Whenever Las Vegas comes up in conversation it often elicits one of two reactions. It’s either a gambler’s paradise, where any kind of indulgence can be catered for at any time of day.
The alternative view is that of Vegas as a hedonistic hell; an eternal carnival of cheap plastic gaudiness and vice set in the perpetual searing heat of the Nevada desert.
Las Vegas will always divide opinion and will never be to everyone’s tastes. Sin City is America at full throttle, a high octane combination of consumerism and personal freedom.
But to write Las Vegas off altogether as a city aimed at lowest common denominators does it a disservice. The history of Las Vegas is a fascinating read, and today there are signs and symbols throughout the city that celebrate its past.
Las Vegas has existed in a version of its current form since the state of Nevada legalised casino gambling in 1931.
Since then Las Vegas has embraced a ‘rip it up and start again’ approach whenever anything starts to become stale or, more critically, unprofitable.
As a result this has created an industry around itself. Las Vegas needs to constantly change in order to stay fresh and keep finding ways to entice people in to a city in the middle of the desert. In less than 90 years, Vegas has ballooned into one of the most unique cities on the globe.
Together Downtown and the Strip have created a history and culture that is unique to the city.
Throughout the history of Las Vegas its casinos have repeatedly sought to replicate somewhere else – from the Moroccan themed Sahara and the Arabian inspired Dunes of Vegas’ heyday to the scaled down replicas of New York, Venice and Paris that sit on the Strip today.
Yet Las Vegas has a cultural identity that is instantly recognisable, and evident in the legacy and innovation of its neon and architecture, and in the mere mention of the Rat Pack or late era Elvis.
There is a very visible difference between the north and south of Las Vegas. The Downtown area to the north of the Strip is the original Vegas, where the city’s gambling began.
The Strip is the latecomer to the party, technically not in Las Vegas, but the neighbouring district of Paradise.
Resorts began popping up here during the boom years and fell outside the Las Vegas boundary, which meant that they avoided the city’s taxes.
The county collected these taxes instead and as more and more resorts were built to the south of Las Vegas, the better off the county became. The county then created an unincorporated district called Paradise, which is now where the vast bulk of the Strip resides.
As a result the majority of the city’s heritage is in Downtown Las Vegas, though the Strip also contributes to the history of Las Vegas too.
Two of Las Vegas’ longest running casinos sit opposite each other on the Strip. The Flamingo has been around since 1946 and Caesar’s Palace just over the road was opened twenty years later.
They’ve both been drastically modernised since they first opened but are stalwarts of Las Vegas, considered ancient by the Strip’s standards.
Despite the changes that have since been made to the original building The Flamingo has old school Vegas running through its core.
It was built with mob money – near the Flamingo’s outdoor wedding chapel is a memorial to Bugsy Siegel, the mobster who muscled his way in and took control of the building of the casino in 1946.
The Flamingo was the first of its kind in the city, a legend in the history of Las Vegas. The Flamingo introducing the idea that a casino could be a glamorous destination in itself, and somewhere that people would want to return to year after year.
The Excalibur, The Flamingo and The Mirage, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Just around the corner from the Flamingo on East Flamingo Road is the Stage Door Casino, which is essentially the last surviving dive bar anywhere near the highly polished Strip.
Taking up a coveted slice of prime real estate the Stage Door Casino frequently and defiantly emblazons the number of years left on their lease across the front of the building. Famous for their beer and a hotdog for $3 deal the Stage Door attracts a boisterous and loyal crowd.
About a mile to the west and behind the Strip is the Gold Coast Casino. It’s considered to be one of Vegas’ ‘locals casinos’ – geared towards local residents rather than the tourists who flock to the main drag.
As well as a beautiful 70 lane bowling alley that costs next to nothing to play, the Gold Coast is also home to Ping Pang Pong, an unbelievably authentic Chinese restaurant where the dim sum is to die for.
Back on Las Vegas Boulevard and heading north, Circus Circus is another casino where time seems to have stopped.
The carnival theme of the casino harks back to a different era, and alongside Slots A Fun does seem to signify the end of the gleaming modern Strip and mark out where old(er) Vegas begins.
Circus Circus famously confused the already warped mind of the protagonist in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an American cultural classic that’s also a part of the history of Las Vegas.
Circus Circus, Bonanza Gift Shop and Slots of Fun on the northern end of the Strip
A little further north is Bonanza Gift Shop, which proudly claims to be the world’s largest gift shop, though it’s impossible to tell what this boast is based upon. If you’ve ever dreamed of owning anything with ‘Las Vegas’ adorned all over it then you’ll find it here.
Bonanza also marks the official boundary between Paradise and Las Vegas. From here on in you’re in Downtown Las Vegas.
Between here and Fremont are seemingly hundreds of wedding chapels, another signifier of the history of Las Vegas. The oldest wedding chapel in Vegas is the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, just a few blocks south of Fremont Street.
Also between the Strip and Downtown is the hip and trendy Arts District. In between the copious bail bond agents on the colourful South Main Street are countless vintage and antique stores, yoga studios, gyms, tattoo parlours, coffee shops, galleries, bars and places to eat.
You could easily spend a good chunk of a day in Vegas here alone. If this district was in LA or east London you’d never here the end of it.
Up at Fremont Street it’s a similar scene, where the old town has been repackaged as an arts hub.
For the past five years Downtown has hosted the annual Life Is Beautiful festival, a three day celebration of art, music, and food which has been headlined by the likes of The Killers, Kanye West, Stevie Wonder and Gorillaz.
When the festival ends the art remains and the area is bedecked with huge murals by some of the world’s most famous street artists, such as Shepherd Fairy and D*Face.
Nearby the vibrant Container Park houses a little bit of everything, including boutique shops, restaurants and galleries, all built from reclaimed and repurposed shipping containers.
The old Fremont Street is, of course, the original Vegas, though now repackaged with a covered roof and re-branded as the Fremont Street Experience.
There are still plenty of pointers to its importance to the history of Las Vegas. It’s a little less polished around some of its edges than the Strip, but it’s in no way dangerous.
The casinos here are geared towards the locals and repeat visitors to Vegas. The stunning frontages of The Four Queens, The Golden Nugget, Binions and Fremont Casino that face each other across the junction with Casino Center Boulevard are a sight to behold, particularly at night when they’re lit up so spectacularly.
Also here of course is Vegas Vic, the famous neon smoking cowboy that has been the symbol of Vegas for decades. His female companion, Vegas Vickie, was famously perched above the strip club called Glitter Gulch opposite for 30 years.
Now demolished, the Glitter Gulch has been replaced by the Circa Resort and Casino, where Vegas Vicky can now be found as the centrepiece in the hotel’s cocktail bar that’s named in her honour.
Easily the finest place to learn about the rich history and culture of Las Vegas is at the excellent Neon Museum, just a few blocks north of Fremont.
Here hundreds of vintage neon signs that once illuminated the city’s sky during Las Vegas’ golden age are collected and displayed out in the back yard of the museum.
Many of the signs were simply discarded or destroyed whenever a casino bit the dust. Thankfully many have been salvaged and the fascinating and important stories behind them and the role they played in the development and history of Las Vegas are recounted by the incredibly knowledgeable tour guides.
Guided tours are available during the day – when the huge mishmash of colours looks fantastic against the deep blue of the Nevada sky – and also at night, when the many signs that still function are switched on in all their glory. It would have been an unimaginable tragedy had all of this just been lost forever.
Amongst the collection are signs from the Moulin Rouge and the lettering from the legendary Stardust sign. There are also several original signs from casinos that still operate, such as El Cortez, Binion’s, and The Golden Nugget.
The Neon Museum is an essential stop for anyone wanting to know more about the historic culture of Las Vegas.
One of Las Vegas’s hidden gems is the Pinball Hall of Fame. The the Pinball Hall of Fame is a warehouse filled with hundred of historic pinball machines. The museum recently relocated to brand new 25,000 square foot premises on the southern end of the Strip, right next to the famous Welcome To Las Vegas sign.
The pinball machines are displayed from the oldest to newest, with some going back as far as the early 20th century. There are over 400 pinball machines in the Pinball Hall of Fame in total, (almost) all of them are in working order and can be played and they are seriously addictive.
Every conceivable commercial tie-in you can imagine is here, with pinball machines for numerous movie franchises and bands – there’s one for The Who’s Tommy, obviously, as well as Guns ‘n’ Roses.
Many of the machines have notes attached detailing their history and their significance to the pinball industry.
Las Vegas is served by McCarran International Airport, which is about a 20 minute taxi ride from the Strip.
You cab search for the best deals on prices and book flights to Las Vegas here.
There’s obviously no shortage of accommodation options in Vegas. We managed to find a great deal at the Bellagio for our visit which comes highly recommended.
Search for and book accommodation in Las Vegas here.
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