America's most overblown city embraces a smaller, quirkier scene
It's been a rough few years for Sin City, where gambling and hotel rates hit rock bottom just as the $9.2 billion CityCenter added 6,000 hotel rooms to the city's existing 141,000. Vegas' megawattage is finally waning, and investors—and tourists—are avoiding corporate projects in favor of smaller, entrepreneurial endeavors.
Across from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, a 1970s Travelodge has been reborn as Rumor, a white-stucco, South Beachesque hotel with 150 rock-and-roll-inspired rooms replete with black wallpaper and purple rugs. SoCal weekenders stretch out on hammocks strung between palm trees and order extra-spicy house Bloody Marys from the pool deck's bar. Bookish types prefer the Artisan Hotel, a hidden, art-swathed 64-room respite from the seedy video stores and gents' clubs nearby. Even if you don't stay at the Artisan, grab a classic, gin-based Bijou at its grotto-like lounge, done up in dark wood and distressed leather. For luxury, the Four Seasons has a private driveway and lush landscaped gardens that feel far removed from the Strip. Its mere 424 rooms make it intimate by Vegas standards—the MGM Grand boasts 5,690.
Other gems are dispersed throughout the city, in the suburbs of Henderson and Summerlin, and on Chinatown's main drag. A good starting point is the 18b Arts District, the center of Vegas' surprising art scene. If you can only hit one spot, it should be The Arts Factory, which houses galleries including the Contemporary Arts Center and Laura Henkel Fine Art. The latter is showing a Japanese wrestling-inspired pop art exhibit entitled "Stars and Sumos" through Aug. 21. For a crasser culture shock, the Erotic Heritage Museum is a constantly evolving collection of exhibitions about everything from toilet humor to Larry Flint. Erotic Shakespeare performances start this September.
East of the city's bright-lit hub (and across the street from the kitschy Liberace Museum), the newly reopened Pinball Hall of Fame houses machines ranging from the 1950s "woodrail" style to the newest in multiplayer electro-mechanical technology. While you're in the neighborhood, swing by Double Down Saloon, Vegas' original dive bar. It's famous for "ass juice," a potent concoction whose exact recipe is closely guarded by the bar's owner, P Moss. "I can only share the three criteria: It has to be strong, taste good, and look like s—t," Moss says.
While rotund gamers swarm casinos' mile-long cholesterolic buffets, local foodies flock to Sen of Japan, a sushi bar in a strip mall several miles west of downtown. Sen's chef is a Nobu expat who still turns out fresh, inventive plates—more modestly priced than they would be in New York. Nearby, Yagyu Yakiniku serves a Japanese take on Korean barbecue. Try the flash-grilled kobe beef or pork belly. More casual diners can meet up at Slidin' Thru, Vegas' first food truck, for excellent sliders and rib-and-pulled-pork sandwiches (track its movements at slidinthru.com). Or, for a taste of the South, order crawpuppies (crawfish-stuffed hush puppies) at Lola's, a Cajun diner with a mahogany bar and gleaming white-tiled walls.
End your day with a round of beers at Don't Tell Mama, a classic black-and-white-floored piano joint where bar hands double as performers and karaoke-style sing-alongs are encouraged. And since it's forbidden to turn in before 2 a.m. in Sin City, pop around the corner to sip a Sazerac at Downtown Cocktail Room, which defies the city's neon glow with a sophisticated speakeasy vibe.
Hit the main attractions while avoiding the throng
Bellagio Fountains: Instead of ogling out front, book brunch at the Bellagio's Cantonese restaurant, Jasmine, which affords front-row seats to the show
Hoover Dam: Papillon Airways flies you, via helicopter, to the Dam over Lake Mead and over Black Canyon on the way back (Papillon.com, $119)
The Strip: Glitter Gulch is best seen over lemongrass mojitos at the Mandarin Oriental's new 23rd-floor bar; go at sunset to see the lights coming on through floor-to-ceiling windows
Flights: Los Angeles $160; New York $350; Chicago $400 (July round-trips)
Food & Drink:
Lunch for two, Slidin' Thru (yaya sliders and sweet potato fries), $16
Dinner for two, Sen of Japan (crunchy spicy tuna spring rolls, black snapper with garlic olive oil, soft-shell crab, two glasses Masumi Arabashiri sake), $82
Dinner for two, Yagyu Yakiniku (stone-pot bibimbap, prime rib eye, pork toro, pineapple sorbet, bottle Otokoyama sake), $52
"Ass Juice" at Double Down, $3
Pabst Blue Ribbon at Don't Tell Mama, $4
Sazerac at Downtown Cocktail Room, $9
Cheap: Artisan Hotel, $70
Mid: Rumor, $90
Amazing: Four Seasons, $250
Two-day car rental from Budget, $44
Erotic Heritage Museum, $15