The Nongambler's Guide to Las Vegas
There's plenty to do in the gaming town without rolling the dice.
If you plan to take a pass on the glitzy casinos on your next trip to Las Vegas, you’ll have plenty of company. Splashy shows, upscale shopping and restaurants owned by celebrity chefs are just a few of the attractions displacing casinos as the big draws on the Strip. In 2016, 52% of Vegas visitors said vacation or pleasure was the primary purpose of their trip, and only 4% named gambling, according to a survey by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “As gaming expands in other parts of the country, it’s not a novelty to play the slot machines or blackjack anymore,” says David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
At the same time, downtown Vegas is emerging as a destination for local art, offbeat attractions and diverse cuisine. Plus, Vegas is only a few hours’ drive from several national parks and natural wonders, including Red Rock Canyon and the Grand Canyon. In other words, there are more — and probably more-rewarding — ways to spend your money in Vegas than placing bets at the craps table.
Kiplinger’s sent a couple of reporters to Las Vegas to see what’s afoot for visitors who have little or no interest in gambling. We discovered that you can enjoy the Strip no matter your budget, escape to museums and restaurants in the revitalizing downtown and avoid the crowds, or explore the beauty of the surrounding desert. If you’re determined to try your luck in the casinos, we offer some tips.
Living large on the Strip
Because my reputation as a gambler and a gamer is well known among my Kiplinger’s colleagues, my editors assigned me to be a sort of Vegas sherpa for this story — someone who knows his way around town, even if I had never seen much reason to abandon the outdoor pool or the free drinks at the craps table. My partner in crime, Miriam Cross, who covers the travel beat, was the perfect foil because she was more interested in soaking up the sights than soaking in the hotel hot tub. (However, it helped that I used my casino membership to book a free stay.)
The Strip offers no shortage of sights, shows and sensations — with plenty of ways to spend a small fortune. First, the restaurants: The eponymous Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand features French cuisine from the chef whose restaurants have more than 30 Michelin stars among them. The nine-course, 17-dish tasting menu will run you $445 per person and includes the likes of langoustine ravioli in foie gras sauce and flan made from sea urchin. (Our limited expense account didn’t allow us to sample the food personally.) Elsewhere on the Strip, you’ll find offerings from such world-renowned chefs as José Andrés, Tom Colicchio and David Chang.
Feeling sporty? Book a tee time at Shadow Creek. A round of 18 holes at the course that’s ranked 16th on Golf magazine’s list of the 100 best public courses will have you chipping out of pine forests onto lush fairways in the middle of the desert (but will set you back $500). If golf isn’t your thing, splurge on shopping and a day at the spa. Start at Crystals, a 500,000-square-foot shopping and dining district in the Aria resort, where you can browse the high-priced merchandise at Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, as well as Tom Ford, Stella McCartney and Lanvin. The on-site concierge at Crystals (call 702-590-9230) can help you book personal shopping sessions and after-hours appointments.
Across the street is the Sahra Spa & Hammam at the Cosmopolitan hotel. The full-service “Moroccan Journey” experience in the spa’s luxurious Turkish baths costs $450 for a 130-minute exfoliating and cleansing with a full-body massage. Or you can rent the spa penthouse suite, which comes with a living and entertaining area with a TV and a wet bar, private spa accommodations, and butler service. Rates start at $95 per hour, with a minimum of $500 spent on spa or salon services.
But you don’t have to spend like Ivanka Trump to do the Strip. Art buffs will roll their eyes at the faux Bernini sculptures at Caesars Palace, but they’re just a few doors down from exhibits that wouldn’t be out of place in the Guggenheim. James Turrell’s breathtaking light installation Akhob is in the back of the Louis Vuitton store (free, but call 702-730-3150 for reservations at least a month in advance). Rotating exhibitions at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art recently included paintings by Picasso and the photography of Yousuf Karsh. The current exhibition, I Am the Greatest, which runs through September 30, was well worth the $18 admission — at least it was for this avid sports fan. The collection documents the life of Muhammad Ali through art, artifacts and rare film footage.
Spectacles and thrills. If you’re looking for spectacle, start with the free fountain shows at the Bellagio and the Mirage. Illuminated jets of water rocket skyward at the Bellagio every half-hour during the day and every 15 minutes in the evening, with changing music and choreography. A percussion soundtrack composed by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart accompanies the show at the Mirage, which features an assortment of flamethrowers who sit in a fountain beneath a roaring “volcano.”
Las Vegas ballrooms have played host to world-class performers since the Rat Pack era, and the Strip still boasts a diverse lineup of shows — Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Donny and Marie Osmond, and, of course, Wayne Newton, with new artists blowing through town every month. You can catch one of six Cirque du Soleil shows on the Strip, or enjoy the magic of Penn & Teller or Criss Angel. For tickets, head to Vegas.com/shows. If you’re shopping for last-minute tickets, compare box office prices with those at one of the 10 Tix4Tonight booths that dot Las Vegas Boulevard.
Vegas has plenty of options for thrill-seekers, too. For example, you can test your mettle driving a high-performance car on a 1.2-mile, 10-turn racetrack with Dream Racing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The basic package (five laps) in a Ferrari 430 GT will run you $550. Vegas Indoor Skydiving, located just off Las Vegas Boulevard, allows would-be skydivers to experience the thrill of freefall without, you know, jumping out of a plane. Divers don flight suits and hover over a giant wind tunnel. Tickets start at $75. The more daring can try the SkyJump at the Stratosphere, an 855-foot “controlled freefall” from the hotel’s 108th floor. Rides cost $120. --Ryan Ermey
Off the Strip
As Kiplinger’s travel writer and, on my own time, a budget-conscious traveler, I can’t understand why anyone would spend their vacation cooped up in a casino or shopping mall, dropping wads of cash that could be spent instead on new sights and experiences. (Prior to Vegas, my one casino experience involved winning $24 Australian at the slot machines in Melbourne and then calling it a night.) So after a couple of hours of wandering the maze of hotel lobbies on the Strip, I was bored.
Just a few miles north of the Strip, downtown Vegas (as well as nearby neighborhoods) promises a more authentic and less crowded experience. To start, there are a number of museums where you can learn about Las Vegas’s strange and seedy history. The Mob Museum ($19.95 in advance online) weaves together the rise of the mob in the U.S. with its presence in Las Vegas through interactive exhibits and delightfully grisly artifacts (including part of the bullet-ridden St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall, where seven gangsters were shot). Ryan joined a tour of the Neon Museum ($19 by day, $26 at night), where an enthusiastic guide led his group through the outdoor “boneyard” of vintage Vegas signs, explaining the rich histories of the places where they had once hung.
We didn’t have time to visit the National Atomic Testing Museum, which traces the history of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert ($22), the Las Vegas Natural History Museum ($10) or the Pinball Hall of Fame — not a museum per se, but a collection of restored pinball machines that you can play for as little as 25 cents each.
The burgeoning arts scene downtown is visible in empty blocks and parking lots enlivened with colorful murals that are left over from previous Life Is Beautiful festivals. Now in its fifth year, the festival features musical acts, comedy, art and more. We arrived too late in the day to see much activity at the Arts Factory, a collection of artists’ studios in the 18b Las Vegas Arts District. (The name refers to the 18 blocks that make up the neighborhood.) But as the chatty staffer at Jana’s RedRoom gallery explained, the area is hopping on the first Friday of every month, when food trucks line up and street performers entertain attendees who wander the galleries until late at night. (The preceding Thursdays, known as Preview Thursdays, are aimed at collectors and offer a more low-key opportunity to mingle with the artists.)
Fremont Street East (not to be confused with the kitschy Fremont Street Experience pedestrian mall) and surrounding blocks are sprinkled with restaurants and bars, including Le Thai, where we sampled curries in the backyard patio ($9.95 for a meal and drink during lunch). At the Downtown Container Park, a collection of restaurants and boutiques housed in shipping containers, we chowed down on delicious burgers and fries at the Perch (entrées start at $13). The airy second-story restaurant overlooks a performance stage and “treehouse” with a 33-foot-tall slide snaking out of the side. No matter where you eat, leave room for the artistic desserts at Sweets Raku ($12 each). We devoured a white chocolate cup stuffed with pie crust and strawberry mousse, with a sorbet-filled strawberry candy on the side.
Also on tap in Vegas: You can tour the headquarters of online shoe retailer Zappos ($10), which includes play time in the ball pit and testing your problem-solving skills on a mock customer-service call. (Zappos runs several other tours, including one that focuses on downtown hot spots.) Or you can amble among the remains of the city’s first permanent, nonnative settlement at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort ($1), tucked among nondescript streets. Beyond that is Springs Preserve, a 180-acre space with miles of walking trails, a desert tortoise refuge, botanical gardens, archaeological sites and museums. Admission is $18.95.
Leaving Las Vegas. The craggy peaks that ring the city hint at the dramatic landscapes that lie beyond. We chose Red Rock Canyon, a half-hour drive from the Strip, for a morning escape ($7 per vehicle). You can take it easy, as we did, by cruising the 13-mile scenic loop through the conservation area, parking at lookout points to take in looming clusters of rock. Or you can stop to hike on one of the many trails or climb the sandstone outcroppings. On our way back to Las Vegas, we stopped by Spring Mountain Ranch, a surprisingly lush property once owned (but never lived in) by Howard Hughes ($9). We skipped the nearby Bonnie Springs Ranch, but kids might enjoy the re-created Old West town, complete with cowboys and saloon, as well as a petting zoo.
If you want to delve deeper into the natural wonders around Vegas, head to the Valley of Fire State Park ($10 per vehicle), an hour away from the city, for ancient stone etchings and spectacular rock formations. Escape intense summer heat by hiking Mount Charleston, which is consistently cooler than the city, or splashing around in Lake Mead, a large reservoir on the Colorado River where you can boat, swim and fish, or explore the remnants of an old town that has reappeared as water levels in Lake Mead recede.
Hoover Dam offers tours of the power plant and passageways within the dam. Death Valley and Zion National Park are less than three hours away from Vegas. Getting to the visitor’s center of the Grand Canyon takes more than four hours by car, but helicopter and bus tours from Vegas can take you there and back in a day. --Miriam Cross
When to Go
Las Vegas doesn’t have a “slow” season because conventions and events take place all year. The weather is nicest in the spring and fall, when days are hot (but not blistering) and nights are cool but comfortable. If you’re trying to reduce costs, keep these points in mind:
Airfares. Flights to Vegas are cheapest in January, when the median round-trip airfare is $205, according to data from Kayak. You can typically find the lowest price when booking two months out.
Hotels. The lowest hotel rates appear in November and December, with a median price of $123 per night, according to Kayak. You may see rooms going for less than $100 a night on travel-booking sites, but resort fees can run up to $40 per night, says Christine Sarkis, of SmarterTravel.com. Many out-of-the-way hotels offer free shuttles to the Strip.
We saved money on our accommodations, thanks to Ryan’s Total Rewards membership, which covers casinos and resorts including Caesars Palace, Harrah’s and the Linq. Members at all status levels receive offers for free or discounted hotel stays. Ryan found a comped room at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino for himself and snagged me a rate of $35.50 per night. But we couldn’t escape the $34-per-night resort fee. --Miriam Cross