Skip the Strip and Head Downtown
Almost everyone who vacations in Las Vegas stays and plays on The Strip, home of the mega resorts, casinos, and glittering entertainment. But, Downtown LV is where you should be. This is where Las Vegas got its start as a gambling and entertainment destination and some remnants of Old Vegas remain amidst the ongoing revitalization of the area.
A Short History
There is evidence that Native American peoples were in the Las Vegas Valley as far back as 10,000 years ago. Las Vegas is in the desert, so Native Americans didn’t settle here, although there are petroglyphs from nomadic tribes in the Valley of Fire.
The Old Spanish Trail, which wound from Santa Fe, NM to Los Angeles, went through present-day Las Vegas. Mexican traders and European explorers followed this trail. One of them, John Freemont (Freemont Street in Dowtown LV is named after him), wrote about the valley near Las Vegas which lured pioneers to settle there.
Mormons had a brief settlement in Las Vegas during the mid-1800’s, but it was abandoned and Las Vegas stayed a backwater until casino gambling was legalized in 1931. Gangsters like the infamous Bugsy Siegel built lavish casinos in Vegas and laundered piles of money in local banks. The casinos drew visitors from all over the world and Lost Wages prospered.
The city grew exponentially throughout the 20th century as developers abandoned Downtown and built mega hotel/casino/entertainment complexes on The Strip.
Foodie Downtown Las Vegas
There is no real food tradition in Las Vegas, unless you count the extinct $1.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. Or perhaps the legacy of Las Vegas cuisine is the open container of alcohol in public.
In reality, high-end cuisine in LV is dominated by out of town celebrity chefs who slap their names on restaurants along The Strip. That doesn’t mean these restaurants serve poor quality food, some do, but the menus are often over-priced. Of course, a little research can help. Best of all, eating and drinking Downtown is generally less expensive than on The Strip.
For me, the best reason to be Downtown is that it’s not The Strip. And to get a glimpse of old Las Vegas. The best example of this might be Carson Kitchen. The restaurant is inside the old John E. Carson Hotel, where it shares space with a tattoo parlor and pilates studio (Bugsy Siegel would be appalled.)
Inside, the restaurant’s décor is purposely sparse, but the food is to-die. This is the place to bring a group and share some plates, although no one is getting a bite of my glazed donut bread pudding.
Therapy, right on Fremont, is a foodie paradise. But, I could live exclusively on the Drunken Tofu with blistered shishito peppers and therapy duck IPA for a good two weeks straight. Vegetarians and vegans will be happy to see that several of the dishes can have meat subbed out for tofu. Even their salads, often an afterthought at many establishments, are interesting.
Or, get a taste of both Therapy and Carson Kitchen along with some other foodie spots and a dose of history on the Downtown Lip Smacking Tour. This tour is a great way to get a feel for Downtown and its culinary scene without having to get a meal at each of the great restaurants.
I’m a firm believer that you can often find the best restaurants in strip malls. That’s because the rent is cheap and it’s often the only space new immigrants can afford when they open a restaurant. And, new immigrants aren’t jaded by what food from their homeland should taste like. They just make meals like they did back home. Once, when a friend and I were roadtripping from Cleveland to Chicago we stopped at a hole in the wall joint in a strip mall for dinner. It was one of the best Indian meals I’d ever had.
Lotus of Siam’s original location is in a strip mall on East Sahara and it is my favorite Thai restaurant ever. Currently, that original location is closed for remodeling, but a second location, off the strip, but still a 5 mile jaunt from Downtown, is now open. People rave about the crispy duck, but for me the curries steal the show. My brother and I still talk about the meal we had years and years ago when we first visited Lotus of Siam.
Today, many Americans understand the wide variety of pizza styles available. From American styles of New York, Chicago, and Detriot-style pizza to Roman, Neapolitan, and Sicilian pizza in Italy, each has its own characteristics, toppings, and baking methods. Most pizza joints focus on a single style of pizza simply because making one region’s pizza requires only one kind of oven.
Pizza Rock defies convention by making a variety of pizza styles including New York, New Haven, Roman and Napoletanna. Brick ovens powered by electricity, by gas, and by wood, Pizza Rock has them all. And while there is a dizzying selection of pies, I stick with Margherita. Fired in a 900 degree wood burning oven, this pie uses 00 flour (yes, it matters), San Marzano tomatoes, Mozzarella, basil, EVOO, and sea salt. That’s it. And that’s all it needs. Experts agree because this pizza was an award winner in Naples, home of the greatest pizza makers in the world IMHO.
After a late night and perhaps a couple of cocktails (or more), nothing is better than a big, fat breakfast. Eat has you covered with that (huevos motulenos have cured more than a couple hangovers) and healthy eats, too. Steel cut oats? Check. Granola with yogurt and fruit? Check. And they’ve got sandwiches and salads if you’re not in the mood for breakfast fare. But, don’t dawdle, they’re only open til three on weekdays, two on weekends.
Things to Do In and Around Las Vegas
Classic Las Vegas is neon and slots. While most of the neon has been dismantled and trashed in favor of LED displays, I’m looking at you Freemont Street Experience, you can still pull a real slot machine and win a pile of real quarters at El Cortez. Opened in 1941 by the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, El Cortez is the longest continually run casino in LV.
El Cortez has recently been remodeled and although much of its Old Las Vegas charm was left intact, I still miss the smoke-stained drop ceilings and bad carpeting. I just hope the pit boss with the brown leisure suit and oversized Elvis sunglasses is still there the next time I go.
The D Casino has cheesy dancing dealers at their tables (this is Vegas, after all), but upstairs on the second floor is a true Old Las Vegas slots parlor. Just before the entrance is a classic oversized slot machine. While you can’t play it, it offers a perfect opportunity for a photo op. Inside, vintage slots line the room.
But, the best game is the Sigma Derby. D Casino has one of only two functioning games in Sin City (the other is at the MGM). The retro horse racing game pits players against eachother which makes it more fun and interactive than slots because of the social competition component.
The Golden Nugget also has a giant slot machine. This one is at the entrance to the casino. The bonus is that you can actually play this machine. The relatively new Theater Ballroom debuted in 1984 with Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra performing.
10,000 years ago, nomadic tribes roamed the valley and canyons near present-day Las Vegas. Besides hunting and gathering food, these peoples left behind a permanent record of their presence in the form of petroglyph artwork. The meaning of the carvings in the rocks could be related to quality of the hunting grounds (animals are represented in many petroglyphs), the environment, and the people. Others have unknown meaning.
There are several sites where you can see petroglyphs. Remember, this is the desert and you will be hiking to see the artwork. If you go, bring water and sunscreen. Hiking in the summer is not recommended as the temperature can rise well above 110°. Also, everything you bring into the parks should be taken out with you; no littering! Do not touch the petroglyphs. The oil on your skin can damage them. Likewise, no rubbings of the artwork are allowed.
Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire gets its name from the red sandstone that dominates the landscape. But with temperatures averaging over 100° in the summer, the fire can also be a nod to the scorching desert environment. The Valley of Fire Highway leads through the park and Atlatl Rock gives access via a staircase to a nice set of petroglyphs.
For a hike on flatter terrain, take the short hike to Mouse’s Tank. A great collection of petroglyphs are scattered along the trail.
Sloan Canyon is about a half-hour drive from Downtown and has a huge collection of petroglyphs concentrated in Petroglyph Canyon. Ask for directions to the petroglyph Canyon Trail (BLM 100 Trail) at the visitor’s center. However, the BLM employees on site may not be helpful in giving the exact locations of the petroglyphs due to recent vandalism. Note that this hike requires some scrambling over rocks. There is a longer, but easier trail as well (BLM 200).
Red Rock Canyon
While Red Rock Canyon is much better known for rock climbing and outdoor sports, there is a fine set of petroglyphs there as well. The short hike is easy, but a bit difficult to find. Park at the Willow Springs Picnic Area and follow directions laid out by the good folks at Bird and Hike to see the petroglyphs.
Old Mormon Fort
After settling in Salt Lake City, Mormons realized they needed the Old Spanish Trail to bring supplies to their new outpost. A settlement was built near what is now Downtown Las Vegas, and a stream in the desert was diverted to irrigate crops. The Mormon encampment lasted barely a decade before strife among the settlers and crop failure forced them to abandon their home.
There’s a visitor’s center on site with a video explaining the history of the Old Mormon Fort, but wandering the grounds is the best part of the Fort. There’s part of the first ever house built in Las Vegas as well and reconstructed soldiers’ quarters, and a freight wagon. For just $3 admission, it’s worth the price just to get a momentary break from Downtown’s sensory overload.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“The Circus-Circus is what the whole world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos . . . but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.”-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
That’s how gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson described the Circus Circus Hotel and Resort in his novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The book was made into the 1998 Terry Gilliam film starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo.
Circus Circus, a couple miles south of Downtown, was likely still smarting from its portrayal in the 1971 book, so management refused to allow filming of the movie in the hotel. You can visit the hotel made famous in Thompson’s book, although it has been rebranded as a more family-friendly spot.
The Mint and the Stardust, like many of the spots in FALILV, have closed. But, unlike the Stardust, which was unceremoniously imploded in 2006, the building that housed The Mint is still standing, renamed as Binion’s Horseshoe. The hotel closed in 2009, but the casino is still open. Here you can imagine the drug-fueled depravity of Duke and Gonzo’s first night in Vegas.
One last stop that’s sure to bring back memories of Old Vegas is the Neon Museum. If you ever wondered where all those garish, tacky advertising casinos and other attractions went, the answer is the Neon Museum. While only a dozen or so of the signs are restored and lit up, seeing the signs Hunter S. Thompson (or the Rat Pack or Elvis for that matter) saw on his trip to Las Vegas is memorable. In addition to the Neon Boneyard and North Galleries, the Neon Museum also has several restored signs that are on public display Downtown including the Silver Slipper and Binion’s Horseshoe.
On October 1st, 2017, a madman opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival on the Strip in Las Vegas. Modifying semi-automatic weapons using bump stocks to make the guns fire like automatic machine guns, the perpetrator fired over 1,000 rounds during a ten minute rampage from his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort Hotel. Fifty-eight people were killed and another 851 were injured by gunfire and the subsequent panic and stampede.
No permanent memorial for the victims of the tragedy has been erected as of yet at the site, but in Downtown, there is a park that remembers the victims. Shortly after the October first shooting, the city announced it was providing land on South Casino Center Blvd. for the purpose of a memorial to the victims. The Las Vegas Community Healing Garden stands where a dog park was originally scheduled to be built.
The park was quickly built, including the planting of 58 trees, one for each of the victims. The trees surround “The Tree of Life,” a giant oak tree donated by Las Vegas showmen Siegfried & Roy. A remembrance wall has also been constructed on the site.
After a day or two of overwhelming light displays, noisy casinos, and hawkers on seemingly every corner, a trip out of Downtown might be a good idea.
5-6 million years ago the Colorado River began eroding the rock at what is now called the Grand Canyon. Today, the canyon is 277 miles long (that’s further than the distance from Kansas City to Tulsa!), as wide as 18 miles in some places, and as much as a mile deep. The gigantic gorge is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. And, due to the canyon’s proximity to LV, many tourists take a day trip to the Grand Canyon.
But, it’s important to know that the Grand Canyon has many different areas with different sites and different weather. Be sure to choose your trip wisely or you may be disappointed.
It’s a long drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. The quickest path is to go to the West Rim, which takes under three hours. Because of the distance involved, many people will book a tour which picks you up at your hotel. For a little more money, you can book a plane (charter) tour from Las Vegas to the canyon. This not only saves a lot of time, but you get the sweeping eagle eye view only available high aloft.
The West Rim is the most popular destination for canyon goers from Vegas due to the (relatively) short distance. One of the main attractions is the glass Skywalk, owned and operated by the Hualapai Tribe.
While very popular, lots of folks have complained about the West Rim being a tourist trap with everything being overpriced.
Further from Vegas and, therefore, a longer trip, the South Rim is the Grand Canyon you see in postcards and videos. There are also more amenities here, like hotels and restaurants.
Grand Canyon East
Horseshoe Bend is the big attraction at Grand Canyon East with its spectacular view of the Colorado River. Most tours to Horseshoe Bend combine a trip to Antelope Canyon.
Fewer viewpoints from than the South Rim, and, due to high snowfall in the winter, a shorter season. But, if you’re looking to get away from the crush of canyon tourists, the North Rim is the place to be. At an elevation of 7,000, the North Rim gets four seasons and the fall foliage is an explosion of color. Six hours from Las Vegas.
The Hoover Dam (originally The Boulder Dam) was an engineering marvel when it was dedicated in 1935. Close to Las Vegas on the Arizona border, the Hoover Dam is a popular daytrip from LV. Many tour operators will include a quick photo op at the Hoover Dam before they proceed to the Grand Canyon. This is a good option if you’re just looking for a post on your Instabook or Snapface account.
For a more in-depth tour, the visitor’s center has lots of information about the history of the dam and a short film about the structure. The rooftop observatory gives the best location for a picture of the dam. Tours of the power plant are available and access to the Top of the Dam is free.
Area 51 has long held a place in the wacky world of conspiracy theories. An Air Force Base in the middle of the desert, the US Government wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of Area 51 until recently.
Wild stories abound saying this is the spot where the alien corpses and their ship were kept after crashing near Roswell. Other conspiracy theories have Area 51 as a summit location between aliens and the US Military. Another story says this is where time travel technology was developed.
Despite the wackadoodle tales about Area 51, it is most assuredly a US Military installation. As such, civilians are not allowed access to any of the grounds and the guards do not take kindly to any wacky hijinks at the gates. However, there are spots where you can get a glimpse of the base and an entire road trip itinerary has been nicely laid out by Sten Hankewitz on his blog.
Sure, it’s 150 miles from LV, but for conspiracy theorists, the long, boring drive might be worth it. Fans of kitsch are in luck as well because there are several tacky souvenir shops and alien themed businesses along the way.
About five miles south of downtown, this airport has flights from all over the US and the world.
You’re in Las Vegas so every method of getting from the airport to the city is at your disposal. From limos to the bus and everything in between.
The Downtown area is rather compact, so a rental car isn’t needed because traffic is bad. However, you may want to rent a car if you plan a day trip to the Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon, Area 51, or petroglyph sites.
The RTC (Regional Transportation Company) provides local bus service to Downtown, The Strip, and the airport. Taxi cabs and Uber are widely available.
The RTC provides a free(!) Downtown Loop service that hits many of the hot spots. Note that service ends at 6pm Su-Th and 10pm F-Sa.
Index of Things to Do in Las Vegas
Walking tour gives you a look at Old Las Vegas and the downtown renaissance.
The heart of the downtown revitalization.
The east end of Freemont Street downtown, this is the home of bars and restaurants
Freemont Street, Las Vegas, NV
Foodie tour of downtown culinary treats
aka 18b, an 18 block area of art galleries, performing arts spaces, restaurants, and bars with a bohemian vibe.
Two story space filled with art galleries and workshops.
Off-Off Broadway vibe with quality acting and production.
Authentic old Las Vegas with a huge collection of neon from the city’s golden age.
Of course there’s a mob museum in LV
Fly over Downtown for up to five blocks.
Memorial garden dedicated to the victims of the Oct. 1st, 2017 mass shooting.
Famous as a setting in the novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Original location of The Mint, hotel where Duke and Dr. Gonzo stay in the novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Hotel is now closed, though the casino is open.
True throwback to old Vegas.
Only place in Downtown with the vintage Sigma Derby racing game.
Throwback casino to old LV
Giant slot machine at the entrance.
First full-time European settlement in Las Vegas, just one mile from Downtown.
Excellent examples of petroglyphs at both Atlatl Rock and Mouse’s Tank.
The Petroglyph Canyon Trail leads to ancient carved rock pieces of art.
Great spot for rock climbing, but there is also a fine petroglyph wall here
Day trip from LV to one of the most spectacular natural sites in the US
Full Grand Canyon tour with the benefit of flying from Las Vegas.
Engineering marvel a short drive from LV
Super-secret military installation 150 miles from Las Vegas. Birthplace of dozens of conspiracy theories.
Index of Food & Drink in Las Vegas
High end comfort food.
Baked ricotta with truffle fig jam, almonds, and cranberry. OMG!
Best Downtown LV breakfast spot.
Excellent Craft Beer selection
Excellent vegetarian restaurant
Good Italian restaurant inside the Golden Nugget Casino
Formerly The Terrace, the weekend brunch features bottomless mimosas
Choice of New York, Neapolitan, American, or Roman style pizza
Best Thai food in LV. Original location, 2 miles from downtown is closed for remodeling. New location is closer to the strip.
953 E. Sahara Ave. Ste A5, Las Vegas, Nevada 89104 (currently closed for remodeling)
Giant burgers, staff dressed in hospital gowns, waitresses as nurses. Expect a spanking if you don’t finish your meal.
Index of Shopping in Las Vegas
Lots of shops with clothing and LV souvenirs housed in repurposed shipping containers.
Vintage clothing store.
Index of Places to Stay in Las Vegas
One of the most famous old time casinos in LV.
Cheap rooms near Freemont Street. Book on the hotel’s website for the best rates.
Known as the 9th island, this is a little bit of Hawaii in LV
Open since 1906, this is the original.
Classic old Las Vegas
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.