The best Las Vegas museums

Like everything else in Sin City, Las Vegas museums are unique. Here’s our guide to the weirdest (with a couple conventional collections thrown in for good measure)

If you want to learn how sin entered “Sin City,” then no better place to head to than Las Vegas’s museums. Some of them—such as the (literally) dazzling Neon Museum—could only exist here. Others—e.g. the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art—are in a more traditional vein, though no less fascinating. And for a truly immersive, sensory-depriving experience, make an appointment to view Turrell’s “Akhob,” located in the secret fourth floor of the Louis Vuitton store at Crystals. The 24-minute experience will have you seeing Las Vegas in a whole new color.

Atomic Testing Museum

From the city that once trotted out atomic pin-up girls in mushroom-cloud swimsuits for cheesy publicity stills comes a one-of-a-kind insight into the Nevada Test Site, the US's principal on-continent nuclear weapons testing facility from 1951 to 1992. The story it tells is fascinating: how nuclear power came to represent the future in the USA, how it came to be a tourist attraction in this state, and how it actually works.

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East of the strip

Bodies

In the unlikely event that you've ever fancied dropping the best part of $30 in order to peek underneath the skin of dead strangers, this is the show for you. Having donated their remains to science, around 20 altruistic souls have been dissected, preserved and put on display for the edification of visitors to the Trop. All things considered, the merchandise is in surprisingly good taste.

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The Strip

Imperial Palace Auto Collections

Tucked away in the parking garage are 200 rare and speciality cars (part of a rotating collection of 750, all for sale). Among them are Hitler's 1936 Mercedes, JFK's 1962 Lincoln, vehicles that once belonged to Al Capone, WC Fields and Howard Hughes, and a room full of Duesenbergs. This latter room was where former casino owner Ralph Engelstad held secretive 'Hitler birthday parties', before being fined by the Nevada Gaming Control Board for the activity.

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Las Vegas Natural History Museum

This small, enthusiastically run museum doesn't offer much in the way of bells and whistles. The Marine Life Room features small sharks in a large tank, the Wild Nevada Room has exhibits on the flora and fauna of Nevada and the Young Scientist Center has some interactive displays. However, the big draw is five roaring, robotic dinosaurs, among them a vast T-rex. Combine a visit with a trip to the nearby Lied Discovery Children's Museum.

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Downtown

Lied Discovery Children's Museum

A stimulating museum similar to (though much smaller than) the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Lied features dozens of scientific exhibits that involve the viewer as a part of the demonstration. Don't be put off by the name: this is the sort of place that many adults would visit by themselves if they thought they could. Creative exhibits include a tin can telephone, which should entertain the kids for hours. Rumour has it that the museum will soon be moving to a new location, leaving behind the public library that surrounds it. Check before making a special trip.

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Downtown

Madame Tussaud's

The first US incarnation of London's all-conquering attraction contains more than 100 wax celebs in various settings and rendered with various degrees of accuracy (Johnny Depp good, Shaquille O'Neal less impressive). The comparatively small attraction tones down the British history in favor of celebrity and pop culture 'encounters': a photo opportunity to don a wedding dress and 'marry' George Clooney, for example, or a chance to sing in front of Simon Cowell. Hokey but fun.

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The Strip

Nevada State Museum & Historical Society

The Nevada State Museum has permanent exhibits on the natural and anthropological history of the region, from ancient Paiute Indians to 19th-century pioneers, and the men and women of the Nellis Gunnery School in World War II. The standout exhibit tells the story of Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo, complete with interactive recordings of Bugsy (played by an actor) threatening business partners. There are plans to move the museum to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve in 2008; call ahead to check.

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West Las Vegas

Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort Historic Park

Built by a group of Mormon missionaries in 1855 and then left to become part of the Las Vegas Ranch, this is Vegas's pioneer settlement site, the oldest Euro-American structure in the state and an example of what Vegas was like before the railroad arrived. Though only remnants of the original structure remain, restoration and reconstruction have brought the compound back to life, and guides are on hand to answer any questions you may have.

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Downtown

Pinball Hall of Fame

For the most part, a pinball machine is just a pinball machine. To some folks, though, it's a kinetic monument to a simpler time when mindless entertainment didn't necessarily involve sex, hyper-violence or the pixelated undead, a perfectly designed blend of challenge, workmanship and skill. In Tim Arnold's world, it's all these things and more besides. How else to explain his Pinball Hall of Fame?

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East Las Vegas

UNLV Barrick Museum

Technically UNLV's natural history museum, the Barrick has fine permanent displays on ancient and modern Vegas, including a wonderful collection of folk-art masks. It's also one of the city's finest exhibition spaces: a number of excellent shows have graced its front rooms, drawing from UNLV's art faculty and regional sources. It's a must for any gallery crawl; call for details of current shows.

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East of the strip

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