Las Vegas City Guide

You can approach Las Vegas many ways, from the traditional tourist track of gambling and partying to the more unusual leisure attractions found only in its strange desert world. Either way, Vegas is defiantly unique.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

There are entire travel books out there documenting the Las Vegas scene. In fact, it’s so deep, so vast, so nuanced that many tomes focus on just a single aspect of the Sin City scene — from just hotels to just restaurants to just casino gaming.

The point is no single feature article can hope to effectively to thoroughly encapsulate everything that is Las Vegas. So, let’s forget the big picture and focus on some appealing details.

Throughout our exploration, always keep in mind that Las Vegas is a feature of human civilization. Grownups aren’t allowed to drink, gamble, yell, scream, puke, screw, etc., as much as they might like anywhere in legalized society — except fin Las Vegas. It’s a collection spot — a focal point — for sensual adult behavior. Just as we localize consumer goods at Walmart and tools at Home Depot, we stock sex, booze, long odds and endless food in Las Vegas It’s a big box store for vice and our nation’s pressure valve.

While all of that running and dancing and drinking and eating and banging is underway, you should keep an eye out for the following Las Vegas mileposts.

125,000 Hotel Rooms Can’t Be Wrong

The stats say only Macau packs more hotel rooms than Vegas, but Nevada is a hell of a lot closer to most of than China.

Vegas hotels rank themselves against each other in price, amenities and service. There are always hot hotels in Vegas – accommodations that emerge as the most desired, the hottest and most cutting edge. For a time, it was the Palms. That hotel is still standing, but it was bumped from the very top of the list by The Aria. The Aria is still one of the top spots in the city, but The Cosmopolitan next door stole some thunder. Time till tell if the Cosmo keeps its mojo.

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The Wynn Las Vegas remains one of the most elite destinations on The Strip (with its sister property, Encore – opened in 2008), sitting atop the desert food chain as the most luxurious and well-appointed hotel in the city. Only the Bellagio can rival its amenities and style.

At nearby Caesar’s Palace, the Laurel Collection towers arrived during the 2000s and upped the ante for premiere accommodations at its classic property. Consisting of the Octavius and Augustus Towers, the Laurel Collection offers a private valet entrance, its own hotel registration and direct access to Caesar’s Garden of the Gods pool area.

You Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em, Etc

There is really only one rule when it comes to Las Vegas gambling. Naturally, it’s constantly ignored. That’s how the wise guys build those massive towers up and down The Strip. Said rule insists you know what you’re doing before you sit down at a Black Jack table or blow on any dice.

No matter what table game you choose (or gambling machine like video poker), read up on the odds first. Once on the casino floor, take a few minutes and watch how the game works in the real world. Note the procedure. Note the etiquette. Be comfortable before you sit down because nervous players make mistakes. Mistakes build casinos.

That said, gambling isn’t nearly the staple attraction of Las Vegas it once was. Gambling is ever-present, but the ongoing economic concerns for the 99% make gambling less sexy than it once was. Put simply, if a traveler is going to head to Vegas and drop $1,000 on a vacation, he or she wants to take something back with them. Maybe it’s the memory of a great meal or the experience of a stage show. Those recollections count for something compared to leaving cash with a pit boss.

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Eat Until You Can’t Feel Your Spine

Over the last decade, Las Vegas rapidly became one of the world’s top culinary epicenters and a “foodie” destination to rival London, Paris, New York or New Orleans. Celebrity chefs trip over each other to set up shop there, but you’ll find plenty of affordable, yet unique dining spots. Here are a few of my favorites:

Culinary School Dropout at The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino: I confess this is my favorite Las Vegas spot for it’s unpretentious atmosphere, elite comfort food and affordable prices. It’s the perfect destination restaurant for the Hard Rock Hotel as a tofu and free range kelp appetizer on crystal lotus leaves doesn’t fly amidst leather, denim and rock n’ roll. Make sure to try Yesterday’s Soup. Seriously.

The Sugar Factory at Paris Hotel and Casino: When Sugar Factory originally opened, it was a novelty — a huge candy shop attached to a general restaurant with a menu all over the board. Since re-opening under new management, under the care of Executive Chef Matthew Piekarski, Sugar Factory now serves a well-planned, creative menu of appetizers, entrées, desserts and drinks sporting some sort of candy or sweet theme.

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Sensi at the Bellagio: An elite mix of four distinct kitchens serving Italian, Asian, American Grill and seafood specialties take leading roles as Sensi takes a unique approach to gourmet fair in Las Vegas by vowing (according to Sensi’s own literature) a commitment to “sustainably grown and naturally raised products.” An ambiance of freshness flourishes through all of its entrées, and the varied menu make Sensi a restaurant anyone could enjoy on trip after trip.

Holsteins at the Cosmopolitan: This HQ for wholesome burgers, gourmet milkshakes and ice cream drinks sits across the Cosmo upstairs lobby from Marquee, the highest rated nightclub in the United States and the hottest late night ticket in Vegas. Personally, let the poseurs fill up on Gray Goose Red Bull while destroying their Tympanic membranes. I’ll be enjoying the fresh cut fries at Holsteins.

Fleur at Mandalay Bay: Directed by internationally famous Master Chef Hubert Keller, Fleur is arguably the gem in Mandalay Bay’s restaurant crown. Like every other spot Keller touches, the menu is diverse, yet traditional — making it not so much a question of find what you might like, but rather a struggle to choose a path. Every item from salads and soups through entrées to desserts, every dish is made with impeccable attention to details. Keep an eye open because I managed to meet Chef Keller himself during my meal.

Caesar’s Palace Bacchanal Buffet: The Bacchanal was recently redesigned and renovated into a modern vision of what a Vegas buffet should look like. Bright, modern and easily accessible, the Bacchanal also is changing how buffet diners are fed. The fair is top shelf across the board — all elite restaurant quality. But, it’s presented in smaller amounts to avoid waste — offering gourmet items in small, individual portions. Regardless of presentation, no one leaves this place hungry.

Related: London City Guide

Lakeside Seafood at The Wynn: While this venue might be more famous for its proximity to The Wynn’s Lake of Dreams multimedia tech show, Lakeside Seafood is always in the running for the best lobster and oyster dishes in Las Vegas. It’s also easily one of the most visually stunning destination restaurants in town. When I put it out there that visitors to the best hotels and casinos now want to take back a sensory overload memory when they come to town, Lakeside Seafood at the Wynn fits that to the letter.

Las Vegas Buffet at the Aria: It’s a neck and neck race for best current buffet in Las Vegas between Caesar’s and the shrine to wonderful indulgent gluttony at the Aria. This buffet also uses the smaller, individual serving rule with its outstanding food from multiple international and cuisine-themed stations. The dessert bar alone requires a map to navigate all of the options.

Piero’s: Set away behind the step and away from downtown, this is a restaurant frequented by locals who really know where to eat. It’s warm, dignified and quiet with an ambiance that somehow survived from the glory days of the Rat Pack – event though it wasn’t built until 1982. It’s been there serving the finest steaks, Italian fair and traditional cocktails since then and is a joint where you and your buddies can go for a bachelor party dinner or for a classy date with a choice lady. If you’re not going to be whiney and all PETA about it, I strongly recommend any of the veal entrées.

Mr. Lucky’s 24/7 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino: Most of the major hotels in Las Vegas have at least one “open an all night” restaurant. It makes sense when you consider the casinos pump oxygen onto the floor to keep gamblers awake and gambling . When they stumble from the tables and find themselves starving, they just need food at 3 a.m. But, Mr. Lucky’s serves such satisfying dishes that it warrants a visit anytime. In fact, stop in for a massive breakfast any morning.

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Peel Yourself Off The Strip

While the Strip is synonymous with everything Las Vegas – the oldest part of the city is the downtown stretch and everything Fremont Street. The casinos are older, but the odds are friendlier. The restaurants are less fancy, but many are locally owned and serving up an entrepreneurial take on cuisine.

While the Fremont Experience was the first major move at rejuvenating downtown. The latest is Container Park – a shopping, dining and performance space built entirely out of disused shipping containers.

Finally, the Mob Museum a couple blocks off of Fremont Street allows any Vegas visitor to explore the era when the Mafia ran the city until the Feds took them down and an even worse lot of criminals — venture capitalists — took over the town.

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The Show That Never Ends

There are shows to fit almost any personal preference. Music, dancing, stripping, dancing with stripping and music, etc. Some are expensive. Some run more “loungey” and can save you some money. Sin City is the epicenter for performers around the world looking to establish that standing show and the steady gig.

Las Vegas history has it that Steve Wynn was originally going to call his self-titled Las Vegas resort “Le Reve” — or “The Dream” in French. Instead, we have The Wynn and its sister resort, The Encore. If I was going to build a multi-million dollar hotel and casino, I might be tempted to put my own name on it, too — so we can’t blame Steve for going in that direction.

When it came time to name the massive aquatic show that would be the standing centerpiece of entertainment at The Wynn, Le Reve came back into fashion.

Le Reve is a massive aquatic production that opened in 2005. Costing more than $30 million to produce, Le Reve tells a fantasy based story of a young woman venturing through good and evil in search of love.

Over the last decade, Las Vegas and Cirque du Soleil entered into a marriage that shows no sign of breaking down anytime soon. A partnership with MGM Resorts installed eight shows along The Strip, starting with Mystere and moving to Michael Jackson – One.

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Get Off the Paved Road

Continuing with the theme that Las Vegas visitors are all about memories these days, there’s an off-Strip culture of experiential attractions offering grownups the chance to get their hands dirty in ways most can’t at home. The Gun Garage allows visitors to fire everything from a 9 mm to a machine gun, while Dig This allows visitors to play with real life bull dozers and earth movers (like they did in the sandbox years ago).

Two must-see stops for gearheads are Dream Racing and Exotics Racing, each based around the grounds of Las Vegas International Speedway. Both experiences offer speed lovers a chance to get behind the wheel of a supercar for multiple laps on a professional track with a racing coach.  

Car lovers simply can’t go wrong with either choice. Both venues offer happy and dedicated staff, supreme machines and comparable prices. It all depends what time of elite driving experience is desired. 

Exotics Racing offers more of a track day experience. Owners of elite automobiles can pay to take their cars around many professional tracks around the country. Drivers have to attend safety briefings and abide by track rules, but they’re otherwise renting out the right to do hot laps on a legit racing circuit.

Dream Racing offers more of a race experience. Once signed up, visitors don a fire suit, matching balaclava and helmet. They’re introduced to the Dream Racing track via computer simulator before heading out to take control of a racing spec Ferrari. The track cars are fitted with racing cages and five point harnesses — making the ride less comfortable but more racing realistic.  

A coach on the passenger side guides the driver on the proper racing line and throttle control, while the track layout lets the driver experience full throttle in a Ferrari race car for at least a couple seconds.

Would you Like a Dance?

Before we go, we can’t leave without a little sex. So, best strip club in Vegas? Cheetah’s. It offers the best mix of women and prices without the insane size of some of Vegas’ newer clubs.