If you think you hate Las Vegas, you might be blinded by the lights on the Strip. No local will dispute that the city you see in TV shows and movies is over-the-top. There are tourism-board slogans to thank for that image, too. If you have no interest in playing blackjack, popping bottles or wandering a convention floor on your company’s dime, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing for you here. You’d be wrong.
As I learned while living in Vegas for 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. And there’s an often-overlooked community that makes this tourism machine run 24/7. Here are some tips for your visit.
Find non-casino hotelsLas 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. 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.
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.
Explore the outdoorsIf 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.
But it offers hikes for every skill level. Erin McDermott, executive director of Friends of Red Rock Canyon, 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, as cell service is spotty or nonexistent. McDermott suggests finding scooter, e-bike or driving tours. 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.
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.
Discover a funkier VegasOne 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.
Eat off the StripYou’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.
Chinatown, marked by an archway on Spring Mountain Road, comprises more than three miles of markets, karaoke bars and Asian restaurants.
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.