Gambling. Parties. Alcohol. If you’re going to Vegas for any of these things, you probably won’t find this guide helpful. Strange and entertaining, maybe—but helpful? Not at all. You’ve been warned.
But why am I excluding the things Sin City is so famous for? Because Las Vegas is more than that. Much more.
Anyway, I will first regale you with my tales of splendor, fun, and awkwardness, and then give you tips on visiting the city. If you want, just skip to the “Things to Know Before You Go” section for the “official guide.”
Vegas is that crazy friend we all have; the one who always talks too loudly, parties too hard, drinks too much, and wears too little—she’s tacky and wild, yet still fun and loveable. And I don’t see why, despite our huge differences in taste and morals, we can’t still get along.
Vegas is also an odd juxtaposition of opposites, from bright lights to dark secrets, rich casinos to rundown buildings, and all-you-can-eat buffets to hunger and homelessness. (Las Vegas actually has the fourth highest rate of homelessness in the U.S., according to the National Alliance to End Hunger and Homelessness.)
The moment we pulled in to downtown Las Vegas, I was confronted with a huge casino-hotel covered in thousands of sparkling lights, followed by a man in tattered clothing digging head-first into a trashcan on the sidewalk.
We stayed at the Main Street Station Casino’s RV park in downtown. If you’re an RVer, this place is worth looking into. For just $14 a night, you get electric and sewage hookups, showers and bathrooms, and laundry facilities. Plus, you’re in the heart of downtown, within walking distance to the Fremont Street Experience and lots of casinos.
Our first stop was the Mob Museum, which was, oddly enough, the most tame, family-friendly experience of the whole Vegas trip. After that, my sister and I strolled around the Fremont Street Experience, where I got my first taste of just how uncomfortable Vegas can make me. I stopped by a temporary tattoo booth and started flipping through the tattoo booklets, when a tanned young man with slicked-back hair and a strange, New York/Italian accent came swooping in right beside me.
“What you lookin’ for, Sweetheart?” he said as he breathed down my neck.
It took me a moment to realize he worked there. “Do you have any lion tattoos?” I asked as I took two steps back to regain my personal space.
“Oh yeah!” he grunted. “We have the BEST lion tattoo.”
I waited as he frantically flipped through all the booklets, muttering curse words under his breath, until he finally found the one. “Hey, Baby,” he said to me as he held the lion picture up to my face. “Ain’t that a SEXY lion?” Only in Vegas would someone describe a picture of a large cat as “sexy.”
“Um, I guess?” I replied. Needless to say, I declined the sexualized lion tattoo. And by “declined,” I mean I snuck away while the guy was distracted by another customer.
My dad, sister, and I then went to the Strip around 9 at night. What a complete bombardment of the senses. Thousands of bright lights sparkle and flash everywhere you turn; the smell of alcohol and cigarettes waft through the air; the streets are so crowded, you can feel everyone rub up against you as they squeeze by; and everything is so LOUD–music blares as bass pumps from big sub-woofers, people on loudspeakers tell you to come to their show or to their casino, and everyone seems to be laughing or screaming about something.
Oh, and the things you HEAR in Vegas; it’s enough to make any person blush.
At one point, two 20-something guys came out of a casino in front of us.
“Man, she was SO sleazy,” said one guy, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Yeah,” the other said somberly as he sipped his drink. Then he shouted, “I LOVE it!” and they both burst into laughter.
And be careful where your eyes wander. While walking down the Strip, you’ll notice lots of people holding stacks of fliers in their hand, which they constantly tap, tap, tap as you walk by. They’ll try to hand you a flier, especially if you’re a guy. Don’t take one! You’ll see these cards and fliers scattered all around the sidewalks of the Strip. So I learned early on not to look down as I walked. In case you didn’t know, Nevada is the only state in the U.S. where prostitution is legal. (I know, I know. I was shocked too.)
For me, Vegas was just as much an investigation into the human condition as it was a vacation. I couldn’t help but notice the city has a fake version of everything: the Trevi Fountain, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Elvis—even the grass outside of some hotels was fake.
It was a strange feeling because, while I was somewhat repulsed by it, I also kind of bought into all the fakeness. When I found out there was a replica of Michelangelo’s David, I told my dad, “We HAVE to go see it! It’s the one thing I didn’t get to see when I was in Italy.” I doggedly dragged my dad and sister through the maze of Caesar’s Palace for a full 20 minutes until I found the statue. I’m ashamed to say I even took a picture in front of it.
Looking back on it now, it seems silly. How could I have equated a modern-day replica created by some unknown maker with the 500-year-old, authentic statue that was carefully sculpted by one of the greatest artists of all time? Why did I, like so many others, get so excited about the fake things Vegas has to offer? Here’s how I see it: maybe lust parades around as love, and mirth masquerades as happiness, much in the same way 50-year-old, overweight men pretend to be Elvis. Cheap versions. Fake versions. But sometimes we’ll settle for them when we feel the real thing is out of reach.
Okay, okay, despite all my prudish discomfort, did I enjoy the city? Yes! It was definitely one of my favorite stops on the trip. Vegas knows how to have a good time, and I’m a sucker for anything opulent and shiny. The city has the best shows, the most spectacular displays (especially of lights), and awesome food. So if you decide to go, here’s a guide I hope you find helpful:
Things to Know Before You Go
General Vegas Tips
Vegas is best seen at night, when the millions (maybe trillions, I don’t know) of lights have their best effect. Seriously, I kept wandering around, hypnotized by the lights, and wondering, “How MUCH is this city’s electricity bill?!?”
Vegas is HOT (in temperature, I mean), so plan accordingly. Your best bet is to visit all the museums and indoor exhibits during the day, and then peruse the Strip and other outdoor activities when it cools down at night.
Okay, I lied, I do have ONE (unsolicited) gambling tip I got from locals: if you want to gamble, try the casinos in downtown; they tend to have “looser slots” than the ones on the Strip.
If you’re planning on taking the little ones, just be prepared to shield their eyes and ears from some unsavory “adult” things. During the daytime, the city is much more tame. Some good places to take them on the Strip are M&M’s World, Circus Circus, the Mandalay Bay Aquarium, and Lied Discovery’s Children Museum.
The famous Strip is located on Las Vegas Boulevard, a stretch of road that gets VERY congested. To bypass it, take Frank Sinatra Drive, which runs parallel to the Strip.
Parking: almost all the hotels have free self-parking and free valet parking (but be sure to tip!). I was amazed at the plethora of free parking, a luxury not known in many other big cities. But the motivation behind it isn’t so much generosity as it is commercial: if you let people park for free at your hotel-casino, they’re likely to come inside and spend their money there. (Am I cynical, or what?)
Free shuttles: There are a lot free shuttles between hotels. I know there’s one that goes from the Mirage to the Excelsior.
Walking: Personally, I enjoyed walking everywhere. Just be careful about your safety, and wear comfortable shoes. I think I walked about 6 miles my first night in Vegas–while wearing flip-flops–and my poor legs felt it the next day.
Fun things to see in Vegas:
- Fremont Street Experience
This is a covered walkway of shops, casinos, and restaurants in downtown Vegas. It’s smaller and older than the Strip, but a bit more family-friendly, and still a lot of fun. Be sure to catch their famous LED light and music show that plays on the ceiling. The high-tech canopy extends more than five football fields in length and features more than 12.5 million LED modules and a 550,000-watt sound system. The light shows happen every hour on the hour after dusk. Note: a lot of locals say downtown is more dangerous than the Strip, so be aware.
- Main Street Station Casino
Great place for RVers, though I can’t vouch for the hotel rooms. RV spots are $14 a night and come with electric and sewage hookups, bathrooms with showers, and a laundry room. For whatever reason, the RV park is not advertised on their website. Just give them a call for reservations.Inside, they have a brewery, casino, buffets, and beautiful decor. The hotel is actually rich with history, and you can pick up a brochure to do a self-guided tour of their antiques.
- The Mob Museum
This was probably one of my favorite places. It’s interactive, fun, and offers a glimpse into some real Vegas history. Read my review here.
Hours of Operation:
Sundays – Thursdays: 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Fridays & Saturdays 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
|Children (5-17 w/ID)** & Students (18-23 w/ID)
|Seniors (65+), Military, Law Enforcement, Teachers (w/ID)
|Nevada Residents (w/ID)
- The Neon Museum and Boneyard
SO sad I didn’t get to see the Boneyard. By many accounts, this is the city’s latest and greatest new attraction because it infuses actual history into the Vegas experience. Warning: You MUST book tickets about a week or two in advance if you want to go here. They sell out very fast.
The Boneyard tours (yes, you must book a tour to see the Boneyard portion) are usually at 10 a.m. and last about one hour. They ask that you give a mandatory minimum “donation” of $15 per ticket.
If you aren’t able to get in, there are lots of repaired neon signs on display all around downtown Vegas that you can see for free.
- St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church
Okay, maybe not so much of a tourist attraction, but I thought I’d stick this in here if you’re looking to attend mass while in Vegas. It’s within walking distance from Main Street Station Hotel and the Fremont Street Experience. I walked there, but there is a small parking lot in the back.
Saturday: 5 pm (Vigil)
Sunday: 8 am, 10 am, 12 pm, 4 pm
Weekdays: Monday – Friday, 12:10 pm
On the Strip:
You literally could spend HOURS just walking down Las Vegas Boulevard, and never spend a dime! Walk into any of the hotel-casinos and you’ll find lots of things to look at for free.
- The Mirage Volcano
This was terrifyingly beautiful, loud, and hot. I wouldn’t recommend standing right beside it when it goes off. I was across the street from it, and I could still feel the heat.
Begins at 8:00 p.m. and runs every hour on the hour until 12:00 a.m. (nightly)
- The Mandalay Bay Shark Reef Aquarium
Kinda pricey, but so cool! You get to touch real, live stingrays, AND walk through a tunnel of sharks! This place boasts over 2,000 animals–sawfish, rare golden crocodile, a stingray shark, and turtles, to name a few– in 1.6 million gallons of water.
Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Children (5-12): $12.00
Children (4 & under): free
- The famous Welcome to Las Vegas Sign
Iconic, retro, and free. If you want to take a picture of it, you can find it at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard, sort of near Mandalay Bay, and directly across from the Bali Hai Golf Club. It’s in a median, but there are some parking spots in the median by the sign. You may even find an Elvis impersonator hanging around.
Vegas is famous for gut-busting, all-you-can-eat buffets for ridiculously low prices. The Bellagio and the Wynn are typically named as having some of the best buffets.
- Caesar’s Palace
This was my favorite hotel-casino to explore. If you can stomach the fakeness, this place is a like a cleaner, shinier version of Rome. They have copies of every famous Italy attraction: the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Forum, and of course, Michelangelo’s David (the real one is actually in Florence, Italy, not Rome). The hotel, casinos, and malls of Caesar’s Palace cover about 85 acres of the Strip. It is massive. We got lost. But it was always fun because wherever we got lost there was something awesome to gawk at. It’s also worth mentioning that this is where the movie “The Hangover” was filmed.
Inside Caesar’s Palace.
- The Flamingo Wildlife Habitat
Free admission. This habitat is located inside of the Flamingo Hotel and contains flamingos, swans, ducks, koi, turtles, and other animals. It’s open 24 hours, but try not to go at night. It’s too dark to see much, and all the animals are sleeping. Fun fact: the Flamingo Hotel & Casino was built by notorious mobster “Bugsy” Siegel and is the oldest resort on the Strip still in operation.
- Bellagio Fountains
Many locals and tourists alike name this as their favorite free Vegas attraction, and I can see why. The water dances in perfect time to the music and creates a spectacular show. If you can, catch the Star-Spangled Banner performance. Glorious.
Monday – Friday
3:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
show every 1/2 hour
7:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.
show every 15 minutes
Saturdays, Sundays* and Holidays
12:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
show every 1/2 hour
7:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.
show every 15 minutes
*On Sundays Fountain show times begin at 11 a.m. and run every 15 minutes for the Fountains Brunch at Jasmine.
This isn’t your typical Chinatown. Located just west of the the Las Vegas Strip, this Chinatown is a surprisingly clean set of large strip malls lining Spring Mountain Road. There’s a plethora of inexpensive, authentic Asian food to be found here.
- Korea Town Plaza: at the intersection of Spring Valley Road and Rainbow Boulevard. Definitely check out Greenland Supermarket here. It’s huge, clean, and full of tasty food and other cool items you can’t find anywhere else. We ate lunch in the huge food court in Greenland Supermarket, and it was amazing.
- 99 Ranch Market: this is a very popular Asian supermarket in Chinatown. It’s filled with inexpensive and fresh Asian foods. They’re really into fresh seafood, so you’ll see a huge wall of tanks stuffed with live crab, shrimp, and fish.
- If you get the chance, order a Taro slush. Most delicious thing ever.