As soon as I reach the edge of the tiny platform—855 feet above the Vegas Strip—I freeze. I’m at the SkyJump Las Vegas on the 108th floor of the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower, just seconds away from leaping off the ledge, but, as I stare at the city below, my heart racing, I wonder if I’ve taken my pursuit of exploring a different side of Vegas a little too far.
My past trips to Sin City have always revolved around shopping, shows and pool parties. So, this time around, I’ve decided to broaden my horizons, to check out Vegas’s world-class art scene, its rejuvenated downtown and some of its outdoor adventures.
I start with a closer look at the Strip’s art scene. The city has been taking fine art, from both established and emerging artists, more seriously in recent years, and a visit to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is a perfect first stop.
The tiny gallery runs a few rotating exhibits throughout the year and, at the time of my visit, it’s featuring 43 of Picasso’s works, including the never-before-seen-in-public “Profile of a Woman with Blue Hair,” on loan from Picasso’s family estate. The woman is Dora Maar, one of the legendary artist’s many lovers, and as I gaze at the painting, I’m struck by how cool it is that I actually get to see it up close. Everything about this tiny gallery, with its soft-spoken staff, pristine displays and gleaming white surfaces, invokes quiet reflection—a surprising treat for a spot that’s smack in the middle of the Strip.
Just down the Strip, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas takes a different but equally exciting approach to its own art program. Everywhere I turn in this gorgeous hotel, there’s another visual masterpiece to take in, from the casino floor’s iconic giant red shoe and its digital displays by artists like T.J. Wilcox and Yoko Ono, to the graffiti murals in the parking garages and exhibits at the P3Studio, a rotating artists-in-residence program. My personal favourites are the Art-O-Mat vending machines scattered throughout the property, which let you take home a little piece of Vegas art for just US$5.
Over at the SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino I discover a visual masterpiece of a different sort at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés. It’s practically sensory overload in this incredible space, which has a sort of hunting lodge-meet-Vegas glam thing happening—there are multiple open kitchens complete with gigantic wood grills and meats on display, including a full suckling pig.
I’ve never been much of a carnivore, but I know this is the place to try something new. My waiter guides me through the massive menu and helps me choose dishes to try—10, in fact. Shortly after, a cart pulls up to the table and a server puts on a mini show, expertly mixing up the ingredients for the beef tartare—egg yolk, mustard, anchovies, HP Sauce and beef sirloin. One bite and I’m converted.
More unexpected than the Strip’s impressive galleries and dining options is what I find off the Strip. Over the last decade, Downtown Vegas has slowly transformed into a hot spot for delicious restaurants, cool shops and exciting initiatives like the Art Square and Arts Factory buildings, which house a variety of galleries and studios featuring contemporary and abstract works.
When I step inside the Brett Wesley Gallery at Art Square, I’m greeted by the overwhelming smell of coffee. The small gallery space is littered with coffee grounds, newspapers, coffee cups, tousled sheets and even an old mattress. The chaotic but completely fascinating scene is the newest exhibit from artist Adam Turl. Called “13 Baristas,” it’s an immersive installation about a fictional group of coffee shop workers, and it’s just one of the rotating exhibits this gallery hosts throughout the year.
Exhibits like Turl’s are relatively new to this area of Vegas—just a few years ago Art Square was little more than a collection of empty warehouses. But thanks to the creation of downtown’s 18b Arts District, the neighbourhood is in full transition mode as new businesses and artist studios are popping up everywhere.
Wandering along the First Street Art Trail, where a variety of outdoor public art is on display, I can’t resist snapping a selfie with “Snowball in Vegas,” a seven-foot-tall cat sculpture made from hard-shelled Styrofoam. I also stop to appreciate the vibrant, graffiti-style murals that cover the sides of many of the buildings.
Then it’s on to dinner. To get a real taste of downtown’s dining scene, I head down a back alley to La Comida, a popular-with-the-locals Mexican restaurant known for its funky vibe and authentic cuisine. Once seated, and with tacos, street corn and guacamole on the way, I learn that executive chef Paloma Cuellar grew up in Mexico and acquired much of her craft from her mother. This spot is also known for its impressive tequila menu—more than 100 varieties—and for its fresh fruit margaritas of which I can personally recommend three: prickly pear, guava and blood orange (hey, it’s Vegas).
Las Vegas has long been known as the town where almost everything happens indoors, but there are some thrilling surprises to be found outside, too.
As I step out of the car at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, I am stunned by the scene in front of me. Red cliffs seem to spring from the desert floor, towering overhead; the arid vastness makes me think this is what Mars must look like—and it’s absolutely arresting. Despite being only 30 minutes west of the Strip, Red Rock feels likes another world.
I tune in to my guide, who is talking about the different activities on offer here—more than 1,200 named climbing routes and endless hiking trails (about 50 kilometres’ worth). We set out on the easy 3-km Calico Hills hike. Along the way, my guide points out the Mojave Desert’s unique plants, many of which are prickly and look a little threatening, like the beavertail cactus, named for its huge, flat leaves. But it’s not all cacti here; in the distance, I spot the occasional cluster of bright yellow desert marigolds, which stand out dramatically against the red rocks.
After the hike, I head to the Springs Preserve, a sprawling 180-acre botanical garden of sorts that sits on the site of a former spring. This oasis in the desert (which has long dried up) was what originally drew people to the area in 1905 and is known as the birthplace of modern-day Vegas. I explore the gardens, a seasonal butterfly habitat and wetland hiking trails before wandering the on-site museums to learn more about Las Vegas’ unique ecosystems and its history (the Nevada State Museum is also here).
Not quite ready to head back to the glitz of the Strip, I decide to indulge my Formula One fantasies with Dream Racing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After taking a lesson in a simulator, I slip into a jumpsuit, pull on a helmet and nervously slide behind the wheel of a Ferrari F430 GT (I’m told that’s good). Things start out slow, really slow, but my instructor coaxes me along and I start to relax. I whip around the course, panicking only a little at the sharp turns while trying to focus on when to accelerate and decelerate. When we pull back into the pit, I feel completely energized.
After the speedway, I use my newfound courage to take on the SkyJump. Despite those few seconds of self-doubt and panic, I leap from the Stratosphere and watch the Strip whiz toward me. Fear turns to elation as I feel the cables kick in and start to slow me down. Within 15 seconds, my feet are safely back on the ground.
Following my harrowing adventures, I reward myself with a trip to the pool at the MGM Grand for some sun before heading to the airport. I order an unintentionally large mojito and observe my fellow sunbathers. Behind me, a group of girls, all bouncy hair and big sunglasses, are recalling stories of the night before and mapping out their plan for the day—shopping and more sunbathing, natch. Across the pool, a mother is wrangling a toddler into water wings, and at the expansive area beside me, the hotel staff is getting ready for a pool party.
Drink in hand, I reflect on my adventures of the past few days. I can’t help but be proud that I’ve explored a completely different side of Vegas, and I feel a new appreciation, and maybe even affection, for this unapologetically quirky city in the desert.
And that’s not just the mojito talking, I swear.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Las Vegas 78 times a week from 12 Canadian cities.