Less than three miles separate Downtown's Fremont Street from the Las Vegas Strip, but the differences in atmosphere are harder to measure. It's like comparing a supermodel to your favorite auntie. The Strip is showier, bigger, and more expensive. Fremont Street, and Downtown in general, is older, less intimidating, and generally easier on your wallet. Although Fremont Street, also known as Glitter Gulch, is the area most frequently associated with Downtown Las Vegas, the area also includes the Cultural Corridor and the relatively new Arts District.
Las Vegas was officially born on May 15, 1905, when the railroad auctioned off 110 acres of downtown land. At least one casino on Fremont Street has been there almost as long as the city—the Golden Gate was established in 1906. Fremont Street, named after the explorer John C. Fremont, was the face of Las Vegas before the Strip surpassed it.
Many visitors and locals like Fremont Street because of its Old Vegas flavor. The casinos are smaller, and the Neon Museum has installed a series of vintage neon signs from old hotels and restaurants. The area is aimed more squarely at adults—you don't see as many families wandering along Fremont. Downtown hotels include the Golden Nugget, Binion's, Plaza Hotel, Four Queens, Fitzgerald's, and El Cortez. While the hotels generally offer mid-priced dining and buffets, they also have a good selection of better restaurants, like Hugo's Cellar at the Four Queens, Center Stage at the Plaza, and Binion's Ranch Steak House at Binion's. Just off Fremont, you can have a great Italian meal at Chicago Joe's, which is in an old downtown house.
The Downtown crowd tends to favor gambling over flashy attractions like pirate battles and volcanoes, but the Fremont Street Experience offers free entertainment that covers four blocks. Opened in 1995, the Fremont Street Experience closed the street to traffic and covered the area with a canopy. The underside of the canopy is a giant, high-tech LED screen, and every hour the hotels dim their neon so Viva Vision can dazzle people with music, images, and a light show that spans all four blocks. Stages along Fremont Street often feature entertainers in the evenings, and during summer days, misters and blasts of air-conditioning from the hotels keep people cooled off as they wander from casino to casino. Kiosks along the street sell everything from souvenirs to cigars.
The Cultural Corridor runs north on Las Vegas Boulevard from approximately Stewart Avenue to Washington. The Neon Museum's "Boneyard," open to visitors only by appointment, is located here. Cashman Field, home to Las Vegas' AAA baseball team, the 51s (named after the mysterious Area 51, north of Las Vegas), is next door to it. The Lied Children's Discovery Museum, Natural History Museum, and Old Mormon Fort (the location of the original Mormon pioneers' settlement) are also along this stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. All are good places to take children, and all charge reasonable admittance.
The Arts District, located at Casino Center and Main Street, is Las Vegas' most recent attempt to bolster Downtown and bring more culture to the city. Small art galleries, shops, and restaurants dot this 18-block area. Every month, on the first Friday of the month, the First Friday street festival closes off the streets and brings in street entertainers and bands, inviting people to stroll the Arts District and peruse the galleries.
Although Downtown is in the midst of active renovation and gentrification, it also has some less savory elements. At night, the area around Fremont Street warrants a little extra caution, so be sure to park either in valet parking at the casinos, or in one of the parking garages; don't park on side streets and walk to Fremont Street. Also be prepared to have canvassers trying to hand you pamphlets—these are usually for very adult entertainment. (You'll also encounter these people all along the Strip). They try to give pamphlets to everyone, regardless of your gender, and they don't care if you have kids with you. Just ignore them. A lot of offensive stuff winds up on the ground as litter; this can be a real concern if you have children with you.
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