Vintage shops, local hipsters, quirky restaurants, parents pushing strollers—Downtown Las Vegas has a decidedly different vibe than the city’s famed Strip. Just eight kilometres north of Vegas’ most famous stretch, you’ll discover an historic urban core, now thriving despite humble beginnings and a seedy past.
A mere 22 people called Vegas home at the start of the 20th century, and all of them lived in what is now downtown. Water from nearby springs (now long dried up) quenched parched residents and fuelled the steam trains that brought new settlers as the city slowly expanded.
In 1931, Nevada legislators, intent on boosting the Depression-era economy, officially legalized gambling, and in no time casinos and hotels rose up along Fremont Street, downtown’s main drag. The early patrons included labourers helping to build Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, about 50 km away. In droves, they made the dusty drive, helping fill the casinos’ coffers.
Construction in the city didn’t expand beyond downtown until 1941—that’s when the El Rancho Vegas became the first hotel-casino to open along the remote stretch of highway that’s now the Strip. More properties followed, both on the Strip and downtown, but as visitors gravitated to the glitz and glamour of shiny new Strip resorts, downtown began to tarnish.
A revival began in 1995 with the opening of the Fremont Street Experience, the five-block-long, mostly covered pedestrian mall with a diverse blend of hotel-casinos, shops and entertainment attractions. The nightly sound and light shows on the mall’s massive canopy remain a big draw today, and the rest of Las Vegas’ core continues to evolve, emerging from the doldrums with an upbeat and energetic atmosphere. Several once-stale hotels are welcoming guests following major makeovers and rebranding. A staggering number of new restaurants make it difficult to decide where to dine. And both indoor and outdoor venues cater to a flourishing indie music scene.
No matter how long you’re staying in Vegas, a visit downtown is well worth the trip.
What To Do
Get oriented to what downtown has to offer on a three-wheeled electric scooter. Trikke Las Vegas offers 30- to 90-minute tours that originate in the burgeoning entertainment district of Fremont East. There are a number of tour options to choose from, but one of the coolest itineraries explores the area’s exploding arts scene in 18b, the downtown arts district spanning more than 20 city blocks that’s home to a growing number of galleries.
Of course, some of the city’s best-known forms of artistic expression are its ubiquitous neon signs, with colours to rival any canvas. Some of the older signs can be appreciated at the intriguing Neon Museum. Located a few blocks north of Fremont Street, it features an impressive collection of vintage signs—some rusting, some restored. They’re all rescues from now-closed hotels and casinos, many of which gave way to newer properties along the Strip. Guides will lead you past relics such as the giant lamp from the Aladdin and the oversized Silver Slipper from a casino of the same name.
It’s not a neon sign, but a massive, flame-shooting mantis that beckons outside the Downtown Container Park, Fremont East’s anchor attraction. Opened in 2013, the venue features more than three dozen boutique shops, restaurants and bars housed in cleverly camouflaged shipping containers. Be sure to check out the oversized playground featuring a multi-storey tree house that welcomes kids and grown-ups, alike.
Finally, you can gain a better understanding of Las Vegas’ unruly past at The Mob Museum, which presents a fascinating view of organized crime and law enforcement in Vegas with engaging exhibits and the largest collection of Mob-related artifacts and memorabilia assembled under one roof.
Where To Dine
The Strip is known for the exciting eateries located within its sprawling hotels, but, these days, interesting new restaurants are just as easily found downtown.
Italian steakhouse Andiamo, in The D hotel, is considered one of the city’s finest steakhouses (and, trust us, there are many). In addition to aged beef, diners rave about pasta dishes such as tortellacci: pasta wheels stuffed with ricotta cheese and tossed with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and olives.
For something a little lighter, consider chef Kerry Simon’s Carson Kitchen. In 2014, Simon became the first of the Strip’s many celebrity chefs to venture downtown. This popular spot emphasizes small plates perfect for sharing, and the mouth-watering choices include bacon jam with baked brie and toasted baguette, and tempura green beans with pepper-jelly cream cheese.
For a memorable place to enjoy a cocktail, there’s the historic Atomic Liquors. During the Cold War, Las Vegans would grab a beer and flock to the roof of this Fremont Street tavern to view the mushroom clouds from the frequent A-bomb blasts about 65 km away. The bar pays homage to the atomic age through artifacts including two 1960s-era Geiger counters that sit between bottles of bourbon.
Where To Stay
There haven’t been any brand-new hotels built downtown for roughly 30 years, but if the idea of staying at an older property that oozes history while still offering modern-day touches appeals, downtown is the place to look.
Sin City’s oldest hotel, the Golden Gate, sits at the western end of Fremont Street. When it opened in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada, it featured room and board for a dollar a night (electric lighting and ventilation included). The hotel maintains more than 100 original, but remodelled, rooms. While petite by today’s standards, they include tech touches such as computer ports and flat-screen TVs. Guests wanting to stretch out can enjoy the newer, more spacious suites, with motion-sensor technology and rainfall showers.
The El Cortez, in Fremont East, embraces its shady past. Established in 1941, the place was so successful that Bugsy Siegel and three other mobsters purchased it four years later. Siegel was killed in 1947, but a restaurant there is named for him. The hotel’s “vintage queen” rooms, accessible only via a creaking staircase, look much like they did nearly 75 years ago and truly recapture the feel of Old Vegas (but with modern conveniences).
Where To Shop
The shopping scene in Downtown Vegas is wonderfully eclectic (and affordable), thanks to local entrepreneurs who like to showcase their personal passions—and vintage-based interests—in a retail setting.
For repurposed goods, like cheese trays made from melted-down wine bottles, head to the recycling-focused BluMarble at Container Park. The store’s motto: “What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.” Also in Container Park is Kappa Toys, which stocks a range of retro goods—think Gumby, Slinky and Wooly Willy.
Three blocks away, you can relive the years when The Rat Pack reigned in Sin City by perusing the new and used vinyl collection at 11th Street Records. Time will fly as you sort through albums by former Vegas headliners such as Liberace, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Long lines often form along Las Vegas Boulevard outside the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. While plenty of merchandise, including Vegas memorabilia, is for sale, the big draw is the proprietors. This is where “Chumlee” Russell and the Harrisons—Rick, Corey and “the Old Man”—wheel and deal for the Pawn Stars TV show. In typical Vegas fashion, the action here never stops.
Getting There: WestJet flies to Las Vegas 12 times a day from nine Canadian cities.