Why You Should Visit Downtown Las Vegas
Because it’s not the Las Vegas Strip. “Le duh Spence,” you may be saying to yourself. But hear me out. Why do people come to Vegas? For the nightlife, the gambling, the food, the shows, and the novelty of the Las Vegas Strip that is unrivaled? But it’s exactly those reasons that many people don’t like Las Vegas.
“There’s no culture.”
“Everything is so expensive.”
“It’s so touristy.”
Those are some of the more frequents reasons I’ve heard from people who don’t like Las Vegas. In general, these responses are regarding the Strip, since that’s most travelers’ experience in Vegas. And I get it. I’ve been at the receiving end of the very reasons why many people don’t like Vegas. Earlier this week for St. Patrick’s Day, I paid $8 for a beer, nearly got stabbed in the eye with a guy sporting a mohawk, saw a little person dressed as a leprechaun jump off a bar to crowd surf, and saw a girl walking down the Strip wearing pasties. Las Vegas is a big carnival, and not everyone likes going to the carnival. And while the charms and novelty of the Strip can also be found in downtown Las Vegas at the Fremont Street Experience, look a little closer and you’ll find something else below the surface.
While downtown Las Vegas has often been referred to as “Old Vegas,” the last couple years have seen a growing movement toward changing that image. Some of that is due in part to Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, who has taken a keen interest in downtown Las Vegas, moving his Zappos headquarters there, as well as investing $350 million dollars into rejuvenating it. And there are signs of this rejuvenation all over the place. From newly renovated hotels and casinos, like The D and Downtown Grand Las Vegas, to a host of new restaurants and bars to StrEATS (a local street food and culture festival hosted every second Saturday) to the Life is Beautiful Festival, which kicked off its inaugural event last year, featuring bands that included The Killers, Kings of Leon, Beck, Vampire Weekend, Imagine Dragons, Pretty Lights, Empire of the Sun, and Passion Pit, just to name a few.
I remember the first time I had a $20+ quesadilla on the Las Vegas Strip. It hurt, and I thought to myself about how many quesadillas from Taco Bell that could get me, while also wondering whether or not TSA forbids traveling with George Foreman grills. But while the fact is that eating and drinking on the Strip is expensive, Las Vegas is home to some of the best restaurant in the U.S. And while the Las Vegas Strip features some of the world’s best chefs, I firmly believe that the downtown Las Vegas food scene is starting to make a name for itself. Not to mention that many of these restaurants are easier on the wallet.
Among steakhouses in downtown Las Vegas, there are a few that I recommend, including Vic & Anthony’s, Andiamo, and Hugo’s Cellar. While I don’t insist on spending too much time at the Fremont Street Experience (though it’s superb for people-watching), all of these restaurants are located in hotels along the main part of Fremont Street. Vic & Anthony’s in the Golden Nugget, Andiamo in The D, and Hugo’s Cellar in the Four Queens. Of those three, I think Hugo’s Cellar offers the most unique experience, from ladies receiving a rose as they enter to the vintage decor to the flambé Bananas Foster they make at your table. Just as unique, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads. The name speaks for itself.
Where the Fremont Street Experience ends, Fremont East begins. Void of yard margaritas, fanny packs, and movie star look-alikes, Fremont East represents my favorite part of all of Vegas, where dive bars, cocktail lounges, speakeasies, and local eateries line the neighborhood streets. It’s also where you’ll find many locals spending their evenings and weekends (no, locals don’t hang out on the Strip every night). Among my favorite ethnic restaurants in downtown Las Vegas: Le Thai, which is located in the heart of Fremont East. Jockey for a table or belly up to the bar for cocktails that are less than $10 and entrees that run from $10-$15. For something quicker, a couple of my favorite pizza joints in Las Vegas are in downtown, just off Fremont Street, including Pop Up Pizza at the Plaza Hotel and Casino, and Pizza Rock.
My favorite part of downtown Las Vegas, however, may in fact be the drink and nightlife scene. If you’re used to $15-$20 martinis on the Strip, then a visit to some of downtown Las Vegas’ watering holes can be a welcome alternative. I already mentioned Le Thai, which has cocktails for less than $10. Most of Downtown’s most happening bars are within just a couple blocks of Le Thai, including The Griffin, featuring cozy booths, two circular fire pits, and a low-key vibe with good cocktails. Just down from The Griffin is Commonwealth, sporting a west coast cocktail bar vibe and featuring an extensive menu of handcrafted cocktails. However, the magic really happens in the back, at The Laundry Room, which is a small speakeasy that requires a secret phone number to get a reservation. (Hint: Ask around at Commonwealth – or DTLV – for the number to text about reservations). It’s classy (potentially pretentious to some). It’s delicious. And come on the right night and you may be treated to a pianist. Bring a date and you can thank me later. Because if you’re going to pay $15 for a cocktail, it might as well be in a secretive speakeasy and not at the hotel lobby bar.
Just across the street is Insert Coins, part arcade and part bar. But I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill mall arcade; we’re talking about the games you grew up on as a kid, such as Asteroids, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Frogger, and Tron. Play them all while sipping on arcade-themed drinks, such as Zelda and Dirty Kirby. A little further down the street is the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas, Atomic Liquors. Its name comes from a time when patrons could watch atomic blasts from the roof (those days are long gone!) and it’s one of the closest things to a hole-in-the-wall dive bar in Las Vegas.
The newest cast member to downtown Las Vegas is Fremont Street’s first brewery, Banger Brewing. Located toward the end of the Fremont Street Experience (going toward Fremont East), Banger Brewing features free guided tours daily, as well as a taproom with their entire list of beers (which is one long list). Among their beers is a kolsch, red ale, blonde, a couple stouts, I.P.A., hefeweizen, and brown ale.
What the Las Vegas Strip lacks in culture, downtown Las Vegas makes up for. Downtown Las Vegas is where the history of Sin City begins. You can actually see the first phone (issued the phone number, 1), as well as many other artifacts from Las Vegas history at the Golden Gate Hotel. The Golden Gate Hotel was the first hotel in Las Vegas, originally opened as the Hotel Nevada, and is still booking rooms, though it has undergone an extensive facelift in the last couple years. Just down from it is a relatively new museum that just opened two years ago, the Mob Museum. Housed in an old federal building, the Mob Museum chronicles the history of the mafia in the U.S., and more specifically, its history in Las Vegas.
My favorite part of downtown Las Vegas culture may just be the Neon Museum. What do you think happens to the signs of all those hotels, landmarks, and restaurants that have closed or been renovated over the decades? They come here, some of which are still working signs. The Neon Museum is something of a living, growing museum of Las Vegas’ signs from over the years. Tours are offered daily, although I recommend the evening tour. During the evening tour, guests can actually see some of the Neon Boneyard’s signs in action, lit up like they were back in the day.
One of the newest installations to come to downtown Las Vegas is Container Park, which is one of Tony Hsieh’s latest projects. Container Park is just that: A park of 30 pimped out, reconstructed shipping containers. Within each you’ll find boutique shops, wine bars, taco shops, and restaurants. It even has an interactive play area for children, called The Treehouse. Come after 9 p.m. when only those over 21 are permitted in and the restaurants and bars liven up.
On a warm afternoon (which is like every afternoon in Vegas), stop in for food, drinks, and an adult playground at Gold Spike. But seriously, it’s like an adult playground. Gold Spike features giant-sized versions of Checkers, Jenga, and Connect Four, as well as an area for playing cornhole. Oh, and did I mention that it has an ice skating rink? Next thing you know, downtown Las Vegas will have a unicorn petting zoo too.
At the beginning, I mentioned that you should visit downtown Las Vegas because it’s not the Strip. That’s both an advantage and disadvantage. While downtown Las Vegas features many experiences that you can’t find on the Strip, what’s been lacking is that hotel experience like you get on the Strip, such as at the CityCenter properties. Accommodations in downtown Las Vegas have upped their game in the last couple years, but since many of them are in older buildings (rather than part of new construction projects), there’s only so much they can offer. While some of the rooms and suites can compete with hotels on the Strip, other amenities, like swimming pools, spas, restaurants, or fitness centers can’t quite compete.
Photo courtesy of The D Casino Hotel
But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t stay in downtown Las Vegas. It’s hard to find hotels anywhere in America that will provide you the bang for your buck that you can find at the likes of The D Casino Hotel, El Cortez, or Golden Nugget. However, you may be giving up things like multiple restaurants, pools, and an expansive spa and fitness center that you’ll find at many of the Strip’s hotels. Nonetheless, I believe that downtown Las Vegas hotels are coming around. Both The D, and most recently, the Downtown Grand Las Vegas are good examples of that. The D, featuring a couple landmark Detroit restaurants, including Andiamo’s and American Coney Island, and the Downtown Grand Las Vegas featuring a 35,000-square-foot rooftop retreat dubbed, Picnic.
Downtown Las Vegas isn’t, nor will it ever be, the Strip. That’s like downtown Los Angeles trying to be Hollywood or Brooklyn trying to be Manhattan. Yet I believe that downtown Las Vegas is situating itself to be a destination for travelers. Give it a night or a weekend on your next trip to Las Vegas and you may be surprised at what you see.
What’s your favorite unique thing to do in Las Vegas?