How do you unpack just 10 attractions from a place with a pyramid topped with a laser light beam so strong you can see it from space; a walkable mash-up of New York, Venice, Paris, and Lake Como all with views of ancient red rock cliffs; and dancing fountains whose numbers are choreographed seamlessly among Lady Gaga singing “Bad Romance” and the London Symphony Orchestra playing Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring?" It is not easy, friends. You have just landed in the country’s wackiest amusement park and you need a guide. And while it would be easy to give you double or even triple the attractions on a list of must-sees, here are the ones you really shouldn’t miss.
The Mob Museum
Officially, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, the Mob Museum occupies the actual former federal courthouse where the 1950 Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime were held (and the city’s former mayor defended Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro—whom you’ll remember as Joe Pesci from "Casino"). The $42 million museum opened on the 83rd anniversary of Chicago’s infamous 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The museum, which includes a portion of the bullet-riddled wall from the massacre, is a serious look at the history of Las Vegas’s founding, its role in the nation’s criminal networks of the 20th century, and the law enforcement that tried to keep it in check. Make sure to visit The Underground, a basement speakeasy, distillery, and private VIP room. A working distillery brews the museum’s own moonshine.
After years of opening by appointment only as the “Neon Boneyard,” the collection of 150 neon signs dating from the 1930s—the largest in the world—takes you through some of the retired icons of the Golden Age of Las Vegas. Moulin Rouge, Lady Luck, Desert Inn, and the Stardust—they’re all here. The iconic La Concha Motel lobby stands as its visitor center. The best way to see it is at night where a guide will take you on a walk through the pathways of dramatically lit un-restored signs. Because of the glass, rusty metal, and darkness, it’s a tour best reserved for adults.
It’s the best free show on the Strip: more than 1,000 water fountains are positioned within Lake Bellagio, the Lake Como-influenced body of water that fronts Bellagio Hotel & Casino. Jaded locals may claim that it’s all just part of the city’s landscape, but it’s nearly impossible not to stop in your tracks right on the sidewalk for those dancing, swaying jets of water when the music starts every half-hour on weekday afternoons and every 15 minutes in the evenings until midnight. You’ll hear all the usual suspects, like Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” and Pavarotti singing Vicenzo de Crescenzo’s "La Rondine" (it’s an Italian-themed resort, after all), but Bellagio has recently shaken things up by adding a touch of Lady Gaga (“Bad Romance”) and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk”).
The High Roller
The world’s tallest observation wheel isn’t the London Eye or the Singapore Flier, it’s the High Roller, to which you can walk through the Strip’s LINQ entertainment corridor. Board your glass-domed pod and rise some 550 feet above Las Vegas, for a bird’s-eye view of the entire Vegas Valley (look down: that’s the pool scene at Flamingo right below you). And before you ask: Yes, you can drink on the High Roller (there’s a bar before you get on and you can bring your drinks inside). And just like so many places in Las Vegas, you can also get married here. Up to 40 people fit in a cabin, and they’ll even arrange for a bartender to serve you inside.
National Atomic Testing Museum
It may not land on many top 10 lists, but the National Atomic Testing Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is one of the best attractions in Las Vegas—particularly for history buffs. In the 1950s, Downtown Las Vegas was a tourist draw not just for its glamorous scene, but also as a viewing platform for the mushroom clouds exploding from the Nevada Test Site 65 miles outside of town. The museum chronicle’s the state’s atomic history from its beginning, with artifacts, interactive modules (check to see how radioactive you are!), and actual equipment from the site. Don’t miss the simulator that allows you to experience bomb testing as the locals used to, from an “outdoor” seat watching an atomic explosion. (Spoiler alert: Even if you know it’s coming, you’ll still jump when the bomb goes off and the theater seats shake.)
"Seven Magic Mountains"
Check any Instagram account from folks driving to Las Vegas on I-15 east from California, and you’ll probably see the stone monoliths that look like neon ice cream cones rising from the desert floor. The large-scale public work “Seven Magic Mountains,” by artist Ugo Rondinone, took several years to plan near Jean Dry Lake, an ancient dry lakebed 10 miles south of the Strip. The massive, 30-foot-high limestone totems have extended their stay in Las Vegas (they weren’t meant to be permanent). They have been issued a permit extension by the Bureau of Land Management to remain on view through the end of 2021.
Downtown's Street Art
Since it began in 2013, the annual Life Is Beautiful festival has left incredible murals by international artists all over Downtown Las Vegas. Some have been retired, a number have been painted over, but for the most part, the Fremont East corridor and beyond now has the evidence of seven years of fantastic street art. And we’re not talking graffiti: these are fully realized, intricate murals that rise stories from the ground. Look for the 21-story murals by Shepard Fairey, D*Face, and Faile on the sides of the Plaza. “The Cycle of Civilization” by Zio Ziegler, in black, white, and vibrant blue, is an early favorite—commissioned for the very first festival, in 2013. Book a Downtown Las Vegas art walk for the full guided tour.
The Lake of Dreams
When Steve Wynn first took over the land from the former Desert Inn and turned it into Wynn Las Vegas, he decided to build a 130-foot mountain covered with pine trees (salvaged from the old Desert Inn golf course) in order to shield his guests from the spaceship-shaped Fashion Show Mall across the street. The interior of that mountain contains a massive wall of water and a lake that has served as a performance space ever since, only visible to guests or visitors of Wynn. Surreal films unfold on the wall, which acts as a screen, and animatronic beings, like a giant singing frog with the voice of Garth Brooks, perform rotating shows every half hour until 11:30 p.m.
The Eiffel Tower that belongs to Paris Las Vegas may only be half the size of the original with a substantially different view, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. (You won’t see the 7th arrondissement, but you will see simulacra of Egypt, New York, Lake Como, and Venice, and views all the way to Red Rock Conservation Area.) Buy a ticket in advance to its viewing deck, which is open Friday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to midnight. The ascent in the glass elevator is 46 stories, and it’s open year-round. If you want the full romantic effect, book the special corner table at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant and gaze at your significant other—and the dancing Bellagio Fountains in the background.
The happiest and most nostalgic place in Las Vegas can be found under a 60-year-old sign in the middle of several lanes of traffic at the extreme southern end of the Strip. The 25-foot-tall “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign has been greeting visitors since 1959. Designed by Betty Willis for the Western Neon company, her iconic sign was never trademarked. Instead, her logo gift to the city is free for all to use, which is why you’ll find it plastered on everything—including, presumably, your own Instagram when you visit. After many years, the city made it less treacherous to get here; there’s now free parking accessible on the westbound side of Las Vegas Boulevard. Do as the sign says and "Come Back Soon."