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Las Vegas Spotlight

By: Jordan Simon
Las Vegas celebrated its centennial in 2005 – not that it needed an excuse to party. Sin City, Lost Wages, The City That Never Sleeps – call it what you will – is an electric city of entertainment that can’t help but awe and impress from the minute you fly over its glittering expanse in the Nevada desert to the day you leave, spent (financially and psychologically) from the constant stimuli.

Historian Michael Ventura called Las Vegas, “The last great mythic city that Western civilization will ever create.” Better make that “cities.” What other skyline includes an Egyptian pyramid, Arthurian castle, Arabian Casbah, the Statue of Liberty, St. Mark’s Square, the Eiffel Tower . . . and more? You might say that the city’s true business isn’t merely gaming or entertainment, but fantasy itself. Vegas is arguably more dream factory than Hollywood, and more theme park than any Disney creation. It’s a city that lives for the present, continually reinventing itself – constantly upping the ante with new mega-hotels and themed attractions.

Ironically, Mormons founded the original settlement in 1855 – what a difference 150 years makes! The Mormons have gone, and Las Vegas today is unabashedly about excess, from lap of luxury to lap dance, and sometimes both at once! This wonderfully surreal desert city appropriates everything from architecture’s Top 40 to FNTV’s star chefs, famed museum collections to nightlife icons, wittily combining the high, low, and arched brow. In its current “yup-scaling” mania, Vegas attracts everyone from gastronauts to fashion fascists, while allowing visitors to splurge like high-rollers at megawatt shows, casinos, and restaurants, or pinch pennies at bargain buffets and fabulous free attractions. Indeed, few cities of its ilk manage to appeal so successfully to high-rollers, budget-travelers, singles, honeymooners, and families.

It’s Vegas, baby. Don’t try to define or critique it – just come prepared to expect the unexpected. Three days is sufficient to indulge without being overwhelmed (assuming you don’t hit the ATMs more often than blackjack at the tables!). You can easily enjoy several top Strip hotel attractions, shops, restaurants, shows, and clubs (especially if you forgo sleep). If you want to get off the beaten path and/or explore outside the city, allot at least five days; it’s worth it to discover the stupendous natural canyon landscapes, glittering Lake Mead, and the thundering Hoover Dam that lie on the city outskirts.

Attractions

Most people prefer to discover Vegas at their own pace, but several companies offer tours of both the city and its surroundings (from Hoover Dam/Lake Mead to Red Rock Canyon); you’ll find discount coupons galore in the town’s dozens of freebie magazines, including in the Yellow Pages. The most reliable tour outfit is Gray Line Tours (702/384-1234); we’re partial to their five-hour Neon & Lights Tour (Mon–Fri 6.30pm; $39.95). Advance reservations usually aren’t necessary, except during major holiday, conventions, and special-events (like Super Bowl weekend), but booking ahead can net some decent web-only discounts.

Once in the city, you’ll find that the vast casino-hotels are deceptively farther apart than they seem. While we do recommend walking the Strip, you can take a break by hopping on board the monorail (daily 7am—2am; $5/ticket or $15/full-day pass) that runs between the MGM Grand and The Sahara with a station at the Las Vegas Convention Center (just east of the Strip) and stops at nine casinos.

The Strip
Roughly four miles long, Las Vegas Boulevard South, AKA The Strip, is perhaps the planet’s most fabled piece of real estate, its many architectural recreations of the world’s wonders accented by neon artistry. Walking is the best way to drink it all in, keeping time with the various enthralling spectacles (free) along the route (arrive early for the most popular). We’ve listed our favorite stops here, to help you make the most of your visit.

Best of breed is the Bellagio (3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.), the resort that redefined Vegas with public areas loaded with art masterpieces, including the world’s largest Dale Chihuly glass installation in the lobby, and a classy casino with leather chairs, famous faces, and the town’s cushiest Race and Sports Book and poker rooms (you’d better know how to play). Table action aside, the $40 million, intricately synchronized water ballet, Fountains of Bellagio (Mon–Fri 3pm–midnight, Sat–Sun noon–midnight, every half hour to 8pm; every 15 minutes thereafter; free), also makes a real splash, with over 1000 spouting multi-colored flumes kick-stepping like Rockettes to the inimitable accompaniment of Sinatra, Pavarotti, Gene Kelly “Singin’ in the Rain” and, fittingly for the sumptuous property, “Hey Big Spender!” This showstopper even stops cars and is best appreciated either from across Strip at the charming Mon Ami Gabi bistro at the Paris (where you can also ride the half-scale Eiffel Tower for a fee), or from Bellagio’s incomparably elegant Fontana Bar.

Running a close second is the Venetian (3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.), another dazzling fantasy resort. The Venetian has a lot more than gambling to offer, mind you, as the “neighborhoods” lining both sides of the Grand Canal Shoppes boast genuine marble balconies and cobblestone streets. Street performers (opera singers, magicians, jugglers, and living statues) and artisans (like glass-blowers) parade in lavish costumes. No visit here is complete without a gondola ride (Sun–Thurs 10am–11pm, Fri–Sat 10am—midnight; $15) along the quarter-mile-long Grand Canal (above the casino, no less) in a gondola equipped with a tiny, whirring motor. You’ll also find the Guggenheim-Hermitage here (daily 9.30am–8.30pm; $19.50) the first long-term collaborative alliance between two of the world’s greatest museums. Some 40 artworks (the likes of Picasso, Renoir, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg) are hung, somewhat controversially, with magnets on Cor-Ten steel walls.

Also not to miss is the newest contender on the scene, the gleaming-glass Wynn Las Vegas (3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.). This most recent creation of Steve Wynn (the visionary behind the Bellagio and the Mirage) is the first (and only) hotel/casino to bear his name. With its $2.7 billion price tag and big-name chefs and boutiques, the hotel arguably sets the new Strip standard for opulence. But it scrupulously avoids any theme whatsoever, offering the sort of glossy, frosty elegance you’d expect of a top-tier New York hotel – the antithesis of the Vegas ethos/aesthetic Wynn helped fashion. Its showiest aspects are the curved brass-trimmed escalators that access a patio fronting the Lake of Dreams, a lagoon with a tiered 70-foot waterfall that transforms into a multimedia show. The place may augur the new Wynn-ing Vegas formula.

Caesars Palace (3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.) isn’t far behind in the swank department, with its high-stake slots, high-roller areas, mirrors, and marble columns; its Sports Book remains the place for odds-making. Meanwhile, the onsite Forum Shops at Caesars patented the concept of shopping as entertainment with its trompe l’oeil design that melds fountain-and-statue filled Roman streetscapes with the arcades of Milan’s La Scala. The whole kit and kaboodle is set below a “sky” ceiling that switches from sunrise to sunset hourly.

Once done with ancient Rome, head to the Luxor (3900 Las Vegas Blvd. S.) for a glimpse of ancient Egypt. A black-glass pyramid, 10-story Sphinx (half as big as the original), and Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk are all remodeled here; the pyramid holds the casino and is actually one of only two man-made objects visible from space (the other is the Great Wall of China), thanks to its 315,000-watt laser beam (supposedly the most powerful light on earth). Inside is equally impressive, with a richly decorated sanctum that at almost captures the awe and majesty of the Pharaohs.

The Mirage (3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.) also earns “magma” cum laude from first timers for the shooting steam, simulated lava (actually sprays of colored water), and flames that leap 100 feet into the air from its erupting Volcano (daily 6pm–midnight every hour; free). The Mirage’s exquisitely landscaped grounds also hold Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden/Dolphin Habitat (Mon–Fri 11am-5.30pm, Sat–Sun 10am–5.30pm; $15), which showcases truly magical white tigers, white lions of Timbavati, Bengal tigers, and even a snow leopard in an Asian-themed garden complete with pagodas, Buddhas, Hindu deity statues, and rock gardens.

Finally, the intersection of Tropicana and the Strip holds four major casino/hotels. Of these, New York-New York (3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.) is photo-op worthy as it recreates Greenwich Village, not to mention both Wall Street and Central Park in its casino, while the MGM Grand (3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.), one of the world’s largest hotels, is home to the superb Lion Habitat, where glass walkways allow lions (who carry on the legacy of the original MGM mascot, Metro) to prowl, groom, and sleep above and below visitors.

Off the Strip
It’s not all about The Strip in Vegas, though you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking as much. Some of our favorite places in Sin City are off this fabled piece of real-estate and are must stops for any visitor.

It’s impossible not to rub elbows with celebrities at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (4455 Paradise Rd.), two blocks east of the Strip. Damon to Diddy to Diaz and Stiller to Spears to Stern perform, gamble, dine, booze, sunbathe, and/or guest star in the racy Beacher’s Madhouse late-night revue. The nifty circular casino sports rock-and-roll themed guitar-neck-handle slots, saxophone chandeliers, and purple or leopard-spot tables shaped like guitars and pianos (though, alas, the house rules aren’t as favorable as they’d been). When you’ve hit the jackpot, blow it on drinks and party favors at the Beach Club, a veritable voyeur’s and exhibitionist’s delight that seduces with lush landscaping, mini-beaches, lazy rivers, swim-up blackjack, an underwater sound system, and more.

Also off the Strip is downtown, AKA Glitter Gulch, the “historic” part of a town that continually implodes its landmark hotels to build ever more palatial fantasy-resorts. It was literally reenergized by the Fremont Street Experience, a seven-block pedestrian mall semi-enclosed by a 90-foot vaulted steel-mesh canopy sprinkled with 12 million LED lamps; the free shows here put the glitter back in Glitter Gulch with several mind-boggling (if neck-craning) and technically striking sound-and-light extravaganzas (nightly, every hour beginning at dusk).

Another downtown reclamation project, the $100 million Neonopolis mall (450 Fremont St.), is most noteworthy for its Neon Museum (Tue–Fri 11am–5pm by appointment only at 702/387-6366; prices vary), an exhibit that rescued neon-lit classics like the bygone Hacienda Hotel’s horse and cowboy (1967), the Flame Restaurant’s flickering signage (1961), and the original Aladdin resort’s lamp (1966).

Don’t leave the area without playing a hand in a downtown casino. The ones that maintain addresses here are down-and-dirtier (and more serious) than their Strip counterparts and you can expect to find some real character – and characters – in their smoky interiors. Our favorite by far is the El Cortez (600 E. Fremont St.), Bugsy Siegel’s first property, and one of the city’s oldest hotel. It’s popular among curmudgeonly patrons who love the single-deck blackjack tables, low buy-ins, tournaments and low-stakes round-the-clock Texas Hold ‘Em.

Other Attractions
Crave Vegas excess? 2.5 miles east of the Strip along Tropicana, you can’t miss our top non-casino attraction: the Liberace Museum (1775 E. Tropicana Ave.; Mon–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun noon–4pm except major holidays; $12.50) A gaudy 40-foot neon pink piano graces this shrine to haute tackiness (surprisingly located in a bland strip mall). The first building contains Mr. Showmanship’s rhinestone-encrusted, gold-plated cars and pianos while the second building, entered via a giant rhinestone gateway, showcases flamboyant costumes (chinchilla robes to sequined hot pants), candelabras, and rings (including the world’s largest rhinestone, at 115,000 carats). There are videos, family photos, recreations of his bedroom, and marble statues of naked men (!).

Aficionados could also spend days at Elvis-a-Rama Museum (3401 S. Industrial Rd.; Mon–Sat 10am–6pm; $12.95, $25 including impersonator tribute;) studying the gold records; original movie posters; handwritten lyrics; documents (among them a letter accusing then-girlfriend Anita Wood of cheating on him – sent while he was dallying with Priscilla, that hound dog!); costumes; and cars. Every item is accompanied by anecdotes that expose the man behind the King.

South of Downtown along Las Vegas Boulevard, outside of the official Strip, the Stratosphere Hotel Tower and Thrill Rides (2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; Sun–Thurs 10am–1am, Fri–Sat 10am–2am; tower only $9.95, unlimited all-day package $29.95) ranks as the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. The rides here delivers the promised thrills, from 360-degree panoramas at the rotating Top of the World restaurant (splurge on drinks here, not dinner) to three rides 900+ feet above the ground.

Back on the Strip, at its very end, is one of the classiest casinos in town, Mandalay Bay, where you’ll also find the Shark Reef (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 10am–11pm; $15.95), a sunken, ancient tropical city with faux ruins that forms a habitat for Burmese pythons and virtually extinct golden crocodiles. Look for the 360-degree, 1.3-gallon acrylic tunnel within a sunken treasure ship: several species of sharks are sure to glide by.

Finally, Las Vegas bills itself not only as the “World’s Entertainment Capital,” but also as the “World’s Marriage Capital.” Most top hotels offer one-stop wedding shopping (and spectacular chapels), but our two favorite chapels aren’t associated with any hotel or casino: the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel (1205 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/384-0771) ranks as the “King” of fantasy nuptials and the quaint, faux-pine 1942-constructed Little Church of the West (4617 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/739-7971) stages cinematic and real-life ceremonies (Paul Newman, Cindy Crawford, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney – and all eight of his wives – have been married here). Note that if you’re thinking of getting married yourself, Clark County doesn’t require blood tests or a waiting period: if you’re at least 18 and unrelated, you can purchase a $55 license at the Clark County Courthouse Marriage License Bureau (201 Clark Ave.; daily 8am–midnight, holidays 24hrs; 702/671-0600).

Other Casinos
For dirt-cheap fun on the Strip, try dive-y Slots A Fun (2890 Las Vegas Blvd. S.), with $1 tables, penny slots, nickel progressive slots (tied in to several machines), bargain hot dogs and Heinekens, enthusiastic players, and a ambience best described as a cross between a honky tonk and a bus depot. Of the many friendly locals’ casinos, try Orleans (4500 W. Tropicana Ave.) for tournaments, fun promotions, some lower-stakes tables, and more; Sam’s Town (5111 Boulder Hwy.), for fair odds, plentiful 25-cent Video Poker, and knowledgeable dealers/patrons; and the Mediterranean-themed Sunset Station (1301 W. Sunset Rd., Henderson, NV), for great odds, well-paying machines, and martinis at the fabulous Gaudi Bar.

Day Trips
It’s easy to forget Vegas’s splendid setting between mountains and desert. In a city of phony horizons and simulated volcanic eruptions, you almost expect animatronic animals and landscapes beyond the city limits. But real wildlife exists past the Strip and, in Vegas, you can actually ski, golf, scuba dive, rock-climb, ride horseback, and/or hike on the same day.

The closer recreational attractions deserve a full day out. Red Rock Canyon is west of the northern Strip, and could be combined with Mount Charleston (also northwest of town), both spectacularly showcasing Vegas as both high desert and mountain location; downtown is a fun, convenient stop on the way back. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead lie in the opposite direction (southeast); take the morning to tour the Dam and the visitor center, then enjoy your choice of recreation (sailing, fishing, sunbathing, diving, et al) in the afternoon, perhaps staying for a sunset paddlewheel cruise on the lake. You’ll need a car to make the most ground in a day; Gray Line (702/384-1234) offers Hoover Dam/Lake Mead and Red Rock Canyon itineraries. Most package tours run between $55 and $140, though internet specials or those freebie magazines’ coupons net an average $10 discount.

The most famous out-of-town sight is Hoover Dam, one of the world’s finest man-made marvels; it formed the recreational wonderland of Lake Mead by stopping the mighty Colorado River. The stark Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel spanning 1244 feet and towering 726 feet above the Black Canyon. Its visitors center (U.S. 93, Boulder City; daily 9am–5pm; $11), 30 miles southeast of town, contains fascinating, funny factoids and historical videos. Meanwhile, all around is Lake Mead, a recreational oasis where locals and visitors alike sail, jetski, waterski, sunbathe on miles of sandy stretches, battle bass, river-raft, and even scuba dive. Delightful cruises on a Mississippi-style paddle wheeler, the Desert Princess, run through the canyon, past colorful rock formations nicknamed Paint Pots, up to the Hoover Dam itself, which is lit spectacularly at night. The Lake Mead Visitors Center (daily 8.30am–4.30pm; US 93 at NV 166) dispenses trail maps, schedules of National Park ranger-led hikes (from wetlands to vividly-hued eroded sandstone formations), and info on activities from bird-watching to boating.

Mt. Charleston is a verdant year-round oasis 60 miles northwest of town that tops out at just under 12,000 feet. The most unexpected recreational opportunity here is the altogether un-glitzy 10-run Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort (open late-Nov to Easter). Mount Charleston is also a welcome summer retreat, when it’s a good 30 degrees cooler than town. Hiking is spectacular here: the six-mile Bristlecone Trail meanders past limestone cliffs and clusters of 4,000-year old bristlecone pines – among the oldest living things in the world – while the Desert View Overlook Trail, where 1950s locals watched mushroom clouds emanate from atomic bomb tests in the nearby desert today offers majestic sunset and valley vistas. The Mt. Charleston Hotel (702/872-5500) and Mt. Charleston Lodge (702/872-5408) – the latter of which has a fab old-time lounge and cozy, romantic log cabins – act as unofficial tourism centers and can arrange grandly scenic horseback or sleigh/carriage rides to boot.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area ($5/vehicle), 17 miles west of town, is a brilliant crimson splash of ancient sandstone stitched with black obsidian and milky limestone, making it a natural rival to Las Vegas’ neon glitter. The terrain encompasses natural arches and bridges, 3000-foot cliffs, and whimsically shaped boulders. Hiking (and biking along the 13-mile loop) ranges from mild to wild – just avoid the snakes, scorpions and cute-but-rabid roadside wild burros (who practically wear “Feed Me” signs).

Hotels

The Strip remains the preferred address. The famed names, all with around 3,000 rooms and up, are self-contained cities, including everything from spas to nightclubs, designed to keep you happily captive and captivated. But staying downtown can net you significant savings (even if you rent a car). Of course, there’s a range of lower-end chain motels from AmeriSuites to Super 8, but that’s not why you’re here, is it? To help you choose the right overnight address, we’ve highlighted our favorite Las Vegas hotels in each category. For a full list of Las Vegas hotels (and current deals), see our Shermans Top Las Vegas Hotels directory.

The deluxe Bellagio remains a class act, with swanky trappings from famous artworks to champagne-and-caviar bars. The Venetian gives Bellagio a run for its (and your) considerable money with 4000+ enormous, sumptuous lodgings, a gaggle of gourmet eateries, upmarket shops, hip bars, attractions from Guggenheim to gondola rides, and the Canyon Ranch spa. Other good high-end hotels that are less pricey include the Mandalay Bay; the Luxor; and the MGM Grand.

For moderate rooms, the Excalibur offers campy medieval fun for kids of all ages and thousands of rooms at old-time prices. Some of the hip, hopping, happening hotels are off-Strip, including the glam but moderately priced, 650-room Hard Rock Hotel, a hotbed of hedonism, with great stargazing as a bonus.

Budget travelers should book a room at the Orleans, with its Big Easy theme combining French Quarter panache and Mardi Gras revelry, family-friendly activities and fair budget-to-moderate prices.

Restaurants

Ever since Wolfgang Puck opened Spago, the first of several gourmet outlets, in 1992, casinos have competed like George Steinbrenner for the biggest culinary free agents. Bellagio alone boasts several James Beard Award-winning über-chefs (the Venetian, the upcoming Wynn Las Vegas, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, and others aren’t far behind) and there are more master sommeliers in Vegas than in any other U.S. city. Even so, you can still get a superbly cheap meal at any number of casino buffets. We’ve listed our local favorites from high-end to low-brow, starting with the gourmet.

André Rochat has been one of the top chefs in town for a quarter century; the original André’s French Restaurant (401 S. Sixth St.; 702/385-5016), downtown, remains superlative, the cozy warren of rooms and equally sympathetic cuisine transporting you to a country maison. His celebrated recent ventures – a more ornate branch in the Monte Carlo and Alizé atop The Palms (smashing views) – offer equally scintillating fare, wine lists and cigar selection. Also downtown, Hugo’s Cellar (Four Queens; 202 Fremont St.; 702/385-4011) channels the Rat Pack: Brick walls, candlelight, classic martinis (served in decanters buried in ice buckets), salads and flambés prepared tableside with aplomb, and a rose presented by the courtly waiters to each departing dame complete the portrait of “old” Vegas. East of the Strip’s northern boundary, Lotus of Siam (953 E. Sahara Ave.; 702/735-3033) isn’t merely one of America’s leading Thai restaurants (as attested to by Gourmet and Vogue), but its authentic northeast Thai cuisine detonates the palate (try the raw shrimp marinated in astoundingly hot fish sauce); its only-in-Vegas location is a seedy (yet safe) strip mall. Michael and Wendy Jordan, the husband-and-wife owner/chefs of Rosemary’s (8125 W. Sahara Ave.; 702/869-2251), boast impeccable culinary pedigrees and worked under Emeril Lagasse at the MGM Grand. This stellar duo kicks it up a notch with signature dishes like Hugo’s Texas barbecued shrimp with Maytag blue-cheese slaw. Just behind the airport, two L.A./Vegas Spago alums run Table 34 (600 E. Warm Springs Rd.; 702/263-0034), where you’ll find the town’s finest upscale comfort food, from fresh seasonal soups and crab cakes to artful TV dinner fare like meatloaf and mac-and-cheese.

Of course, Vegas has been famous for buffets ever since the El Rancho introduced the all-you-can-eat Midnight Chuck Wagon in the 1940s. That trend continues alongside the splashy gourmet eateries. Virtually every off-Strip locals’ casino/hotel (such as the Boyd, Station, Fiesta, and Coast properties) offers amazing buffet deals. Many locals consider Aladdin’s Spice Market Buffet (3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/785-5555.) the best value/quality offer on the Strip (lunch is $1 and dinner around $24, but it’s cheaper than Bellagio and Paris): rack of lamb, dim sum, crab legs, prime rib, succulent sushi, and amazing pastries (including crêpes made to order). Downtown’s Main Street Station Garden Court Buffet (200 N. Main St; 702/387-1896) is a lovely, Victorian room where live action stations include Chinese stir-fry, rotisserie, BBQ, Hawaiian, and Mexican (mouth- and eye-watering salsas) for $16 and under. Downtown also offers a legendary bargain: the 99-cent shrimp cocktail served in a tulip-shaped sundae glass at the historic 1906 Golden Gate (1 Fremont St.; 702/385-1906), built in 1906. Best 24/7 steak dinner bargain: Ellis Island (4178 Koval Ln.; 702/733-8901), just off the Strip. Imagine a 10-ounce sirloin (not all gristle), with gigantic salad and potatoes, for $4.99; pick up a free $5 blackjack play coupon (good gaming here including free weekday bingo) and stop by the bar for microbrews and some wonderfully awful karaoke (with regulars in costume).

Nightlife

In any other city, casinos and shows would be sufficient “nightlife” but Sin City also boasts hundreds of way-cool watering holes, from snazzy cigar bars to smoky blues joints.
Everyone wants to know the best bars for Strip views. Our favorites include the eerily lit, minimalist GhostBar (The Palms; 702/942-7777); the soigné, rotating Top of the World (Stratosphere; 702/380-7777); the wittily themed Voodoo Lounge (The Rio; 702/777-7923); and futuristically fabulous Mix Lounge (THEhotelatMandalay Bay; 702/632-7777). While the former are all pricey and often crowded, a lesser known, centrally located gem is the 19th-floor Sky Lounge (Polo Towers; 702/261-1000), with vintage Vegas look and occasional jazz.

Other good bets include Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge (2985 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/735-7635), a Rat Pack time warp of cushy velour banquettes, neon lighting, candle chandeliers, and blue flames flickering in a sunken pool reflected in mirrored walls; make sure to order the flaming Scorpion cocktail. Tired of diva-licious hotel hangouts? Try the ultimate dive: Double Down Saloon (4640 Paradise Rd.; 702/791-5775), whose guests have included Tim Burton and Dr. Timothy Leary; patrons down brews or the house specialty, Ass Juice, amidst a wild décor of leering murals of skulls in scarlet lipstick and signs reading “You puke, you clean” and “$20 puke insurance.” Younger crowds and struggling artists also chill at the fun, funky lounges along Maryland Parkway near University of Las Vegas. Several hotels feature popular meat-market discos. For the latest hip hopping happening scenes, check out www.vegas.com.

Shows
While the casinos offer living theater (sometimes of the absurd kind), your money might be even better spent on a ticket to a world-class performance. All the world’s a stage in Vegas and we urge you to see at least one show while you’re in town.

Prices can be high, especially if a drinks minimum is charged. For day-of-performance discounts, try Tickets 2Nite (Showcase Mall, near the MGM Grand; 888/484-9264). Another way to save is by taking in small-scale but big-entertainment-value afternoon shows like the Stratosphere’s Viva Las Vegas variety show or Harrah’s Mac King (wondrous comic magic); you’ll find discount coupons to these and more in the freebie local magazines.

Regular headliners run the gamut from comedians like Rita Rudner and David Brenner; magicians like Penn and Teller; singers like Celine Dion, Elton John, Barry Manilow, and Wayne Newton; high-quality Broadway-style productions from Phantom of the Opera to Mamma Mia!; and, of course, flesh-tacular revues (i.e. strip clubs). But if there’s one production that’s synonymous with Vegas, it’s the Cirque du Soleil, and if you can only see one show during your trip, make sure it’s one of theirs. While you can usually count on having at least three different Cirque productions to choose from, we highly recommend the longstanding O, at the Bellagio; with its title that puns on the French word for water (eau) and a truly fluid $20 million production (and specially constructed $70 million theater), O still merits the most ohs, oohs and ahs. If it’s fully booked, New York-New York’s (racier) Zumanity makes a strong second best. Book your tickets well in advance at CirqueduSoleil.com.

INSIDER TIP: Several libraries present invariably top-notch concerts, folkloric performances, poetry readings, dance recitals, even ballroom dancing, all for considerably less than most Strip acts. Plus, you can also see great acts for a song at the UNLV Performing Arts Center (4505 S. Maryland Parkway, 702/895-ARTS); the Chinese National Orchestra, Bolshoi Ballet, Isaac Stern, Dance Theater of Harlem, Alice Cooper, Herbie Hancock, and even Henry Kissinger have appeared in one of the three venues here.

Shopping

Not surprisingly, Vegas does brisk business in gambling paraphernalia. Gaming enthusiasts should check out the Gambler’s Book Shop (630 S. 11th St.), a virtual gaming library with thousands of titles and videos on betting strategies and Vegas history. Nearby, “The world’s largest gambling superstore,” Gambler’s General Store (800 S. Main St.), will customize chips in 17 colors and over 120 symbols; it also purveys dealer’s aprons, rattan croupier’s sticks, professional-quality blackjack tables replete with drink holders, and more. For upscale shopping, our favorite one-stop destinations are the aforementioned Forum Shops at Caesars, the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, and the boutiques at the new Wynn Las Vegas.

When To Go

Las Vegas never sleeps – or closes – and a week rarely passes without some major event taking place. Peak season is generally spring and fall, when the weather is best and generally highest prices ensue. You’ll get the biggest discounts in off season – summer – when a USDA prime Porterhouse would broil on the sidewalk. All bets are off during major conventions and sporting events, when room rates skyrocket. Biggies to avoid include the Consumer Electronics Show (January), National Association of Broadcasters and World Series of Poker (April), Comdex (November) and National Finals Rodeo (December). Remember that official rates quadruple during holiday breaks and nearly double on weekends. It pays to look for constantly changing internet specials; you can browse our selection or click here for deals. Barring no special events, you’ll get the best bang for your buck by visiting in May, October and early November, months that offer mild temperatures and generally better rates.
High season:
Spring, fall, and holiday weeks

Low season:
No such thing, but slowest months arguably July–August

Best bang for your buck
May, October, and early November

Getting There

GETTING THERE
Every major domestic airline (and several international ones, from AeroMexico to Virgin Atlantic) serve McCarran International Airport, situated just five minutes from the Strip and loaded with more than 1000 ka-ching-ing slot and video poker machines and an aviation museum in the baggage-claim area. JetBlue, Southwest and America West generally list the most competitive fares. We recommend that you arrive at night to see the city all lit up.

Great vacation packages to Las Vegas also abound, and you can usually save a bundle by booking air and hotel together. Our preferred providers are Expedia.com; Orbitz; Travelocity; and Vacation Outlet. For current Las Vegas deals, see our Las Vegas package page.

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