A short trip from the Strip's high heels, higher prices
A $20 cab ride away from the Strip lies the heart of Las Vegas, a part of the city that continues to pump, and occasionally to bump and grind.
Downtown Vegas seems a world away from the Strip’s brand of glamour – glittering capacious casinos, bustling high-end restaurants, masses of humanity shopping to throw down wads of money, glitzy shows, and celebrities on parade.
You won’t find that sort of thing Downtown.
For several decades, Downtown has been the place to go to dress down and hide out, to find a bargain hotel room, lower-stakes gaming tables and cheap shrimp cocktails, while catching a glimpse of what Las Vegas used to be, before the oasis on the desert found pizzazz and built its empire on the Strip.
The good news is that Downtown is wearing well and making over, in a long-term plan to re-develop this district as an alternative place to live, to work, and to play.
That means spruced up lodgings, appealing new restaurants (and lots of old ones), as well as some exciting attractions to lure, at least for a day trip, visitors who are staying in the fancier digs of the Strip seven miles to the north.
The better news for travelers is that wise city leaders did not destroy all of the old Las Vegas, but instead decided to clean it and celebrate it, including street displays of favorite neon signs from the past, such as the Lucky Cuss Motel, the Cowboy on Las Vegas Blvd., and the Silver Slipper that once perched atop the late casino of the same name.
Lucky for me, a recent visit Downtown was several days of a conference of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Each afternoon, sessions couldn’t end soon enough so I could head outside to check out the heart of Las Vegas, where gambling and gamboling on the desert of Nevada began.
This blog was published by The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com
What to see:
No matter where you go Downtown, you will encounter the Fremont Street Experience, which covers four pedestrian blocks of casinos, restaurants, bars and shops, and a roof 90 feet high. Walk right into Binion’s Gambling Hall (since 1951) or the Golden Nugget (since 1946). At the top of the Experience is a zipline called SlotZilla. At night, Fremont is a big party, as the whole outdoor mall fills with light and music stage shows, its bands cranking up the volume.
Remembering neon and the mob
If you have any interest in the past, don’t miss the two museums -- Neon and Mob -- that speak to the early days of Las Vegas, the neon that lighted the dessert casinos, and the mob that ran them. Like just about anywhere else in Las Vegas, you can book a wedding at either place.
Neon Boneyard Park is crammed with signs, and pieces, so numerous that even a Las Vegas expert will need the expertise of the guide, who in included in the tour ticket ($18, or $12 for students or adults age 65 and older).
Among the signs – neon and argon gas ignited with mercury – I spotted Binion’s Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Stardust, Sahara, Moulin Rouge, Lady Luck, the Bow & Arrow Motel, and the Ugly Duckling (cars for sale).
From the guide: Neon on the inside of a sign made it brighter, neon on the outside made it look bigger. Make a reservation on line as tours get fully booked.
The Mob Museum is interactive and fascinating, well worth at least an hour to tour the history of U.S. organized crime and law enforcement. You may stand in a police lineup, sit in a courtroom, and read the sordid details of Mob violence across the country, including the many Cleveland connections, such as bombers and bombing victims Danny Greene and Alex Shonder Burns, who were both.
Clevelanders Dennis Barrie and Kathleen Coakley Barrie led the formation of the museum. Tickets are $19.95 bought online (with lower prices for various ages). Caveat: Despite some snazzy new architectural designs, such as the headquarters for Zappos.com (online shoes) and the food/drink/shopping gathering spot built with shipping containers (DowntownContainerPark.com), this old district never will be Disney cute.
Downtown Vegas always has had its semi-seedy side, which is part of the draw. You walk around Fremont Street, and you know right away that this is a neighborhood to look for bargains, and to keep an eye on your wallet. Slicksters still hang out in the shadows of the old casinos where the neon outside lures tourists into the fold. Or so it seems.
Food and drinks are cheap, the former because a traveler who eats alot for a little may stay longer at the gambling machines, the latter because the flow of liquor may loosen the grip on folding money, putting more chips on the table and coins into the slots. (Benny Binion was the first casino operator to give free drinks to gamblers and to place a chair at slot machines.)
Tips, recommendations: For lodgings, check out, online, some of the renovated or rebuilt hotels downtown such as the El Cortez, Golden Gate, and Downtown Grand, where I stayed.
No matter the renovation or rebuild, ghosts remain, especially in the older casinos. I walked through the Downtown Grand casino several times feeling an eerie familiarity that I didn’t understand, until I read of the hotel’s history. I was in the old Lady Luck casino, where two goods friends from Cleveland, The Plain Dealer's Janet McCue and Harry West (both since passed), used to stay because the rooms and meals were cheap and gambling machines seemed as fair as Vegas made them. The walls reminded me that I had been this way before, probably more than 20 years ago.
For eating treats, plan a breakfast a short walk from the Experience to 7th Street and Carson Avenue, to eat at Eat (eatdtlv.com). I chose Eat’s pancakes with chicken-apple sausage ($10) over the huevos motulenos, which is two eggs over-easy with red & green New Mexico chiles, black beans, peas, pico, feta & sauteed bananas on corn tortilla ($12)
For lunch, happy hour and/or dinner, check out the group of small restaurants at Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont Street, where the kids can climb on an interactive playground that features a treehouse.
Pack lightly, if your getaway is only to Downtown and you don’t plan to strut your stuff on the Strip. A carry-on bag will be sufficient. Unlike the Strip, nobody Downtown will notice what you are wearing.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about travel and cruising tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com
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