When I think of Las Vegas, I think of the frenetic, shoulder-to-shoulder, opulent, delightfully decadent, 2-1/2 mile stretch of real estate known simply as The Strip. Downtown Las Vegas … the birthplace of it all … does not come to mind. Downtown Las Vegas, aka Vintage Vegas, (which is actually in Las Vegas, unlike most of the Strip) has a kind of an old-time, wild west feel to it which gives it a flavor and an allure all its own. The Fremont Street Experience is where most visitors begin and end their exploration, but wandering around the area and through the older casinos has its own rewards.
Here then is our list of 10 things to see and do on the cheap in Downtown Las Vegas.
1. The Fremont Street Experience is probably the central highlight of the downtown area and it's free. It's a covered, four-block long, pedestrian mall crammed full of restaurants, bars, casinos, souvenir shops and entertainment. Its canopy is the world's largest video screen and regularly scheduled evening Viva Vision light shows are fun, free and definitely worth a visit. It reportedly has 12.5 million lights and 550,000 watts of sound. Just look up! By the way, there are buskers galore, but watch out. If you want to take a picture, it'll cost you.
2. While you're on Fremont Street, check out all the classic neon signs. There's Vegas Vic, the world's largest mechanical neon sign (though he's not very mechanical any more). Just down the way from Vic is Vegas Vickie aka Sassy Sally, Vic's longtime girlfriend (and now wife, they were married in the mid-1990s) who sits atop Glitter Gulch, next to the Golden Goose. An old prospector pans for sparkling gold and sits atop a souvenir shop at 323 Fremont.
3. We're not gamblers, but we kind of enjoy playing the slots if it's with the casino's money. Pick up a player's card at any of the casinos and see what's on offer for new players. Sometimes it's a match play (You bet $10 and they'll match it); sometimes you need to accumulate points to earn your free play and other times, it's totally free. Read the fine print.
4. Visit the Golden Gate Casino. It's the oldest casino in Las Vegas, opened in 1906 and originally known as the Hotel Nevada. It's had a recent facelift and offers boutique rooms. The draw is its historical significance and the fact that this hotel introduced the first shrimp cocktail in Las Vegas in 1959 for 50 cents. It's still available at the 1950's diner-themed Du-Par's Restaurant & Bakery and advertised as “The best tail in town.” Served in a sundae glass chock full of shrimp and cocktail sauce, it's quite a bargain, though the price has gone up to $2.99. The pies and baked goods at Du-Pars are worth a look. A little trivia … the Hotel Nevada was assigned Las Vegas' first telephone with the number 1.
5. Binion's Casino was established by Texas gambler, Benny Binion, in 1951. They have a million dollars encased in a plastic pyramid on display. You can have your picture taken there next to the pile of loot for free.
6. The Golden Nugget touts the world's largest gold nugget on display. It's also the largest ever found with a metal detector. The nugget is kind of hidden away behind the hotel elevators, but it's worth a look. Named the Hand of Faith, because of its shape, it was discovered in 1980 by Kevin Hillier in Victoria, Australia. It weighs 60 pounds (27.21kg) and was purchased by the Golden Nugget for a reported $1M. Another draw of the Golden Nugget is its 13-story waterslide which careens through the center of a huge shark tank. It's usually only open to hotel guests or with an admission fee. We looked from afar.
7. The Heart Attack Grill is on the far east end of the Fremont Street pedestrian mall at Las Vegas Boulevard. We weren't interested in eating their proclaimed high fat, high calorie, high cholesterol burgers or shakes, but it was worth a peek inside. All the wait staff are dressed as nurses and you have to wear a hospital johnny to be admitted. It's irreverent, a bit raunchy and unhealthy and definitely Las Vegas.
8. There's a chunk of the Berlin Wall at the Victorian-themed Main Street Station Casino. It's sheathed in plastic behind the urinals in the men's room (thank goodness for the sheathing). Taking a photo proved to be a challenge for David since a guy walking into the Men's Room with a camera is somewhat suspect. We're told you can ask a security guard to take you in, but it was too busy when we were there to attempt it. Instead, we nicked a photo off the internet, but David can attest to the fact that it's there.
9. We visited the Mob Museum on a separate trip downtown and would recommend it for some good historical background on organized crime in Las Vegas. It's only open during the day, so check the hours and admission fees.
10. Although it's not within walking distance of Fremont Street, if you have wheels, don't forget the Neon Museum just down the road on Las Vegas Boulevard. If you plan to visit, it's best at night when the lights are all aglow. We thought the museum admission was a bit high, but took the free driving tour to see some of the preserved vintage Vegas neon signs.
Some helpful hints:
- Visit at a non-holiday time if you want to avoid the crowds. Sundays are great … not as crowded, but everything is still open.
- Park your car … free with casino validation for 3 hours or so OR $3 all day Sunday-Thursday at Main Street Station. We prefer covered parking to an open lot if we plan to be there all day.
- No bottles or glass are allowed on Fremont Street. Decant your drinks into a plastic cup before heading onto the pedestrian mall. Yes, you can walk around with alcoholic beverages.
- Get a player's card at the different casinos for some free play, discounts or gifts.
- Safety issues – if you plan to wander outside the main Fremont Street area, do it during the day. Some of the downtown areas are pretty seedy. Be aware that in large crowds, any time of day, pockets can be picked and things stolen. Don't set down your purse, backpack or camera unattended. (No different than the Strip or any other crowded public area).
- If you'd prefer, you can park at Sam's Town on the east side of Las Vegas and take the free shuttle bus downtown. You'll a need a Sam's Town player's card for the free lift.Okay, okay … so you're getting sick of hearing about Las Vegas, but we're here and there's lots to see and share. That said, we're getting ready for our departure back to cold, rainy Western Australia. We're trying to figure out how to capture some of this desert heat and bring it back with us to enjoy on Nine of Cups. Any suggestions?