The desert breeze blew past my shoulders as I basked in the glow of massive antique signs. The Neon Museum isn’t far from Las Vegas’ historic Fremont Street yet feels a world away, offering charmingly kitsch eye candy and historical appreciation minus the chaos and crowds.
Among other tidbits I learned during my guided tour of the museum was that one of Las Vegas’ earliest slogans, going back to the 1930s, was “still a frontier town.” Strictly speaking, my guide explained, this was a fib; the city started out as a railroad stop in 1905. But facts didn’t keep casino and hotel owners from playing up the Wild West image in decor and even theme parks. Later on came the mobsters and famous performers and the glittering high-rise hotels. In the 1990s, marketing execs worked to cultivate a more family-friendly image, before reassuring hedonists in 2003 that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Lately, things are skewing more PG: The new slogan, “What happens here, only happens here,” dropped in 2020.
Las Vegas is a city with an identity that’s always on the move. While gambling remains the city’s top attraction, its ace in the hole helping lure nearly 40 million visitors last year, there is still plenty on offer to those who, like me, don’t know a straight flush from a roulette wheel. Among the top sites are museums, sporting events, luxe hotels and natural splendor. But be forewarned. As tourists flock to the city, almost all of these destinations, even parks, require advance reservations.
Getting there can take just a little longer than a drive to Virginia Beach: Low-cost carriers like Southwest and Spirit offer direct flights from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, while I flew through Denver using Frontier’s “Go Wild” pass.
Forget about Sin City. Lately, Vegas is looking more and more like Sports City. Fans have their pick of games and events to watch year round. Check out the minor league Aviators, who play near Red Rock Canyon, while hockey lovers can chill out with the Golden Knights, one of the best teams in the nation. Allegiant Stadium, which is sometimes referred to as a giant Roomba because of its odd shape, will welcome visitors to next year’s Super Bowl. And there’s much more to come: During my recent trip, construction workers were furiously working to repave roads in preparation for this year’s Grand Prix, while casino giant Bally’s had just inked a deal to build a ballpark for the Athletics, set to relocate from California to Nevada. Of course, sports betting is a major pastime in casinos, and fans flock to the city to watch and wager during March Madness and other events.
You expect to see entertainers in Vegas, whether musicians like Garth Brooks or magicians such as Penn and Teller. But who knew Vegas was such a great museum town? Within the past few decades, a number of institutions have popped up that invite visitors to explore new sides of the city’s history and identity beyond the glitzy casinos and theaters.
Not far from the Neon Museum is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — more commonly called the Mob Museum — which vividly tells the story of organized crime in America, including its role in building Sin City casinos. Inside a former courthouse where some mobsters were tried, well-edited video installations and interactive exhibits bring to life events such as the Kefauver hearings, which took place there and were a watershed moment in bringing the pervasiveness of organized crime to the American public. Displays explore the FBI’s changing methods for infiltrating organized crime rackets from the era of J. Edgar Hoover till today. I could have listened to hours of interviews with retired agent Joaquín “Jack” Garcia, who took on the identity of a jewel thief to spy on the Gambino crime family and eventually helped take down 32 mobsters.
Just west of the strip, Area 15 offers a broad assortment of art installations and imaginative bars. A current highlight is Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart, an immersive production that brings ticket holders into a faux grocery store that’s really a portal to another dimension, containing fragments of a story that you can attempt to piece together as you explore its many rooms.
New this year is the Punk Rock Museum, where you can pay extra to take tours led by actual musicians including a rotating roster of some big names such as C.J. Ramone. The place even has its own bar, tattoo parlor and wedding chapel.
People tend to love staying in hotels or think they’re gross. Las Vegas is a good place to be if you are in the former category as it offers luxurious rooms sometimes for less than you’d pay elsewhere.
I enjoyed my stay at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, a mid-priced venue that opened just off the strip in 2021. Booked last minute, my room, spacious and overlooking the pool, cost $108 per night, though that number doesn’t include an additional, mandatory resort fee of $45 per day. Even stays at ultra fancy hotels like the Wynn, Aria and Four Seasons tend to cost hundreds less than their equivalents in other cities.
To be sure, hidden fees can wipe out savings if you’re not paying attention. I had no sooner grabbed a bottle of water in my room before I realized it cost $10 and, thanks to motion-sensor technology, my card had been charged the moment I picked it up. Should I request my mini bar to be cleared out, presumably to avoid temptation altogether, a $40 charge would apply. Another reminder that the house always wins.
Las Vegas can feel like a Disneyland pastiche of other parts of the world, with its own replica Eiffel Tower, Trevi Fountain, Venice canal and even its own version of Germany’s oldest brewery.
Yet just a few miles away from the kitsch is wilderness. A 30-minute drive from the Strip, Red Rock Canyon attracts hikers, meditators and photographers to the Mojave Desert. Keep an eye out for dinosaur tracks. But be sure to book ahead: The park, which includes a 13-mile scenic drive, requires timed entry between the months of October and May. For visitors who want both nature and casino life, the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa offers rooms near the park’s entrance.
Vegas is also just a few hours’ drive from both the Grand Canyon and Utah’s Zion National Park. But keep in mind the weather; during my trip in mid-May it was already too hot to contemplate spending real time outdoors. “Sure, it’s a dry heat,” one visitor remarked to me. “So is an oven.”
Want to get in touch with the natural world? Book a tour on an air-conditioned bus — or, more extravagantly, a helicopter ride. Or plan on coming in the winter.