As a Las Vegas native, I’m always so hesitant to show visiting friends and family Las Vegas’ most iconic setting--the Strip. Don’t get me wrong, I get why it’s on everyone’s must-see list. To those who didn’t grow up here, I imagine it’s like Oz for adults--a sort of mysterious, ambiguous, unattainable land full of color, adventure, and fun.
The Strip does have some seriously awesome attractions to offer. The Bellagio fountains are a must-see, as is almost every Cirque Du Soleil show, but the city itself is so much more than these tourist-saturated settings. So, put your yard-long margarita away and roll the dice with me on this one, because, today, I’m breaking down how to do Vegas like a true local:
Cross “Walking the Strip” Off Your List
I totally get it. The Strip is a must-see for visitors. I can get on board with this. My only issue comes in when people want to do the classic tourist activity of “walking the Strip.” I hear it nearly every time someone comes to visit: “We have to walk the Strip!” But, let me let you in on a little secret: it is not that fun. At all.
Walking the Strip is a serious production nowadays. You don’t just drive up, get out and walk. No matter the time of day, there’s serious traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard, so getting there alone is a headache. Then, once you’re out of the car and walking, it’s not like you just walk on sidewalks and head to whichever casino you want.
Due to some serious pedestrian issues (tourists were clogging up traffic big-time and pedestrian fatalities were on the rise), sidewalks are no longer open. Instead, you’re forced to follow these pathways that cut you through casinos, take you left when you want to go right and are jam-packed (shoulder-to-shoulder at times) with herds of drunk, Wiley tourists. The ending result is a phenomenon where you can literally see the casino you want to head to--it may even be a stone’s throw away--but, because of the route the pathways force you to stick to, it can take an hour (and lots of wrong turns) to actually get to it. You’ll end up with sore feet, at least, one beer spilled on that new shirt of yours and empty pockets (prices on the Strip are pretty inflated).
The Right Way to Do the Strip
For first-time visitors, seeing the Strip is something you should definitely do if it’s important to you, so let me break down the right way to do so:
First, get a car to take you there. Even if you have a rental car, don’t drive yourself. You can take Uber or Lyft now that the popular ride-sharing companies are finally legal in Las Vegas (after a drawn-out battle with the taxi driver’s union), or even hire a car service. My favorite in Las Vegas is AWG Ambassador. The great thing about AWG is that, for an extra cost, they’ll stay with you the entire night, so you don’t have to worry about finding a car at the end of your night. Simply call your assigned driver and he’ll pick you up wherever you’ve ended up.
Second, skip the cheesy themed casinos (trust me, you’ll thank me for this later) and opt for the newer portion of the Strip. You can get dropped at Aria and visit the Five50 Pizza Bar (a local favorite boasting some of the most delicious pies ever) and, afterward, head to the Cosmopolitan for some after-dinner drinks at the famous Chandelier Bar.
Another favorite stop along the Strip is the Brooklyn Bowl, Vegas’ newest concert venue that pulls in some seriously sweet acts. A venue that combines music, bowling and Blue Ribbon fried chicken (yup, you read that right), there’s little not to love about, what locals refer to as, “the Bowl.” Insider’s tip: get a Bourbon Nutella Milkshake while you’re there. (You can thank me later.)
The Brooklyn Bowl is part of an area of the Strip referred to as the Linq. Aside from the Linq Hotel and Casino, there’s a walkway of shops and bars (technically called The Linq Promenade) that feels separate from the Strip (it’s much quieter) but still offers a good taste of that wild Las Vegas nightlife you’re probably craving. Word on the street is that they’re building an In-n-Out burger right next to the Brooklyn Bowl, so be on the lookout for that (and definitely order their off-menu animal fries).
The Linq Promenade is also home to Vegas’ most iconic new attraction, the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel (i.e. Ferris wheel). I’ve personally never taken a ride on the High Roller (I’ve seen views of the Strip from all over the valley, so it’s not a must-do for me), but I’ve heard it offers an amazing view of Vegas. It’s also a great way to see the Strip without actually walking it. Hop in one of its 28 glass-enclosed cabins and make a full rotation in about 30 minutes. Tickets are $26.95 during the day and $36.95 at night (a pretty reasonable price for the Strip). You can also rent an entire cabin to yourself (complete with its own bartender) for a quick celebration or even a wedding (only in Las Vegas, right?).
I also constantly get asked which Cirque show is worth seeing and, while they’re all pretty amazing, Love is my current favorite. It features music from the Beatles and, with the way the venue is laid out, there’s not a bad seat in the house. It also happens to be at the Mirage, which is one of my favorite casinos in Las Vegas. Tickets currently start $79, a price well-worth it for the colorful, artistic, unbelievably urban show you’ll see.
Though people often confuse the two, Downtown Las Vegas (home to the iconic Fremont Street Experience) is a completely separate area from the Strip.
A personal favorite among locals, downtown Las Vegas used to be the city’s strip before the new, modern strip was built. The area essentially died off as new five-star luxury casinos (think: Mirage, MGM, etc.) were built further south on Las Vegas Boulevard. But, the area has seen a recent gentrification (as is the case with so many downtowns across the nation). It’s now home to tons of local bars and restaurants and, in my opinion, is one of Las Vegas’ best-kept secrets.
People who are aware that downtown is separate from the Strip tend to think of it as a rundown, shoddy version of the Strip. I suppose this was true years ago, but with its recent revitalization (Zappos moved into downtown, helping to brighten up the area), it’s now the spot where young locals spend their weekends (alongside crowds of crazy tourists, of course).
Think: vintage neon signs, hip rooftop bars, burning man art, killer cocktails and tons (TONS) of character. It’s definitely not as “sterile” as the Strip (if you can even consider the Strip sterile) and boasts some serious charm. That being said, be prepared for crazy street performers and half-naked people walking around--it tends to be an area where crazy crowds culminate.
To avoid this (if you’re traveling with family or just don’t want to be bombarded with street performers), stay east of Las Vegas Boulevard on Fremont Street--it’ll be easy to see what I’m talking about once you’re there. Basically, once you cross Las Vegas Boulevard headed west on Fremont, Fremont Street goes from a collection of restaurants and bars to the Fremont Street Experience (where the tourists and street performers are concentrated). The delineation between the two areas is clear as day.
Vegas’ Best Downtown Bars & Eateries
Rooftop bars and über-hip restaurants pepper the area, and prices are much lower than those you’d come across on the Strip.
Carson Kitchen is one of the best restaurants downtown and boasts a killer rooftop dining area that’s perfect for evening meals in spring or fall. Don’t leave without trying the Bacon Jam and the Glazed Donut Bread Pudding.
Park on Fremont is another local favorite and has a great outdoor patio area thick with foliage and covered in antiques (that will make you forget you’re in Vegas). There’s also a hidden see-saw out back (I’ll let you find it on your own). They make killer Bloody Marys and, on weekend nights, boast live music acts that are seriously impressive.
O Face Donuts is one of my favorite hangover cures. The pistachio rose water donut is unbelievable as is the bacon maple donut. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, let the staff pick your dozen for you--you’ll end up with a killer collection of goodies.
Across the street from O Face is EAT, a self-proclaimed “breakfast, and lunch joint” with strawberry compote cinnamon biscuits that may possibly be the best menu item in all of downtown Vegas. Even if you’re not stopping in for a full meal, swing by and grab an order of the cinnamon biscuits. They’re well worth it.
Commonwealth is another great downtown hot spot, boasting a crazy-cool rooftop bar and super-secretive speakeasy (where phones aren't allowed). I recommend visiting commonwealth late at night when they've got a DJ on their rooftop. Opt for any one of their many takes on the Moscow Mule or ask one of their mixologists to create something off-menu for you.
On the Outskirts: Local Favorites
Though they are two hubs of the city, there’s so much more to Vegas than the Strip and downtown. Las Vegas is expanding at a rapid rate and, as such, the valley has tons of great activities and eateries that aren’t centered around gaming or boozing.
Red Rock Canyon
(broken down completely in our Outdoor Adventure guide) is an area that tourists have a hard time believing the first time they see it. I’ve taken so many visitors there only to hear “I had NO idea Vegas had something like this.” An outdoor mecca, Red Rock boasts climbs and trails perfect for everyone from young children needing some fresh air, to novice hikers looking for day-hike, to seasoned climbers ready to scale some serious terrain.
Next to Red Rock Canyon is Red Rock Casino and Resort. If you’re looking to stay off the Strip (which, by now, you should be), Red Rock is the perfect place to stay. You’ll still have access to all of the Las Vegas staples (gaming, free drinks, bars open 24/7), but without crowds of tourists. The spa at Red Rock is also one of the best in the city and well worth the splurge for a 90-minute massage after a long day of hiking. (For eateries in Red Rock, try Hearthstone or Libre--they’re both amazing.)
Naked Fish’s Sushi
If you’re a sushi lover, Naked Fish’s is an absolute must try. Aside from the more famous sushi joints on the Strip, it offers the best quality sushi in the entire valley and service is always beyond great. Skip Nobu and head to Naked Fish’s for the jalepeño yellowtail (which never disappoints) instead. The best part, though? It’s open daily until 2 a.m. (gotta love Las Vegas hours).
Angel Park Putting Green
Located in Summerlin (west Las Vegas), the putting course at Angel Park is such a great (non-boozy) activity for visitors. It’s one of the prettiest putting courses Vegas has to offer and, on a clear day, can’t be beaten.
Whatever your reason for visiting Vegas, the best advice I can offer is to check out, at least, two off-the-strip activities/eateries/locales. Keep an open mind and you’ll realize that there’s so much more to the city than most non-locals know about.
Have any must-share Vegas tips we missed? Share them with us in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.