As beaten paths go, the Las Vegas Strip is pretty well clobbered. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a record 42.9 million people visited Southern Nevada last year, and the vast majority came to see sequin-filled stage shows and caress casino slot machines on Sin City’s most famous thoroughfare.
For Vegas haters, meanwhile, the Strip’s 4-mile parade of bright lights, booming nightclubs and recycled air is exactly the kind of sensory assault that keeps them away. But wait! Even one of America’s most visited cities has an underexplored side: its downtown.
Carson Kitchen. Photo Credit: Jeff Ragazzo
Once upon a fairly recent time, Downtown Vegas didn’t turn heads—unless people were walking in the other direction, away from hookers and blight. But the area has undergone a dramatic transformation lately, much of it credited to a $350 million revitalization effort financed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who moved the company to the former city hall building in 2013. The resultant Downtown Project has fostered a new direction for the neighborhood that befits its bankroller’s tech-industry culture. Hipster-leaning restaurants, bars and a major music festival have since sprung up, and the scene feels locally fueled—unlike the Strip, where out-of-town corporations move in to plant their latest neon flag.
Take the fifth annual Life is Beautiful Music and Art Festival, which runs Sept. 22-24. Life is Beautiful was recently dubbed “Festival of the Year” by Pollstar, the concert industry’s trade publication, and the 2017 installment again highlights music heavyweights—like Chance the Rapper, Muse, Lorde and Kaskade—alongside dozens of even edgier acts. But unlike certain other flower crown-filled affairs, Life still feels homegrown. It helps that the festival—which cordons off an 18-block swath of downtown, filling it with chef-driven food trucks and pop-up craft cocktail bars—also imports impressive murals and art installations (18 this year alone) by international names like Shepard Fairey. Many works remain after the crowds clear, turning Downtown Vegas into a permanent public art playground worth perusing anytime.
Whenever you visit, follow the propane-fueled flames that shoot from the antennae of a 40-foot-tall praying mantis made of recycled steel. This sculpture sits outside of Downtown Container Park, an open-air shopping center made of repurposed shipping containers that houses more than 30 local boutiques and eateries—plus The Dome, a 360-degree planetarium-style theater.
Stay “East of Fremont,” as locals call the area outside the Fremont Street Experience, a touristy multi-block pedestrian mall. Outside of it is where you’ll find legit, local-loved restaurants including Carson Kitchen, an urban gastropub inside a former midcentury motel, where shared plates like crispy chicken skins with smoked honey and pork belly- and fig-topped flatbreads taste best around the patio’s fire pit. Or dig into jalapeno- and chipotle ranch-soaked “garbage fries” at Park on Fremont, where the craft beer list runs deep.
W Las Vegas
Don nightcaps at the awesome time warp that is Atomic Liquors, billed as Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar and named in reference to the 1950s crowds who watched atomic blast tests in the desert from its roof; today it’s a rockabilly-hipster hangout. For something more modern, bounce over to Velveteen Rabbit, a sisters-owned cocktail lounge where DJs spin chill beats and local cool kids sip elixirs like the Rum-Ham Sour, made with maple-bacon fat-washed rum and spiced pineapple.
Downtown offers plenty by day, too. Arrive early to cult favorite bakery Donut Bar—spinoff to a San Diego original—where flavors like blood orange and Mexican hot chocolate fly off shelves fast. Then flip through pages at The Writer’s Block, Vegas’ first indie bookstore, or scour for vinyl records at 11th Street Records, home to a studio where Vegas’ own the Killers recorded much of their new album, Wonderful Wonderful, out this month.
Of course, a few trips to the Strip will be inevitable—so lay your head at the new W Las Vegas, which opened in December. The 289-room hotel is right by the downtown borderline on the Strip’s north end and inhabits the space that once belonged to the iconic Sahara casino—hence the playfully 1970s-chic lobby. However, the contemporary rooms, designed by Philippe Starck (minus one unique Lenny Kravitz-styled penthouse), are appointed for modern high rollers. Bonus: the rooftop pool deck is a laidback scene for sipping and sunning, a departure from typical Vegas party pools, and though the W’s adjacent to the SLS casino floor, the hotel can be accessed without going through gaming areas. These may be small features, but they make a big difference. Sometimes it’s nice to experience another side of Sin City. ◆
11th Street Records, 11thstreetrecords.com; Atomic Liquors, atomic.vegas; Carson Kitchen, carsonkitchen.com; Donut Bar, donutbar.com; Park on Fremont, parkonfremont.com; Velveteen Rabbit, velveteenrabbitlv.com; W Las Vegas, wlasvegas.com; The Writer’s Block, thewritersblock.org
- – The Neon Museum, a two-acre outdoor labyrinth of more than 200 retired signs from Vegas’ marquee-filled history, is best to check out at night when the bulbs shine bright for #nofilter photos.
– An overview of underworld crime housed in a former courthouse, the Mob Museum is filled with weird relics like actual bricks and bullet casings from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.