On the Strip, off the Strip, and out of town—native Geraldine Campbell reveals insider tips to make your next trip a win-win-win proposition.
DAY 1: The Strip
Imagine Times Square on steroids. Navigating the strip and its many characters requires some fortitude, but the rewards go beyond the light show: museum-quality artworks open to the public, a smartly designed hotel that winks at history, and the best dining deals this side of the buffet.
In a city full of facsimiles, Todd English P.U.B.'s take on a traditional British watering hole is updated in all the right ways—with 26-foot ceilings, a flood of natural light, and far tastier food. From prime rib chili to rotisserie sandwiches of roast duck, you'd almost forget where the culinary inspiration comes from, were it not for the presence of bangers and mash on the menu. At the bar, Newcastle pints are poured alongside local microbrew Tenaya Creek Nut Brown Ale. Crystals at CityCenter, 3720 Las Vegas Blvd. S., toddenglishpub.com, entrées from $12.
Although cultural pursuits have never been a strength of the Strip, a new contemporary art collection situated among the hotels and casinos of the 8-month-old CityCenter complex has made an afternoon of art appreciation a viable addition to any itinerary. Fifteen big-name artists are represented—from Maya Lin to Claes Oldenburg—and all the pieces are accessible to the public, with free maps available at the Aria Resort & Casino concierge desk. Las Vegas Blvd. S., citycenter.com, free.
At CityCenter's Vdara Health & Beauty spa, a 50-minute pedicure comes with a flute of Veuve Clicquot and unlimited access to the sauna, eucalyptus steam room, and hot plunge pool. It's not cheap, but if you come early and make a day of it (especially midweek, when you're likely to have the place to yourself), the investment more than pays off. Vdara Hotel & Spa, 2600 W. Harmon Ave., vdara.com, champagne pedicure $75.
If dinner at Chicago chef Shawn McClain's opulent new modern-American restaurant, Sage, in the Aria Resort & Casino, is more than you'd like to spend, mark your calendar for the last Monday of each month, when the front lounge hosts Prohibition Mondays. Bartenders in 1920s garb serve discounted cocktails and free bar snacks like fried pickles, crispy pork skins, and house-made pretzels. Aria Resort & Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S., arialasvegas.com, cocktails from $10.
For such an all-hours town, finding great greasy-spoon food after midnight can be surprisingly tricky. The best bet for post-party provisions is First Food & Bar at the Palazzo, where graffiti-tagged nooks and wacky chandeliers set the scene for wee-hours feasts of Dr Pepper–glazed ribs or chicken and waffles with honey-bourbon maple syrup. The Shoppes at The Palazzo, 3327 Las Vegas Blvd. S., firstfoodandbar.com, entrées from $12.
At 64 years young, The Flamingo is the Strip's oldest operating casino and hotel, and its block of 1,032 recently redesigned "Go" rooms combines the best of then and now: iPod docks with surround-sound speakers, white tufted-vinyl headboards, and faded photos from its Rat Pack past. 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S., flamingolasvegas.com, doubles from $90.
DAY 2: Off-Strip
Most visitors never leave the strip—and that's exactly why you should. From downtown to chinatown, you'll discover treasured insider standbys like a chef-tested Japanese grill, forgiving slot machines, and the city's best—some say, only—bar crawl.
It takes a game spirit to get past the silk robes and boxer shorts at the pajama-themed poolside Sunday brunch at the Simon at Palms Place restaurant. But this all-day graze-fest still stands out from the rowdy pool parties you'll find elsewhere in town. Here, you can settle into a lounge chair and order an endless stream of tasty treats from chef (and Plaza Hotel alum) Kerry Simon—everything from pulled-pork Benedict and Anson Mills graham pancakes to wood-fired pizzas and sesame rice rolls. A $38 charge covers pool access and all-you-can-eat food; add bottomless champagne and Bellinis for just $16 more. Palms Place, 4381 W. Flamingo Rd., simonatpalmsplace.com, brunch $38.
Let's face it: In the long run, the house always wins. Still, some win faster and more punishingly than others, and according to gambling guru Michael Shackleford, a.k.a. the Wizard of Odds (wizardofodds.com), the loosest slots in town are at the Palms. Shackleford, a former University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor of casino math (yes, it exists), has run studies on everything from casino air quality to Megabucks jackpots. His expertise is compiled in the 2005 book Gambling 102: The Best Strategies for All Casino Games (Huntington Press, $15)—recommended reading if you're hoping to walk away a winner. Whatever you do, don't test your luck in the airport: Those one-armedbandits have the worst odds of any machines on or off the Strip. 4321 W. Flamingo Rd., palms.com.
Kitschy cocktail hour
Half a mile west of Las Vegas Boulevard, Frankie's Tiki Room, run by local nightlife icon P Moss, is a 24-hour, Blue Hawaii–style drinking den, complete with blowfish lamps and hand-carved tiki sculptures. Moss first opened the wildly popular Double Down Saloon, a self-described anti-Vegas hangout, back in 1992. His latest endeavor is equally beloved for its strong drinks (such as the Tiki Bandit, a potent combo of pineapple rum, apricot brandy, 151-proof rum, and blue curaçao) and a jukebox loaded with surf rock. 1712 W. Charleston Blvd., frankiestikiroom.com, cocktails $8, with souvenir mug $20.
After midnight, the town's top chefs kick back at Aburiya Raku, a tiny (by Vegas standards), 49-seat restaurant off Spring Mountain Road in Chinatown. Even at that hour, a reservation is recommended—you won't be the only one hungry for a second dinner. The focus here is on robata-style (charcoal-grilled) meats, fish, and vegetables; the custardy, fried agedashi tofu, served in a sweet, briny dashi broth, shouldn't be missed, either. 5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd., raku-grill.com, eggplant robata $4.
Much has been made of east Fremont Street's recent rise from gritty to glamorous, although, in all honesty, the three-block stretch is still a little rough around the edges. That scruffiness hasn't deterred bar owners or the local party crowd, who consider it one of the only realistically walkable bar crawls in the city. Start at The Griffin (511 Fremont St., 702/382-0577, cocktails from $6), a cave-like lounge with vaulted ceilings, fire pits, and PBR on tap. A few doors away, Beauty Bar (517 Fremont St., beautybar.com, cocktails from $7) fills up with a motorcycle-boots-and-miniskirts crowd, and around the corner, the speakeasy-style Downtown Cocktail Room (111 Las Vegas Blvd. S., downtownlv.net, cocktails from $6) attracts a slightly more sophisticated, though still artsy, set.
DAY 3: Out of Town
Greater Las Vegas spans almost 600 square miles, and believe it or not, many of the city's most worthwhile sights are actually on its fringe—in the Henderson and Summerlin suburbs and in the dramatic deserts that surround the city.
Navigating Vegas with kids can be a challenge. (You can only watch the Bellagio's fountains so many times.) Fortunately, the 180-acre Springs Preserve, about 10 miles north of the Strip, has enough botanical gardens, hiking trails, and educational activities to kill half an afternoon. Our favorite: the exhibits of the Origen Experience, home to desert rabbits, bats, foxes, and lizards. 333 S. Valley View Blvd., springspreserve.org, adults $19, kids $11.
It should come as no surprise that the 3-year-old Hachi, tucked behind a solid neon-pink façade, is no run-of-the-mill sushi joint. The menu of former Nobu chef Linda Rodriguez is full of playful touches, like specialty rolls named for illegal substances and unconventional sushi ingredients such as watermelon, cilantro, and crispy coconut shrimp. Best of all: A "38 for under $8" list encourages experimentation. Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, 11011 W. Charleston Blvd., ilovehachi.com, specialty rolls from $13.
On-call tour guide
The new Vegas edition of GyPSy Guide's GPS-based electronic tours is the ultimate independent traveler's resource. Just stick it to your car's dashboard and start the engine; as you tool around, the narrator kicks in, spitting out factoids ("Las Vegas has the most outdoor escalators in the world"), suggesting photo ops, and directing colorful side trips to spots as far off as the Hoover Dam, 30 miles southeast. gypsyguide.com, $49 per day.
Come summer, 100-degree days are the rule, not the exception. But just outside of town, temperatures drop fast: Atop the 11,918-foot Mount Charleston, the mercury slips by as much as 45 degrees, an enticing reason to try the 10.3-mile hike to the summit and back (Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, 4701 N. Torrey Pines Dr., free entry). If you're after something a little tamer, Red Rock Canyon's 2.6-mile Ice Box Canyon trail is a shaded, gentler walk that can still clear the din of slot machines from your ears (redrockcanyonlv.org, $5 per car).
Ask any native: The best pizza in town is not at some fancy Batali joint on the Strip, but in a shopping center in Henderson, about 12 miles away. Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana serves real Neapolitan pizzas, with a thin, lightly charred crust and San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. Give your dressy duds the night off—dinner here is a family affair, jeans are the norm, and sharing is encouraged. 140 Green Valley Pkwy., settebello.net, Margherita pizza $10.
At the 814-room Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, 14 miles west of the Strip, panoramic views of color-washed rock formations are only the most obvious selling point. There's also the Adventure Spa, with hiking, biking, and kayaking tours; a 16-theater cinema; a bowling alley; and restaurants ranging from the no-nonsense Bagel Cafe to a brand-new outpost of the Yard House, a beer-centric bar with 130 drafts on tap. Free shuttles transport guests to and from the Strip six times a day. 11011 W. Charleston Blvd., redrocklasvegas.com, doubles from $85.