Disclaimer: We began compiling this guide to visiting Las Vegas a couple of months ago, as COVID-19 vaccinations were fully underway both in O.C. and L.V., and infection numbers were coming down. The lights have slowly been coming back on again, but at press time, the “back to normal” we had all been hoping for seems a little less likely due to the rise of the Delta variant. As of Friday, July 30, Nevada followed California’s lead, re-imposing its mask mandate for public indoor settings as local hospitals began to fill up again. Right now, if you plan to visit Vegas, your safest bet for a virus-free good time includes getting vaccinated, wearing masks while indoors, social distancing, and washing your hands/sanitizing frequently.
What happens in Vegas hasn’t always stayed in Vegas. The suggestive slogan, part of one of the most iconic marketing campaigns ever, might feel like a classic pop-culture catchphrase, but in fact, it’s relatively new. Debuting in February 2003, it was conjured by R&R Partners ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, who sought a rebrand for the city that retained its “sinful” rep but also showed it had more to offer beyond blackjack tables and slot machines. It worked. Vegas has become synonymous not only with gambling, but also with dance clubs, strip shows, bars, restaurants, dazzling stage shows (from Cirque du Soleil to Celine Dion – who coincidentally started her first residency in 2003), conventions and thematic Disneyland-like hotels.
Welcoming tourism from all walks of life, Vegas has been attracting a mix of young and old, rich and poor, nightlife lovers and sun worshipers, hedonism-seeking adults and families looking for good clean fun more than ever in the past couple of decades. They’ve added new demographics to the mix in recent years too, with huge music festivals including Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), Life Is Beautiful, Psycho Las Vegas, Viva Las Vegas and Punk Rock Bowling, to name a few.
Then 2020 happened. In the wake of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the Vegas Strip (and its surrounding areas), much like Times Square in New York and to a lesser extent Hollywood Blvd. in L.A., became a dead, desolate ghost town. And while it’s been a struggle coming back for every hotspot, the glitziest place on the globe might have the biggest challenges ahead. Or not. People don’t go to Sin City to be responsible, or careful, or safe. Even as coronavirus remains a very real threat, visitors – and particularly those relatively close – look to Vegas for frequent, quick and easy escapes from the stress and drudgery of daily life. Many of us really need that right now, too. Here, we provide a guide list for the best ways to do just that, from the newest stuff you probably haven’t seen yet to some old-school standbys you may have forgotten about or never even knew existed. We can’t promise what happens there will actually stay there, but the memories will definitely stay with you.
Waking Up in Vegas
Billing itself as “the world’s first purpose-built experiential entertainment district,” Area 15 is conceptually a nod to the mythic Area 51, Nevada’s mysterious, highly classified air force facility suspected to conduct alien and UFO research, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a mind-bending, immersive wonderland of art, sound, lights and activations that could only really come together in Vegas. Think euphoric rave vibes meets unique art gallery visuals meets futuristic amusement park and that only starts to reflect the eye, ear and mind candy here.
A collaborative creation between real estate development firm Fisher Brothers and creative agency Beneville Studios, it offers several different things to do including various VR experiences, cool themed bars such as Oddwood Bar, Emporium Arcade and Lost Spirits Distillery. There’s also Wink World, a 3D effect driven light show from Chris Wink, one of the three co-founders of Blue Man Group; Museum Fiasco, an audiovisual installation exploring space, time and perception with sound and light; an ax-throwing experience called Dueling Axes; and the delectable dishes of The Beast by Todd English, which elevates the mall food court concept with stations serving different cuisines via the James Beard award-winning chef’s “curated map of flavors.” Rotating installations come through (we saw Van Gogh Experience) here as do big-name DJs and specialty show bookings.
The biggest attraction at Area 15, and the one you should definitely not miss even with its perpetually long line outside, is Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart, a huge narrative-based art installation that’s designed to absorb and astound. The transportive 52,000 square feet experience meshes sci-fi, psychedelia, social commentary, retail, technology and a lot of seemingly strange but clearly intentional visual elements to create one of the most interactive environments in L.V., or the country. The dystopian, multidimensional storyline – which features 60 unique sections including multiple rooms and portals to other worlds – is set around what looks like a supermarket filled with odd goods (many of which you can actually buy) but we won’t even try to explain much beyond that because even after an informative tour, we’re not sure we even understand it all.
Likened to Star Wars’ Death Star due to its imposing black exterior, Allegiant Stadium is hard to miss as you drive into the city from Irvine. The black and silver-clad NFL warriors make sense in Vegas and the new stadium is – visually anyway – a perfect fit. Construction of the $1.9 billion 10 level building began in late 2017 and was completed last year. It features a 275 feet media mesh video screen facing Interstate 15, retractable curtain-like side windows facing the Strip and an endzone area with an 85 ft torch (touted as the largest 3D printed object in the world) with a flame honoring the late Raiders owner Al Davis. In addition to the Raiders, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) college football team, fittingly called The Rebels, also play here and their first game was held on Halloween of last year. The seats were mostly empty for both teams when they first took to the field after the decision was made not to have fans attend the 2020-21 season due to COVID. But as of now, games and some mega music acts are scheduled there including Guns N’ Roses (Aug. 27) and The Rolling Stones (Nov. 6).
Casinos and hotels will always be the heart and soul of Vegas and it’s always fun to see new ones pop up when we visit. The most eye-catching currently has to be Resorts World, the majestic two-tower structure that now lights up the skyline in red, facing Las Vegas Blvd. with some monster 100,000 square foot LED displays promoting its upcoming music slate including Katy Perry and Carrie Underwood. It stands on the land that used to be home to The Stardust, and it’s the first brand-new, ground-up, major resort to open on the Strip in over a decade. Utilizing the Hilton brand via a franchise agreement with Malaysian developers Genting Berhad (who added the Hilton name and the company’s high-end Conrad brand labeling to its 57-story towers) it also touts European casino brand Crockfords on its exterior. The 88-acre site has a massive casino surrounded by a slew of restaurants and bars, plus a 5,000-seat theatre and a two-story retail district featuring clubs and entertainment galore, not to mention a 20-million-pixel digital sphere illuminating mesmerizing content 24/7. Yes, this is the Vegas a lot of us grew up with – over the top, extra-sensory and packed with something for everyone, but it doesn’t come cheap. Room rates are some of the highest on the Strip – upwards of $400 a night on weekends. We recommend visiting, if not staying there.
Though its restaurants have always been looked upon as a homogenized take on rock n’ roll culture, the Hard Rock brand managed to capture something edgier beyond its touristy “cafes” with its hotel in Vegas. Because of this, it always attracted a music-minded crowd and it was a go-to for those of us seeking like-minded in Vegas. We made a tradition out of playing the Sex Pistols and KISS-themed slot machines there every visit and more often than not, we’d check out bands and shows there before venturing to the main strip. But that’s all in the past now that Hard Rock is gone and the space has been replaced with the brand new Virgin Hotel & Casino. Owned by the Hilton corp, this new one is all Richard Branson branding, with its red and white color scheme, clean lines and design. Amidst COVID fears it should do well with its focus on outdoor entertainment and environments; it’s got a 5-acre pool complex with an event lawn and a 4,500-person capacity theater for live music. Its current hottest show, called 27, celebrates the music of the “27 club” – celebrating rockers who died at 27 years old, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. And before you assume it’s another cheesy lounge tribute, note that it’s produced by a genuine L.A. rocker Erik Himel, former host and producer of “The Sunset Jam” at The Viper Room.
Recently named Best Casino in Downtown L.V. (aka the Old Strip), by Las Vegas Weekly, Circa opened last year during the pandemic, but has found its footing this year with those who want the feel and amenities of new Vegas with the surroundings of the old. The 1.25 million-square-foot property offers an impressive sportsbook (with a 78-million-pixel high-def screen that can play up to 19 games at once), a huge sunbathing area with six pools, two swim-up bars and a 143-by-40 foot, 14-million-megapixel LED screen amidst an amphitheater setting. Also, the famous kicking cowgirl neon sign seen in countless TV and film backdrops can be found inside, now overlooking a cool bar called Vegas Vickie’s Cocktail Lounge.
Shop Like a Showgirl
If you’re the type of traveler who brings an extra-large suitcase on vacays so you have room to fill it with purchases, you might just want to bring another piece of luggage to Vegas. There are countless places to drop your dough (hopefully won in one of the casinos). For mall shopping, we love Fashion Show which has all the mall staples (some, like the Forever 21, are massive!) plus a few out-of-the-box must-sees such as Lip Lab by BITE, where you can create, design and name your own custom lipsticks; and Honey Birdette, the sexy lingerie brand known for personalized service. Both are top spots for Vegas’ ubiquitous bachelorette party crews. After shopping, we recommend Galpao Gaucho, an authentic Brazilian steakhouse adjacent to the mall where all-you-can-eat fine meats are cut off a spit right at your table. The 2 million-square-foot shopping and dining complex recently rebranded with a new logo and focus on “creativity, fearlessness and inclusivity,” and this is reflected in its look and inventive use of empty spaces post-COVID – currently artwork by local artist Pretty Done adorns the entirety of a retail space welcoming selfies and walk-thrus.
For a more upscale spending experience, check out The Shops at Crystals, a high-end luxe-o-rama featuring the likes of Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Versace (or as Nomi Malone calls it “Ver-say’s”… sorry we had to!), Dolce & Gabbana and Prada to name a few. It’s Rodeo Drive in a mall basically, and really not our bag but it deserves mention for the installation by legendary light artist James Turrell called Akhob. Google it.
Beyond the head-spinning spending options in Vegas, we prefer to give our money to smaller independently owned stores in the area. Our faves include Cash 4 Chaos, a well-stocked punk rock paradise that puts Hot Topic’s mall goth merch selection to shame, and Wax Trax, known as “Elton John’s favorite record store” after word got out he purchased over 11,000 pieces of rare vinyl from the shop, which is housed in a converted stucco house on Vegas’ west side. (And yes, John sent assistants to buy for him at first, but he did peruse the place himself during his Caesar’s Palace residency). We also think L.V.’s Antique Mall of America is worth a visit, with 23,000 square feet full of vintage furniture, collectibles and oddities.
Switching gears from clothing, music and chotchkies to cannabis, we must make mention of Las Vegas’ growing marijuana marketplaces. Many have popped up since weed became legal in the state, but we’ll give it to Planet 13 for size, selection and groovy atmosphere. With 15-foot-tall interactive LED lotus flowers on the roof of the building and an 18-foot outdoor water spectacle greeting guests upon entry and an aerial orb show inside, it’s got just the kind of trippy vibe tokers can appreciate. Keep in mind that while it’s legal to buy and possess up to an ounce, it’s only legal to smoke on private property. That means not in your hotel room, car or outside in public. Clearly, if you’re a smoker, it pays to know a local or two who are too.
Light Up The Night
Carlos “Big Daddy” Adley and wife Ava Berman have made names for themselves in L.A. separately and together, owning and promoting countless nightclubs and restaurants including Vertigo (and later Glam Slam), the Dragonfly and Velvet Margarita. When they moved to Vegas they became leaders in reviving Downtown and specifically the area known as “Fremont East,” with their adjacent venues, Backstage Bar and Billiards and Fremont Country Club. We’ll disclose here that we’ve become friends with the pair covering their endeavors. And boy do they have some major endeavors – a $100 million boutique hotel called Indigo/Central Las Vegas, to be erected on the property behind their clubs, their own streaming network (which will provide music, gambling and original content for a nominal fee) and of course, staying busy with their two clubs which have brought an L.A.-feel and cred to the old strip, booking hot acts that would play venues like The Roxy or the Fonda here. They’ve also become known for some of the most sought into after-parties during festival season. Coming up: Their all-star Punk Rock Bowling pre-party with Cheetah Chrome (The Dead Boys), Rat Scabies (The Damned), Monique Powell (Save Ferris), El Vez and more on Sept. 23.
Interestingly, it was a visit to the Double Down Saloon with their pal Vince Vaughn that inspired Berman and Adley to turn their attention to old Vegas. And speaking of DD, it’s been the divey alternative to Vegas’ conspicuous consumption for decades now. Conjuring the grit and spit of L.A. punk rooms of yore like Al’s Bar and current ones like The Burgundy Room, the Saloon has been touting itself as the “anti-Vegas” since it opened back in 1992 with house specialties including their signature “Ass Juice” (served in a ceramic toilet bowl mug) and their original Bacon Martini. With smaller indie watering holes closing left and right due to coronavirus-related concerns, we’re happy to report that his smokey spot (whose promo tagline is “Shut Up and Drink!”) is still making guests see double nightly.
Attracting a similarly colorful crowd, L.V.’s got a pair of charming tiki spots to choose from and if you like a kitschy-cool scene and tasty umbrella drinks you should check out both. Frankie’s Tiki Room – which, like its sister bar Double Down is open 24 hours a day – is the older, though it wasn’t tiki-themed originally. The ‘50s-era bar underwent a makeover in 2008, meshing a modern primitive decor with inviting tropical touches. Built by famed tiki bar designer Bamboo Ben (grandson of the guy who designed Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and the tiki-themed Aku Aku restaurant at the now-gone Stardust), Frankie’s boasts potent potions and cool souvenir mugs you’ll definitely want to pay extra to take home with you. Newer on the Polynesian paradise scene, The Golden Tiki in Vegas’ Chinatown region offers live entertainment nightly as well as a festive atmosphere and of course, fanciful cocktails. Don’t forget to snap a selfie in front of its centerpiece photo opp – a giant clam shell-shaped bench!
Speaking of photo ops, there are many at our new favorite food place (and is actually quite old): the Benihana at The Westgate, which was built in the ‘70s and looks like a technicolor Japanese garden brimming with lanterns, a faux rain waterfall, and red swathed authentic private dining rooms. Westgate also deserves mention for its retro feel. Both Elvis and Liberace played and stayed there, and Barry Manilow calls it home (taking up residency in the hotel’s gilded Sky Villa Penthouse atop the hotel) when he performs there, which is so often he has his own themed gift shop.
The view from the Sky Villas – which we recently got to tour – is almost as breathtaking as the giant circular “ride” called The High Roller on the Linq Promenade. If you’ve seen it and wondered what it’s all about, your perspective might be a bit off unless you actually go to the Linq Hotel or near it. The 550-foot tall, 520-foot diameter attraction is considered the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, but it doesn’t feel like a carnival thing when you’re on it. It’s more like an observation experience. Despite what you might have heard, there is no bar inside each pod, but there is one just before you get on and drinks and snacks are allowed as you slowly complete a 30-minute rotation in the sky with up to 40 other people.
Linq is also home to one of three Minus5 Ice Bars (the other two are at The Venetian and Mandalay Bay). This cool concept features drinking spaces made completely of ice, from the walls to the tables and chairs to glasses you drink from. Admission includes a parka and gloves and faux-fur coats for VIPs. Ice sculptures, flashing lights and lively music (wish we’d heard some Vanilla Ice during our last visit) make this one of Vegas’ coolest things to do.
We’ve all seen enough Scorcese films to know that Las Vegas is pretty much the city that the mob built. Organized crime outfits created and ran the casinos, and The Mob Museum lays it all out, in engaging and visually compelling detail that both locals and tourists enjoy. Located in a 1930s restored former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office, it houses artifacts, photos, weapons and other ephemera on three floors, unraveling the growth of Vegas and the evolution of mafia-backed businesses as well as the law enforcement groups who tried to hold them accountable. Highlights include a simulated courtroom screening and a distillery and speakeasy in the basement serving hooch like it was before it was legal.
Leaving Las Vegas
Vegas is about excess and this guide is by no means a complete one; even a seasoned visitor is bound to miss something amazing. We hope to continue to add to our Sin City favorites list in the months and years ahead and with the city working on countless new projects, themed restaurants, bars, clubs and other novel amusements, it shouldn’t be too difficult.