Here’s the thing about Las Vegas: From 1931 to, oh, about three years ago, you pretty much knew what to expect from it. Gambling and gamblers are the main event, of course, but you could (and can) count on lots of day drinking, night drinking, free drinking, big shows, buffets, high-end cuisine, comedy, gigantic casinos and the endless tinkling of slots.
There were no big surprises, and all the action took place on the bright spectacle that is the Strip.
Sure, there was the wonderfully seedy downtown, site of the original casinos, which became a tattered version of its glory days, eventually graced with a laser show. Other than a trip to Hoover Dam (an overwhelming spectacle in its own right), though, there wasn’t a lot of refuge or remedy for the overstimulated.
The Downtown Project is inspiring visitors to strike out beyond the Las Vegas Strip and explore more parts of a vibrant and diverse city.
When Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh bought 60 acres of its blighted downtown a few years ago, moved his company in from ’burbs and launched revitalization group the Downtown Project, the possibilities of a different kind of Vegas experience emerged in stunning relief.
Though Hsieh’s well-documented adventures garnered mixed reactions from the get-go, the project undeniably breathed life and energy into downtown, making it attractive as both a destination and as a break from the Strip — and inspiring visitors to strike out and explore more parts of a vibrant and diverse city.
In this guide to Las Vegas, we take you beyond the Strip — and off the beaten path.
Where to stay
For an old-school Vegas vibe with spiffed-up rooms and amenities, head to El Cortez and live out your Mad Men/Rat Pack fantasies with the mod rooms, Sinatra tribute act and 24-hour diner. For simple, modern luxury, check out recently remodeled boutique hotel Oasis at the Downtown Project’s Gold Spike property.
The area is also home to some of Vegas’ best vintage shopping, found at Electric Lemonade, Amberjoy’s Vintage Closet and Cowtown Guitars.
Downtown’s Container Park (created from shipping containers, of course) features a fire-breathing metal mantis picked up at Burning Man, a playground and a stage for family-friendly weekend shows. Within the containers are local boutiques (including Boutiquaholics’ “boutiques within a boutique” and Jessica Galindo’s bold leather designs) offering an array of unique new and vintage clothing, jewelry, home items, and gifts. It’s also home to art stores, including the new Disney Fine Arts shop.
Where to eat
Las Vegas’ Chinatown is a good place to dive into the city’s Asian food bounty. Emperor’s Garden is the place for Szechuan, while Greenland Market is a vast landscape of all things Korean. Korean Gardens BBQ is simply amazing, as is Crown Bakery, which features patbingsoo (shaved ice with red bean and fruit) that those in the know say is the real deal.
Lotus of Siam was Vegas’ undisputed Thai champion for years, but recently Komol, located in the same time-warping strip mall, is giving it a run for its money with unbelievably fresh and varied dishes. Either will fulfill your Jonathan Gold fantasy of stumbling onto culinary brilliance in a beatdown shopping center, which is worth a trip in its own right. Cornish Pasty Co., next to Komol, has great meat and veggie/vegan options and small but well-selected clutch of draft beers.
Market Grille Cafe’s Greek cuisine and Paymon’s Mediterranean Cafe & Lounge are local favorites, as is Via Brasil Steakhouse. Adventurous foodies will want to check out Eat and downtown’s Carson Kitchen, which indulges chef Kerry Simon’s quirkier inclinations.
The Bronze Cafe in The Center, downtown’s LBGQT community space, serves great veggie and vegan treats, along with delicious smoothies. The Beat coffeehouse inside Emergency Arts features vintage records, posters and other memorabilia, as well as an Elvis-themed peanut butter/banana/bacon smoothie.
Where to play
Artifice Bar offers a solid selection of artist-themed cocktails, local art and three performance spaces. The Victorian-era vibe of the Velveteen Rabbit sets off its craft beer and inventive cocktails nicely.
Longtime live music venue Bunkhouse Saloon is an intimate, unpretentious spot with a nice patio, old-school beers, upgraded bar food and a calendar of great music — all overseen by longtime Austin culture shifter Mike Henry (Electric Lounge, the ND).
Where to recharge
For a quick yoga fix, hit the studio at the Arts Factory (and perhaps its bar and bistro after). For pampering in a peaceful setting, head to a resort spa; midcentury mod Red Rock Resort and mountain retreat-style Green Valley Ranch are two of the best.