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City life: Las Vegas

It’s known for bright lights, roulette wheels and a soundtrack of shrieking slot machines, but there’s another side to Sin City. With a slew of new craft breweries, independent shops and art galleries, there’s more to Vegas than meets the eye

City life: Las Vegas
New York New York. Image: Getty

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No other city’s image is as fixed in the public consciousness as that of Sin City and its fabulous Strip, where debauchery is encouraged, fortunes are lost in an instant and everyone gets the rock star treatment — as long as they have the money. Where else can you wake up amidst the great pyramids of Egypt, breakfast under the Eiffel Tower, go shopping in ancient Rome and finish up strolling along the cobbles of New York under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty? Where can you ride a gondola, watch a volcano erupt and see a lake with waltzing fountains, all in a single afternoon?

You come to Vegas for the clichés, of course, but what might lure you back is the reality lurking underneath. Beneath the movie set glitz, Sin City is a regular city — with art galleries, museums, coffee shops and craft breweries. It’s a place of contrasts, ostensibly devoid of history (blowing up old buildings is a genuine art form here), yet it’s a living record of popular culture; the global centre of hedonism with the purity of the Mojave desert at its borders. And although most visitors come here to escape reality, it’s worth dipping a toe back in.

Some believed Vegas was over, thanks to the recession, but this is a protean town: reinvention is its raison d’être. Restaurants, clubs and shops continue to open and close at breakneck speed, but the general trend is shifting towards substance, not style. Established hotel brands are moving in on erstwhile casino properties, independent shops are beginning to colonise the Downtown area, and there’s a mushrooming chic cocktail scene, where well-built drinks are the order of the day — rather than machine-blended daiquiris served in a foot-tall Eiffel Tower.

Las Vegas is certainly the master of reinvention. And this chapter looks to be an exciting one.

Hiking the Zion Narrows. Image: Getty

Hiking the Zion Narrows. Image: Getty

What to see & do

You can cruise the Strip, marvel at the Bellagio fountains, and soar up the Eiffel Tower. You can get your adrenalin kicks riding the rollercoaster at New York New York, leap off the Stratosphere or put all your dollars on black. But there’s far more to Vegas than its reputation would have you believe.

“Vegas is hugely underrated as an outdoor destination,” says Alec Street, a pilot with Sundance Helicopters. “Everyone knows it as the hop-off point for the Grand Canyon, but we have one of the best places for rock-climbing on the West Coast in Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles off the Strip. The Hoover Dam has incredible architecture, and Lake Mead is one of the largest reservoirs in the western hemisphere.”

He’s right — Death Valley and Zion national parks are manageable day trips and the vivid Aztec sandstone mountains of Red Rock stand right at the city’s western limits. There are many ways to see the Grand Canyon from Vegas, but Sundance’s All American Grand Canyon helicopter trip — which zips between the canyon walls, landing on a bluff at the West Rim — is one of the most atmospheric.

Neon is Vegas’ calling card and while the glittering lights of the Strip are a sight in themselves, Downtown’s Neon Boneyard — a ‘graveyard’ of hundreds of historic signs from the 1930s onwards — is the best way to get up close. And that’s not the closest Sin City comes to culture — the National Atomic Testing Museum reveals a surprisingly galvanising history of the nuclear tests that used to light up the Vegas skyline. Buried within the labyrinthine Bellagio, meanwhile, is its bite-sized Gallery of Fine Art, staging real powerhouse exhibitions. The current Picasso show runs until 10 January.

However, Scott Roeben, founder of blog VitalVegas.com, reminds us, “You can find museums anywhere,” he says. “People come here to do the quintessential Vegas things: drinking, partying and gambling.” He recommends Downtown, which is simply much better value.

“The odds are better, everything’s cheaper, and I like the grittier atmosphere. Some of the dealers have been there for 40 years — they remember the mob era. On the Strip, I’m a stranger, but Downtown, a bartender will know my name and my drink the moment I walk in,” he says.

Where to stay

“Vegas hotel trends tend to come in waves,” says Rebecca Frisch, long-term resident and local travel writer. “The 1990s were all about themed casinos. Then, with the launch of Bellagio, more upscale resorts came into fashion. Now we’re seeing hotel chains coming in from everywhere else.”

Last August, LA-based luxury hotel group SLS opened its Vegas outpost in what used to be the Sahara, the Rat Pack hangout anchoring the northern end of the Strip. A month later, Morgans Hotel Group opened the Delano in the property once known as THEhotel at Mandalay Bay. While the latter is essentially a refresh of THEhotel, SLS is a boutique hotel (if a 1,613-room property can ever be described as ‘boutique’) carved from the guts of the Sahara, with renaissance-style tapestries hanging on casino walls and outré, fashion-forward rooms designed by Philippe Starck.

With restaurants imported direct from its Beverly Hills sibling and LA brand Fred Segal providing the only shops on the property, SLS is very distinctive; and, although the immediate area is something of a wilderness right now, it works as the midpoint between the Strip and the ever-growing Downtown. Towards the centre of the action, the Linq and the Cromwell are the other new arrivals — replacing the Imperial Palace and Bill’s Gambling Hall, respectively.

Shopping

For the past few decades, Vegas has been a city of malls and the sheer concentration of brands on the Strip makes it the ideal shop-till-you-drop destination. Its temples to consumerism are interspersed with chain restaurants and oxygen bars claiming to provide hangover cures.

Crystals at CityCenter is one of the best places for luxury designer brands, while the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace have a solid mix of high-end and high street labels — including the largest H&M in the US — among the talking fountains and caryatid-supported staircases. Meanwhile, the newly opened Linq lines a pedestrianised avenue leading to the High Roller observation wheel with interesting little stores, such as Sprinkles Cupcakes from LA, and a Polaroid Fotobar, which turns photos from your social media accounts into Polaroids, from $1 a print.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. “Back in the 1960s, Las Vegas was known for its independent stores,” says Kate Aldrich, owner of Patina Decor, a high-end vintage design and clothing store on Downtown’s burgeoning Antique Alley. “But most of them fell by the wayside as the Strip evolved into a luxury shopping destination.”

Things are starting to come full circle though. Antique Alley — a four-block section of Main Street, north of the Strip — started out four years ago with just one store, Retro Vegas, moving in among the junk shops and bail bond offices. “The last two years have seen an amazing change,” says owner Marc Comstock. “It’s really happening down here.”

His treasure trove of kitsch casino memorabilia, mid-century furniture and clothing draws the likes of actors Drew Barrymore and Nicolas Cage. Aforementioned Patina concentrates on design furniture and exceptional clothing from the 1960s and 1970s, while next door, Medusa’s Antiques takes vintage pieces (pianos, neon signs, motorcycles) and hand-crafts them into furniture.

For something more modern, Downtown’s Container Park — 84 shipping containers-turned-shops — is where many new local businesses are being launched. Winky manufactures inventive watches, and BluMarble recycles the wine and spirits bottles from Strip resorts into tumblers and lamps.

“You get a much more interesting shopping experience here,” says BluMarble’s Katie Patzky. “It’s mainly local businesses, and it’s a little more cultured.” She’s right — December saw the opening of the Writer’s Block, Las Vegas’s first independent bookshop and publishing house.

Downtown. Image: Getty

Downtown. Image: Getty

Where to eat

It’s undoubtedly famous for its buffets, but when you have world-class restaurants and dining options for every budget, why go all-you-can-eat? From Gordon Ramsay to Joël Robuchon, pretty much every celebrity chef has a Sin City outlet. Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak at the Mirage is top of the traditional Vegas steakhouse heap, while Julian Serrano’s Lago, which opened this year on the ‘shore’ of Lake Bellagio, is a mesmerising experience — eat on the terrace (traditionally reserved for VIPs, but book for 9pm and there’s likely to be space) and you’ll be so close to the dancing fountains you’ll catch their spray.

While Vegas restaurants tend to stick to tried and tested formulas, there are some bravely breaking the mould. The city famously doesn’t ‘do’ mornings, but Michael Mina’s new Bardot Brasserie at Aria is hoping to change that with its focus on brunch. Cleo at SLS is a vegetarian-friendly, boho-Mediterranean restaurant whose tagines and mezzes are unlike anything the Strip has ever seen. And then there’s trailblazer, Tao, which pioneered the now popular restaurant-club hybrid. This superb Asian restaurant — presided over by a giant Buddha statue with Japanese carp swimming beneath it — leads into a nightclub that’s as popular today as it was when it opened back in 2005.

Downtown’s food scene is on the rise, too, with former Strip chefs Kerry Simon and Bradley Manchester opening farm-to-table restaurants Carson Kitchen and Glutton, respectively. And for retro heaven, look no further than the Peppermill, a 24-hour north Strip diner, where celebs, clubbers and street workers flock to the pink booths, fake trees, mirrored ceilings — and enormous portions.

Nightlife

“The best thing about Vegas is that you can find any kind of atmosphere at any time of night or day,” says Downtown resident Rob Ponte. “If you can imagine the type of place you’d like to get a drink, and the kind of people you want to see, it’s probably out there waiting for you.”

Brand new Omnia at Caesars Palace and the re-launched Drai’s at the Cromwell are the hot new clubs — but for well-made drinks, it’s worth going Downtown. The East Fremont District is a mini-strip of hipster cocktail bars and beer gardens: Downtown Cocktail Room, with its absinthe menu and cocktails from the 1850s, was the original and still one of the best. The Velveteen Rabbit, on Antique Alley, has made countless ‘best bars in America’ lists for its modern takes on traditional cocktails and Wonderland-like interior. Nearby is Hop Nuts, one of two local craft breweries.

And if you’re looking for a show, in recent years the trend has diversified from musicals or acrobatics. Perennial crowd- pleasers Cirque du Soleil re-launched their sexy, adults-only Zumanity at New York New York in February, and this summer staged Baz, a musical medley of Baz Luhrmann’s films, in a nightclub at Mandalay Bay. ‘Adult cabaret’ Absinthe is another good bet, mixing acrobatics, variety performers and smutty humour in a big top outside Caesars.

Essentials

Getting there
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. British Airways flies from Heathrow and Gatwick. Airlines with connecting flights include United, American and Delta.
Average flight time: 10h30m.

Getting around
Las Vegas is for drivers, with ample free parking, including valet parking (give a $2 tip on pick up). Taxis are easy to come by, if expensive. The under-used Monorail runs along the back of the Strip, and buses connect the Strip to Downtown. Walking is also a possibility, but distances are inevitably further than you think — the Strip is five miles long.

When to go
Autumn and spring are best — summer temperatures can reach the high 40Cs, and winters can be cold. Pool season runs from April to October. Prices can fluctuate wildly, depending on conventions or public holidays. Midweek stays are always far cheaper than weekends.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens travelling for fewer than 90 days will need to apply for security clearance in advance, via an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form, which costs $14 (£9).
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.56.
International dial code: 00 1 702.
Time difference: GMT -8.

More info
lasvegas.com
Time Out Las Vegas. RRP: £12.99.
Local blogs: vitalvegas.com vegaschatter.com discoveramerica.com

How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers a four-night city break, including room-only at the SLS, direct flights with Virgin Atlantic, and car hire from £775 per person.
Western & Oriental offers an eight-day, fly-drive trip through the great outdoors of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Las Vegas, including two nights at the Cromwell, all accommodation, car hire and flights with Virgin Atlantic from £1,675 per person.


Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)