Overview

Las Vegas remains one of the most-visited destinations in the world, with gambling, shops, nightclubs, dining, shows and fabulous outdoor opportunities all available within a short drive.

The resorts are full of lavish stage shows, big-name performers and restaurants by celebrity chefs.

Racing exotic cars, golfing, arcade games and even machine gun lessons can certainly fill a dance card for the typical three-day visitor. Add outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, rock climbing and horseback riding, and most visitors have plenty of reasons to return.

Of course, the gaming tables and slot machines create a backdrop for the Las Vegas spectacles. For many visitors, the thrill of winning and losing makes the casinos the most exciting show in town.

Geography

Many visitors never venture more than a few hundred feet/meters away from the Strip, the 4.2-mi-/6.75-km-long stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that's lined on both sides with casino-hotels. Because so much is concentrated on one street, it's easier to understand the layout of the city if you break the Strip into sections.

The South Strip begins near McCarran International Airport, extends north to Harmon Avenue and includes the major intersection where the Strip meets Tropicana Avenue. Center Strip runs from Harmon north to Spring Mountain Road and includes the busy Flamingo Road intersection. The North Strip goes from Spring Mountain to just north of Sahara Avenue.

The second major area of interest to visitors is downtown (sometimes referred to as Glitter Gulch), a few miles/kilometers north of the northern end of the Strip. There the casinos are smaller, older and less lavish, but the area has its own theme attraction: the Fremont Street Experience outdoor light show.

The rest of Las Vegas rambles out east and west of the Strip.

History

Although nomadic native tribes inhabited the Las Vegas area for thousands of years, the place didn't get its name until a young Spanish scout, Rafael Rivera, discovered the grassy valley with its water supply, naming it "Las Vegas," which means the meadows in Spanish. The building of a fort by Mormon missionaries and the discovery of precious metals in the 1800s led to more interest. Just after the turn of the 20th century, Las Vegas became established as a small railroad town on the line connecting Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Several acts by the U.S. government spurred the city's growth. The first was the construction of Hoover Dam in the early 1930s, which brought an army of workers to the region. During World War II, a magnesium-processing plant and a U.S. Army base were established. Before that, the Nevada state government had lent a hand by making quick divorces easy and legalizing gambling. Following the war, Bugsy Siegel was the first organized-crime figure to imagine Las Vegas as a major gambling center, a vision that soon came true—though Bugsy didn't live to see it happen.

In the 1960s, millionaire Howard Hughes bought a big piece of the Vegas action when he moved into the Desert Inn in 1966. When the hotel management asked him to leave the following year, he bought the hotel.

Soon corporations, rather than underworld figures, were operating the casinos, turning them from gambling halls to legitimate "gaming" businesses. Entertainment flourished as Elvis Presley performed his first Vegas show in 1969 at the International Hotel (now the Westgate Las Vegas). Through it all, the city grew. The population made significant leaps in the 1980s as businesses discovered the state's tax advantages, and the boom continued through the 1990s. In 1995, the Fremont Street Experience opened to attract visitors to the downtown area.

Las Vegas has become a major travel destination, spurred on by its increasingly colossal hotels and an expanding number of trade shows and conventions.

In December 2009, the massive CityCenter debuted. The US$8.5 billion complex includes three hotels, two residential towers, a high-end shopping complex, and a slew of restaurants and bars. The Aria resort and casino is the centerpiece and crown jewel of the complex.

The recession hit Las Vegas hard, and some major construction projects ground to a halt. In recent years, a notable turnaround has taken place with a slew of new construction and renovation projects. The year 2016 saw the arrival of the highly anticipated 20,000 seat T-mobile Arena fronted by the Strip's first park. The park links the NYNY hotel and the Monte Carlo and showcases giant metallic shade trees, the 40-foot tall "Bliss Dance" sculpture and fountains.

The Riviera has closed, opening up a large parcel of land which will be used to expand the Convention Center. With growing demand for convention space, the Aria has closed the Cirque du Soleil Zarkana show and is in the process of repurposing the space for conventions. New casinos are in the works, too, including the Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino and the recently announced Wynn Paradise Park. At the center of the theme park will be a 1,000-room hotel tower overlooking a lagoon where visitors will enjoy parasailing and jet-skiing.

Sightseeing

The world-famous Las Vegas Strip is a brilliantly lit corridor of themed and classic casino-hotels stretching for more than 3 mi/5 km along Las Vegas Boulevard.

The flashing signs and lighted facades make walking the Strip a memorable—if crowded and exhausting—experience day or night. Free sidewalk shows that cost millions to design and maintain—such as the fountains at Bellagio and the volcano at Mirage—are designed to lure visitors.

CityCenter brings together five world-class architects in a thoroughly modern way; others present world-travel fantasies that cover the four corners of the earth. Inside, you'll find attractions such as circus acts, wild-animal habitats, fine art, an ever-expanding variety of casino games, spas, shopping and one of the world's best collections of dining options in a single city.

Close to the Strip in both distance and wattage is downtown Las Vegas. The highlight there, literally, is the Fremont Street Experience, a five-block promenade covered by a high-tech canopy that displays an elaborate light show set to heart-thumping music several times a night.

Most people are so enamored of the Strip they don't venture beyond it to take advantage of other area attractions. For example, the Las Vegas Smith Center for Performing Arts offers world-class theater, dance and music performances.

The city seems to host a local festival every week, and the September-May weather is ideal for bike races, marathons, hiking and other activities.

Nightlife

The city's stage shows are the way many visitors fill their nights. The lineup is extensive and ever-changing, so get your hands on an up-to-date schedule and make your plans as early as possible. Some of the long-running favorites: O (water-themed circus show by the famed Cirque de Soleil at Bellagio); Mystere (another Cirque de Soleil production, this one at TI-Treasure Island); and LOVE (Cirque teams with the Beatles at the Mirage).

There's also Jersey Boys at Paris Las Vegas, and Blue Man Group at the Luxor.

There are many options for afternoon shows. The Mac King Comedy Magic show is consistently rated as one of the best shows in town at bargain prices (Harrah's).

Many touring music and comedy acts make stops in Vegas. Among the venues showcasing such headliners are Boulder Station (country stars), Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (rock stars), House of Blues at Mandalay Bay (rock 'n' rollers), Grand Garden Arena at MGM Grand (all kinds of big names) and the Orleans (lots of oldies, lots of country).

Nightlife hardly ends with the big shows, however. For those who want to dance, there's no shortage of options. The majority of the popular spots are found in the big hotel-casinos. The nightclubs are standing room only unless you book a table with bottle service. Because of the high price of drinks at the clubs, it is often a better deal to go with bottle service.

Not surprisingly, a lot of comedians try to make their mark in Vegas. The area's comedy clubs spotlight the up-and-comers striving to make the leap to the casino showrooms. Vegas nightspots do their best to live up to the town's round-the-clock reputation. Some literally do stay open 24 hours a day, but the closing time for most ranges 2-5 am. The atmosphere at night spots can vary wildly on different nights, so if one place isn't happening that evening, it doesn't mean it won't be hopping the next night.

Although Vegas is known as a casual place, most nightclubs refuse entrance to those wearing jeans, shorts, flip-flops or tennis shoes. Those dressed in evening clothes usually get to the head of the line. So dress up and enjoy. Don't forget your wallet if hitting the clubs. Cocktails generally start around US$18 and go up from there.

The city enforces curfew on the Strip as well as downtown to prevent partying by minors. Anyone under the age of 18 without a parent or guardian could risk a US$300 ticket if they're found within the area bordered by Main Street, Ogden, Bridger and Maryland Parkway 9 pm-5 am. The area includes the Fremont Street Experience and Fremont East.

Dining

Las Vegas receives much well-deserved attention for its ever-expanding selection of fine restaurants. Most every superstar chef has at least one establishment, and it seems that Vegas has more Wolfgang Puck eateries than McDonald's franchises.

It's hard to argue with the quality at many of these places, but the emphasis is definitely toward those with large spending budgets or on an expense account. Homegrown restaurants are hard to find because most of them are outside of the hotels. On the plus side, those who don't often find themselves in trendsetting food cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles will be happy to know that they can get a taste of all of them (and more) in Las Vegas. Most top restaurants offer tasting menus, prix-fixe meals and other money-saving ways to attract diners. Ask about special menus when you make your reservation.

The move toward upscale dining can be seen in unlikely places: Even the famous all-you-can-eat buffets have become more expansive and elaborate—and they're not necessarily the dining bargain they once were. Expect to pay US$7-$39 for a breakfast buffet, US$8-$36 for lunch and US$13-$51 for dinner. You'll pay top dollar for the weekend Sterling Brunch at Bally's (US$90), with offerings that include rack of lamb, beef Wellington, fresh broiled Maine lobster and Perrier Jouet champagne.

Hotels are trying to redefine their buffets by catering to different crowds and appetites. Many buffets have individual cooking stations where food is served to order. Culinary way stations include fresh pizza- and bread-baking areas, active rotisseries and carving stations, deli sandwich stations, seafood displays, sushi tables and the option to add bottomless wine or beer to your experience, with an added fee.

One thing, however, hasn't changed when it comes to buffets: standing in line. The rule of thumb is that a long line equals good food, but be prepared to wait up to 90 minutes on holidays if you choose such favorites as the Bellagio buffet—unless you want to take advantage of a great "counter play" there and at the Mirage: Simply walk past the line into the buffet and take a seat at the bar, where you can pay the bartender for your meal rather than wait in the cashier line. In general, you can't make reservations for buffets, except for the top-dollar ones such as the Sterling Brunch at Bally's, where reservations are required.

General dining times are 7-10:30 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 5:30-11 pm for dinner, with many restaurants extending their hours on weekends. Also, some casinos have a 24-hour dining spot, although choices have become slim over the years. Las Vegas restaurants are all smoke-free.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$50; $$$ = US$51-$100; and $$$$ = more than US$100.

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