There are a million and one things to do in Las Vegas, many of which involve gambling, alcohol, nudity or a heady combination of the three. But Sin City isn’t all slot machines and sordid parties – follow our weekender’s guide and offset your debauchery with a wholesome mix of history, culture and top class food.
Day one: walk the walk
It’s longer than it looks, and often hotter than Hades, but every visitor should stroll the length of the Strip at least once, if only to get the measure of its absurdity. Start with the Fabulous Las Vegas sign, in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, near Mandalay Bay. Have an indoor and outdoor look at the oddest and somehow most fabulous of the Vegas casino buildings, the sci-fi-looking black glass pyramid that is the Luxor.
Continuing north on the Strip, New York New York is worth a peek, for its simulacrum of Manhattan's streetscapes and shops – make time for the roller coaster, which goes careening skyward, offering an upside down view of the Strip. Push on north, to the magnificent heart of the Strip. The new CityCenter complex is vast, but its main points of interest are the gorgeous Aria casino-hotel and the high-end Crystals shopping centre. Go next door to the Cosmopolitan, the hippest hotel on the Strip. Head upwards to the third floor, a people-watching haven ringed with restaurants; it’s time for lunch.
Catch the monorail that connects CityCenter and the Bellagio; and make sure you’re in a good viewing spot for one of the on-the-half-hour performances of the famous, fabulous fountains; also have a look at the scrumptious chocolate fountain – the world’s largest – inside, at Jean-Phillippe Patisserie. By now you may be ready for a rest.
It’s dinner time and you’ve got options. Head for the Venetian and have an Italianesque bite by the famous faux canal, with its singing gondoliers, perhaps.
Nighttime is the right time for exploring Old Las Vegas, which predates the Strip and is still buzzing with its own seedy grandeur. Poke around the Golden Nugget, Binions, the El Cortez and some of the other legendary redoubts that still carry more than a bit of the old-school swagger and style.
Day two: away from the Strip
You’ll need a cab to explore these off-Strip highlights. Start the day with an only-in-Las Vegas experience that doesn’t involve gambling – well, at least not with money. At Vegas Indoor Skydiving, you can free-fall in an indoor 21ft vertical wind tunnel that generates air speeds of up to 130mph. After an hour of instruction, you get 15 minutes of flying time. This is best experienced before lunch…
Another only-in-Vegas attraction – the Atomic Testing Museum. Relatively few know how near Vegas was to the Nevada Test Site, the US’s principal on-continent nuclear weapons testing facility from 1951 to 1992. The story the museum tells is fascinating: how nuclear power came to represent the future, how it came to be something approaching a tourist attraction in this most carefully blasé of states and – most crucially, and in layman’s terms – how it actually works.
A quick spin to the west side of town, to visit Las Vegas Springs Preserve, an experiential ecological museum, and a huge site given over to botanical gardens, nature trails and a number of conservation-orientated exhibits. While you’re there, why not take time for lunch at the sustainability minded, on-site café by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. It offers picnic-style dining with wonderful vistas of the desert and the city.
Here’s a more eccentric and entirely more urban jaunt: the gritty, quirkily fascinating Commercial Center, a nondescript enclosure surrounding a 28-acre parking lot. Diverse tenants include an underground theatre company (Insurgo Theater Movement), at least two sex clubs and a swingers’ lounge, an ice-hockey rink, a cluster of jovial (and very different) gay bars, and shops specialising in wigs and other showgirl accessories, karaoke joints, nail spas and more. While you’re at the Commercial Center, you’ll want to visit its chief attraction – and chief anomaly – the internationally recognised Thai restaurant, Lotus of Siam, perhaps followed by a nightcap in one of the Center’s one-of-a-kind bars.
American Airlines fly direct to New York from London Heathrow, with prices starting at £412 return.
For those with money to burn, it doesn’t get much classier than the gleaming Wynn Las Vegas, where rooms start at £185 per night. A short hop down the Strip, the iconic Circus Circus hotel (of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ fame) offers mid-week rates as low as £21 per night.