Before you visit Las Vegas…

THE BIGGEST mistake tourists make when visiting Las Vegas is believing that they can have the Vegas experience that Hollywood sells without having the A-list type of money.

Las Vegas is absolutely a city of gluttony, greed, glam, and accessibility to anything and everything, 24 hours a day. Whenever you want it, wherever you want it, you can have it, but only if you can foot the bill.

What many star-struck travelers find after moseying through the slot machines at McCarran Airport is their expectations are not met.

In a place where cabanas at Drai’s Beach Club (an adult pool party) start at $1,000 USD, nightclubs sling shots for upwards of $50 a pop, and celebrity chefs adorn the Strip with restaurants for rich palates and deep pockets, it’s no wonder why some people feel like the glory of Vegas is simply out of reach. Oh, and if anything says V.I.P. in front of it, you can basically forget about it.

However, there’s no need to get hasty and ask for a refund on that wrap-around suite you booked at The Cosmopolitan. There are absolutely ways to return home from a trip to Vegas with more than enough stories to tell.

Before you head out for your trip, find that golden goose egg that can only be found in Vegas and invest your time and money in that experience. If that means stumbling out of an ultra-nightclub at 7 AM or buying front-row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil show, do it! For the rest of the time, know that if you keep an open-mind, the magic and mischief of this pay to play city will find you.

The key to truly enjoying every minute of your Sin City trip is to fully immerse yourself in the scene on the Strip. Chat at the bar with the couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Photobomb the massive, drunken bachelorette party dressed head-to-toe in pink garb. Buy your own alcohol from a liquor store, find a comfy spot and people-watch as Elvis and Michael Jackson impersonators cruise up and down the boulevard for tips. There is so much to do and you can do it for next to nothing. There is no shortage of madness, entertainment, and amusement to be had for very little money.

Don’t base your vacation off what you see in the movies, create your own movie.

21 free things to do in Las Vegas

Living in Las Vegas it’s not uncommon to get the following phone call, “Hey, I’m in town last minute, what should I see while I’m here?”

Often times, unplanned trips mean little cash flow. Over the years I’ve spent hundreds of hours walking the Strip with friends visiting for the first time, and this list is 21 of the best things you can do for zero money.

Be sure to pack your hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, plenty of water, and a few snacks, as this walk will take you most of the day. You’ll cover about 5 miles from start to finish and you’ll walk the Strip from the far north end to the far south end.

1. Bonanza Gift Shop

You’ll start at the intersection of Sahara and Las Vegas Blvd at Bonanza Gift Shop. This store opened in 1980, and claims to be “The World’s Largest Gift Shop”. They have kitch for miles and their neon sign out front is the perfect photo op.

2. 3-D Video Animations at SLS

The SLS is the former site of the Sahara casino and is one of the newer and trendier properties along the Strip. Take a walk towards Center Bar where you can see rotating 3-D animations of legs, faces, and rubber duckies on the LED video screen that hangs overhead.

3. Circus Acts at Circus Circus

Upon entering the property make your way to the Carnival Midway to enjoy free entertainment. Performances start at 11am, and you’re likely to see trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, and acrobatics.

4. Photo Op at The Peppermill

The Peppermill is an Establishment with a capital ‘E’ here in Vegas. You’ll want to get your picture outside of this 1970’s era classic restaurant where films like Casino & Showgirls both shot scenes. Bonus: If you do decide to spend a few bucks and eat here, many times a staff photographer takes pictures during your meal and sends you home with a physical souvenir copy at no charge.

5. Jeff Koons’ Popeye at The Wynn

As you head south, your next stop will be The Wynn. Follow signage to the Le Reve theatre and outside is a sculpture of Popeye by world-renowned artist Jeff Koons. On your way out of the property make sure to view Preston Bailey’s floral creations of a carousel and a hot air balloon in the Wynn’s atrium.

6. Gondoliers at The Venetian

Travel to Venice at The Venetian’s outdoor plaza area and head inside to enjoy a stroll through the Grand Canal Shoppes. You’ll see gondoliers singing to their passengers as they float the waters and throughout the shops professional performers create ‘streetmosphere’ in the form of living statues, opera singers, and dancers.

7. Sigfried and Roy Statue at The Mirage

The Mirage made headlines in the late 1980’s for it’s nightly volcano eruptions out front, which continues today, but you’ll want to make sure to pay your tribute to the very Vegas celebrity magicians of Siegfried and Roy at their bronze likenesses out front between the Treasure Island and The Mirage. You should also go inside to see the Mirage’s atrium and watch the fish swim in their 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium behind the check in desk.

8. Fall of Atlantis at the Forum Shops at Ceasars Palace

You can’t leave Vegas without a visit to Caesars. Wind through the gardens, fountains, and statues out front of this 50 year old property and head inside to your right to enter The Forum Shops. Walk under the painted color-changing sky to the rear end of the Forum Shops to watch animatronic statues come to life, every hour on the hour starting at 11am, complete with water and fire to tell the story of the Fall of Atlantis.

9. Linq Promenade

Cross Las Vegas Blvd just north of Flamingo to the Linq Promenade. Here you can walk down tree lined cobblestone streets with a head on view of the most recent addition to the Vegas skyline, the Highroller, a 550 foot tall slow revolving ferris wheel.

10. The Wildlife Habitat at The Flamingo

Enter The Flamingo directly from the Linq Promenade (just look for the two tall fiberglass Flamingos) and follow signage to the outdoor garden area that serves as a habitat for the casino’s namesake bird, the flamingo. You’ll also get to view turtles, ducks, koi, and two recently rescued pelicans.

11. Bellagio’s Fountains and Conservatory

Outside the Bellagio, fountains dance to pop hits as well as Sinatra standards starting weekdays at 3pm, Saturdays at 12pm, and Sundays at 11am. After watching the waters shoot up as high as 460 feet, step inside to see the Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical gardens which feature seasonal flowers, plants, and a 50ft tall glass ceiling. It’s one of the few places indoors on The Strip that offers natural lighting.

12. Streets of Paris

You’ve already been to Venice today, so why not stop by Paris as well. Outside the casino you can view the half-scale recreation of the Eiffel Tower and a two-thirds sized Arc de Triomphe, venture inside to see a tiffany-style glass dome within their shopping area and be on the look out for hand-painted parisian street style signage throughout the property.

13. Lobby Digital Experience at The Cosmopolitan

After you enter The Cosmo and pass by their signature purple lit chandelier, make your way to view the eight 15 foot tall columns in their lobby that play award winning digital narratives and showcase digital artists. Upstairs you can peruse their permanent art collection which includes contemporary artworks by artists such as David LaChapelle, as well as vintage photographs highlighting Vegas’ past in the exhibition The Golden Age of Glam.

14. Tram ride from City Center to Monte Carlo

Since you’ve been walking for a few hours now, sit down and enjoy a free ride. After you view some of the public artworks here such as Nancy Robin’s Big Edge, Henry Moore’s Reclining Connected Forms, and Maya Lin’s Silver River, get on the Aria Express tram and ride it south to the Monte Carlo.

15. Bliss Dance at The Park

Wander the paths that run through desert landscaping and concrete fountains between the Monte Carlo and the New York, New York and sit down to enjoy the sunny weather on one of their many outdoor benches. You will see Burning Man artist Marco Cochrane’s sculpture, Bliss Dance, which portrays a 50 foot tall woman showing off her dance moves.

16. Brooklyn Bridge at New York, New York

When leaving The Park, turn right and walk over The Brooklyn Bridge at the New York, New York. While you walk you’ll likely hear live music from local musicians, and you can also see the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty.

17. Lion Statue at MGM Grand

Weighing in at 50 tons, this lion is the largest bronze statue in the United States and sits just outside of the MGM Grand. If you didn’t already want to stop by the MGM to see this, you may be convinced when you find out that it was here Sid Casars’ final onscreen performance was shot for Vegas Vacation.

18. Sky Beam at Luxor

By this point in the day it may be starting to get dark out and you’ll want to see the world’s strongest beam of light, the Luxor Sky Beam. If it’s still light outside, your time at Luxor can be spent inside watching the unique incline elevators travel sideways up the pyramid walls.

19. Lenin Statue at Mandalay Bay

You’ll walk past palm trees and waterfalls on your way inside to the casino and look for signage for the Red Square restaurant. Outside of this dining area you’ll see a headless statue of Lenin, complete with bird droppings on his shoulders. You can meander through the tropically scented property to view more waterfalls and when you head back outside, cross the street so you’re on the east side of Las Vegas Blvd in preparation for your next stop.

20. Little Church of the West

This chapel, made of California Redwood, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has hosted weddings for over 70 years. It was originally part of The Last Frontier, and has moved locations several times over the past few decades. Pop Culture Bonus: It’s also where Elvis and Ann-Margret were married in the film Viva Las Vegas.

21. The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign

One of the most photographed and famous signs in the world, you can now get in line for your final freebie, a picture with the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, which serves as a love letter to the city from designer Betty Willis. When she created it in the late 1950’s, she decided not to copyright the sign, leaving it in public domain for all to enjoy.

Now that you’ve seen the Strip from start to finish without spending a dime, be sure to treat yourself to a ride back to your hotel and enjoy an evening splurging at one of Vegas’ iconic buffets.

Where to catch sunset in Las Vegas

THERE so much I never appreciated growing up in Las Vegas until I left — the mountains, the weather, the fact that you can go anywhere and do almost anything at any hour of the day or night. But what I found I missed most when I moved to the midwest was the sunsets. Since moving back to my home state of Nevada a few years ago, I’ve come to look forward to that time of day when the dark seeps in and the skyline lights up.

Here are some of my favorite places to watch a sunset in the Vegas area:

Lone Mountain Regional Park

Roughly a 25-minute trip from the Strip, this free public park on the north-west side of town offers a view of the entire Vegas skyline. Walk past the equestrian training area — which on weeknights often has riders exercising their horses — and up the paved path; or challenge yourself with a moderate 2-mile hike to the top of Lone Mountain to overlook the city at sunset.

East Fremont

One of the hippest neighborhoods to hang off-Strip is East Fremont. You can peruse the new vinyl arrivals at 11th Street Records, attend a free author event at The Writer’s Block, or savor a latte from PublicUs. But at sunset, be sure to step outside to watch the sky change colors over Southern Nevada’s oldest casino, the El Cortez.

High Point Overlook at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Drive half an hour west of the Strip to Red Rock Canyon — park entry is $7. After you check out their visitor center, you can head out on the one-way 13-mile scenic loop. Make sure to stop at the High Point Overlook, a parking area on the left shortly after the Sandstone Quarry trail entrance. It’s one of the best places to watch casinos light up as night falls. Be aware that Red Rock Canyon’s park hours change with the seasons, so check the website for current hours during your visit.

The 8th Floor of The Mirage’s Parking Garage

Although the days of unlimited free parking on the Strip may be nothing more than a memory, you can be comforted by the fact that your fee doubles as your ticket to view the sunset over the classic signs of Las Vegas Blvd. Any long-time local will tell you the 8th floor of The Mirage’s parking garage has unparalleled views. Parking here for under an hour is free, but you can always make a night of it and get a burger, fries, and shake afterwards at LVB Burger.

Lake Mead Overlook in Boulder City

This small town that housed the workers who built Hoover Dam sits half an hour south-east of Vegas and has one of the quaintest diners in the state, Southwest Diner. You can watch the sunset from their patio seating — with a slice of their homemade pie, or you can take your dessert to go and drive 10 minutes to the Lake Mead Overlook, a road pullout on Nevada Highway between Denver St. and Avenue I, with a spectacular free viewing area to watch the sunset over the lake.

The Village at Lake Las Vegas

Forty minutes from the Strip, Lake Las Vegas will reward you for your efforts with dramatic colors at sunset and local birds gliding through the sky into the night. This resort area features walking paths around the manmade lake; dining, retail, and on weekends draws crowds for local music festivals, outdoor movie screenings, and special events. Enjoy the sunset here while walking the shoreline with a treat purchased at Seasons Grocery.

The Neon Museum

North of Fremont Street on Las Vegas Blvd., The Neon Museum gives you a chance to catch a sunset while learning about the city’s history on an hour-long guided tour. Reservations are required and cost $26 per person for the evening option when restored signs are lit. If you’re having trouble deciding on what time would be best to view sundown, feel free to call and ask the staff’s advice. Bonus, the small city-owned park just outside of the old sign storage boneyard offers sights of restored iconic signs.

America’s best party cities

mardi-gras

Photo: Larry Johnson

LAST WEEKEND, I WENT TO Vegas with my wife and friends. I’ve been to Vegas a bunch of times now, and I’ve realized that I’m never going to like it. I’ve been told a million times, “The house always wins,” to which my response is, “Then why on earth would I play?”

Vegas has tried hard to get me to like it. It’s shown me Cirque du Soleil shows that have legitimately blown my mind. It has paraded beautiful women in front of me. On one press trip, I was even brought to a legal brothel in nearby Pahrump. It offers free drinks and mind-boggling dancing water fountains. It offers incredible food from chefs I love. It tells me, “You could be like George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven! You could beat the house and look sexy while doing it!”

And yet, I can’t help despising Vegas. I can’t help but see how they import their culture from other places to try and draw people through their casinos. I can’t help but notice the homeless people crowding the walkways of the strip while people just through those doors are either totally throwing away their money, or are spending it on frivolous nonsense. I can’t help but see the fakery in every inch of it, from the New York, New York that is way too clean to ever be mistaken for an honest facsimile of New York, to the Trump-like confusion of “classy” with “cartoonish excess,” to the rigid, practiced smiles of overworked and underpaid cocktail waitresses.

The Cities of Sin

Las Vegas is nothing more than a citywide act of misdirection — “Look at the shiny things while we empty your wallet!” When I look at the visitors at the casinos, I’m reminded of what Hunter S. Thompson said in his classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

“Now off the escalator into the casino, big crowds still tight around the crap tables. Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them — still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.

A week after my trip to Vegas, still feeling a little sick from the boozing, still adjusting back from the dry desert air to the thick coastal swamp with hacking, bronchial coughs, still a little sad from witnessing the inhumane spectacle of a citywide con-job, I headed south to the city of New Orleans for a bachelor party. This was the week before Mardi Gras, the weekend of the NBA All Star Game, and I expected the sleaze to be something similar to what I’d just experienced in Vegas.

It’s not an unfair assumption. New Orleans is our Singapore. It’s another town founded on sin, a port city that was home to pirates, smugglers, and slavers, which built its economy around the basest of human activities. The only other town in the United States that truly compares is Las Vegas, founded by gangsters who needed an inconspicuous and remote desert town to host their activities of dubious legality.

I was wrong. New Orleans, while very similar to Vegas in some ways, is possibly the best city in the country, while Vegas is quite possibly the worst.

What makes a city great?

When we hit the streets of New Orleans for our bachelor party, I felt nothing like the discomfort I felt in Vegas. Yeah, when we got to Bourbon Street, there were still homeless people, there were still trashy t-shirt shops, there were still dingy bars selling tall, radioactive, neon-green drinks, and there were still people trying to use the promise of sex to get as much of our money as possible. New Orleans is dirtier than Las Vegas — last night’s urine and vomit have not always been washed out of the gutters by the next morning. New Orleans also has had a much rougher history than Vegas. Slavery, storms, racism, poverty, predatory development, incompetent government, and persistent crime have all done their level best to grind the city down. In Las Vegas, it’s really hot sometimes.

But anyone who has been to both cities will tell you — they do not compare. New Orleans is the better city. Why? Why is one place a clean, affluent, gleaming, drain on the soul of its country, while the other is a grimy, impoverished miasma that has never stopped giving back to the world?

The answer is simple: Culture.

Culture keeps a city alive

The first hungover morning in New Orleans, my friends and I stumbled into an old diner. We ordered strong coffee and plates of chicken and waffles, po’ boys, and bowls of gumbo. Just outside the diner’s open doors, ukulele players performed, and day drinkers had their first beer. Over the diner’s speakers, a brass band cover of “Sexual Healing” came on.

Just as I was about to turn to him to say the same, my buddy turned to me and said, “This city might be my spirit animal.”

Later that night, we went to a parade called Chewbacchus, which is basically a Mardi Gras parade for nerds. There was a Deadmau5 Death Star, legions of Mr. Meeseeks from Rick and Morty, and more Sexy Slave Leia’s than you could count.

Deadmau5 deathstar

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In New Orleans, it feels like everyone is hustling. But the people almost never treat you like a mark. They treat you like a human. They joke with you, even after you’ve promised to give them nothing. And the street performers, the bands, and the artists, are trying to make money off of you, sure, but they’re also doing what they’re doing because they love doing it. They all believe they live in the best place on earth. This is not something the locals tell you in Vegas.

New Orleans is a city that has been ground into the dirt by some of the most colossal forces in history, and which has decided to fight back with the intangibles — with food, with music, with art.

This is the difference with Vegas, where food, music, and art are just commodities that get you into the casino. In Vegas, you’ve got to pay to be treated like a human being with dignity. In the long run of history, even if oceans rise and New Orleans is flooded for good, people will remember what came out of it — jazz, blues, cajun food, second line bands — far more fondly than they’ll remember the eternal sterile city out in the desert. New Orleans wins, even when it loses.

Getting to Spain

My trip down to Colombia was so necessary.  But, it also created a whole set of logistical challenges, and an array of travel diversions.  I had already bought tickets to Spain from Los Angeles, so it meant flying back to the US for a couple days.  Of course, if you know me, and you’ve been […]