The main strip on Las Vegas Boulevard is for many, the only place they'll visit on a trip to "Sin City". But what few people think about when planning their trip, is that there is so much more outside of Caesar's Palace and the MGM Grand! Downtown Las Vegas, as it is now called, is the area north the main strip on Las Vegas Boulevard. This is the historic centre of Las Vegas, where the entire idea of "Las Vegas" was born. And yet, this part of town is oft forgotten in place of the glitz and glamour of it's southern, younger more popular sister. But in recent years Downtown Las Vegas has seen a boom of popularity, and people are more and more choosing to venture up to DTLV (as it is now conveniently called) to seek out the origins of the city and the alternative scene found out there. Here is my list of the 21 best things to see and do in Downtown Las Vegas along with a handy dandy map at the bottom so you can plan out your trip accordingly.
#1. Breakfast at the Peppermill Restaurant
The Peppermill Restaurant in Las Vegas is a retro-lovers dream. It feels like one of those restaurants you could only find in Vegas. The restaurant and lounge are decorated so perfectly it feels like stepping back in time. So much so you'd swear you just saw Elvis sitting at the bar, smoking a cigar and swirling a colourful drink in front of the fireplace (and yes, indeed there is a fireplace). When you walk into the Peppermill, you step into sensory overload. Bright purple lights almost blind you and blue velvet carpets and walls get you feeling cosy. There are pink flamingo stained glass lamp shades and a swelling cherry blossom tree growing out of the middle of the restaurant. There are GIANT fishbowl drinks as colourful as the decor, even the sugar in the dispenser is multicoloured! The cocktails are all beyond fabulous, and the friendly servers make the entire experience one of a kind.
#2. Shop at the Bonanza Gift Shop
No visit to Vegas is complete without visiting the Bonanza Gift & Souvenir Shop. This landmark is known the world over as the World's Largest Gift Shop with over 36,000 square feet of shopping space. They specialize in kitschy souvenirs, and you'll find everything from cheesy Vegas snow globes, eclectic postcards, hilariously themed playing cards, Elvis themed items, religious icons plastered on burlap purses and miles and miles of plastic flip-flops. You might walk out with nothing, but walking around those hundreds of aisles it is an attraction all in itself.
#3. Watch Newlyweds at the Little White Chapel
What trip to Las Vegas is complete without stopping off to see the Little White Chapel. This darling, tiny building is covered in hearts and surrounded in white wrought iron filigree. The church has been the site to over 800,000 quickie weddings since it opened in 1951. It is open 24-hours a day and even has a drive-thru tunnel of "vows" where couples can be wed without leaving their vehicle! It is a charming piece of Las Vegas history, and I adore the intentionally tacky aesthetic. Although it might never be a place where I could see myself getting married, it indeed is a fun place to people watch.
#4. Get Spooked at Zak Bagans' Haunted Museum
Las Vegas is known as a place for the wild and weird and what is weird than a haunted museum? Zak Bagans’ Museum is located inside one of Las Vegas' most haunted houses and features a variety of spooky and scary items, all of which have been known to be haunted. If you're interested in the paranormal this place is totally worth checking out, if only for the weirdness factor.
#5. Enjoy the Multicoloured Metals at The Neon Museum
Neon signs are synonymous with Las Vegas. Imagine walking down the strip and there being only simple street lamps lighting your way. Wouldn't have the same effect, would it? Neon has been a part of Vegas since it's inception and the Neon Museum, founded in 1996, made it their mission to preserve these historic pieces of the city, even after their useful life was over or their original buildings were torn down. Dubbed 'The Neon Boneyard' this large plot of land north of the city is where you can find the Neon Museum, a non-profit organisation which collects, preserves, studies and exhibits a variety of old Las Vegas signs for educational, historical and cultural purposes. They do tours of their collection during the day and at night. While most of the neon here is long past being able to be lit up, they have spent a lot of money restoring some of their more important pieces. Visiting the collection is not only a feast for the eyes, but the stories the curators tell you as you walk through the boneyard makes the history of Las Vegas come alive, and every single rusty letter seems to have its own story to tell.
#6. Go back in time on Fremont Street
Fremont Street is the site of the original "strip" where all the top casinos in Vegas once stood before the expansion in the mid-1980s that saw newer, swankier hotels opening up along Las Vegas Boulevard. Now, Fremont Street offers up to its visitors a taste of vintage Vegas at it's finest. Walking these neon streets feels almost more authentically 'Las Vegas' than the current strip with all its bells and whistles. Here you'll find some of the oldest running casinos, with the most history seeped deeper within their walls. Fremont Street feels a little bit more laid back, more rough and tumble and with a lack of polish that I find incredibly charming. Throughout the pedestrian street, you'll find various stages set up where local musicians entertain crowds throughout the evening. Each one is surprisingly talented and provides the audience with a mini-concert every evening. During certain times of the year, they'll be themed to the season and visiting during Halloween provided us with dozens of "spooky" soundtracks to get us in the mood.
#7. Watch the ‘Viva Vision’ Light Show
The best place to walk off a big dinner or stretch your legs is along the Fremont Street canopy where they project the ‘Viva Vision’ light show. Every 30 minutes you'll be mesmerised by the electronic canopy which covers the majority of Fremont Street pedestrian area. The Viva Vision light show was installed in 1995, is 1,500 feet long and 90 feet wide. The 6-minute show twinkles and shines above you beginning at dusk and ending at midnight. There are over 12.5 million energy-efficient LED lamps which dazzle the viewers to the music of artists like The Who, Bon Jovi and more.
#8. Bunk down at the Golden Nugget Casino and Hotel
The Golden Nugget was initially built in 1946, making it one of the oldest casinos in the city. This monolith of white arches and golden lights is like the White House of Nevada. All things seemed to start with the Golden Nugget, and so many hotels and casinos attempted to replicate its gravitas over the years. Staying here you can find deals for as low as $60/night without compromising style and comfort. Most of the rooms have been lovingly renovated, and there is even the new Rush Tower which is brand new yet its rooms are complete with decorative touches that evoke old Vegas ambience. The first time we stayed in Vegas we stayed on the strip and paid a pretty penny for a small room without a view but here on Fremont at the Golden Nugget we got an enormous room complete with soaker tub and even a little sitting area with a great view for half of what we paid on the strip!
#9. Relax in ‘The Tank’
Inside the Golden Nugget, you'll find one of the most award-winning pools in the city. Pools and Las Vegas are two peas in a pod. Perhaps because it gets so hot outside in Nevada people wanted to find a way party outside without overheating, so they moved out of the clubs and into the pools. The Tank is a three-story aquarium filled with, to our surprise, sharks! Along with the sharks are an array of other sea creatures. A giant three storey water slide runs through the aquarium making you feel as though you’re right in there with the sharks themselves. There are a few firepits outside burning during the colder months and in the summer there are loungers right inside the pool so no matter when you visit its a great place to grab a few cocktails and relax.
#10. Get Fine Dining for Less at Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse
There are many choices for steak dinners in Vegas; each one boasting their specialities and seemingly impossibly low prices. But, I think there is only one *real* choice and that is Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse. Labelled as one of the best steakhouses in the USA, this place will never disappoint on upscale Vegas atmosphere and phenomenal food. Be sure to make a reservation and make mention of the Distinctive Dining menu. The Distinctive Dining menu costs $49.95/person and feature a three-course prix fixe meal. This deal is unreal since a single steak itself could run you that much without any of the other offerings you'll get with this deal. There is no skimping on the portions either. We started with the Lobster Bisque, chose the Petite Filet served with Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes as the entree and ending with the Crème Brulee. Just be sure to print out the menu or mention it when making your reservation since otherwise, you won't be able to get the deal. This is sort of like a little secret which only those who’ve done their research are rewarded with!
#11. Watch the Sigma Derby at the D Casino
Inside the slightly dull looking facade of the D Las Vegas Casino, you'll find one of the most engrossing vintage games in the city. The classic Sigma Derby slot machine can be found on the second floor of the casino. You can usually find your way there by the screams and cheers of the people who surround it. You don't need to spend any money to enjoy the experience of watching other wagers on their favourite metallic jockeys. Up to ten players can place bets on five minature horses with quarters. These machines were Japanese made and built in the 1980s. Only two of the hundreds which were produced are still in working order, and one of those two can be found here on Fremont.
#12. Take a Walk into the past at the Main Street Station Hotel
The Main Street Station Hotel and Casino opened in 1978, and yet its architecture and decor evoke a historical sensibility. It feels more like a wild west saloon than it does retro casino. While the casino is the major draw to this place, what I love most about it are the self-guided tours you can take of their antique and artefact collection. The casino has amassed over the years an incredible anthology of curiosities from around the world. You can pick up a “Guide to Artifacts, Antiques and Artworks" at their front desk to use to lead yourself around the collection. Their gallery includes pieces of the Berlin Wall, stained glass from the Lillian Russell Mansion, doors and facade from the Kuwait Royal Bank, doors from the George Pullman Mansion, Louisa May Alcott Pullman car and chandeliers from the Coca-Cola building and Figaro Opera House.
#13. Pose with with Cowboys and Girls at Glitter Gulch
I think some of the best modern neon signage can be found on Fremont street and the crowning glory is the area around the "Glitter Gulch”. The two most popular of the flashing signs are on either side of the street. Vegas Vic stands casually atop the Pioneer Gift Shop, his sturdy winking smile beckoning in customers. Opposite Vic is his female companion, complete with matching cowboy hat above the "Glitter Gulch" strip club. While the strip club might not be your thing, the flashing lights of the sign are enough to attract at least a few curious minds.
#14. Admire the old Fremont East District
Fremont East is outside of the canopy and pedestrian mall. It is a hipster mecca where you'll find uniquely themed restaurants and bars. This area was left previously unloved for years but thanks to a multimillion-dollar investment by a private partnership, this part of Fremont is now home to some of the hippest lounges and a happening art scenes. As soon as you step out from under the electric canopy, you feel like you've entered another world. This place almost feels more like Brooklyn than Nevada. And for those looking for a more eclectic, less touristy scenes, this is a welcome addition to Las Vegas.
#15. Admire some Vintage Neon Revival
The Las Vegas Neon Museum has been raising money and working with the city to restore some of the historical and awe-inspiring neon signs from years past. Thought to be only good for scrap metal and left to rot, these iconic signs have been restored by the museum and are now up on display in this "urban gallery" along Fremont Street East. We saw on our walk the incredible Silver Slipper. Formerly on show in 1950 outside the Golden Slipper casino, it now stands in its full glory at the gates of Fremont East. We also saw the Hacienda Horse which was built in 1967 and installed at the Hacienda Hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard South. Seeing these retro signs now in working order is a great way to make history come alive and we felt especially thankful for organizations like the Neon Museum.
#16. Have a Drink at the Commonwealth Bar
If you're looking to grab a drink in the East District, head over to Commonwealth. I was first drawn to this bar because of their laid back, upstairs terrace, but the entire of the downstairs bar is equally as impressive. The decor inside is inspired by the era of prohibition, covered in dark leather, ornate chandeliers, exposed ancient bricks and an entire wall dedicated to displaying their collections of antique whiskey bottles. If you want a more relax environment head here in the earlier portion of the evening as the late night is when the party gets started.
#17. Fuel up at Le Thai Restaurant
Although this favourite dinner joint can get busy, with a waitlist of over an hour it's well worth the wait. Plus you can spend your time waiting at any of the cool bars nearby. Inside the unassuming brick and corrugated metal facade, you'll find one of the best priced and best-tasting restaurants in Vegas. The Le Thai classics include larb salad (made with ground chicken, lime juice and fresh herbs) and their famous three colour curry! This food will give you that much-needed boost to keep your energy up all night long!
#18. Admire the Urban Design of Container Park
Container Park is one of the newest fads in urban development and parks like this have been seen popping up all over the country. Vegas' Container Park is an open-air shopping centre built from repurposed shipping containers. In here you can find boutique shops, restaurants, and live entertainment. Greeting you at the door to the park is a giant 55-foot metal praying mantis sculpture which even shoots flames on special occasions. Even if you're not in the mood for shopping or food (although there's lots of that if you are) this park is so unique and a great place to walk around and window shop. Some of the parks attractions are geared towards children, but the park has a 9 pm curfew for kids, after which it’s adults only. One of my favourite parts of the park is the Sweet Spot, which sells vintage and classic candy.
#19. Get the Dirty Details about Vegas’ Past at The Mob Museum
Crime and Casinos go hand-in-hand and as such Las Vegas has a torrid history with the mob stretching back as far as its inception. If your interests lie in this area of history, then the Mob Museum is the place for you! The Mob Museum is spread out across three floors, each one providing the viewers with high-tech theatre presentations, iconic one-of-a-kind artefacts and interactive, themed environments. You'll undoubtedly recognize different gangsters names throughout the museum, but their real histories are much different than their Hollywood dramatisations.
#20. Chow down on pastries at the Donut Bar
The Donut Bar in downtown Las Vegas is one of the hottest spots for sweet treats. So hot that on most days the shop closes before mid-afternoon because they've already sold out! One of the big reasons this place is so popular is because of their vegan doughnuts as well as their indulgent and opulent flavours and designs. You can try the famed Harry Potter Butter Beer doughnut, a Pop Tart doughnut complete with jam filling and yes you can even get a Monte Crisco made with a doughnut and stuffed with ham and cheese!
#21. Find Street Art inspired by Felipe Pantone’ Mural
Argentinian artist Felipe Pantone is one of the best graffiti artists wokring today. He has grace downtown Las Vegas with the incredible design he made for the Life is Beautiful festival. The mural was painted years ago yet it still draws street art fanatics from all over to see it. Pantone’s fantastic 3D shapes, bright colours and monochromatic background are so unique and his design pops out against this otherwise plain building. His work has inspired other creators to fill this area of town with their own works of art. Now, this area in the city is covered in dazzling graffiti that make this previously quiet area in the downtown come alive. You can wander up and down the side streets to discover both new and old works from locals artisans. The best time to take this walk is during the day since the murals aren’t lit up at night and its best to see them in all their colourful glory.
Downtown Las Vegas is truly a unique spectacle and if you’re visiting the city its such a shame to miss out on the historic nature of this district as well as all the awesome sights to be seen therein. Let me know if you’ve visited Downtown Las Vegas and what your favourite thing to do there was!