LAS VEGAS — Remember when a visit to Las Vegas was all about gambling? Massive, windowless casinos with air-conditioning and free drinks kept guests oblivious to the passage of time while they sat at slot machines and card tables for hours on end.
But it’s time to go outside, Vegas visitor! Gambling is hardly this town’s priority anymore. Whether you’re coming for a convention, wedding or just a vacation, casinos are just one option, along with shopping, spas, food, nightlife, festivals and various other adventures.
Casinos still want your money, but now they’ve opened their doors and patios so that you never have to step inside. There’s Shake Shack outside New York-New York, Monte Carlo’s open-patio sidewalk, and the Linq outdoor promenade with restaurants, bars and shops in what was once an unseemly alleyway. Los Angeles denizens will recognize the Sprinkles cupcake shop and quirky retailer Kitson.
Another addition is the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel (for now), providing an aerial view of the Strip and valley for $27 to $52 a trip (look for discounts on Groupon and other sites). There’s rarely a wait and one option involves a half-hour ride including unlimited cocktails.
Swank is the new theme for mega resorts, as seen at the bright, hip Linq, formerly the Imperial Palace. The vintage Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon has been replaced with The Cromwell, a boutique hotel and casino with a celebrity restaurant, Giada.
The Sahara is now the SLS, which also features an outdoor dining patio and playful touches like light-up bed frames and couches.
Bally’s front yard is no longer a space-age people-mover path. Now it’s an outdoor bazaar of shops, from well-known brands like Lush and Swarovski to one-offs like a store called “I Got Married in Vegas, Just Kidding,” where you can buy trinkets to trick folks back home into thinking you got married, arrested or won a jackpot.
Buffets might cost more than you remember, but they’re probably better than you remember, too, with shelf after shelf of foodie-worthy choices at places like Bacchanal at Caesars Palace and Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan.
Best free shows on the strip are still the dancing fountains of the Bellagio and the erupting volcano outside The Mirage. But the Treasure Island pirate show is history — both the family-friendly version and the risque version.
Farther north, where Las Vegas got its start, the Downtown Fremont Street Experience still offers nightly video shows on its canopy, but now, for a price, you can zip line or sail, superhero-style, just below the video and well above the heads of tourists.
For a view of it all, from a vantage point nearly twice as high as the High Roller, the Stratosphere still offers trips to the top (adults, $20; children, $12). For the fearless, quick trips down via a tethered free-fall called SkyJump start at $120.
That $49-a-night room? Not really, when there’s a mandatory “resort fee” attached to nightly rates in the fine print, charging anywhere from $17-$34 for things that should be included or amenities like exercise rooms that you might not use.
Mass-transit isn’t a Las Vegas strong suit, but for $8 for 24 hours, you can’t beat the double-decker Deuce bus that runs from one end of the Strip to downtown Fremont and back. Otherwise, use taxis (no Uber yet).
At Strip casino resorts, parking is free and plentiful, but brace for a hike through the sprawling hotels. Parking will cost you downtown unless you get validation.
If nightclubs are a priority, consider staying at the hotel where the club is, since often guests get free admission.
Ask bartenders for to-go cups if you want to take your drinks with you; no glass bottles allowed outside.
Remember that city landmarks are farther away than they may appear. The Strip is 41/2 miles from Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere. It’s a desert out there. Summer days are best spent poolside; save your wanderings for cool evenings.
The downtown Fremont Street area is still the best people-watching in town with costumed and barely clothed hustlers, impersonators and performers entertaining for tips. It’s also quickly becoming the place to be for local hipsters who sit on the patio of The Park and other trendy spots drinking cocktails out of mason jars.
If you’re craving a good, cheap taco and you’ve got a car or can get a ride from a local, treat your chauffeur to a few $2 adobada (spicy pork) tacos at Tacos El Gordo off Charleston Boulevard. Then drive to the Pinball Hall of Fame, where an unassuming strip mall reveals aisle after aisle of classic and almost current pinball machines, all available to play for 25 cents to $1.