For years, Downtown Las Vegas—home to the city’s original casino scene—moldered as the Las Vegas Strip became bigger, brighter, and flashier. Downtown still had its stalwarts, of course—but the tourists wanted the erupting volcanos, dancing fountains, wild circus acts, and flair bartending of Las Vegas Boulevard. But a movement was afoot to revitalize the city’s history, and now it’s the best worst-kept secret in Las Vegas. It’s here that you’ll find the most avant-garde art, some of the most exciting food, wackiest and most amusing drinking spots, and best museums. Happily, Downtown hasn’t been completely gentrified. Its pockets of grungy, yet-to-be glowed-up streets hold incredible surprises. The neighborhood once derisively nicknamed “Glitter Gulch” is now a must-visit.
Take in Eye-opening History at The Mob Museum
Officially named the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, The Mob Museum gives visitors a comprehensive history of organized crime in the United States. In fact, the museum occupies the actual 1933 U.S. Post Office and Courthouse where landmark hearings were held, including the 1950 Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime.
The thoroughly interactive museum, which holds exhibit pieces donated by some of the city’s founding families, features memorabilia from law enforcement and crime bosses like detailed ledgers, weapons, and even part of a bullet hole-ridden and bloodstained wall from the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The onsite distillery has a working still that produces moonshine (yes, you can taste and buy it); visit its Prohibition-era Speakeasy bar for throwback cocktails, some of which are crafted with its own house-distilled hooch.
The wildest and most immersive light show you can imagine happens on the 1,400-foot-long screen suspended 90 feet over the length of the five-block pedestrian mall that is the Fremont Street Experience. Viva Vision, as it’s called, got a $32 million glow up in 2019, and those walking beneath it will now be treated to the ultra-high-def light and video show and 3D effects now exploding in more than 16 million pixels above them.
To get the full, trippy effect of the experience, you’ll want to sign up for SlotZilla Zip Line, the 11-story slot machine into which you can insert yourself to soar nearly the mall's entire length. You can choose flying seated or be part of the show yourself by flying like Superman. Just make sure someone’s around to document this for posterity.
You love a Grand Slam breakfast, you love your significant other. You can declare your abiding love for both at Denny’s on Fremont Street, where you can get married and then sit down to a “Wedding Pancake Puppies” cake. Getting married here doesn’t even require that much advance planning (this city does love a good elopement story). You’ll just fill out an online form, plonk down $199, and get the use of the chapel, a bouquet, a Champagne toast, two T-shirts advertising the adventure you just had, and coupons for two original Grand Slams. Yes, you could have flying Elvises or a drive-thru wedding, but it’s hard to beat matrimony with a side of bacon.
Drink In Some History—without the Mushroom Cloud
Between the early 1950s until 1962, one of the best places to enjoy viewing explosions from the Nevada Test Site was the rooftop of Atomic Liquors—the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas. That’s right, the nuclear tests, which you can learn about on a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution), happened just 100 miles away in the desert. And watching them from this building, nightcap in hand, was a favorite pastime.
Thankfully, the current owners haven’t done too much to gussy up this relic, which has hosted everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to the Rat Pack to Clint Eastwood, and appeared in The Hangover, Casino, and even The Twilight Zone. Rather, they restored it to its original glory, augmented its craft beer and cocktail selection, and added a killer kitchen.
Play at the Downtown Container Park
An open-air shopping and entertainment district made entirely of—you guessed it—shipping containers, the Container Park is located on historic Fremont Street. You can’t miss it: A 40-foot-high, metal praying mantis guards its entrance, shooting six-story-high flames from its antennae at sundown.
Inside the park is one of the city’s most low-key, open-air places to congregate. Grab a bite at Pinches Tacos, Downtown Terrace, or the whiskey cocktail bar Oak & Ivy, and head to the outdoor tables. A giant treehouse for kids sits in a central area, so parents can mill around while their kids go wild in safety.
Bar Hop the Fremont East Entertainment District
The six blocks that run east between Las Vegas Boulevard and 8th Street on Fremont Street were designated in the early aughts as the Fremont East Entertainment District, a walkable neighborhood of fun and wacky street life (and art), sidewalk cafés, bars, and cocktail lounges—all close to historic casinos. The Container Park is part of the district, as are fun lounges like Commonwealth (with its great rooftop bar), and El Cortez—the oldest family-owned casino in Las Vegas. It’s the perfect place for a dine-around, and you won’t want to miss Carson Kitchen—the legendary brainchild of the late, great Kerry Simon—for its great cocktails, American gastropub food, and hip rooftop. Visit PublicUs for very legit coffee, great fast-casual food, and good locals-watching. And if you love tequila, head directly to La Comida, the funky Mexican joint with one of the best tequila selections we’ve ever seen (plus unexpected and totally sophisticated specialties from different regions of Mexico).
Opened in 1906, Golden Gate Hotel & Casino is Vegas' very first hotel. In fact, it used to be known as Hotel Nevada for its “first class” electric lighting and for having installed the first telephone in the city. Even if you’re not staying there, you can check out the display in the lobby that includes century-old gaming ledgers, vintage chip racks, and Prohibition-era whiskey bottles that were discovered in the walls during renovation. Located right under all the lights of Viva Vision, you can walk in right from the Fremont Street Experience.
The Velveteen Rabbit, now a veritable DTLV institution, is run by two sisters who’ve filled the place with Victorian furniture and stylistic elements like draft beer pulls fashioned from old wooden mannequin hands. The place is not only legendary for its décor—which speaks not only to Downtown’s sense of history but also its vintage-hip stylistic vibe—it’s well-known for its wildly creative, hand-crafted concoctions. This is not the place to go and suck down margaritas; it’s a place for people who are dead serious about their mixology.
The cocktail list of "elixirs" features such unusual concoctions as "Pictures of You” (cucumber and black pepper gin, sweet basil, lavender, lemon, humic acid) and the frothy “Suavemente” (fernet menta, scotch, cinnamon, oat milk, aquafaba).
The Golden Nugget is one of the locals’ favorite places. It’s a not-so-hidden gem that’s gently priced despite the fact that it continues to update. (If you want to see where Downtown’s deals get made, just take a table at Chart House at lunchtime.) But one of the hotel’s best features is The Tank and HideOut pool complex; containing a $30 million, 200,000-gallon shark tank, you can slide right through on the pool’s three-story water slide. Or, admire it from a cabaña or pool chair at a (very) safe distance.
If you’d like to see what a million dollars in cold, hard cash looks like, duck into Binion’s Gambling Hall, which has anchored Fremont Street since 1951. A pyramid display of acrylic boxes sits on a poker table and holds a million dollars in a variety of denominations. You can pose for a picture of yourself with all that money and take home a 6x8 photo of yourself in a souvenir frame. Or post it on Instagram, call it your winnings, and ensure that all the folks back home will suddenly want to be your best friend.
Until it fell in 1989, the concrete wall that physically and ideologically separated East and West Berlin experienced plenty of breaches, escape attempts, and finally, demolition. And those who know to look for it can find a section of the wall in Vegas, mounted behind glass above the urinals in a men’s bathroom on the first floor of Main Street Station. (Women can ask for a security escort into the men’s room so they can see it for themselves.) The casino holds a treasure trove of historically significant stuff, including Buffalo Bill Cody’s personal rail car and Winston Churchill’s own snooker table. Map out your visit with this downloadable guide.
Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Public Art
Debuted in 2013, the annual Life Is Beautiful festival commissions international artists to create murals all over Downtown Las Vegas, with the canvases being the sides of old motels; abandoned buildings; and even the Plaza Hotel & Casino, which boasts 21-story murals by Shepard Fairey, D*Face, and Faile. In 2019, it was the second highest grossing festival in the world.
Some murals have been retired since the first festival, and others have been painted over, but the cumulative art collection is incredible—and perfect for those who want an “authentic” Downtown Las Vegas experience. Look for “The Cycle of Civilization” by Zio Ziegler, one of the festival's original commissions. You can simply wander on your own, or take a little direction from this online guide.
Opened in 2020, Circa Resort & Casino is the first casino to have been built from the ground up in Downtown Las Vegas in 40 years. Now the tallest building north of the Strip, the resort made an even bigger splash, literally, with Stadium Swim, its rooftop amphitheater with six pools and sets facing a 40-foot-high screen. Don't miss the world's largest sportsbook, a three-story-high marvel with a 78-million-pixel screen. In fact, everything about this place is big—even “Garage Mahal,” a high-tech parking hub with two corner video walls that host installations by featured artists. Note: This casino is adults only, so don’t bring the kids.
After years of opening by appointment only, this collection of 150 neon signs dating from the 1930s—the largest in the world—finally opened to the public in 2012. The rehabbed La Concha Motel lobby now stands as its visitors' center, through which you'll enter to see iconic signs like the Moulin Rouge, Desert Inn, and the Stardust. A new addition includes the Hard Rock guitar sign, taken down after Virgin Hotels purchased the resort. In all, about 120 signs, mostly made by the famous YESCO corporation from the 1950s to the 1980s, occupy the former boneyard. One of its recent innovations is its North Gallery, where technology advances are able to re-illuminate more than 40 non-operational signs.