Ten Free Things To Do In Las Vegas
1 hide detailVenice In Las Vegas
Our Local Expert Says:
This Las Vegas-style Venice is a must-see. The Venetian offers first-class accommodations and amenities, along with canals and gondoliers.
One of the most elaborate hotel spectacles in town, The Venetian falls squarely between an outright adult Disneyland experience and the luxury resort experience currently dominating the Vegas landscape. The big draw here is the rooms, all suites, and all successful examples of that same luxury resort mindset, though the commitment to theme in the Grand Canal Shoppes is certainly appealing.
The hotel's exterior, which re-creates most of the top landmarks of Venice (the Campanile, a portion of St. Mark's Square, part of the Doge's Palace, a canal or two), ranks right up there with New York-New York as a must-see, and since you can wander freely through the "sights," it even has a slight edge over New York-New York. This may be the only hotel in Vegas where it seems inviting to wander around outside in the front. As stern as we get about re-creations not being a substitute for the real thing, we have to admit that the attention to detail here is impressive indeed. Stone is aged for that weathered look, statues and tiles are exact copies of their Italian counterparts, security guards wear Venetian police uniforms -- all that's missing is the smell from the canals, but we are happy to let that one slide.
Inside, it's more of the same, particularly in the lobby area and the entrance to the extraordinary shops, as ceilings are covered with hand-painted re-creations of Venetian art. With plenty of marble, soaring ceilings, and impressive pillars and archways, it's less kitschy than Caesars but more theme park than Bellagio. The lobby says classy hotel, if "classy hotel on steroids." The lobby, casino, and shops can all be accessed from outside through individual entrances, which helps avoid that irritating circuitous maneuvering required by most other locations. This is all the more appreciated because the casino seems to have a most confusing layout, with poor signage; perhaps it's just our problem with spatial navigation, but we consistently got lost on the way to the guest elevators.
A room makeover has pared down the previously over-the-top fussy decor, which is a good thing, but then again, apart from the size it's not as dreamily romantic on the eye. Now the suites have the same sleek new look as The Palazzo, though the beds lack The Palazzo's fluffy comforters. The towels are nicer here. You still can't see the bathroom TV from the tub. The marbled bathrooms rocketed virtually to the top of our list of favorites, in a tie for second place with those at Bellagio. (Mandalay Bay's THEhotel are the best.) Devices for the hearing-impaired (ranging from door-knock lights to vibrating alarm clocks and telecaption decoders) are available upon request.
Despite the niceties, there is a certain amount of price gouging at this hotel that unpleasantly reminds one of the real Venice. There is a charge for that in-room faxing and printing, and the minibar is automated so that if you so much as rearrange items inside, you are charged for it.
And all this is even before the Venezia Tower, with over 1,000 more rooms, with the same large and lush footprint and style as the originals. The tower has its own check-in and gestalt -- somehow, it comes off even more lush than the original hotel, which is pretty frilly to start. It's like a Four Seasons on human growth hormones, with over-the-top opulence. The gas lamp-lit lobby hallway slays us, as do the flatscreen TVs in the bathrooms. Rooms here cost about $35 more a night (in theory -- in practice, anything goes with hotel pricing in Vegas) and we would spend it. The trend toward casino hotels adding additions that are away from a casino -- "Nope, no slot machines here. We are just a luxury hotel. Really!" -- is a disingenuous stance that is actually entirely genius. There are many who prefer their Vegas at arm's length, whose finest compliment for a hotel is, "It doesn't seem like it's in Vegas." These people are willing to spend extra to stay in a grown-up atmosphere, and certainly are more inclined to want a comfortable room -- and nothing says "comfortable room" like "plasma TV in the bathroom."
Many celebrity chefs and high-profile restaurants are in residence at The Venetian. Eateries include Bouchon (by Thomas Keller, perhaps America's top chef), Delmonico Steakhouse, Canaletto, Valentino, Mario Batali's B&B Ristorante and Pinot Brasserie. Nightlife options include the Blue Man Group and a special production of the long-running Phantom of the Opera. And, of course, there is an elegant but confusingly laid-out casino.
The Venetian has five pools and whirlpools, but its pool area is disappointingly sterile and bland. Pools are neoclassical (think rectangles with the corners lopped off), and the fourth-floor location probably means that more dense foliage is not going to be forthcoming. The Venezia Tower has a courtyard pool area that is amusing, but the water space is tiny.
The Canyon Ranch SpaClub is run by a branch of arguably the finest getaway spa in America. This is an unbelievably lavish facility, certainly the finest hotel spa in town. From the Bed Head and Bumble & Bumble products on sale in the shop to the nutritionists, physical therapists, and acupuncturists on the staff to the vibrating massage chairs that you rest in during pedicures -- geez, what more could you want? Well, we want our own home gym to be as nice as the one here, with ample equipment, racks of big TVs, and a staff eager to help you with advice and bring you bottled water. The $35-a-day fee is high, but it does include a full day's worth of classes, ranging from regular aerobics to yoga, Pilates, and dance. Did we mention the rock-climbing wall, which, because this is Vegas, costs extra?
The Grand Canal Shoppes rank with the Caesars Palace shops as an absolute must-see. Like Caesars, the area is a mock Italian village with a blue, cloud-studded, painted sky overhead. But down the middle runs a canal, complete with singing gondoliers. (The 10-min. ride costs about $15, which seems steep, but trust us, it's a lot more in the real Venice.) The entire thing finishes up at a small re-creation of St. Mark's Square, which features glass blowers, traveling musicians, flower sellers, and the like. Expect to run into famous Venetians such as a flirty Casanova and a travel-weary Marco Polo. It's ambitious and a big step up from animatronic figures. Oh, and the stores are also probably worth a look -- a decent mixture of high-end fashion and more affordable shops.
Facilities: 18 restaurants; casino; showroom; wedding chapels; 6 outdoor pools; health club; spa; concierge; tour desk; car-rental desk; business center; extensive shopping arcade; 24-hr. room service; laundry service; dry cleaning; executive-level rooms
2 hide detailLions on the Vegas Strip
Hit this attraction at the right time, and it's one of the best freebies in town. It's a large, multilevel glass enclosure in which various lions frolic during various times of day. In addition to regular viewing spots, you can walk through a glass tunnel and get a worm's-eye view of the underside of a lion (provided one is in position); note how very big Kitty's paws are. Multiple lions share show duties (about 6 hr. on and then 2 days off at a ranch for some free-range activity, so they're never cooped up here for long). You could see any combo, from one giant male to a pack of five females who have grown from cub to adult size during their MGM time. Each comes with a trainer or three, who are there to keep the lions busy with play so they don't act like the big cats they are and sleep the entire time. But obviously, photo ops are more likely to occur as the more frisky younger set tussles, so what you observe definitely depends on who is in residence when you drop by. And, of course, actually seeing anything depends on how many other people think this is a two-star attraction; hordes of tourists are often pressed against the glass, preventing you, not to mention your kids, from doing the same.
3 hide detailThe Bellagio's famous dancing waters
Our Local Expert Says:
One of Las Vegas' most well-known attractions--and it's free!
The Bellagio's Fountains sound like a simple concept: shooting jets of water timed to music. But what sounds simple is actually a complex choreography of technology, sound, and water. Designed by WET Design, an international company that specializes in elaborate water displays, the Bellagio's Fountains are spread over the nine-acre lake in front of the Bellagio. Over 1,200 nozzles and 4,500 lights work together to shoot water 400+ feet in the air—but that's not all the fountains do. They sway, they dance, and they wow the crowds that gather to watch them.
Shows start in the afternoon, but the best time to see the fountains is at night. The combination of music and the illuminated dancing water is enchanting. Many people have already seen the fountains on television shows or in movies (most famously, the George Clooney remake of "Ocean's 11"). Romantic, spectacular, and iconic, the Bellagio's Fountains are a free Las Vegas attraction that's appropriate for anyone of any age.
An underground well supplies most of the water for the fountains. Prior to the Bellagio, the Dunes and its golf course were located here—thus, the well, which watered the golf course. The Dunes was imploded to make way for the Bellagio.
4 hide detailDowntown Las Vegas' incredible light show
Poor Downtown. For years now, it's been overlooked in favor of the Strip. And no wonder: It's so . . . small . . . by comparison. Even its once-dazzling collection of hotel marquee lights seems like candles next to the klieg-light voltage of the Strip. But things are cheaper down here, people; and speaking of people, if you get tired of feeling not pretty or rich enough for the Strip, you are not alone. Come join us in admiring the project that closed off the heart of "Glitter Gulch" and turned it into a much more user-friendly pedestrian mall.
The Fremont Street Experience is a 5-block open-air landscaped strip of outdoor snack shops, vendor carts, and colorful kiosks purveying food and merchandise. Overhead is a 90-foot-high steel-mesh "celestial vault"; at night, it is the most successfully revamped Viva Vision, a high-tech light-and-laser show (the canopy is equipped with more than 12.5 million lights) enhanced by a concert-hall-quality sound system that takes place five times nightly. There are a number of different shows, and there's music between the light performances as well. Not only does the canopy provide shade, but it also cools the area through a misting system in summer and warms you with radiant heaters in winter. It's really cool, in that Vegas over-the-top way that we love so much. Go see for yourself; you will be pleased to see how a one-time ghost town of tacky, rapidly aging buildings, in an area with more undesirables than not, is now a bustling (at least at night), friendly, safe place (they have private security guards who hustle said undesirables away). It's a place where you can stroll, eat, or even dance to the music under the lights. The crowd it attracts is more upscale than in years past, and, of course, it's a lot less crowded than the hectic Strip. This helps give a second life to a deserving neighborhood. Note: A good place to view the Sky Parade light show is from the balcony at Fitzgerald's Casino & Hotel.
And in a further effort to retain as much of classic Las Vegas as possible, the Neon Museum is installing vintage hotel and casino signs along the promenade. The first installation was the horse and rider from the old Hacienda, which presently rides the sky over the intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, while the Lamp from the old Aladdin Hotel twinkles at the northwest corner. Eventually, the Neon Museum hopes to have a complex at their Neon Boneyard, using the old La Concha Motel, itself a piece of classic Vegas architecture thankfully saved from the wrecking ball, as a centerpiece. It's uncertain when the complex will open, but in the meantime, you can do a self-guided walking tour of sign installations in downtown. (Go to www.neonmuseum.org for information.)
5 hide detailVintage Old Vegas neon signs
What happens to the signs when old casinos are torn down to make room for new resorts? They go to the Neon Museum! In The Neon Museum's Bone Yard you'll see Binion's Horseshoe, the famous Silver Slipper, signs from the Golden Nugget and the Sahara. These works of art are both classic pieces of Las Vegas history and visual reminders of times past. Eventually, the Neon Museum will open a permanent exhibit on the Las Vegas Strip in the rescued and historic La Concha Motel lobby, designed by internationally famous architect Paul Revere Williams.
Tours at the Boneyard are by advance appointment only; admission is $15.00 per person. Photography at the Boneyard is restricted to photos for personal use only. Several neon signs are on display at the Fremont Street Experience, and there is no charge to see those signs and no restrictions on photography.
6 hide detailMovie-themed hotel on the site of the old Aladdin
We were sad when the once fairy-tale fantastic Aladdin was purchased by Planet Hollywood -- it was the end of yet another era. Sure, today's Aladdin wasn't the same building where Elvis married 'Scilla, but even so. But thanks to that same Planet Hollywood and its memorabilia gimmick, the rooms are currently the most distinctive in town. Note: At press time, the rooms were still undergoing makeovers, so you should be careful to request a remodeled unit.
The reconstructed Strip entrance, heavy on the LED screens (it's supposed to evoke the visual mania of Times Square), certainly makes the interior easier to access than the last incarnation of Aladdin. Inside, those looking for the pop kitsch sensibility of the Planet Hollywood restaurants will be disappointed; it's actually kind of classy and design intensive. But you are going to come here for the rooms. Each has a movie or entertainment theme, such as Pulp Fiction, which might have John Travolta's suit in a glass case and a glass coffee table filled with more original memorabilia from the film. Although more than one room may share the same movie theme, no two rooms will have the same objects. The vibe of the room can vary radically depending on if the theme is Judy Garland in some charming musical or Wesley Snipes in Blade, so ask when booking. As gimmicks go, it's a catchy one, and a good use for all that junk the company's accumulated over the years. Beds have purple-velour padded headboards and the beds themselves are the Sheraton Four Comforts pillow-top thing, and mighty darn comfortable at that. Bathrooms are larger than standard but neither the largest on the Strip nor special enough to match the sleeping areas.
Note: The parking lot is all the way on the other side of the Miracle Mile shopping area, thus requiring guests to drag their suitcases all the way through the mall and a good chunk of the hotel before getting to registration. It's a very, very long and unpleasant schlep. Do not self-park here if you have mobility issues of any kind. Instead, follow the signs for casino (as opposed to mall) valet parking, which is right outside the front desk.
Restaurants include their massively popular 24-hour coffee shop Planet Daily, a Trader Vic's (just in time for the original to close forever), P.F. Chang's, Striphouse (a New York steakhouse with a bordello theme), and the Earl of Sandwich, from the very same noble family that lent its name to the food, which in fact is what the cafe is serving.
And then there is the Miracle Mile shopping area, winding its way in a giant horseshoe shape around the property, another one to rival the capitalist ventures over at Caesars and The Venetian. This also has a new owner (separate from Planet Hollywood), and while we resent its makeover from the aesthetically delightful Casbah theme to a much more generic upscale mall, as a shopping and dining option, it's still tops. The hotel also has its own arena, the Center for the Performing Arts, which is attracting big names back to Vegas. Finally, there is the Mandera spa, maybe aesthetically our hands-down local favorite. The designers went to Morocco for ideas, and it shows in this Medina-flavored facility; just looking at it is pampering, and that's before one of their attentive staff puts you in a wrap and "dry float" (a womblike water bed-style cradle).
Facilities: 19 restaurants; 7 bars/lounges; casino; performing-arts center; showroom; wedding chapel; 2 outdoor pools; health club; spa; 2 Jacuzzis; concierge; tour desk; car-rental desk; business center; extensive shopping arcade; 24-hr. room service; in-room massage; laundry service; dry cleaning; executive-level rooms
7 hide detailAnimatronics and a laser light show at Sam's Town
Imagine a park that is unaffected by the weather, climate-controlled, and features a laser show every two hours with music by the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra. There are cooling waterfalls, birds, squirrels and even a bear and a wolf. Children and adults alike will enjoy this unique and fun experience. This all takes place in the atrium of Sam's Town Hotel. There are several restaurants, shops and a bar from which you can view the events.
8 hide detail
This tourist attraction draws about 2,000 visitors a day. Ethel Mars began making fine chocolates in a little candy kitchen in the early 20th century. Her small enterprise evolved to produce not only dozens of varieties of superb boxed chocolates, but also some of the world's most famous candies: M&Ms, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, Snickers, and Mars bars.
Alas, the tour lasts only about 10 minutes and consists entirely of viewing stations with an audiotape explaining the chocolate-baking process. You learn very little. But the place does look like a bakery rather than a factory, which is nice, as no one wants to see their chocolates handled without love. Even more sadly, you get only one small chocolate as a sample -- delicious, but hardly satisfying. Surely, this is by design; now overwhelmingly in the mood for sugar, you are more likely to buy some of their expensive chocolate. Note: Come before 2:30pm, which is when the workers start to pack up and go home.
What's really worth seeing is outside: a lovely and extensive 2 1/2-acre garden displaying 350 species of rare and exotic cacti with signs provided for self-guided tours. It's best appreciated in spring, when the cacti are in full bloom. There's a little gazebo in which to sit and enjoy the garden, which would be quite peaceful were it not for the busloads of tourists in the area. Behind the garden, also with a self-guided tour, is Ethel M's "Living Machine," a natural wastewater treatment and recycling plant that consists of aerated tanks, ecological fluid beds, constructed wetlands, reed beds, and a storage pond.
9 hide detailThe iconic Vegas resort, complete with erupting volcano
The Mirage was a ground-breaking Las Vegas hotel casino when it was built. Its erupting volcano and extravagant landscaping were firsts for the Strip, and it set a standard for hotels as entertainment. Over twenty years later, the Mirage remains a AAA Four Diamond resort. With a prime location in the center of the Strip, updated rooms, and a large selection of onsite amenities, the iconic Mirage is still a popular Vegas hotel casino. Three types of standard guest room layouts are available. Several styles of suites, as well as luxury villas (complete with backyards), are available. Rooms have been updated with modern décor and amenities like LCD TVs, MP3 player docks, and cordless phones. The Mirage has several restaurants in all price ranges. Shows include LOVE, the Cirque du Soleil tribute to the Beatles, and the Terry Factor Show. Nightclubs, a pool "day club," and several bars and lounges are available for guests. Finding a place to eat, drink, or be entertained is never a problem at the Mirage. The volcano erupts every hour in the evenings. The Secret Garden and Dolphin Exhibit are family-friendly, although rather small. The Mirage is next to the Treasure Island and Caesars Palace, and across from the Venetian. A tram connects the Mirage to the TI.