Photo Courtesy of William Beem
Las Vegas is an urban metropolis sprawling nearly 140 square miles in the desert Southwest. Despite Sin City's size, the vast majority of people are only familiar with the four miles of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip. Home to more than half of the 20 largest hotels in the world, Las Vegas is… known as a neon playground of unparalleled extravagance and an open invitation to overindulge. Those who get past the glitz and glam of the Strip are likely to find local charm in downtown Las Vegas, adventurous activities throughout the rest of the city, and lots of wide open desert to explore beyond.
What to know before you go to Las Vegas
Las Vegas is hopping between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when visitors crowd around the pools and in air-conditioned casinos during the day in order to beat the 100-degree-plus temps outside. The months bookending summer are also warm but a bit more forgiving; March and October are particularly pleasant. December and January are the slowest tourism months of the year, but the city dresses up in holiday fashion, so those who visit are in for a festive experience.
McCarran International Airport (LAS) is located close to the Strip. A taxi is often the fastest and cheapest form of transportation into town. Traveling to the hotels along the Strip will cost between $20-$26.
It is fast and easy to walk from one Strip casino resort to another. Distance on Las Vegas Boulevard can be deceiving, however, and those going more than a few resorts away may want to catch a cab. Taxis can only be picked up at the resorts; drivers are not permitted to drop off and pick up on the Strip. Public bus routes 301 and 302 also service the Strip. Free monorails connecting many of the properties in the MGM Resorts International group, and the Las Vegas Monorail has stops on the east side of the Strip.
Near downtown Las Vegas you’ll find the Neon Museum, which is where the city’s vintage neon signs go to live a second life. The visitor center happens to be situated in an iconic piece of Las Vegas history, and learning about the building’s past is the perfect beginning to a tour through this attraction. This activity has become increasingly popular over the years, so buy tickets in advance to ensure a spot on a tour.
Once upon a time, Las Vegas was known for its expansive buffet spreads, and while there are still buffets in nearly all the city’s properties, these days dining experiences are focused much more on quality than quantity. Foodies flock to Las Vegas to dine at restaurants known for their celebrity chefs and their extensive wine lists. Several interactive culinary experiences—Vegas Uncork’d, Epicurean Epicenter, and the World Food Championships, for example—give visitors the opportunity to learn about food, how best to pair it with a variety of beverages, and sometimes how to prepare a similar dish in their own kitchens.
Though Las Vegas isn’t heavy on the museums, the Mob Museum, Neon Museum, and Natural History Museum help provide a historical and cultural context for the city. Performances abound on the Strip and in venues downtown, but the Smith Center for the Performing Arts offers the broadest range of speakers, dance groups, musicians, and Broadway shows. For fine art, check out the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and wander the halls of both Wynn and Encore resorts.
Spring and fall are the busiest festival months in Las Vegas. Art walks, the annual Renaissance Festival, and family-friendly foodie events take place throughout the city. More organized and publicized events—such as Carnivale, Gay Pride and First Friday—are found on the Strip and in downtown. The city’s biggest and most extensive festival, Life Is Beautiful, is a four-pronged, multiday festival of music, cuisine, education, and art experiences.
The notion that Las Vegas is only for gamblers is an antiquated preconception, and locals roll their eyes when people say they won’t visit because they don’t like casinos. Many residents never step foot in a casino but embrace the city’s other offerings. Many out-of-towners find it hard to believe that anyone actually lives in Las Vegas, but beyond the Strip, the city is very much like most large cities. To find the locals hanging out in “touristy” areas, head downtown to the locally owned lounges and bars.
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Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In addition to writing for AFAR, he has written travel stories for outlets such as Time, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sunset, and San Francisco, to name a few. He also covers parenting, business, science, and gambling (which brings him to Las Vegas with some frequency). Learn more about him at whalehead.com.
JoAnna Haugen Las Vegas Local Expert JoAnna Haugen is a Las Vegas-based freelance travel writer with work published in more than 50 print and online publications. A host parent to foreign exchange students, JoAnna's global family gives her even more reasons to travel.