I’m one of these weird people who visits Las Vegas and doesn’t really spend much time near the Strip.
I know, I know — what’s the point right?
Well…I prefer to lose my money in different ways than gambling (see: shopping), I have family in the city, and I’ve left my clubbing days where they belong…back in my twenties. And honestly? The locals’ Las Vegas is cool AF (except when it is literally scorching hot outside), there’s so much to offer visitors and natives alike.
And there’s so many big events in Vegas all year round, like this weekend’s Life is Beautiful Music & Arts Festival. And really, in Sin City, there is no lack of feeling that life is grand. It’s a city of hopes and possibilities. After the tragedy last year at Route 91, Las Vegans showed they are truly a strong community, and that they’re resilient and proud.
Obviously, if you’ve never been to Vegas before or if you’re there for some sort of celebratory shenanigans, by all means, strip ’til you drip. See: the Hangover. But as a warning, don’t sleep on the other parts of the city because you’ll be missing out on delicious ethnic eats from all corners of the world, arts and design rivaling any coastal cities, and architectural and natural delights all around.
Viva Las Vegas!
The first time I went to Las Vegas was when I was 4 (and I’ve probably been 20+ times). I’ve stayed at many of the properties, from ghetto to fabulous. LV has certainly evolved, growing from a few shady hotels and strip clubs dotted along Las Vegas Blvd (remember Imperial Palace, Dunes and Tropicana? I do!) to the mega fantasy luxury family destination it is today. The city has grown outward into a sprawling metropolis with thriving suburbs. With this urban development comes people from everywhere looking to stake their claim, which means a lot of homegrown business and opportunities.
First of all, there are some cool AF hipster coffee shops here. Downtown Las Vegas is the cool, old school part of town from the arts district to Fremont Street (where you can get the raddest shots of neon lit casino marquees). The Fremont Street Experience (Life is Beautiful adjacent) is a cool one, historic casinos like the Golden Nugget and Four Queens intermix with newer offerings like the D and ziplining attractions.
Downtown there’s Frank Gehry designed medical offices, the huge World Market furniture center, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and Downtown shipping container center, featuring the coolest and probably only fire-breathing iron praying mantis in the world.
But first, coffee and brunch.
PublicUS has it all (read in Stefon voice): red chinese lanterns, bearded men, avo toast, robots, crossadas, and the best damn mint cream iced coffee ever (giving Philz coffee a run for its money). This is a place you’re going to want to go after an all nighter.
And while you could spend all day poolside at Mandalay Bay (totally acceptable to do so), you should hit up some shopping while you’re in town. From the high, high end boutiques in every hotel (Wynn, Bellagio, Forum Shops, Palazzo) to the fairy tale mall of your luxe dreams at Crystals at Cosmopolitan to the kitschy world’s largest gift shop Bonanza gifts (I love this place) you could literally shop ’til you drop.
And since you’re here, make sure you take advantage of the outlet situation. Belz, Charleston, even 40 miles away to Primm at the NV CA border; outlet shopping is an institution of the California to Las Vegas road tripper, and is a tradition not to be skipped. Those Coach purses ain’t gonna buy themselves, people.
Spend your afternoon meandering along the strip if you must: see the Bellagio fountains, travel in style on the Linq ferris wheel, maybe even catch a glimpse of Siegfried & Roy’s white tigers and friends at Mirage.
Snap a pic of the Eiffel Tower, ride in the Gondolas at the Venetian, peep the animatronic Roman statues at Caesar’s, thrill yourself with the top of the world roller coaster at Stratosphere, or try to win a giant gorilla at Circus Circus. Grab some NY/LA snacks (Momofoku, eggslut, Blue Ribbon, Beauty & Essex, shake shack, Pink’s, Serendipity 3), from any number of hotels.
Searching for something more sophisticated? Enjoy the afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental, peruse the art gallery and Chiluly pieces at Bellagio, post up in a pink cabana at Drai’s in the Cromwell, or test your high limit at Wynn/Encore. So many options.
It is a supreme understatement when I say that Las Vegas has good dining options. I mean, they have an outpost of every celebrity chef on the planet, people who have earned Michelin stars upon Michelin stars. If you have had a good showing at the tables, Joel Robuchon (or Atelier Joel Robuchon), Guy Savoy, Picasso, Michael Mina, Aureole will undoubtedly and assuredly take your money back. There’s no short list of fine dining.
If you’re looking off strip and local: Echo & Rig in Summerlin is a steakhouse amongst boys. Lotus of Siam is literally everyone’s favorite Thai restaurant (except for those in the Le Thai corner). Vintner Grill is both business-y and romantic, which is my kind of place. Rachel’s Kitchen has fresh, simple foods (think wraps, pastas and juices) that you may need…to cleanse your innards after hard livin’. There’s Casa Don Juan if you want to keep the party going with family style, lively Mexican fare. And don’t even get me started on Asian food. It is tops.
Asians love Las Vegas = lots of Asian food. Hey, you gotta give the people what they want. We’re talking udon (Cafe Sanuki and Oodle Noodle), Korean BBQ (Hobak, Arirang, Biwon), pho places galore (Pho So 1, Pho Kim Long, Pho Saigon 8–hot tip, pho is the best hangover cure), Sam Woo peking duck, dim sum (Orchid Garden), boba shops for days, binchoyaki and izakayas and ramen oh my! Monta Ramen ftw. There’s even Japanese dessert shops (Sweets Raku and its accompanying sushi sister Raku). Just head down Spring Mountain Road, you won’t be disappointed.
I mean, you can’t eat buffet at every meal (Bellagio, Bacchanal at Caesar’s, Wynn, Aria, Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan)…or can you?
The best thing to do in Vegas is to see a show: beyond the multitudes of Cirque du Soleil shows (I’ve fallen asleep during 2, but people love them), there’s the favorites?: Penn & Teller at Rio, Blue Man Group at Luxor, Thunder Down Under at Excalibur. I miss the old school David Copperfield and Lance Burton types, Criss Angel ain’t cutting it for me. RIP Danny Gans.
Nowadays, Vegas brings serious star power: Celine, Jennifer, Mariah, Boyz II Men, Britney, Gwen, Rod, Backstreet Boys, and soon GAGA and Aerosmith for residencies. And there’s big fights happening almost every weekend, along with the Vegas Golden Knights and soon to be Raiders filling up the calendar as well.
Even better is that world class DJs spin all night in their residencies: Zedd, Tiesto, Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki — the nightlife world is your oyster, Vegas. It’s almost worth it just so you can say the ridiculous names of these clubs: XS, Intrique, 1OAK, Hyde, Omnia (too close to amnio if you ask me), Hakkasan, Drai’s, Marquee, Apex. Hilarious.
I josh, but I’ve been to more than a few former iterations of these clubs in my day. Like that Portugal the Man song, live in the moment and come back Sunday morning, right? Just don’t Panic! at the Disco and Imagine Dragons.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, make sure you see Las Vegas Boulevard at night at least once on your trip. It is a magical place at night with neon and sparkle and shiny wonderment all around. It is a city that doesn’t sleep and it is beautiful.
Anyway, when you finally drag yourself out of bed the next morning, pick your poison: you can go hiking! Or you can brunch. If you’re me, you’re doing both.
Red Rock and Mount Charleston are the beautiful geologic wonders around the city, a truly scenic area to explore. Make sure you pack a lot of water, you’re probably already dehydrated from the previous night, let’s not make it worse.
After a morning hike, treat yo self! Cafe Lola is the instagrammiest little coffeeshop, but it’s not all about looks. Their breakfast sammie is way better than it has to be for a place that has a flower wall and neon letters. I mean, this is Elan Cafe 2.0, Summerlin, LV style.
For the afternoon, take it one of Vegas’ unique attractions: maybe visit the Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation of colored stones that can be seen from the I-15, it’s about 20 minutes out of town. It’s like a rainbow millennial Stone Henge, as it were.
How about the Mob Museum or even exploring Pawn Stars treasures at Gold & Silver Pawn? If you’re lucky, you may even see Chumlee. Or, maybe something super different and very Vegas: the Neon Boneyard with all the old school Vegas signs.
One last destination that I discovered on my last trip to Vegas was one of the hippest rabbit holes, Gabi Cafe in Chinatown. There’s no sign, there’s a medieval looking huge wooden door, but what awaits inside is really surprising.
It’s like a different world in there, a literary cafe complete with a greenhouse, a bar made of books, slides and birdcages…and it’s so whimsical and the antithesis of the Sin City vibe. It’s really great, and very representative of the transportive properties of this city. You never know what unexpected moments await you here; so go ahead and jump headfirst into things. It’s always an adventure seeing where you’ll end up.
Listen to: Viva Las Vegas by Elvis, obviously. Wayne Newton, Rat Pack hits, Rilo Kiley & Jenny Lewis jams, Ne-yo, the Killers, Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco, Neon Trees.
Famous Las Vegans: Jimmy Kimmel, Jenny Lewis, Charisma Carpenter (where my Buffy fans at), Andre Agassi
Suggested souvenirs: a great story to tell when you get home or not, whatever happens here, stays here 😉