It’s easy to lose track of time in this always-on city. Local Brendan Shanahan shows you how to navigate the neons, nuances and nightlife in 24 hours – even if you can’t find a clock.
Perhaps more than at any time in its history, Las Vegas is changing. Once a Mafia-owned cow town that relied on gambling revenue, Nevada’s most populous city has reinvented itself over the past decade as an international entertainment, dining and shopping mecca merely supplemented by gambling. Off the Strip, Vegas is also a major metropolitan area of about two million people with a burgeoning food scene and stunning desert scenery. With a new professional ice hockey team and a football team on the horizon, a transformed post-recession economy and a revitalised urban core, Vegas is back on a winning streak. Here’s how to best discover it.
Head to the desert
07:30: Like most of the United States, Vegas is a car town. Do yourself a favour and rent one. It will be cheaper than taking taxis and if you’re thinking of using public transport, you may find clicking your heels three times, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, more effective. First, hit the I-15 highway and head 20 minutes south towards Los Angeles to see Seven Magic Mountains. Consisting of stacks of massive day-glo boulders, this installation by Swiss-born modern artist Ugo Rondinone is monumental land art by way of The Flintstones. In the cool of the morning, against the primeval beauty of the desert, it’s the perfect symbol of this city’s wild contradictions: the jarring confluence of intense artificiality and heart-stopping natural beauty.
Linger over a latte
08:30: After posing for a selfie, return the way you came, past the Strip and into Downtown. A dead heart of urban decay since the late 1980s, the original centre of Las Vegas is now in the midst of a major makeover. At the vanguard of this renaissance is PublicUs (1126 Fremont Street; +1 702 331 5500), a thoughtfully designed café inspired by the Australian coffee scene. It’s worth putting up with the haphazard canteen service for a leisurely breakfast of light meals, pastries and coffee that’s undoubtedly among the best in the country.
Hit the books
10:00: While in Downtown, explore the neighbouring shops, restaurants and bars that have popped up in recent years. From PublicUs, head to The Writer’s Block, one of the most charming independent bookstores in the States. Founded by a pair of ex-New Yorkers, Drew Cohen and Scott Seeley (who was a collaborator with author and publisher Dave Eggers on the cultish McSweeney’s store), the bookshop features a superbly curated selection, including many titles dedicated to the strange history of America’s strangest city.
See the signs
11:00: A short trip to the other side of Downtown brings you to a Vegas must-see, The Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Boulevard North). Set outdoors, the museum’s Neon Boneyard contains more than 200 signs in varying states of repair, most from casinos and other local businesses long since demolished. A few signs have been restored and are illuminated at night. But the broken ones, with their fading paint and cracked tubing, offer a more poignant memorial to a dying art that defined a city. Note that the Neon Boneyard can be viewed only on hour-long guided tours. These often sell out in advance so make sure you book ahead via the website.
Head south for lunch
12:30: Drive south of Downtown to La Mojarra Loca Grill (2797 South Maryland Parkway). This Mexican restaurant specialises in seafood, known in Latin America as mariscos. Don’t let the sign featuring a pistol-packing, beer-swilling fish and the lively family atmosphere fool you – this is some of the best food in town. Compulsory menu items include aguachile con callo (an intensely spicy ceviche of scallops and prawns) and their famous langostinos el rey (a generous platter of saltwater crayfish from the Gulf of Mexico, drowned in a chilli, lime, butter and crayfish sauce). With a stack of corn tortillas for dipping, it’s a death-row meal.
Next stop, Venice
14:30: The Strip is a few blocks west from Maryland Parkway. Park at Encore Hotel (3131 Las Vegas Boulevard South) – the site of Prince Harry’s infamous long day at the pool – and tour the extravagant indoor gardens and flower displays. In the corridor connecting Encore to the Wynn, note Jeff Koons’ sculpture, Popeye. Exit past the boutiques (Alexander McQueen, Prada, Dior et al.) and cross the pedestrian bridge over Sands Avenue to The Palazzo. Walk through the marble galleries to the Grand Canal in The Venetian, an eerily accurate reproduction with an illusionistic sky set to an hourly cycle. Wander the streets, gelato in hand, or get carried away with the postmodern irony of it all and be serenaded in a gondola on a chlorinated canal.
Up your golf game
17:00: From The Venetian, drive south on the Strip. Turn left at East Harmon Avenue then right onto Koval Lane to discover one of Vegas’s newer attractions. An enormous four-storey driving range, Topgolf is something of a misnomer, as hitting golf balls into space is just a small part of the fun here. Featuring 108 hitting bays with couches and waiters delivering food and drinks, two swimming pools and a band venue, Topgolf is more of a multi-level club. It’s also one of the best vantage points for watching desert sunsets give way to neon nights.
Peruse the menus
20:00: The world’s top chefs are opening restaurants in Las Vegas so dinner is probably the hardest decision you’ll make. Should you go with the latest outlet of New York sensation Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan (3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South) or head off the Strip to hidden gem Yui Edomae Sushi (3460 Arville Street)? It’s hard to go past Bazaar Meat by José Andrés (2535 Las Vegas Boulevard South) inside SLS Las Vegas. A playful take on a traditional Vegas steakhouse, it’s one of the most satisfying meals a non-vegetarian can have. Molecular gastronomy influences from Andrés’ time at El Bulli are tempered by his homely Spanish roots in dishes such as the divine tortilla of bone marrow, kidney and sweetbreads and the suckling pig cooked in a wood-fired oven in the Philippe Starck-designed space.
Dance the night away
22:00: If you need someone to tell you how to party in Vegas, you don’t really want to. For a gargantuan club with correspondingly awe-inspiring prices, Omnia at Caesars Palace (3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South) is the ultimate techno bacchanal. A sophisticated off-Strip experience can be found at Velveteen Rabbit (1218 South Main Street), where homemade syrups and left-of-field ingredients spice up the seasonal cocktail menu. If classic Vegas is what you seek, then it has to be the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge (2985 Las Vegas Boulevard South), a 1970s time capsule featuring purple neons, mirrored everything and a delightfully vulgar fire floating in a bubbling pool. Whatever you decide, remember that one thing about Vegas remains true: with tomorrow comes the regret. ￼