There’s much more to Las Vegas than the endless bright lights and high stakes of The Strip. Here’s where to find it.

Driving north from the Strip, I quickly realise that if Las Vegas has a soul, it resides in Downtown. Glitter Gulch is where it all began, forged with the sweat of low-rollers’ dashed dreams and a frontier brashness. Before the arrival of pyramid-shaped gambling palaces and celebrity chef restaurants, Downtown was Las Vegas.

Here, mid-century neon casts a nostalgic, slightly faded glamour over the night. By day, it’s the gateway to rambling desert adventures, where the outskirts segue into the Mojave Desert’s take-your-breath-away swirling red and gold sandstone, and a historic saloon has more ghosts than shot glasses.


Fremont Street Experience

There’s no easing yourself in to the original boulevard of broken dreams. Go full throttle at the 24/7 Fremont Street Experience, built in 1995 to bring people back to Downtown Las Vegas. Pedestrian-only with free nightly concerts, it’s also home to one of the largest video screens in the world. The Viva Vision Canopy spans four streets with continuous shows overhead featuring 49 million LED lights. Look up. Be dazzled.

Billed as a “zipline unlike any other”, the SlotZilla ZipLine launches willing punters seven or 11 storeys high over two or five blocks. Take the Zoom line and release your inner superhero as you fly weightlessly over the Downtown crowd and below the kaleidoscopic canopy. It’s a blast.


Red Rock Canyon

Head west for colourful wonders of the geological kind at Red Rock Canyon but be sure to book your visit first. Displays throughout the visitor centre explain the improbable mix of the landscape’s colours and its remarkable prehistory.

The nearly 21km spice-coloured Scenic Loop offers countless opportunities to leave the car or bike behind and trek the trails and canyons, spotting wild donkeys, horses, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoises.

Just outside town is Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s whimsical Seven Magic Mountains installation. The brightly coloured, stacked boulders are a reminder that even in the middle of nowhere, Vegas can’t resist a touch of the audacious.


The Pioneer Saloon

It’s been pouring beers for more than a hundred years and while the Pioneer Saloon might be just 40km from Downtown, it’s as close as you get to the Old West. The saloon’s walls tell the stories. Bullet holes are testament to a 1913 poker game gone wrong. Framed press clippings report that Hollywood royalty Clark Gable drowned his sorrows at the cigarette-stubbed bar while waiting to hear news of the love of his life, Carole Lombard, whose plane had crashed into the mountains nearby. All on board were killed.

Along with starring roles in the Fallout: New Vegas video game and several recent movies, the Saloon is also renowned for its burgers and beers. And while present-day owners Stephen and Stephanie Staats celebrate its history, they also offer stargazing that looks into the future. We were lucky enough to spot a launch for Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.


Valley of Fire

There’s an endless stillness the afternoon I drive to the Valley of Fire. Warm and windless, rising condensation here creates fleeting mirages against the intense sky. It’s graceful in the way only nature can be. Crimson sandstone cliffs, twisted by eons of wind, rise from the dusty valley floor with swirls of gold, chocolate, cream and pink, turning the unforgiving landscape into an immense gallery without walls.


Mob Museum

Unsurprisingly, the OG of gambling towns didn’t reference its gangster origins until the interactive Mob Museum opened in 2012. Here visitors can sit in an electric chair, find out about made men and large-scale money laundering and be astonished by the bullet-scarred brick wall from Chicago’s 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre. There’s also fingerprint analysis and DNA profiling for would-be private eyes. In the museum’s basement lies the Underground Speakeasy and Distillery – a Prohibition-themed bar accessed by password at the door.


Downtown Lip Smacking Foodie Tour

Forget the Strip’s celebrity chefs and embrace a slice of real life with a Downtown Lip Smacking Foodie Tour. Our guide, Bobby, lives and breathes Las Vegas and is passionate about Fremont East. This part of Downtown is a street art hub, with one-off stores, sensational food and a tribute to the unconventional. Come for the delicious bites at three of Downtown’s best restaurants and stay for the fascinating characters and their backstories.

We begin at Carson Kitchen with crisp chicken skins flavoured with smoked honey, then head to La Mona Rosa. Here, regional Mexican recipes are served in a space furnished with stained glass, pews and baptismal font (now ladies room handbasin) salvaged from a Mexican church lost to history.

We get a kick from a Moscow Mule at Bin 702 at Container Park. (The home of reportedly Las Vegas’s best-value happy hour.) Next, one last mini-feast at 7th & Carson means a delicious curry pasty and the braised short-rib potato gnocchi of your dreams.


Neon Museum

It’s 8pm and dark, and I’m at a museum with no walls but plenty of glittering starbursts and pulsing lights. There could be no better place for the Neon Museum than Downtown Las Vegas. Once this 24-hour signage ushered drinkers and gamblers to bars with ”Girls” and “5c Beer”. Filled with more than 250 Las Vegas signs rescued from long-gone casinos, our guide walks and talks us through vintage Vegas. The evening ends with a musical video/light show that keeps Elvis and Liberace frozen in time. It’s fitting they too reside among neon lights that RIP.


Atomic Liquors

Nothing beats a cocktail at the end of a long trip but there’s something extra satisfying about a dry Martini in a place that hasn’t had a facelift since Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack made it their favourite hangout. Legendary for more than stiff drinks, the Atomic got its explosive name when 1950s revellers toasted atomic test mushroom clouds unfurling only 100km away.

Downtown Vegas might not be for everyone. It’s a little gritty, and you won’t find a single singing gondolier in a fake canal. Instead, you’ll find it’s unforgettable for all the right reasons.

The writer was hosted by Travel Nevada.


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