrent of taxis and ridesharing services, and raised pedestrian walkways. But if you want to explore the whole area, including sojourns into the desert, a rental car is recommended.
Las Vegas Attractions
The Strip is a four-mile, often traffic-clogged stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. Some of the world’s largest hotels — including the Venetian/Palazzo duo — are on this stretch. Head outside after dark and you’ll be treated to a show that includes volcanic eruptions (Mirage), dramatic dancing fountains (Bellagio) and an illuminated Eiffel Tower replica in half-scale (Paris). Yes, it’s tacky. But you won’t see anything like it anywhere else.
We suggest that walkers start at Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, which is pretty much the center of the action. Head toward the Egyptian-themed Luxor and you’ll pass iconic eye-catchers like CityCenter (which includes the Aria Resort & Casino, the breathtaking Cosmopolitan hotel, the Shops at Crystals and a host of other properties), Caesars Palace, Bellagio, Bally’s, Paris, New York-New York and the MGM Grand. Put on your walking shoes, as the trek is 1.95 miles. Or head in the opposite direction to the Wynn Las Vegas and its Encore sib, and in just under a mile you’ll pass by properties including Harrah’s, the Mirage, the Venetian and Treasure Island. Another popular route is from the Wynn Las Vegas to the Bellagio (or the reverse), a distance of just over a mile.
Downtown is home to the Fremont Street Experience, an entertainment area located where the state’s first gaming license was issued. The area features the world’s largest slot machine, a zipline, free light shows, food and trinket kiosks, and a collection of neon signs, courtesy of the Neon Museum.
Thrill seekers will find plenty of attractions to get their adrenaline pumping, including the Big Apple Coaster at New York-New York and the Adventuredome indoor theme park at Circus Circus. But literally nothing tops the Stratosphere Tower, home to some of the world’s highest thrill rides. Take a trip up the 1,149-foot tower for the view from the observation deck, spin over the edge on Insanity, dangle over the Strip on the X-Scream or get catapulted upward on the Big Shot. The latest high-falutin’ heart-stopper is the SkyJump, an 829-foot controlled freefall over the edge.
For high-speed thrills, head over to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where there’s always some kind of race going on.
On the more serious side, visit the National Atomic Testing Museum to learn about the history of Nevada’s atomic test site and its famous mushroom clouds. You can explore re-creations of the test sites and see and hear first-person accounts about them.
If you’ve got kids in tow (or if you’re a kid at heart), the hands-on DISCOVERY Children’s Museum is the solve a mystery like a detective or come up with creative ideas like an inventor.
Eat your way around town with Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, which will point you in the direction of Sin City’s yummiest eats. Consider Savors of the Strip, a three-hour evening tour that includes samples at five prime restaurants, or the Boozy Brunch, a 2.5-hour weekend experience.
If it’s magic and humor you like, you can’t beat Penn & Teller, who entertain audiences at the Rio Hotel. Other resident headliners around town include Terry Fator (of “America’s Got Talent” fame) at the Mirage and comedian/magician Mac King at Harrah’s. Grab an in-room magazine when you arrive to check out a full roster. To save some money, consider an afternoon show, or check out one of the numerous Tix4Tonight discount ticket kiosks scattered about town.
For mesmerizing performance art, head to one of the Cirque du Soleil shows playing across town. Offerings include “Mystere,” a dream-like presentation at Treasure Island; “O,” performed in and around a 1.5-million gallon pool of water at Bellagio; and “Love,” a transporting ode to the Beatles.
The family-friendly Blue Man Group entertains crowds at the Luxor Hotel and Casino. Three painted-blue men make music with PVC pipe, create laughs with scrolling LED message boards, and entertain with paint, marshmallows and toilet paper — all without saying a word.
Nothing says “Vegas” more than a tribute show, and the city is teeming with ’em. Top contenders include “The Rat Pack Is Back” (Frank, Sammy, Dino, etc.) downtown at the Tuscany Suites and “MJ Live” at the Stratosphere (enjoy Michael Jackson’s greatest hits and dance moves).
Get Outta Town
If you need a break from the all the excitement, consider a day trip to the Hoover Dam, a 30-mile drive southeast of Las Vegas (many tour companies offer bus and even helicopter trips if you don’t have a car). An elevator takes guests 500 feet down into the Black Canyon, where you walk through a tunnel drilled through the rock to view the 650-foot-long Nevada wing of the power plant with its enormous generators. See Hover Dam day trips from Viator.
Take a trip back to the Wild West at Bonnie Springs Ranch, about 22 miles west of the Strip. The 115-acre ranch has creaky boarded sidewalks, saloons, shows and even a train ride. Red Rock Canyon is nearby; it’s a perfect spot to grab some fresh air, take in the scenery or stop for a picnic. See Red Rock Canyon day trips from Viator.
Farther afield but well worth the effort are Death Valley National Park (about 120 miles northwest of Vegas), featuring stunning topography and the lowest point below sea level in North America, and the Grand Canyon (nearly 300 miles east). Many visitors book helicopter tours of the latter from Vegas, but savvier sorts bank a little time and spend the night to get the most out of their visit. Viator offers Death Valley excursions and Grand Canyon helicopter tours.
Las Vegas calls itself the marriage capital of the world for good reason: It’s an easy place to tie the knot, and lots of people do it here — a total of about 80,000 happy couples each year. If you want to hear wedding bells of your own, here’s what you need to know:
There are no blood tests needed to obtain a marriage license in Las Vegas, and there is no waiting period. Applicants need to be at least 18 years old, and not nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half blood. If you are divorced or under 18, be prepared for extra paperwork. All of the guidelines are available online.
Both partners will need to fill out a marriage license application, which you can do online in advance at ClarkCountyNV.gov. To obtain the license, you will need to provide your Social Security number and legal proof of identification (government-issued ID or passport).
After a license is issued, you must have a ceremony performed in the state of Nevada within a year from the date of issuance. The ceremony can be performed in any wedding chapel (they’re everywhere, and many are open 24 hours) or church, or at the Office of Civil Marriages, located at 330 South Third Street. Wherever the ceremony is performed, you’ll need one witness. If you don’t have one of your own, chapels often can provide one, while the Office of Civil Marriages won’t. But you can always trade witness duties with another couple — with an average of more than 200 weddings a day, you’re sure to run into at least one.
Las Vegas Restaurants
Vegas has become a city for foodies, and many big names on the culinary scene have Strip outlets, including Todd English (Olives at Bellagio), Mario Batali (Carnevino, an Italian Steakhouse at the Palazzo), Wolfgang Puck (CUT at the Grand Canal Shoppes, among others), Joel Robuchon (an eponymous restaurant at the MGM Grand) and Alain Ducasse (Rivea at the Delano).
Meanwhile, Vegas buffets live up to their lavish reputation, but don’t expect to pay $3.99 for all you can eat — evening foodfests at Strip hotels can easily top $20. You can save money by going midweek and doing breakfast or lunch instead of dinner. For cheaper eats, head Downtown, where the older hotels offer dinner for a pittance (look for discount coupons in tourist brochures), or opt for the 24/7 resort cafes instead of the boldfaced-name restaurants. Also, check out a happy hour (they’re everywhere) and fill up on half-price appetizers.
Emeril Lagasse adds spice to the MGM Grand with his Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, where the dishes include seafood gumbo and barbecue shrimp. He also kicks it up at his Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian, where you can enjoy tableside preparations of Caesar salad, and at Table 10 at the Palazzo, offering casual New Orleans dishes.
Chef-owner Thomas Keller (of Napa’s French Laundry fame) enlivens dining at the Venetian with his Bouchon entry, which serves up bistro classics in a relatively relaxed setting.
The Las Vegas movers and shakers have lunch overlooking the Strip at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris Las Vegas, serving French-influenced cuisine partway up the resort’s replica tower. Decadent seafood dishes and roasted rack of lamb with tarragon jus are popular splurges here. Reservations are a must.
For less extravagant fare, build your own burger at Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar at the Mandalay Bay, picking from meat choices that include Kobe or Angus beef and Australian lamb. (There are turkey, chicken and veggie options too.) Then choose from an amazing list of toppings — think pineapple, jalapeno bacon and even shrimp.
Sushi magic is performed under the guidance of Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Sleek New York decor meets dishes including creamy spicy crab and shrimp tempura (try the snickerdoodle toban yaki for dessert).
Fun, cheap and oh-so-relaxed, the San Diego import Hash House a Go Go offers mammoth portions of good ol’ comfort food at low prices — and locations are strategically scattered about town including at the LINQ Hotel and the Plaza Hotel.
Shopping in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is home to a full range of shopping opportunities, from vintage clothing to exotic cars. All the usual outlet, mall and designer shops abound, but Vegas has a lot to offer that you won’t see elsewhere — so it’s worth spending some time to seek out the things you can’t find at home.
In the heart of gambling America, how could visitors not check out Gamblers Book Club? The shop stocks just about everything ever written about gambling and shares a Downtown location with Gambler’s General Store, where you can pick up everything from used decks of cards from various casinos to that vintage slot machine you need to complete your game room.
For a taste of area music, check out the dedicated local band section at Zia Records, which has two Vegas locations.
Or take home a little of the magic of a different kind of performance. At Houdini’s Magic Shop, which has locations in town at several casino-malls, you can stock up on tips, tricks and magic supplies.
Get your sugar fix at M&M’s World, where you can customize the beloved candy with your own name or personal message.
If you’re a fan of the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” you’ll want to check out the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. It’s located Downtown on South Las Vegas Boulevard, within walking distance of the Fremont Street promenade.
–written by Fran Golden; updated by John Deiner