Las Vegas is the original gangster’s paradise. The promise of fewer rules than the rest of the country has always been the main draw to Sin City, an adult-centric playground built in the middle of nowhere by east coast mafiosos like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. When Fidel Castro took over Cuba and locals sacked the island’s casinos and foreign owned hotels, Las Vegas became the new focal point for Americans to let loose. As the most popular domestic tourist destination in the United States, Vegas occupies a unique space on the American landscape, where 24-hour drinking, open prostitution (only technically legal outside of city limits and in certain counties) and non-stop gambling all combine in an explosion of over-the-top revelry.
With the state finally legalizing recreational cannabis use after decades of being harshly persecuted, Las Vegas just added another dimension to its pull and is now more appealing to those who shied away from its former prohibitionist attitude. Add in the relatively new world-class dining scene, endless entertainment options, a renovated downtown area and nearby natural attractions, and America’s fastest-growing city (it grew more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010) emerges as a multifaceted place to spend time, despite being notorious for sucking wads of cash out of clueless noobs.
Home Base: Where to Stay in Las Vegas
While the Vegas Strip has tons of options all clamoring for your attention, including the Cosmopolitan Resort with its ganja-friendly balconies, consider anchoring yourself in Downtown Las Vegas instead. From here, you can still pop on over to the strip anytime you feel like paying airport prices for just about everything. Plus, you can party and puff all you want in the open air at the Fremont Street Experience, where the original Vegas “Glitter Gulch” hotels got a makeover and five continuous blocks were transformed into a Bourbon Street-esque pedestrian-only area. Street performers (everything from garbage can drummers to nearly nude showgirls) are tightly packed into the mix, while multiple stages host live local bands like the legendary Zowie Bowie, who have been rocking Vegas for nearly 20 years and have racked up multiple readers' choice awards. Pop into the Cannabition Cannabis Museum for an immersive experience celebrating the end of cannabis prohibition.
Crossing over to the artsy Fremont East District, be sure to check out (or check into) the old school El Cortez Hotel, which was built in 1941 and is the only Vegas hotel to be listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Once owned by gangsters Moe Sedway and Edward Berman, the El Cortez puts you in close proximity to the Las Vegas Mob Museum and a slew of hip lounges and bars where you will meet just as many locals as visitors.Don’t miss the speakeasy-style karaoke joint Don't Tell Mama, where you can sing all your favorite Rat Pack tunes backed by Frank Salerno on the baby grand piano and the Downtown Container Park, a cool collection of shops and restaurants housed in stacked used steel shipping containers and guarded over by a giant fire-breathing praying mantis.
Fueling the Fire: Where to Eat and Drink in Las Vegas
A showcase for celebrity chefs from around the globe, you will find outposts of everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Joël Robuchon, but many of Sin City’s top eats are tucked away and need to be tracked down. Lima-born, Los Angeles-based chef Ricardo Zarate’s Once (image on right), an ode to Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese cuisine) located within the labyrinth of shopping in the Venetian Hotel, is a good example. Everything served here, from the beef heart anticucho to the tuna sashimi ceviche, is as authentic and delectable as you would find in Lima itself.
Recently joining Once at the Venetian is Mott 32, which opened just ahead of the New Year. This marks the first U.S. location for the iconic Hong Kong-based restaurant, though the name has its roots in NYC's Chinatown, where the first Chinese grocery store opened at that address in 1851. This is an ideal spot for enjoying authentic Peking-style duck or playing Fear Factor with a bowl of bird spit, but the top pick might be the restaurant's pluma-cut Iberico pork cooked on the barbecue and served with honey from the majestic Yellow Mountains in China.
Other top culinary hot spots require ditching the tourist trail completely, like Chinatown’s Sparrow + Wolf, where chef Brian Howard has taken fusion to its fullest potential with east-meets-west creative plates like classic sweetbreads (beef thymus glands) served with shitake mushrooms in a fermented black bean sauce.
There is no gastronomical dish as iconic to Vegas as the steak, with many different restaurants locked in intense competition for who serves the best, the largest, or the cheapest, tender juicy cut of prime. While this means you can pick up a decent rib eye or NY cut down on Fremont Street for much less than anywhere else in the country, it is also worth checking out the top notch offerings at The Barrymore, where the Old Vegas decor, an extensive wine list, live lounge music on the weekends and super-bartender Julie combine to make your steakhouse experience as elevated as possible. But, don’t think Vegas is all Americana: The city also has its own L.A. style taco wars going on. The competition was fierce until Tijuana-based El Gordo took the game to the next level with their al pastor.
Beyond Fear and Loathing: Getting Lifted in Las Vegas
Since Vegas is all about going big, it’s fittingly home to the largest cannabis dispensary in the world, Planet 13, which employs a team of shuttles that circle around town offering free rides to and from their amazingly huge selection of products. A more affordable option is the Underground: Marijuana Farmers Market, which takes place inside the Acres Dispensary every Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. till 7 p.m. Here you'll find discounted items and local growers and grocers offering their wares directly to the public.
From traveling back in time at the Knights of the Round Table-themed Excalibur Casino, playing city slicker at New York, New York, wowing over the views from the top of the Stratosphere, getting silly at Circus Circus, Vegas is a great playscape to explore with Mary Jane goggles. Then there are shows like Raiding the Rock Vault, a pulse-quickening rundown of all your classic favorites by top local performers that consistently wins readers’ choice awards and takes place inside the Hard Rock Cafe. The always-visually stunning Cirque du Soleil, now running six original shows at different venues across town, is also an excellent option. If you just want to kick back and laugh your ass off, comedian George Wallace now calls Vegas home and has a slew of “yo mama” jokes ready to split your sides.
But, all that glitters is not gold. Most savvy visitors quickly notice that Las Vegas has one of the largest homeless populations in the country, a fall out from an economy based on slot machine pipe dreams and casino capitalism taken to the extreme. To be part of the solution while also rubbing shoulders with some of the city's top performers, check out the fine folks at Serving Hope LV. This grassroots organization started by local hero Siloh Moses, formerly homeless himself, serves nearly 2,000 meals a week to the street population and low-income families. Completely volunteer run and not affiliated with a church, Serving Hope LV brings together many different segments of society as a community, and is a true model for addressing real social problems. After all, the original mafia were just a bunch of Italian familias that banded together to take care of their own when the government failed, meaning being a real gangster is all about spreading the love.
Desert Bound: When to Visit Las Vegas
Seasonal weather can be extreme in Las Vegas, but surrounding natural splendors match each period perfectly. Red Rock Canyon, a wonderland of colorful formations and hidden waterfall-dotted trails, is best visited in spring and fall when temperatures are mild. Rising nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, the ice-crowned king of the desert, Mount Charleston, is a year-round playground for nature lovers, with skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and excellent hiking the rest of the year. When the summer sun is blasting, locals and visitors in the know head to the shimmering blue shores of Lake Mead to cool off and party on the open water.
Stand-out annual events in Vegas worth planning a trip around include The Great American Foodie Festival in April, a celebration of everything from local food trucks to top regional wines; The Life is Beautiful Festival in September, where nearly 20 solid blocks of downtown Las Vegas fill up with artists and live bands for three days straight; and the Las Vegas Pride Festival and Parade in October, which draws more than 10,000 attendees from around the world. Another special day in Vegas is 4/20, and the Love In Festival takes place on 420 weekend this year, filling the Craig Ranch Regional Park with three days of camping-friendly live music, art, yoga and an open-air cannabis marketplace.