LAS VEGAS — I thought I’d hate Las Vegas — so did everyone who knows me. Gambling doesn’t interest me, traditional bachelorette parties give me hives, secondhand smoke offends my delicate nasal passages and I’ve never been a big drinker. But as February’s permacloud saturated Seattle, blue skies over the desert — even a cold desert! — started to sound pretty good.
And so, with my only frame of reference being the second season of “GLOW” and a childhood trip to Reno for a cross-country meet, I enlisted my friend Julia as a co-pilot (no way was I going alone), set aside my snobbery and descended upon the Las Vegas Strip. Almost immediately, I realized I had been wrong about Las Vegas. As the ridiculous, artificial skyline came into view from the plane, the Luxor’s pyramid-topping laser beam shooting visibly into space, I was filled with childlike delight. I was … excited? I was … in a good mood? I kind of … couldn’t wait?
I didn’t hate Las Vegas. I hated the idea of Las Vegas, but I love spectacle, and David Lynch-esque weirdness, and I’ve voluntarily watched “Showgirls” (and its musical stage adaptation).
And if you, too, are morally opposed to Vegas’ “Disneyland for adults” shtick, and if you, too, like those things — or really good tacos, or brunch, or mountains, or public art! — I have some bad news: You are not too cool or smart or sophisticated for Las Vegas. You can try not to enjoy yourself, but the city will grow on you, and you will slowly realize you like it, and you will feel strangely sad when you have to go home.
The reality of Las Vegas can be wholly enjoyable for people who hate the idea of it — and, coming in with no expectations, we might even be able to have more fun than everybody else. Here’s how.
Use the Strip for eating and sleeping, but nothing else
Like a beached armada of razzle-dazzle cruise ships in the desert, Las Vegas’ casino hotels are relatively homogenous and surprisingly affordable if there’s not a major convention in town. (I visited during the 2020 World of Concrete show, not exactly the CES trade show.) And if you’re not gambling, it doesn’t much matter where you check in (in a city of 150,000 hotel rooms, supply is rarely an issue).
Pick somewhere centrally located, lean into the cheese factor and watch out for resort fees. Almost every hotel has them, and they can quickly transform a screaming deal into a bill that will make you scream. If you’re sensitive to secondhand smoke, book a nonsmoking room in a recently renovated (or nongaming) hotel. And if you’re given what seem like excessively specific directions to your room, pay attention. Don’t be like me and look for room 4009 on the 40th (not fourth) floor of Harrah’s, a perfectly suitable hotel that mainly served as a (very comfortable!) crash pad. (Next time, I’d go for El Cortez, 600 E. Fremont St., an old downtown hotel and casino replete with scuzzy retro charm.)
The people-watching you’ll find at any of these places is almost worth the smoke inhalation (almost!), as are a few other things on the Strip, like the 24-hour Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge, a rainbow-neon-lit fever dream of a diner, with cushy purple booths, a ceiling that looks like a disco ball exploded, flamingo lamps and crispy nests of golden curly fries. In the lounge, you can sit in a conversation pit built around a confusing water fixture (basically a bubbly indoor hot tub, but also on fire?) while Warren G and Sublime music videos play above your head.
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is also worth a visit — not for gambling, but for its food choices, which include imported LA brunch purveyor Eggslut, New York’s Milk Bar, David Chang’s Momofuku, a wings-focused outpost of Portland’s Pok Pok and unmarked, Detroit-style Secret Pizza. (Word to the wise: Julia and I found that a slice of Milk Bar birthday cake was plenty for two people and paired well with canned gin and tonics from the lobby at Harrah’s. Don’t bother with a mini birthday cake that costs $32.)
The Bellagio fountains are free to watch and very jaunty, a slithery, dancerless water ballet set with tacky aplomb to the theme from “The Pink Panther.” We also found reasonably priced tickets to “RuPaul’s Drag Race Live!,” the endearing, IRL version of the reality TV drag competition that’s currently in residence at the Flamingo. To see the Strip in all its artificial glory, take the extremely limited but surprisingly fun $5 monorail that runs the gamut.
Whatever your scene, it’s something to see. Las Vegas has a streak of hedonistic pride that can be incredible to witness — and hard to avoid. As Julia and I made our way through the carnivalesque atmosphere of the lobby to catch our ride to dinner the first night we were there, she overheard two men discussing their evening plans (“What’s next?” “Hookers?”). If you’re traveling with children, it might be a good idea to stay somewhere with passably family-friendly gimmicks, like the Excalibur (3850 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) or Circus Circus (2880 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) — if only to avoid having to answer uncomfortable kid questions every five minutes (or less). Welcome to Vegas.
You’ve seen the Strip. Now get away from it.
If you don’t go beyond the Strip, it’s easy to think of Las Vegas as nothing more than a bizarro, liminal hub for people on vacation, an inside-out world with infrastructure for gyrating fountains but not public transit, an amalgamation of freeway billboards advertising the legal services of handsome, vest-clad men. But staying on the Strip the whole time you’re in Las Vegas would be like coming to Seattle and never leaving the confines of the Space Needle, and especially for the Vegas-averse, time off the Strip is really what will convert you.
That was my experience. Aside from a taco truck outside a tire shop near an overpass I’m not sure I’d be able to find again if I went back, my favorite place in Las Vegas is the Arts District between downtown and the Strip. If the idea of fake Eiffel Towers makes you queasy, you’ll like it here. The Arts District is neighborhoody and fun, with galleries, performance spaces, vintage shopping and hipster-courting bars.
It’s also home to Makers & Finders, an all-day cafe with a laid-back vibe, very well-dressed clientele and some of the best chilaquiles I’ve ever eaten. The churro waffle with blueberries and whipped cream (I ordered it twice), arepas eggs benedict and specialty espresso drinks are also excellent. (Frankie’s Tiki Room, across Interstate 15 from the Arts District, serves potent drinks in an atmosphere that’s two parts endearing and one part grimy.)
You can spend a lot of money on shows and attractions on the Strip, but the one most worth the cash is far from it. The Neon Museum is where Las Vegas’ neon signs go to retire in a Neon Boneyard of 200-plus signs from casinos, bars, motels and even a laundry service. It’s worth following along on the Neon Museum’s app as you walk through what amounts to a visual history of the city, from 1960s-era LGBTQ haven The Red Barn and its tipped-martini-glass facade, to the “Happy Shirt” sign from Steiner Cleaners, a manically grinning men’s button-down whose arms moved up and down when the sign was in use, to the glittery orange facade of the now-demolished outer-space-themed Stardust Resort and Casino.
Currently, the Neon Museum has a creepy-cute exhibition from Tim Burton, “Lost Vegas,” embedded throughout the collection, plus Burton’s tiny model of a pink motel on view in the visitors’ center. If after the Neon Museum you want to take in more highly specific Las Vegas history, consider adding the National Atomic Testing Museum and the Mob Museum to your itinerary.
Another history lesson awaits within walking distance: Downtown Las Vegas, where Las Vegas’ gambling was centered before the Strip was constructed. You can get a sense of that incarnation of Vegas from still-standing hotel casinos like El Cortez — and the shuttered motels along East Fremont Street that journalist John M. Glionna described in the Las Vegas Review-Journal as “once popular tourist way stations, when the rainbow neon of nearby Glitter Gulch lit up the night sky and American families hit the road in sedans and station wagons, looking for a nice, clean place to stay.”
Many of the motels fell into disrepair, becoming sites for underground economies involving sex work and drugs. Some have been purchased as part of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s revitalization project, DTP. For now, the Hsieh purchases are fenced-in relics — a desolate, preserved-in-amber answer to the excesses of the Strip, complete with kitschy, midcentury decor (Travelers Motel features an old-timey caravan still intact on the property) and neon signage.
One of these, Ferguson’s, has been transformed into a community-oriented gathering space with programming around food and art. Closer to downtown, a giant praying mantis marks the entrance to a collection of shops and restaurants in repurposed shipping containers, and PublicUs, across the street from Ferguson’s, makes coffee good enough to rival Seattle’s in a laid-back cafe that also serves solid breakfast burritos and generous bowls of pozole. (You’ll also find good espresso served with a distinctly “Harry Potter” vibe at Bad Owl Coffee Roasters; located just off state Route 160, it makes a good preroad trip stop.)
Seeing what Las Vegas looks like away from the glitter of the Strip is a crucial part of understanding a city that was hit especially hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s worth remembering that every time you travel, you’re visiting somewhere people actually live.
In Vegas, one of those people is climber Alex Honnold, which makes sense — with climbing routes at Red Rock Canyon practically in the city and skiing at Lee Canyon only about an hour’s drive away, Las Vegas is as good for outdoors enthusiasts as it is for gamblers. Lake Mead National Recreational Area is even closer, and a good backup if Red Rock is too crowded.
If a day trip seems too easy, it can also be delightful to take a full-on road trip from Las Vegas to any number of nearby destinations. I opted for a visit to Death Valley Junction, a quasi-ghost town about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. Death Valley proper, the Grand Canyon (4.5 hours) and Hoover Dam (about 40 minutes) are all drivable as well.
The key to Vegas? Talk to strangers.
If you contribute to the Seattle Freeze in your daily life, try to knock it off in Las Vegas. I’m a confirmed introvert, but some of the best moments of my trip were interactions with strangers. In line for coffee at Starbucks on our first morning in Vegas, Julia and I met a single mom taking her first solo vacation in 13 years. She was meeting her sister for a girls’ trip and told us excitedly that they were going to see Aerosmith at the Park MGM. Moments later, we joined a motley crew of strangers in navigating the bizarre route from our hotel to the nearby monorail stop — an odyssey through a parking structure, into an employee entrance, and across an improvised plywood walkway over scaffolding, one best achieved as a group effort. (“People think urban planning is a joke,” said Julia. “It’s not a joke.”)
Later, one of our Lyft drivers gave us a crash course in Las Vegas’ history as a hot spot for quickie divorces, shared her weekly schedule with us (hiking Tuesday, discount movies Wednesday, happy hour with friends on Friday) and encouraged us to retire before we died. Another Lyft driver diagnosed my Vegas-induced congestion and runny nose as an affliction out-of-towners get from the dry desert air. (He prescribed eye drops and nasal spray. If you’re coming from Seattle, it’s not a bad idea to pack both.)
The return flight contained the chattiest group of passengers I’ve ever had the privilege of joining. I sat next to a pilot who patiently explained the intricacies of aircraft weight-balancing to me as we landed in Seattle’s insistent fog.
Once back at Sea-Tac, the bubbly Vegas flyers dispersed throughout the sedate airport, and a very Pacific Northwest noise level set in. As we rode away from the airport, the sky obscured in chilly cloud-cover and spitting rain, I was grateful for the days I’d spent talking to strangers in the sunny desert warmth of Las Vegas. I couldn’t wait to go back.
If you go
Getting there: More than 16 flights to Las Vegas depart daily from the Seattle area. For the cheapest airfare and hotel costs, consider arriving at the beginning of the week and departing before the weekend crowds arrive. (Hotel rooms will also be cheapest when no major conventions are in town.) The flight to Vegas takes about 2.5 hours. McCarran International Airport is essentially adjacent to the Strip, making it an easy Lyft or Uber ride to your hotel.
Getting around: The Strip isn’t pedestrian-friendly by any measure; avoid crossing the street outside of designated crosswalks and pedestrian footbridges. Public transit on the Strip is limited to the Las Vegas Deuce, a public bus line, and the Las Vegas Monorail; both are useful options that cut down on Lyft and Uber costs. Renting a car isn’t a bad idea.
Entertainment: If you want to go to a show on the Strip (no shame! Mariah Carey and Cher are coming!), search and price-shop ahead of time on lasvegas.com/shows. Groupons are sometimes available if you book a few days in advance.
Weather: Las Vegas is not Palm Springs. It gets cold in the winter, and many hotel pools close seasonally, so check your hotel’s pool status and the weather before you go, and pack accordingly. I brought my standard-issue, puffy Mossback down jacket on a whim and ended up wearing it every day. The sunshine was still restorative.