On our tour of the southwestern US, we passed Las Vegas on our way back to Los Angeles. This city with the all-important nickname Sin City is the place to be for entertainment and gambling. We ourselves, apart from the occasional state lottery ticket, don’t bother with gambling. But curiosity about the various forms of entertainment made us decide to spend a few days there after all. Now that we have been there once, we can confirm our preconceptions of the city: Las Vegas is indeed one big casino. But it is also a fun nightlife city where anything goes. A city that, despite its ultra high “bling bling content”, is really worth a visit. Even if only once in a lifetime.
Las Vegas, the biggest city in the Nevada desert
Located in the middle of the Nevada desert lies relatively young Las Vegas. The city was only founded in 1905 and remained a small settlement in its early years. This only changed in the 1930s. Many workers then moved to Las Vegas to work on the nearby Hoover Dam. During the same period, the state of Nevada legalised gambling. This created many clandestine bars and casinos, especially in the places where the workers stayed.
In the early 1940s, the first luxury hotel arrived in what later became the “Strip”: a nearly seven-kilometre stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard south of downtown. The arrival of this resort aroused the interest of the mafia. They built one hotel after another in the many years that followed. The Flamingo Hotel is an example of this. It is the oldest, still-opened hotel on the Strip. The Mafia’s influence became less and less over the decades thanks to regulation and enforcement. However, the construction of bigger and bigger resorts continued. Since the 1990s, other forms of entertainment joined the hotels and casinos. Think nightclubs, bars and restaurants but also shopping malls, cinemas and theatres.
Most entertainment is on the Strip, which is not officially part of Las Vegas but of the city of Paradise. This was organised that way at the time for tax and other historical reasons. In this blog, you will first find the highlights on the Strip. Then we list the sights you should not miss in downtown Las Vegas. Finally, we describe some highlights outside the two aforementioned cities.
The many highlights on the Strip
Although most visitors to the Strip come there to gamble, there is plenty to see and experience for non-gamblers too. We list some highlights that should not be missing from your visit to the Strip.
One of the attractions on the Strip are the unusual hotels. You will see replicas of buildings from around the world, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The pompous The Venetian even replicates part of Venice! Even the hotels that are not replicas of something usually look rather striking actually. Like the Bellagio with its dancing fountains or The Mirage with an exploding volcano.
As many as six of the world’s 10 biggest hotels are on the Strip. Most of these are also casinos. They usually have a certain theme and are decorated as such. Sometimes you will also find attractions around that theme. An example is the garden of flamingos at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.
Depending on how much time you can spend in Las Vegas, it’s a nice idea to visit the hotels. For example, by having lunch, dinner or spending the night there. Or by attending a show or visiting other attractions. The hotels not to be missed then, as far as we are concerned, are Caesars Palace, Luxor and especially The Venetian.
At some hotels, you may also use other facilities such as the swimming pool for a daily fee. This is particularly nice in the summer months! You are welcome at the Delano Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay and at Mandalay Bay itself. Or at the Caesars Palace (provided you are a guest of one of the many other hotels of the Caesars hotel chain), Excalibur, the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, Virgin Hotel, Luxor, Park MGM, New York – New York, Planet Hollywood, Tropicana Las Vegas and the Vdara Hotel & Spa.
High Roller at the LINQ Promenade
Between the LINQ Hotel and the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel is an elongated open-air shopping centre. It is a pleasant street full of restaurants, bars, shops and various forms of entertainment. There you have the Fly LINQ zip line, Tattoo’d America, the Brooklyn Bowl concert hall and a hall with as many as 32 bowling alleys.
The attention-grabber of the LINQ Promenade, by the way, is the High Roller. At 168 metres high, it is one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the world. You have an incredible view of the over-lit Strip from the Ferris wheel especially at night. The wheel has 28 cabins, each accommodating 40 people. You do one turn in half an hour.
The Bellagio with its beautiful fountain
The magnificent 1998 Bellagio was made famous by the film Ocean’s Eleven, among others. But the hotel with its stunning, decorative art, international poker matches and exquisite restaurant Picasso, has more to offer. For instance, Cirque du Soleil performs here with the water theme “O”. At this show, the audience is treated to a dream world of acrobats, synchronised swimmers, divers and other sea creatures. Watch the trailer here.
Outside the particularly large Bellagio is a fantastic fountain that very regularly puts on a brilliant water and light show. Over a decade ago, this was the largest fountain in the world with more than 1,200 nozzles. To musical accompaniment, you get to see an impressive five-minute show. In the afternoons, the show takes place every half hour, and every 15 minutes in the evenings. Visits to the fountain are free.
Lovers of the theatre can get their fill on the Strip reasonably cheaply. There are so many shows to visit that you can basically entertain yourself here for weeks. Earlier we mentioned Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at hotel Bellagio. But Cirque du Soleil also performs other shows in Sin City. For instance, the company gives a theatrical tribute to the King of Pop at Mandalay Bay with “Michael Jackson One”. At MGM Grand, they perform with their theatre show “KÀ”. Furthermore, at Hotel New York New York, they have their theatre show “Mad Apple”.
Besides theatrical performances by Cirque du Soleil, you can visit the Strip for comedy, magic shows, musicals and many concerts. At the MGM Grand, for example, performances are given almost daily by none other than illusionist David Copperfield. And legendary superstar magician Criss Angel performs almost daily at the Planet Hollywood Resort after February. Find a total list of shows here.
The Stratosphere Tower
On the border of the Strip and the northern part of Las Vegas Boulevard is hotel and casino The Strat. The hotel’s crowd-pleaser is SkyPod, the 350-metre-high observation tower. Here you have two observation decks on the 108th and 109th floors with fantastic 360-degree views. You will also find “Top of the World”, a fine and revolving restaurant. You then have great views of both the mega resorts on the Strip and the mountainous landscape to the north during your meal. On the 108th floor is excellent bubbling!
The not-to-be-missed sights in downtown Las Vegas
Still have time left after your visit to the Strip but have had enough of the pompous hotels for a while? Then take a trip to downtown, the vibrant and some would say “real” Las Vegas. Downtown is also a great place to spend a few days. Here are just a few highlights not to be missed if you only have a day or two to spare.
The Fremont Street Experience
Fremont Street is a long street from the northwest to the southeast in downtown Las Vegas. To the west is the Fremont Street Experience: a shopping promenade open day and night. This shopping area was often the backdrop for films and music videos in the late 20th century. Amid dazzling displays of LED and neon, you will find countless shops, restaurants, trendy cocktail bars, clubs and casinos. To keep visitors hooked even at night, you have three stages with free entertainment at the mall. This district is truly over the top and, in that sense, too fun to skip.
Just north of Fremont Street, the old Las Vegas courthouse houses the Mob Museum. The courthouse was the scene of one of 14 hearings to tackle organised crime in the 1950s. For the past decade, the beautiful 1933 building has been a museum telling the history of the mafia in America.
It is an interactive and extremely interesting museum. For example, you investigate the Mafia’s involvement in the murky world of drugs, prostitution, money laundering and illegal gambling. You also have a crime lab and a “Use of Force Training Experience“. In the latter, you take part in various digital and live action scenarios. In the role of a cop, you have to make split-second decisions on the use of force.
What to see and do in the Las Vegas area
What most people don’t expect is that the Las Vegas area is excellent for outdoor activities. Within a relatively short distance, you will find many national parks and reserves. Here there are endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, water sports and even skiing.
From Las Vegas, you can, of course, visit the sights in the wider area on your own. But you can also go on organised excursions from the city. For example, to Red Rock Canyon and the Spring Mountains. Or how about the hot springs of Lake Mead or a day trip to the Grand Canyon? Furthermore, there are several possibilities to visit Death Valley and Zion National Park (in Utah). Not for nothing do many tourists, including from the Netherlands, choose Las Vegas as a base. From here, they not only visit the city, but especially the parks in the area.
Practicalities for your visit to Las Vegas
Las Vegas has very hot, dry summers and mild winters. The best time to visit the city is from April to mid-June. And September and October. In these months, you have almost only sunshine and not too high temperatures.
Las Vegas is a big, sprawling city. Walking or cycling is not an option, unless you are on the Strip. But even here, the distances between hotel-casinos and attractions are surprisingly long. Exploring downtown or the Strip in your own rental car is not a good idea either because of the huge crowds and high parking fees. But the bus is a good alternative as far as we are concerned. RTC Transit's bus network is well developed, also to the suburbs where accommodation is much cheaper. Take a day or three-day pass.
You can book plenty of good accommodation in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that the vast majority of visitors arrive in town on Friday or Saturday night and leave again on Sunday afternoon. Room rates are therefore much higher on Friday and Saturday nights, than on other nights. As we arrived there on a Saturday, we stayed at the La Quinta by Wyndham well outside the city centre. Extremely comfortable and much cheaper than downtown or on the Strip.
If you are there during the week, then a hotel on the Strip is recommended. Some of the hotels, while hugely kitsch, are also very pleasant and interesting to stay at. Like the Venetian Resort, the Palazzo at the Venetian, Skylofts at MGM Grand and Vdara. But if you have the opportunity, also check out or visit the famous Bellagio Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas, there are an extraordinary number of restaurants where you can eat fine to really good food. Near the big casinos and in the malls, you will usually find plenty of places to eat. You will have good buffet restaurants and simple eateries but also excellent restaurants. For instance, you have many restaurants that still had 1 to 3 Michelin stars in 2009*. Such as Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand Hotel, Picasso at the Bellagio and Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace. Find a total overview of restaurants in Las Vegas here.
*) The last edition of Michelin Las Vegas came out in 2009. No new stars have been awarded since then. Many of the starred restaurants in the 2009 guide have since closed, but 10 remain. The only three-star restaurant of that time is the still excellent restaurant Joël Robuchon.
The general price level in Las Vegas is similar to the price level in our own country. But because of the many attractions (such as shows), you will probably spend (a lot) more money per day than during a visit to, say, the Grand Canyon. If you want to visit multiple attractions, the Go City All-Inclusive Pass is a smart choice.
Depending on how much you want to gamble and how many shows you want to go to, you will need one to three days. However, we also spoke to people who spend a week there and would love to come back again.
Most of the sights and entertainment can be found on the Strip. Definitely don't just think about gambling but especially leading theatre shows. At the Strip, visit some of the fantastically designed special hotels anyway, including The Venetian, the Caesars Palace and Luxor. In addition, head to the Bellagio with its magnificent fountain. You can also find world-class entertainment here. Furthermore, the lively LINQ Promenade is an entertainment district full of restaurants and bars you don't want to miss. Here you will also find the High Roller: at 168 metres high, this is one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the world. Can't be high enough for you? Then also head to the Stratosphere Tower for a grandiose view from the lounge bar on the 108th floor.
In downtown Las Vegas - some say the "real" Vegas - don't miss the Fremont Street Experience. Amid dazzling displays, you will find countless shops, restaurants, trendy cocktail bars, clubs and casinos. In addition, a visit to the particularly interesting, interactive Mob Museum should not be missing from your city break.
Special tours in Las Vegas
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