Las Vegas is the place you go to party. To get up to all sorts of debauchery, safe in the knowledge that what happens there, stays there, as the saying goes. A recent ad campaign from the Las Vegas Tourism Authority plays into this, with the sort of statement your Hyde side would whisper in your ear as you abandon all senses and sensibility: ‘you know why you come here’.
Or so the preconceptions go. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a fake Eiffel Tower, but seeing a whole different side to ‘Sin City’ was a pleasant surprise. One you can come home and tell your friends (and mum) about, without having to hold back any details. Children aside, I might be the only person out of the 25 million annual visitors to have gone to Vegas and not gambled. And you know what, I loved it and can’t wait to go back. This is the type of Vegas where you can walk through a hidden door, enter a lift and end up in a tiny bar with a maximum capacity of 23. Where delicious cocktail creations are beautifully pulled together by an equally intriguing beardy bartender, and drunk in speakeasy-like surroundings against a bluesy soundtrack.
This is Downtown Las Vegas (or DTLV as the locals call it).
Near enough to the strip to see glimpses as you walk around, and a 10-minute taxi to the thick of it, here the feeling is more local neighbourhood, with low rise buildings, packed closely together, so you can explore as you would a little town. There’s even a farmers’ market every Friday (Downtown 3rd, 9am-3pm). The glitz and big show glamour of Las Vegas is within easy reach, but equally there’s enough going on Downtown to spend your whole time here, which, except for a white table cloth and champagne dinner at the newly-opened Mr Chow in Caesars Palace, is exactly what we did.
You can still get your one arm bandit fix Downtown, at the likes of El Cortez (the longest, continuously-running hotel and casino in Las Vegas), but you can also settle in to watch the sun go down behind the mountain ranges that surround the city from the rooftop at Commonwealth, a two-level, pre-prohibition style bar; or perhaps, Atomic Liquors, the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas, where The Rat Pack used to head post-performance and so called, as diners would sit up top and watch the bombs being detonated from the Atomic Test Site while they tucked in to dinner.
On a sunny day (which is pretty much every day in Vegas), the courtyard garden at Park on Fremont is a pretty spot that’ll take you from brunch to sundowners. Be sure to peek your head around the wall decorated with mis-matched plates, for a hidden area complete with vintage see-saw. The food here is fresh and delicious – I had a really good turkey burger with guacamole and jalapenos and a proper salad. My vegan friend tucked into a grilled cauliflower ‘steak’ and another a granola yoghurt and fruit pot. There was nothing of the stereotypically trash food here, or anywhere I ate downtown for that matter. Though, it exists. Case in point: the Heart Attack Grill, where if you’re 350lbs or more, you eat for free… A handy scale sits out front, so you can weigh yourself before committing.
At steak and seafood restaurant Triple George Grill, I tucked into the crab-stuffed jumbo Shrimp George and truffle fries, drank a glass of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc from the extensive Californian wine selection, eyed up the mighty whiskey and bourbon menu for future reference, and fought back the jet lag of the first eve. Another night, down the road at Therapy, we tucked into a tapas-style selection, accompanied by the house-made Bourbon and hoppy IPA. Those little breaded mac and cheese balls (oh, my!), a roast beetroot and buratta salad, tuna tartare, a trio of empanadas stuffed with chorizo and pulled pork– if I had pockets that eve, I’d have smuggled some out for a midnight feast. And if we didn’t have a booking for SlotZilla straight after, I’d have abandoned all manners and licked that cast iron dish of melty, chocolatey ‘smore’ clean.
Ah, yes, SlotZilla. Strapped in, Superman style and ziplining 114 feet over the Fremont Street Experience crowds at 35mph until you land on top of the Main Street Stage, is the fun for all the family thing to do – trust me, you will be laughing like a hyena when you’re on that thing. Speaking of which, those with kids in tow, will find plenty to keep them busy. To keep their energy levels up, head to the Donut Bar for a huge selection of interesting styles and flavours, including the Big Poppa, which boasts a whole Pop Tart inside. This place is so popular it often sells out by 10am.
To wear down said sugar high, take them over to the Downtown Container Park, where they can clamber over the climbing frame-cum-treehouse, while you tuck into brunch at The Perch and then cocktails or a beer at Oak & Ivy, where they boast over 100 whiskies and the mojitos are so popular they get through 12lbs of fresh mint a week. Just before sunset, head to the High Roller, the world’s highest eye at 550ft, to take in a full view of the city. Book one of the bar pods, and you’ll have a bartender to whip up drinks as you go round. Another must-do is the Neon Museum, an outdoor exhibition of vintage neon signs from the 30s to present day. I must’ve taken a hundred pictures of various angles of these beautiful hunks of metal art against the perfect blue backdrop.
Back to the cocktails, as there are some fantastic little places to head to. Velveteen Rabbit, a craft cocktail and beer bar in the Downtown Arts District, run by Mojave-raised sisters Christina and Pamela Dylag, is all moody lighting, vintage velvet armchairs and decadent wallpaper inside, with a brightly-coloured sunny outside area out the back. Head here for experimental mixes featuring additions such as seaweed, butterfly pea-flower-infused gin, pretzel-covered grasshopper. They also host intimate cocktail classes ($60 pp), where over the course of two hours, you’ll spend as much time behind the bar whipping up whiskey sours, French 75s, and the like, as you will in front, supping on said creations.
At piano bar Don’t Tell Mama, named after the song from Cabaret, the bar staff sing while they serve. And at my standout favourite, The Laundry Room (accessed via a concealed wall at Commonwealth) you can forget about the world above ground, while knowledgeable bartender Daniel Marohnic mixes up your order. This 1940s-style speakeasy is where some of the notorious Vegas folk of old used to bring their dirty laundry to be seen to. Among those, Liberace, whose 5689-strong sequin jumpsuit was checked in here twice, and Howard Hughes, who allegedly had the same tie cleaned 44 times in one week. Here, among the quirky spoon collections, perched on a bar stool, tucking into a bowl of spicy popcorn and supping on a Mezcalian Stallion, was the turning point in my pre-conception of Las Vegas. If you only pop to Downtown briefly, make it to here – be sure to book at least a month ahead for a weekend visit.
To take a taxi or drive anywhere downtown would be a complete waste of time – the road system makes a mountain out of the smallest journey. With the specially-commissioned street art murals by artists from around the globe dotted along almost every stretch of bare wall, it’s so much quicker and interesting to walk everywhere, and it’s only 10 minutes from one end to the other. Spend the cab fare on a trip out to see Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, instead. The two-year exhibition that launched in May 2016, made up of seven, thirty-five-feet high, neon-painted boulder totems, adds a jolly punch of colour to the Mojave Desert. Expect to pay circa $30 each way for an Uber, but think of it as money you’d have otherwise swindled at the Black Jack table if you spent your whole time on The Strip…
Accommodation-wise, you may not have the big chain hotels down this end of town, but there are plenty of decent places to stay. For casual motel-style with clean rooms, comfy beds and a pool party atmosphere, book into Oasis at Gold Spike. Across the road, there’s Downtown Grand, which is sleekly fresh from a recent renovation, and has a super rooftop pool area with bookable shaded cabanas for when you need to escape from the midday Nevada sun.
The first and only other time I’ve been to Las Vegas was 12 years ago. Downtown wouldn’t have been on the cards then. The last 5-10 years have seen it transform, and the ongoing regeneration project, kicked off and largely funded by Zappos co-founder Tony Hsieh, shows no sign of slowing. It wasn’t a place I’d imagined settling into relaxed drinks and dinners with friends, or heading back to anytime soon. As the advertising campaign goes, ‘you know why you come here’. For me, it’s those endless blue skies and photogenic fluffy clouds; the superb street art around every corner; hints of the old in the neon signs; the little cocktail bars you could lose an evening in, and the breath-taking scenery to explore on its doorstep.
Prices for a deluxe double at Oasis Gold Spike start from $109 for the weekend (excluding tax or resort fee). For more information, visit www.oasisatgoldspike.com.
For further information about Las Vegas, visit www.lasvegas.com.