Photo by Nicklas Westberg
Many people say “I’m not the Vegas type,” or “I just don’t like Las Vegas.” I used to be one of these travelers, particularly since I don’t gamble. I went for a work conference and marveled at the mass of humanity, the constant noise that made it seem like everyone was winning, the incredible visual display of lights and more, the insider quirks of tips and taxis, and I was overwhelmed and confused. What was the lure here? Then I was treated to a lovely dinner with a great friend, we found a quiet space for a drink, and went to a Broadway show. Suddenly, a new side of Las Vegas appeared.
Because Las Vegas remakes itself so often, it’s difficult to keep track of what to expect from a Vegas vacation. Here’s a little test for you to find out if Las Vegas can win you over:
1. When traveling, you prefer accommodations that are:
A) Boutique style and off the beaten path
B) Five-star luxury hotels at a great price
C) A timeshare where you can have your own kitchen and some space
D) A bed and breakfast
2. Your preferred method of getting to a destination is:
A) Drive there; who wants to stand in security lines and hassle with the airport?
B) A short flight is fine, but you get antsy being cooped up more than a few hours.
C) A long road trip where you stop often to check out new places
D) You don’t mind a long flight as it means you’re far away from home
3. When eating on vacation, you like to:
A) Dine at a hip, comfortable place that has nothing to do with a chain
B) Eat the best food your destination has to offer, hopefully world renown fine dining of every flavor. Hey, it’s vacation!
C) Have a picnic or do a quick trip to a buffet where you can fill up
D) Linger at an intimate restaurant where the service is personal and you’re a repeat customer
4. While you’re away, your favorite entertainment is:
A) Street performances or independent exhibits
B) Broadway level shows, productions that are high quality, and world-class entertainers
C) People-watching in front of a distinctive feature
D) Spa treatments or nature hikes
5. Once you arrive at your destination and you want to check out the place, your preferred method is:
A) Park the car for the duration and take cabs or shuttles
B) Walk, since nothing you care to do is going to be too far away
C) Drive your car because you want flexibility and you enjoy stumbling across an undiscovered feature
D) Lie down in a hammock and relax far away from crowds
If you picked mostly A’s: Downtown Las Vegas and Fremont Street is your go-to spot. You can hang out at the Downtown Container Park, stay at the Oasis at Gold Spike, and eat at Carson Kitchen. For more ideas about what to do downtown, check out the DOWNTOWN section of our package on Las Vegas.
If you picked mostly B’s: The Strip is your perfect destination. Luxury new hotels such as SLS Las Vegas, Delano, and The Cromwell fit right in with longtime favorites like The Bellagio and Cosmopolitan. If you’re visiting midweek, you can often upgrade to a luxurious suite for about the same price as a standard room costs in New York, San Francisco, or Miami. There is no greater collection of fine-dining establishments than the vast array in Las Vegas. Each resort boasts at least two or three within its boundary, and some of the best high-end Chinese food in the world is being served in this desert oasis. Of course, there’s no shortage of entertainment, as Tony-Award winning Broadway shows such as “Kinky Boots” make Vegas the first stop of their touring production, as well as the endless selection of Cirque du Soleil offerings.
If you picked mostly C’s: Yes, there’s even a side of Las Vegas for you. Stay at one of the timeshare locations south of the Strip, such as Cancun Resort, The Grandview, or Tahiti Village. There are shuttles to take you to the Strip if you want, where you can get your fill of people watching and fountains doing water ballet. But your home base will feature a less crowded pool or three, your own kitchen that can be stocked from nearby Whole Foods Market, and extra space if you’re heading to Zion, Bryce, or any of the nearby camping spots and you need a place to launch from.
If you picked mostly D’s: Frankly, Las Vegas is probably not the perfect choice for your next vacation. However, there are plenty of options for spa treatments at every resort on the Strip. You can partake in a few, then keep heading north to St. George, Utah, for a quiet, outdoor experience at a place such as Red Mountain Resort. —Quiz by Alan Gibbons
A NEW LOOK AT LAS VEGAS: The insiders’ guide
Two new resorts, a wave of innovative celebrity-chef restaurants, and a booming downtown have contributed to a revival in Las Vegas. We shine a light on the most alluring of the hot spots and offer tips for making the most of your visit.
RAISE YOUR FORK!
It’s no secret that Las Vegas is an impressive dining destination, but even serious foodies have a hard time deciding which new restaurant to visit. Here are some of the most noteworthy additions.
Bazaar Meat by José Andrés
The Vegas steakhouse is an institution—one that avant‑garde chef José Andrés wanted to turn on its head. Start with small plates of the Spanish chef’s signature tapas, such as his famed foieffle, an airy waffle with foie espuma, peanut butter, and honey. After that, things only get bigger in the meat section, with huge rib steaks for two prepared over wood‑fired grills in the middle of the dining room. One of the few restaurants in town with roast suckling pig on the menu, this definitely isn’t your dad’s steakhouse. SLS Las Vegas, 702‑761‑7610, slslasvegas.com
To draw pedestrians from Las Vegas Boulevard, hotels have moved restaurants out of the dark casinos to front and center on the Strip. Monte Carlo, home to the new sports arena plus an outdoor entertainment and retail space, began this push with Yusho, an Asian street‑food concept from Chicago chef Matthias Merges. Yusho boasts the Logan Poser ramen bowl—with crispy pork and Thai chiles—as well as snacks from the grill, including Chinese‑style cumin lamb skewers and Wagyu rib-eye. Aside from food trucks, street food in Vegas has never been this good. Monte Carlo, 702‑730‑6888, yusholv.com
Comfort food is the name of the game—but this is Tom Ryan’s take on comfort food. The food scientist who gave us the McGriddle and the menu at Smashburger has a good handle on what diners like. Road Trip Sandwiches are his homage to the best things he found between bread slices during his restaurant research, while the Hangover Slopper—a burger topped with green chile, multiple cheeses, and two fried eggs—is the perfect antidote to your previous night’s antics. New York‑New York, 702‑470‑6766, tomsurban.com
French chef Daniel Boulud took time off from Las Vegas after closing his original restaurant at Wynn. But the city is like any alluring ex‑flame, so he couldn’t stay away. This time, he took a prime spot on The Venetian’s Restaurant Row and opened a brasserie concept, focusing on classic dishes such as steak frites, coq au vin, and charcuterie, as well as a healthy assortment of killer burgers, including a French version topped with confit pork belly and Morbier cheese. It’s the ideal representation of Boulud’s French‑American style cuisine. The Venetian, 702‑430‑1235, venetian.com
The petite Italian chef made a name for herself on the Food Network, but she never had a restaurant until last year. Now Giada De Laurentiis’ name is all over the place at her sexy, airy spot with huge retractable windows at The Cromwell. Her signature California Italian cuisine—such as lemon spaghetti and seafood risotto—offers a light take while staying true to its roots. You can even pose for a free, Giada-branded souvenir inside the photo booth across from the hostess stand.The Cromwell, 702‑777‑3777, thecromwell.com
“Top Chef” alum Brian Malarkey teamed with nightlife bigwigs Hakkasan Group to introduce his American comfort food to Las Vegas, right at the foot of Hakkasan’s newest club, Omnia. It’s a big hit with the nightclub crowd, pre‑gaming with fun cocktails and bites such as duck‑fat fries or Malarkey’s signature eggs and bacon, a layering of roasted pork belly and poached eggs on brioche, topped with chive‑browned butter hollandaise. There also might be a secret VIP entrance from Searsucker directly into Omnia, so if you know the right folks, you can keep the party going without skipping a beat. Caesars Palace, 702‑866‑1800, searsucker.com/lasvegas
HOORAY FOR BUFFETS
A never-ending smorgasbord is the culinary equivalent to Las Vegas itself: an excessive sensory overload that caters to your inner glutton.
Once Wicked Spoon opened at Cosmopolitan in 2010, buffets became cool. This idea took the emphasis off quantity to deliver better quality. It started the trend of smaller, individual portions, above, ensuring optimum freshness and more gourmet options. The seafood station boasts chefs who’ll knock out a bouillabaisse for you in no time, and you can build your own Vietnamese pho. It’s tough to find another buffet serving roasted bone marrow at dinner. $38 to $41
Named for the original gourmet dining room at Caesars Palace that hosted three‑hour meals with copious amounts of wine poured by toga‑clad waitresses, the new Bacchanal is just as indulgent. Gone is the standard buffet steam‑table trough, replaced by mostly individual portions, including the fried chicken and waffles, or shrimp and grits. Sample more than 500 dishes from around the world, prepared at nine open kitchens where chefs stand by to serve you personally or talk you through the spread. $30 to $53
Buffet at Excalibur
The King Arthur-themed Excalibur recently revamped its all‑you‑can‑eat experience, and while it doesn’t showcase 500 dishes, the difference between the new buffet and old is vast. Six stations throughout the renovated dining room focus on international fare, including sushi and Latin cuisine, as well as fresh salads and a meat‑carving section. Throw in a custom hand‑dipped ice cream bar, and it’s a value meal that brings the castle casino resort into the 21st century. $18 to $27
The Buffet at Wynn
Elegant and beautiful, The Buffet at Wynn is much like eating in a botanic garden. But the opulent floral displays are not a distraction from the food. Fifteen live-action cooking stations will get your attention quickly, as will the aromas from the grilled meats and sausages. It’s not all for carnivores as the resort emphasizes ample vegan options as well. But be sure to save room for the desserts. All of them. $23 to $44
HAVE SOME FUN!
When we say “play” these days, we don’t mean betting it all on black—though casinos still encourage you to do so.
The newest club by nightlife empire Hakkasan Group, Omnia is 75,000 square feet of Las Vegas energy. The main room’s centerpiece is a giant, kinetic LED chandelier of concentric circles that move to throbbing beats provided by big‑name DJs such as Calvin Harris and Afrojack. Bottle service is as ridiculous as it gets. At one point, ordering a particularly expensive bottle meant it was presented to the table along with a marching band. Need some fresh air? Head to Omnia’s terrace for a spectacular view of the Strip. Caesars Palace, 702‑785‑6200, omnianightclub.com
Want to learn a little Las Vegas history? The Neon Museum offers guided tours through its outdoor Neon Boneyard, the final resting place for some of the Strip’s most iconic signs. From the various stages of Caesars Palace signage throughout the years to the cursive bits from the Moulin Rouge sign, there’s a story behind every relic. Knowledgeable guides aren’t just reciting facts, they also share keen insight into design trends from each era. 770 Las Vegas Boulevard N., 702‑387‑6366, neonmuseum.org
From the obscene amounts of gold that greet you and continue into the main room, to the state‑of‑the‑art laser technology that lights up your night, this club lives up to its name. XS is known as one of the places to party on the Strip, and the long lines haven’t diminished in its six years. The indoor opulence spills into the outdoor pool area, with the DJ booth separating the two, and the party goes just as strong on both sides. Its lineup of DJs reads like a who’s who of electronic dance music royalty: Skrillex, Diplo, Avicii, and Kaskade. When they’re in town, they’re committed to playing only here. Wynn, 702‑770‑0097, xslasvegas.com
What’s the best half hour on the Strip? Taking a turn on the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel. You can’t miss it—the 550‑foot attraction is the most recent change to the skyline and its lights have been steadily drawing visitors like moths to its pretty LED flame. There are 28 glass‑enclosed cabins, each holding up to 40 people. Full rotation takes exactly 30 minutes and costs $27 during the day, $37 at night. When at the top, you experience breathtaking views of the Las Vegas valley. Celebrating something special? Rent the entire cabin and book a bartender for your private revolution. The Linq, 866‑328‑1888, thelinq.com
TAKE IN A SHOW!
Las Vegas isn’t all showgirls and Elvis impersonators. It also happens to include a lot of bendy people.
In the tradition of Cirque du Soleil, Absinthe relies on human feats—there are muscular hand‑to‑hand acrobats and chair balancers, as well as tap‑dancing brothers and burlesque acts—which all sounds innocuous enough, until you meet Absinthe’s host, the Gazillionaire. He makes a variety show into a raunchy, hilarious must‑see for visitors not easily offended. But even if you are, you should go to see what the fuss is all about. Caesars Palace, 800-745-3000, absinthevegas.com
Cirque du Soleil
You can’t walk far here without running into a Cirque du Soleil show, and that’s a good thing. The newest shows are “Michael Jackson ONE” at Mandalay Bay and “Zarkana” at Aria. This human circus has become an integral part of Strip entertainment, with shows that appeal to everyone. The original Vegas Cirque show, “Mystére” at TI, is still a fun 90‑minute spectacle. To witness pure athleticism, there’s “O” at Bellagio and “KÀ” at MGM Grand. “Love” at Mirage pays homage to the Beatles. For a more R‑rated experience, slip into “Zumanity” at New York‑New York. cirquedusoleil.com
If you’re seeing a world‑class entertainer, it’s likely at the Colosseum. Caesars Palace is still a must for top‑tier acts who sell out the 4,300 seats. Diana Ross recently did a stint, as did The Who, Placido Domingo, and Aretha Franklin. And when they’re not in town you’re “stuck” with Elton John, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and Reba, Brooks and Dunn as residents‑in‑rotation. thecolosseum.com
This is no ordinary club. Drai’s is the perfect trifecta of one-stop entertainment shopping on the Strip: the open-air club on the roof functions day and night, and when that’s done, dedicated party denizens head underground to the after-hours venue. But it’s the space 11 stories above the Strip that’s getting the most attention. Some clubs say their evening is hosted by a B-list celebrity, but you never get a glimpse of them. At Drai’s, the nights are not only hosted by names such as The Weeknd, Common, and Nick Jonas, but the club features full-length concerts, too. Who needs a DJ? The Cromwell, draislv.com
SLEEP IN SPLENDOR!
Your room isn’t just a place to store your stuff. You want a great experience when you recover at night, in the morning, or whenever. A few choice hotels have just opened, but new amenities also make revisiting your old favorites worthwhile.
SLS Las Vegas
SLS took over the former Sahara and molded it into the sexy, sophisticated hotel much needed at the Strip’s north end. Each of the three towers offers a distinct aesthetic by design guru Philippe Starck. The Lux tower features modern, French‑inspired touches such as chandeliers and banquette seating. The World and Story towers have contemporary elements and clean lines. 2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702‑761‑7000, slslasvegas.com, $108 and up
Whether you saw it in its previous life as Imperial Palace or more recently as The Quad, The Linq has solidified its name and its look. The 2,253 rooms were redesigned with millennials in mind, from the automated check-in process, to Wi-Fi throughout the resort, to the eco-friendly initiatives in the rooms. Even if you’re older than 25, you’ll still appreciate a new set of cabana suites with private patios that offer direct access to the pool, as well as killer views of the High Roller at the back of the Linq promenade. Despite its prime address, the Linq offers some of the most affordable rooms on the Strip. 3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 800‑634‑6441, TheLINQ.com, $88 and up
The cocktail bar is Franklin, so you know this spot is named for FDR. The non‑gaming hotel attached to Mandalay Bay is a Miami transplant, but Delano has done a fine job fitting into its new surroundings, integrating the desert into its decor—including a 10‑foot, 12,600‑pound split boulder in the foyer. Every room in the all‑suite hotel has been upgraded and features lots of white with gold trim and an earthy neutral palette, so as not to distract from luxurious amenities such as plush beds and enormous bathrooms. Check out the dog‑friendly suites. 3940 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702‑632‑9444, delanolasvegas.com, $154 and up
The only true boutique hotel, with just 188 rooms, The Cromwell also has one of the best locations center Strip. The rooms are packed with lovely details such as Paris‑boho furniture fashioned after old leather suitcases, leather‑tufted headboards, and backgammon board‑topped coffee tables. On the roof is the pool, day club, and nightclub Drai’s, while under the hotel is Drai’s After Hours, so you never have to leave the building. 3595 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702‑777‑3777, thecromwell.com, $181 and up
Always keeping itself current, Encore and its Tower Suites at Wynn are undergoing a transformation that is set to finish this fall. While the changes seem cosmetic—including updated furnishings with Black Galaxy granite and room modifications with 55-inch, 4K TVs—we’re mostly interested in the sheets. We’re talking 100-percent Egyptian cotton, 507-thread-count in every room. Sheets like these are how you get delicious sleep. 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S, 702‑770‑7000, WynnLasVegas.com, $215 and up
Stay Well at MGM Grand
It should be possible to spend a weekend here without destroying your body. Wellness hotel rooms became a thing about two years ago. Since then, MGM Grand has added about 75 more, offering 17 amenities intended to encourage good health. Shower with water infused with vitamin C and breathe air purified through HEPA‑standard filters. The room lighting helps with your circadian rhythms and can fight jet lag, and there’s protection from sleep‑disrupting electromagnetic fields. Feel better yet? 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 877-880-0880, mgmgrand.com, $207 and up
This desert city always has been more than the Strip, but recently downtown has made a comeback. The revitalization around Fremont Street has breathed new life into the area. Here’s why locals and visitors can’t stay away.
Royal rooms at commoner cost
●Old standbys such as the Golden Nugget, El Cortez, and The Plaza have seen renovations in the past few years. But there are a few new names in the game—the Downtown Grand, home of the former Lady Luck, and The D Las Vegas, which once was Fitzgeralds—plus a new boutique, non‑gaming hotel, Oasis at Gold Spike. Accommodations downtown have become as swanky and well‑appointed as their Strip counterparts, at a fraction of the cost.
Feel a part of the in crowd
●If you can find the door to Downtown Cocktail Room on the first try, good for you. Once you’re inside, take advantage of what this intimate, sexy bar does best: Order something from the creative cocktail menu. We like a punch bowl of booze or a perfect pour of absinthe, or have one of the bartenders create a beverage to your tastes. 111 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-880-3696, downtowncocktailroom.com
Feed your java fix
● You can’t have a decent downtown without a local coffee shop, and The Beat anchors the scene on Fremont Street. It’s a cafe, a record shop, an art gallery, and a collective workspace for local artisans, plus a space for live entertainment and open mic nights. The Beat has all of downtown covered. 520 Fremont St., 702-385-2328, thebeatlv.com
Trendy bars in a luxe space
● With bars such as Atomic Liquors (the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas) and Downtown Cocktail Room, professional drinkers know they’ll never go thirsty. Commonwealth is one of the poshest spots in town; the two‑story, pre‑Prohibition‑inspired bar has its own speakeasy, The Laundry Room. Even if you’re only marginally interested in cocktails with names such as The Kentucky Squeeze or The Sucker Punch, you’ll get lost in the design details and gorgeous art throughout the space. 525 Fremont St., 702‑445‑6400, commonwealthlv.com
Stiff drinks and high-cal food
● Downtown is slowly emerging as a dining hot spot. Chef Kerry Simon has created a go‑to place at Carson Kitchen, with a menu of easy comfort food and stiff, well‑crafted cocktails. The butter burger—topped with Boursin and cheddar cheeses and, yes, butter—is a huge hit, as are the crispy chicken skins, which taste like the best potato chips in the world. 124 S. Sixth St., 702‑473‑9523, carsonkitchen.com
WHIMSICAL ENTERTAINMENT FOR ALL
● Modified shipping containers stacked on one another and repurposed as restaurants and boutiques are about as 21st century urban planning as it gets. The Downtown Container Park is simple, and the reasonable rent has been great for small businesses making the leap from online to brick and mortar or food trucks ready to ditch their mobile kitchens. Big Ern’s BBQ is some of the best ’cue in town, and the giant Treehouse playground is a hit with kids and adults. The huge preying mantis standing guard at the park’s entrance is a fire‑breathing acquisition from Burning Man. 707 Fremont St., 702‑359‑9982, downtowncontainerpark.com
Literary stimulation? Yes, books!
● A sign that people do read in Las Vegas, The Writer’s Block is the only independent bookstore in town. As such, it not only sells books but also helps students and writers hone their craft and self-publish their work. Add experimental poetry readings, independent author meet-and-greets, and book club meetings, and this gem shows the city has brains, too. 1020 Fremont St., 702‑550‑6399, thewritersblock.org
Want to look like a Vegas expert? Follow these simple steps to prove you’re not a rookie. And please, don’t call it Sin City. That’s just stating the obvious.
Act Like A VIP
●Make the most of a day at the pool by renting a cabana or day bed. Cocktail waitresses come by more often, and you don’t have to rise too early to fight for a chair or shade.
●True VIPs know that a big tip gets better service, but if you’ve been comped something—show tickets, a dish, a bottle—remember to tip on that as well. The Vegas hospitality industry has a long memory and a short grapevine.
●Cut your time in the club line. Get cozy with the VIP host (easily found on the venue’s Facebook page) ahead of time, get his number, then slip him a few bucks to help you bypass the less‑connected masses.
●If you’ve ever wanted to try bottle service, Las Vegas is the place to do it. You’re not just paying for your bottle of vodka or Champagne, you’re also paying to establish your VIP status among the crowd. Even if you’re not into flaunting your income bracket, bottle service can sometimes be a bargain, and it gets you one of the most highly coveted amenities in any nightclub: a place to sit down.
Eat and Drink Like a Local
●Take advantage of pre‑theater menus to stave off starvation halfway through a show. Most performances run 90 minutes—time enough to entertain you, but not so long that you’re too tired to hit the casino after.
●It’s not difficult to get into Las Vegas’ hottest restaurants. Reservations are easily made in advance—for some places even the day of your meal.
●While it’s legal to walk down the Strip with an adult beverage in hand, it’s still looked down upon to be a drunken jerk. And if you’re leaving a hotel with a drink for the road, try not to walk off with the glassware; bartenders are happy to transfer your cocktail into a plastic cup.
What (Not) to Wear
●Ladies, if your stilettos make you walk like a newborn foal, please wear other shoes. And for the love of Pete, keep them on!
●Gentlemen, shorts and flip‑flops have no place at dinner anywhere in Las Vegas.
●Bring a sweater; the theaters are always cold.
Beating the House
It’s not luck, cheating, or illegal—but if casinos catch you counting cards, they’ll throw you out. Playing blackjack across America with a professional blackjack player—and a poker‑playing priest—showed me card-counting is a skill almost anyone can learn. The math has been done for you. All you need is to track the cards to find out when the deck is hot—loaded with 10s and aces. Then increase your bets and hope you, not the dealer, get the blackjacks. Done correctly, the edge enjoyed by the almighty house swings to the player. As my mentor says, “Once you learn to count cards, you’re not a gambler, you’re an investor.”
— Philip Reed, author of “Wild Cards: A Year Counting Cards with a Professional Blackjack Player, a Priest, and a $30,000 Bankroll,” out in November
Becoming a Dancer
What does it take to become a Chippendales dancer? It’s not just about the body; do you have the moves, charisma, and charm? Some tips: Be right for the role. If we’re looking for someone 6 feet and in shape and the only six‑pack you’ve seen lately is made by Budweiser, this is not your best option. Show personality. If you mess up, smile anyway. Things happen on stage all the time and you must be prepared. You have to be able to speak well and enjoy the spotlight. Have a good attitude. You’ve got a great body and you picked up the moves, but if you’re stuck up and act better than everyone else, forget it.
— Bryan Cheatham, creative director for Chippendales
The Penthouse Experience
As a hotel reviewer, I’ve been ushered into secret, high‑stakes gambling rooms, private spa suites, and penthouses. VIP guests get much more, such as complimentary use of a Sky Villa at Aria Resort & Casino. The private‑access, 2,000‑ to 7,000‑square‑foot mega‑suites on the 58th floor come with 24‑hour butlers who work so you can enjoy your private massage, sauna, and steam shower. The Mandarin Oriental’s $15,000‑a‑night Presidential Suite offers expansive city views from a capacious bathtub and a grand piano in your living room. The “lucky” $777 seven‑course tasting menu is available at Chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist, the hotel’s fine‑dining restaurant. Lobster, foie gras, and caviar? Of course.
—Valli Herman, travel writer