I was 10 years old when I first visited Las Vegas. We stayed with family friends off the strip and during our one-day stroll through the city’s famous main thoroughfare, I was constantly told to close my eyes and not to pick up any papers strewn across the sidewalk. I remembered smelling cigarette smoke and an occasional blast of cologne. It was strange and hot and I told myself I would never come back. But I did.
I’ve been to Vegas more times than I can count. I was there nearly every summer growing up for dance competitions, drove in on a whim more than once in high school and college, and (since becoming an adult) have visited dozens of times for work and pleasure. Over the years, I’ve learned to find the charm in that hot desert metropolis, but it didn’t come easy.
For the record, I don’t gamble, drink, play golf, or go clubbing. I’m also married with a child. The perfect recipe for a terrible time in Vegas, right? During one New Year’s Eve at the Hard Rock a few years ago, I held my child in an elevator when two men stepped inside. As I exited at my floor I heard one remark to the other, “Dude can you even imagine having a baby here?”
Despite its reputation, Vegas wasn’t always a hotspot for gambling, drinking, and promiscuity. Ironically, Las Vegas was founded by Mormons in 1855. After they abandoned it in 1857, the city remained largely unoccupied for years except for travelers, traders, and the occasional farmer. The railroad brought more growth though, and in 1910 the state became the last in the nation to formally outlaw gambling.
But when construction began on the Hoover Dam in 1930, the population of Las Vegas exploded, mostly with a male-dominated workforce with no ties to the area. A combination of local Las Vegas business owners and the Mafia developed casinos and showgirl theaters to entertain the construction workers. Gambling was legalized in 1931, and Vegas began to earn its nickname: Sin City.
Las Vegas continues to be one of the hottest destinations in the US, while it’s still the center of the world for gambling, (the 23 largest casinos rake in $73 million a year, averaging $630,000 a day), there’s more to Vegas, as I’ve learned over the years, than meets the eye.
If you’re like me, and don’t gamble, or club — or even if you do and are looking for a different side of Vegas — here’s how to find some surprising beauty in the city.
Venture Off the Las Vegas Strip
The strip is glamorous and sexy and, for me at least, a sensory overload. Between the chain-smoking gamblers, packs of bachelor partygoers, and people handing papers to you on every corner, it gets a little overwhelming (and if you’re a woman with other women, expect to be invited to at least 10 clubs the minute you step on to the strip). So get off the strip — or better yet, stay off the strip. There’s still plenty to do — swimming, golfing, shopping, even hiking and bike-riding in the red rock. The air is cleaner, the crowds less intimidating, and at night, you can actually see the desert stars above the city lights.
Eat, Eat, Eat
You may not be into Vegas, but if you’re into food, you’ll learn to love it. There are plenty of advertisements for $7 steak dinners and $50 buffets, and my best advice is to avoid both. The buffets, even the really great ones, aren’t worth your money (though if you’re insistent, the Wynn and the Rio have the best I’ve tried).
Mandy’s Favorite Bites in Vegas:
The best burger I’ve had in Vegas is at Burger Bar, nestled in the Mandalay Bay shopping plaza. Get the Hubert Keller with a black and white shake. Shake Shack’s Smoke Shack, with cheese fries, is also excellent. And, there’s always Fatburger — a Vegas institution. A friend who grew up in Vegas swears Fatburger is the best burger in the world.
My favorite Vegas pizza is found at Grimaldi’s (there are multiple locations), with pepperoni and a root beer. D.O.C.G. Enoteca has a pizza with fonduta, egg, and truffles that almost made me cry. Cucina by Wolfgang Puck (his answer to California Pizza Kitchen) and Giordano’s are always safe bets. I’ve even had a great pizza from Pizza Hut on the ground floor of the Hilton (just saying).
My old boss considered himself a steak connoisseur and was intent on finding the best one in Vegas. Hands down, the best I had with him was at Jean Georges Steakhouse in the Aria. The ambiance was gorgeous, and they gave us all various dipping sauces for our steaks. Also excellent is Heritage Steak at the Mirage and Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay, but the best side dish I’ve had is the Delmonico potatoes at Bazaar Meat at SLS.
See a Show
In 2007, I saw Coldplay perform at Caesar’s Palace. The electricity in the venue was amazing. I’ve seen them two more times since, but nothing compared to that show in Vegas. The energy of all of those people, the energy of the city as we left with the concert still throbbing in my veins was unforgettable. During ” Yellow,” giant balloons fell from the ceiling, and when popped, released gold glitter into the crowd. It was a good metaphor for the city, I thought. Everything is big, oversized, glitter-filled. I’ve seen a few more shows there since, most notably Cirque du Soleil’s O and Mystere, and Donny and Marie. Somehow the concert experience is better in Vegas. Maybe it’s the bling of slot machines as you exit. Who knows?
A few years ago, a friend called to tell me she was getting a divorce. They’d been married just a few months, and she needed to get away to process things. I was in Arizona at the time and she in California, so we both drove to Vegas to meet halfway. For three days I listened as she worked through her feelings, pausing to lay out at the pool, eat, and shop a bit. In hindsight, Vegas was the perfect place to do this. It’s so loud and glitzy that somewhere more serene might seem more appropriate, but for us, Vegas was the perfect backdrop. It is full of distractions, it never sleeps, there are people doing and saying funny things on every corner. You can get a cheap manicure and a good burger. If you want or need to escape, Vegas is the place.
Underneath the city lights and the advertisements, you’ll come to see that Vegas is just like any other American city. Layered. Rich with history. A place where real people live and work and raise their children. So we have an understanding now, me and Las Vegas. And if you’re like me, and don’t see the appeal – give it a chance. There’s some beauty to be found beneath the layer of bright lights.