Vegas locals often talk about the phenomenon in which ordinarily fiscally conservative people get so mesmerized by the blinking lights and the glut of luxury goods on the Las Vegas Strip, they throw caution to the wind and start lighting dollar bills on fire.
This is, of course, the idea. The more exciting the sights, the more you’ll spend. Rest assured that when you touch back down in whatever city you hail from with a suitcase full of glittery shoes you’d only wear in Vegas, the house still won. Even if you never set foot on the gaming floor.
If you plan correctly, though, Vegas can be one of the best places to visit for budget travelers. Decide in advance where to scrimp and where to splurge, and fill your days with some of the many free things the city has to offer. Here are the top 17 free things to do in Las Vegas.
Until someone tops this nightly show, which is unlikely to happen in your lifetime, the Bellagio Fountains will be the most dramatic free public entertainment to enjoy on the Strip. The nearly nine-acre show lake involves 1,200 sprayers and shooters that send jets of water up to 460 feet in the air, swaying and dancing to the music of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Lady Gaga, Cher, Andrea Bocelli, and many more in a catalog of 35 permanent shows. The people-watching is almost as fun as the fountains in good weather.
Cower Under an Active Urban Volcano
The volcano in front of the Mirage has been erupting several nights for more than 20 years—an impressive track record for any volcano. It spews fire and “lava” into the air, and you can even feel the heat from the eruption from the lagoon area. Realistic? Not really, but it’s one of the most theatrical and fun sights on the Strip. Plus: Can Mount Aetna claim a custom soundtrack created by Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead? We didn’t think so.
The three-acre Lake of Dreams, which sits below a 90-foot waterfall in Wynn Las Vegas, stuns with short bursts of light, visual effects, animatronics, and music beginning at dusk each night. And it's recently undergone a $14 million upgrade, updating the favorite, animatronic singing frog; introducing a trio of fabulous singing tropical birds; and reimagining David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with an astronaut, floating towards her space capsule over the lake. You can see the multimedia experience free of charge simply by taking the curving escalators down and walking out onto the patio.
Bask In Sunlit Atriums
The Art Nouveau-style, sunlit Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden transforms five times per year (for each season plus Chinese New Year), with fresh flowers, animatronic tigers, lamps, woodland creatures, and lanterns bobbing from the 50-foot-high glass ceiling. The 120 horticulturalists who care for this wonderland never install the same vignette twice, and its more than 10,000 flowers are switched out every two weeks.
Although Bellagio has the most famous of the atria, it’s certainly not the only one. The atrium at Palazzo, which has a two-floor waterfall and seasonal flowers, has one of the best selfie opportunities on the Strip. Artist Laura Kimpton installed her ruby red “LOVE” sculpture that stands 12 feet tall and spans 36 feet across. It’s a stunning, sunlit ode-to-joy close to the entrance of the Grand Canal Shoppes.
For years, visitors who wanted outdoor time were limited to the north-south walk along Las Vegas Blvd. The Park Vegas, right across from Park MGM’s entrance, is a six-acre dining and entertainment district and the first walkable green space on the Las Vegas Strip. You can wander its outdoor restaurants for sushi, Belgian waffles, and beer. There’s plenty of activity in The Park, which leads right up to T-Mobile Arena. Don’t miss Bliss Dance, the 40-foot-tall statue of a dancing woman that presides over the park and lights up at night.
The Louis Vuitton store in The Shops at Crystals holds the immersive permanent art exhibition, Akhob, by James Turrell. You’ll enter two rooms whose rooms slowly change colors, completely altering your perception of time and space. (Reentering reality is jarring after the meditative, approximately 25-minute experience.) Visiting the installation is free, although you must reserve with Louis Vuitton Maison well in advance.
Check Out Not-So-Secret Art
Wander the 67-acre CityCenter campus to see Vegas' incredible public art collection, including 15 works by artists such as Nancy Rubin, Claes Oldernburg, and Coosje van Bruggen. Inside Crystals, CityCenter's high-end mall, light artist James Turrell has installed Shards of Color—four recessed geometric shapes lit in neon.
Meanwhile, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas houses some of the best free art around. There are the so-called Wallworks—murals by artists like Kenny Scharf and Shepard Fairey—on the concrete walls of the parking garage, as well as the eight light columns at check-in, which display constantly changing videos.
Taking a free, self-guided tour of one of the largest botanical cactus gardens in the world while also eating chocolate might not be an equation everyone would naturally reach, but it works. Local favorite Ethel M Chocolates operates just such a fabulous garden; you can take a factory tour after strolling around more than 300 species of cacti and succulents, most of which are native to the Southwest. The gardens are especially a sight to see come November, when more than a half-million holiday lights are strung on the cacti and stay up until New Year’s Day.
Eat Chocolate While Wandering Around More Chocolate
Noticing a theme? At Hershey’s Chocolate World in New York-New York, you can check out such crazy sights as an 800-pound chocolate Statue of Liberty. Naturally, wandering is free, but you will probably want to spend a little something on the Wall of Kisses (varieties of Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses you might not see anywhere else), the bake shop, or some of the 800-plus Hershey’s paraphernalia (plush toys, pajamas, candy, jewelry). You can even personalize candy wrappers. Across Las Vegas Blvd. at M&M’s World, you can take a tour of the four-floor chocoholic palace, which claims to have the world’s biggest candy wall. Create customized M&Ms and take a gander at a replica of Kyle Busch’s M&M’s-sponsored NASCAR.
Drink for Free
Free cocktail service has slowed down a bit on the casino floors, but you’ll generally find the most roving cocktail servers dispensing “free” cocktails (don’t stiff them on tips, please) where there’s the most casino play. You can look at it a couple of ways: Depending on how your night is going, you just bought the most expensive vodka tonic ever, or someone else just subsidized it. Still, it’s a phenomenon that endures. You’ll often find that the best way to collect on your sorta-free cocktails is at older downtown casinos, such as El Cortez, Golden Nugget, and Golden Gate, where play amounts are lower.
Special effects, animatronic talking Roman statues, pyrotechnics: Vegas takes its free shopping mall entertainment seriously. “The Fall of Atlantis,” a wacky-but-dramatic show featuring costumed actors and a 20-foot winged dragon acting out a family saga set in the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, plays every hour inside the Forum Shops at Caesars. Nearby, the 50,000-gallon aquarium teeming with more than 300 varieties of tropical fish demonstrates Vegas’ fascination with all things aquatic. Enjoy it: 80 percent of the Strip’s water is returned to the source in Lake Mead.
A lush, tropical garden right in the middle of the Strip holds a flock of Chilean flamingos, as well as two rescued pelicans, Ring Teal ducks, and Sacred Ibis. The Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas is a surprise to visitors (and sometimes to locals, who forget how relaxing it is). You can feed the fish in the koi pond; admire turtles, ducks, and swans; and generally take a break from the controlled chaos of the Strip. Get here through the LINQ Promenade, the road that leads to the High Roller Observation Wheel; the habitat is close to the Promenade entrance of the hotel.
On the south end of the Strip, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign is a perennial favorite, iconic partly because the sign’s image belongs to the public domain and can be reproduced by anyone. The once difficult-to-reach sign (it's on a perilous meridian surrounded by zipping traffic) is now solar powered, with plenty of convenient, free parking.
Snap a Selfie at the New Downtown Gateway Arches
You’ll now know the exact moment you’re entering Downtown Las Vegas from the Strip, thanks to the new 80-foot-tall, illuminated neon “City of Las Vegas” sign. The arches sit on Las Vegas Boulevard between St. Louis and Bob Stupak avenues, next to The STRAT. It replaces the “Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas” sign, nearly identical in design to its famous sibling, which was destroyed when a car hit it in 2016. The new arch features more than 13,000 neon lights, 700 feet of fully programmable neon, and spans 140 feet across the street.
The Downtown Container Park is an open-air shopping and entertainment district made entirely of shipping containers and is located on historic Fremont Street. Look for the 40-foot-tall, metal praying mantis at the entrance, which shoots six-story-high flames from its antennae beginning at sundown. Inside, you’ll find a giant treehouse for kids as well as funky retail shops and restaurants.
Not afraid of heights? Spend a day at Hoover Dam and Boulder City. Although parking costs money (except on the Arizona side of the dam, where you’ll find free parking), a walk across Hoover Dam’s Bypass Bridge is free and offers unmatched views of the dam, as long as you don’t mind hovering 880 feet above the Colorado River. Officially named the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the 1,905-foot-long bridge is the world’s tallest concrete arch span and the second highest bridge in the United States. Stairs and ramps lead to the bridge; along the way, there are signs detailing information about the bridge and the men it's named after.
Anyone arriving to or leaving Las Vegas via I-15 can see the massive, 30-foot-high neon-painted limestone totems that are Seven Magic Mountains. The hoodoo-like structures are reminiscent of natural rock formations found in the Southwest. Artist Ugo Rondinone’s piece, which took several years to plan in the Jean Dry Lake bed, will sit in the desert only until the end of 2021; MGM Resorts will then add one of the sculptures to its permanent art collection, and the desert will be restored to its previous condition.