• Sandy Horne

Actually Cool Things to Do in Las Vegas


It's not easy being a local in Las Vegas. Any time a friend or family member visits, the pressure is on to make suggestions on restaurants, nightclubs, events, and other fun things to do. But what's Vegas really like? Sometimes we stick with the same old obvious stuff -- the Downtown Container Park, M&M's Store, or "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. But in the words of every overactive Twitter user -- we can do better. Which popular attractions actually live up to the hype? And what are some of the not-so-obvious cool things that you really want to know about? The following suggestions will complement any well-rounded Las Vegas vacation or weekend neighborhood getaway.

Watch old signs come back to life at the Neon Museum

$ Downtown The Neon Museum packs a lot of Vegas history into one place, offering guided tours of old neon signs and marquees from casinos and other businesses long departed. The attraction is especially engaging at night. Make sure to check out Brilliant -- a light, video, and music display that brings some of those signs back to life without a single one being plugged in. The Neon Museum recently extended its run of Lost Vegas, an exhibit by visionary director Tim Burton, and is planning to expand its space in 2020.

Get together with your friends and break stuff

$$ Multiple Locations It just happens. As soon as a plane lands at McCarran International Airport, people just want to jump out and go wild in Las Vegas. Take out your aggression at Sin City Smash where you can don protective gear and use a sledgehammer to destroy dishes, computers, and other breakable stuff. Some say it's therapeutic, but If you know the frustration of an office printer all too well, this is totally for you. Similar "rage rooms" are also found at Wreck Room and Axe Monkeys. Take your appetite for destruction up another level with Dig This, an attraction that lets you operate bulldozers and excavators on a construction site -- and smash up a car with the "Aggression Session" package.

Feast on a steak dinner at a strip club

$$$ Industrial Corridor Las Vegas is known for both its steakhouses and strip clubs, so somebody got the idea to combine both in one. Treasures has its own restaurant that serves as the perfect pregaming spot before getting a show. The dining room is small but cozy with an Old World feel, large comfortable furniture, and friendly service by a team that's been in place for years. The best part -- the food is actually really, really good. Start with the lobster bisque or a tender pair of crab cakes before moving on to perfectly cooked prime steaks with just the right amount of char around the edges. Ask about the specials -- usually surf and turf variations with lobster tail or shrimp scampi.

Get your fill of celebrity chefs

$$$-$$$$ The Strip There are probably more celebrity chef restaurants per capita in Las Vegas than anywhere else in the world, and most of them have multiple properties. Emeril? Bam! Wolfgang? Ja. Nobu? Morimoto? Hai! Humm? Yum! Robuchon, both Kellers (Thomas and Hubert), the Michaels Mina and Symon, Savoy, Colicchio, Chang, Flay, Fieri -- all present and accounted for. Though admittedly, not all celebrity chef Vegas outposts are created equal. But you can't go wrong with Jaleo (or its exclusive speakeasy-style restaurant-within-a restaurant É) at the Cosmopolitan and Bazaar Steak at the Sahara -- all featuring the creative culinary genius of José Andrés. If you want to maximize the "celebrity" in celebrity chef, head to Giada inside the Cromwell by Giada de Laurenttis with incredible open-window views of the Strip or Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen at Caesars Palace, which almost feels like you're on the set of the TV show of the same name.

Explore the local neighborhood dining scene

$-$$$ Off the Strip On the flip side of all those celebrity chef restaurants is the local neighborhood dining scene, which is only getting better with each day that goes by. It's definitely one of the perks of Vegas growing as a residential community beyond the Strip. Black Sheep, Carson Kitchen, Cleaver, Esther's Kitchen, Flock & Fowl, Graffiti Bao, Kitchen at Atomic, La Strega, Locale, Lotus of Siam, and Other Mama all have local buzz for good reason, delivering on great food without the Strip prices. And if you want super cheap food, there's a guide for that, too.

Skip the line at your favorite nightclubs

$$$ The Strip If you like getting things started around midnight, nightclubs can be a lot of fun in Vegas. They can also be expensive, especially if you plan to drink. Depending on how often you party, it's now possible to maximize your dollars with the Hakkasan Group Party Pass, which grants access to Hakkasan, Omnia, and the newly renovated Wet Republic (one of the busiest pool parties in Vegas) for a total of 10 events over four days. Even better -- you get to skip the line, which is almost worth the price (starting at $99) all by itself. If you plan to party hop while checking out sets by the likes of Calvin Harris and Steve Aoki, consider the pass a major asset.

Soar through the air on a zipline

$$ Multiple locations For thrills on or off the Strip, Las Vegas has ziplines to send you soaring above all sorts of scenery. Fly LINQ is the only one actually on the Strip with riders flying 12 stories over The LINQ promenade. Slotzilla shoots you off from a giant slot machine under the LED canopy of the Fremont Street Experience. Both offer the choice of flying seated or horizontal (superhero-style). FlightLinez takes you over Bootleg Canyon in Boulder City, about 30 minutes from the Strip, with daytime, sunset, or moonlight packages. The VooDoo Zipline is the craziest, dropping passengers 800 feet between the Rio's two hotel towers. The views of the Strip and the mountains go great with the adrenaline rush.

Swim topless at a strip club pool

$$$ Industrial Corridor The era of the European-style topless swimming pool appears to be winding down in Las Vegas. Bare quietly dropped its tops-optional policy and Venus is rebranding itself as a family-friendly all-ages pool in 2020. But if this is still on your Las Vegas bucket list, head to Sapphire, the only gentlemen's club in town with its own swimming pool. Guests, servers, and bartenders are all welcome to go topless. The food is great and, even better, Sapphire has its own parking and valet -- so no long walks through a hotel lobby to reach a pool party.

Crawl the cocktail bars downtown

$$ Downtown There are some fantastic cocktail spots on and off the Strip, but if you really want to dive into a stiff drink, Downtown is the way to go. Hit the Arts District for craft cocktails from Velveteen Rabbit, ReBAR, Jammyland, and Esther's Kitchen, or stick to Fremont East (on the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard from the Fremont Street Experience) and check out Oak & Ivy, Atomic Liquors, the Laundry Room (a speakeasy inside Commonwealth), the Underground at Mob Museum, and the bar that really got the movement going in Vegas, the Downtown Cocktail Room (and the smaller bar-inside-a-bar Mike Morey's Sip'n'Tip).

Take a market tour of Eataly

$$ Park MGM The Las Vegas edition of Eataly, a retail and dining hybrid dedicated to Italian cuisine, always seems to have cool events on the calendar, including special tastings, dinners, and classes. The regular Market Tours are an incredible deal at $35-50. Guests are guided through Eataly's stations and departments, enjoying samples of meats, pizza, cheeses (including fresh-pulled mozzarella), desserts, and wine while learning about the sourcing and secrets behind the dishes. Come hungry.

Legally smoke weed in public at NuWu

$$ Downtown Now that recreational cannabis is legal in Nevada, Las Vegas is loaded with dispensaries. Count Planet 13, The+Source, Acres, The Dispensary, Apothecary Shoppe, Thrive, and Essence among our favorites. However, NuWu is the only one that has a lounge for on-site consumption -- an important detail, since it's still illegal to use outside a private home. (And yes, hotel rooms are off-limits, too.) NuWu is able to have the only lounge in Nevada because it's on Paiute tribal land and has more leeway in determining its own laws. A large selection and drive-thru window doesn't hurt either. NuWu also hosted the first publicly ticketed cannabis-infused dinner in the country late last year with more similar events expected in the future.

Take a bite out of artisanal chocolates

$-$$ Multiple locations Las Vegas has some of the best chocolate makers in the country. At Ethel M, a boutique chocolate factory built in 1980 in Henderson by the founder of Mars, visitors can not only tour the factory, but the three-ace Cactus Garden out front, which is decorated with colorful lights during the winter. An expanded retail shop was recently put in place and offers classroom-like tasting experiences and a "chocolate wall" for the perfect selfie. Head to Jean-Marie Auboine Chocolatier, which has been quietly selling luxury chocolates to the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons on a private-label basis for years. The factory now has a retail shop to purchase everything from truffles and caramels to chocolate scrubs and lotions. Hexx Chocolate features single-origin beans from Ecuador, Madagascar, and other regions, crafted with little more than cacao, palm sugar, and a touch of milk and vanilla. The chocolate is produced at the Paris resort, where sister restaurants Hexx and Alexxa's Bar use it to make desserts.

Laugh your ass off at a comedy club

Free-$$ The Strip Vegas has its share of big-name comedy headliners, including regular gigs by Jerry Seinfeld and Jeff Dunham at Caesars Palace, Terry Fator and the Aces of Comedy series at the Mirage, and a new residency by Bill Burr at the Cosmopolitan. Yet Sin CIty is also a perfect place to see newer acts on the rise. One of the best venues is Jimmy Kimmel's Comedy Club at the LINQ, where comics are filmed for appearances on Kimmel's late-night TV show and established favorites like Ron White, Chris Tucker, and Adam Carolla have dropped in for surprise sets. It's also got a comfy downstairs bar with memorabilia and the best food you'll find at a comedy joint. Brad Garret's Comedy Club at the MGM Grand, the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana, the Comedy Cellar at the Rio, LA Comedy Club at the Strat, and the free R-rated Dirty at 12:30 at the South Point will also help squeeze in some laughs during any visit to Las Vegas.

Bounce around on a floating playground

$$ Lake Las Vegas Get away for the weekend at Lake Las Vegas, where you can enjoy boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding courtesy of Lake Las Vegas Water Sports. If that's not enough, bounce and slide around the Aqua Park, a new inflatable playground introduced last year, and zoom around on a flyboard, which propels you into the air with the power of water beneath your feet. Think Iron Man and you've got the right idea.

See a baseball game at a new stadium

$$ Summerlin Minor league baseball may seem ho-hum in most towns, but it's a whole different ballgame in Vegas. The Las Vegas Ballpark has been a huge hit since opening at Downtown Summerlin in 2018. The seats are comfortable (like, really comfortable) and the food is great, served up by the same people behind local restaurant favorites like Ferraro's, Sparrow + Wolf, and the Goodwich. It almost doesn't matter if the Aviators win or not. Everyone's there to have a good time, enjoy the open air, and maybe cool off in the outfield swimming pool. The biggest star on the team? Finn the Bat Dog.

Drink and dine at culinary festivals

$$$ The Strip & Downtown Though Vegas Uncork'd is canceled this year, its success inspired Vegas UnStripped, a newer event in the Downtown Arts District with off-Strip neighborhood chefs and restaurants represented. Other events include Evolution (a fundraiser for local university students formerly known as UNLVino), Motley Brew's Great Vegas Beer Festival and Downtown Brew Festival, the Universal Whisky Experience, USA Today Wine & Food Experience, and Haute Cuisine by the Master Chefs of France.

Kayak the Emerald Cove of Black Canyon

$$$ Boulder City Yes, you can kayak in the desert! The Colorado River and Lake Mead are just 45 minutes from the Strip, and there are plenty of boating and kayaking excursions available for a fun day trip on the water. While there are many sites to see -- the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River, for one -- an absolute must is Black Canyon and the sparkling green waters of the Emerald Cove (at least when the afternoon light hits it just right). Check out the day tours from Kayak Lake Mead and have a waterproof camera ready.

Get your thrills under the dome and on top of the Strat

$$$ Circus Circus and The Strat Circus Circus does its best to be a hotel, casino, and amusement park in one. So in between rounds at the Slots A Fun casino out front, pay a visit to the Adventuredome for a pair of legit awesome coasters: El Loco and Canyon Blaster. Still not enough? Then get dangled, spun, and dropped from The Strat with your choice of three thrill rides more than 800 feet in the air over the Strip. Still not enough? Then bungee jump off the tower and wave at diners while speeding past the Top of the World restaurant.

Gamble at all the right places

$-$$$$ Multiple Locations There's nothing wrong with trying to win a few bucks at the tables. Just know that all casinos aren't created equal. The Cromwell is the best bet on the Strip with single "0" roulette, EZ baccarat, 3-2 shoe and double-deck blackjack, and craps featuring 100x odds. If you understand what that all means, you know it's a lot better than what you'll find at other Strip casinos -- although the new OYO casino is doing its best to be player friendly, as well. If you're downtown, El Cortez also has double-deck Blackjack with 3-2 odds and for those of you interested in old-school slots, more than 200 original coin machines and slot-side food service. Before placing any bets, study up on a full guide gambling of tips and tricks.

See big stars in small(er) venues, along with a few exhibits

$$$-$$$$ The Strip Having a Vegas residency used to mean your career was winding down, but now it's cool -- and 2020 marks a changing landscape in the Las Vegas entertainment scene. The queen of the Strip, Celine Dion, wrapped up her megabucks run at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace last year, but Keith Urban, Sting, Rod Stewart, and others are helping pick up the slack. The Park Theater is seeing big business with regular runs by Lady Gaga, Aerosmith, Bruno Mars, and Cher. (The Park Theater also has mini-museums dedicated to Gaga and Aerosmith.) Zappos Theater is a diva dream come true with Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, Kelly Clarkson, and Gwen Stefani, although Pitbull just announced the return of his residency to represent the fellas.

Explore the food and drinks of Chinatown

$$-$$$$ Chinatown Las Vegas has an awesome under-hyped Chinatown that's just a few blocks west of the Strip on Spring Mountain Road, making it easy to reach by cab or ride-share for anyone at a big hotel. This hub of culture and cuisine has more variety than you might expect. The restaurants include the spicy Szechuan flavors of Chengdu Taste, the robata-grilled cuisine of Raku, masterful Japanese dining of Sushi Kame, experimental fusion of Sparrow + Wolf, contemporary Vietnamese of District One, addictive soup dumplings of ShangHai Taste, and even modern French of Partage and Spanish tapas of EDO. Along the way, grab a drink at Golden Tiki, Sand Dollar Lounge, Crown & Anchor, or the Leatherneck Club, which honestly have little to do with Asian culture, but are still awesome places to hang out.

Dance 'til Dawn at the Electric Daisy Carnival

$$$ Motor Speedway Nightclubs are kind of a thing in Vegas, but the biggest one of all is the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which transforms into the Electric Daisy Carnival for a colorful and crazy three-day weekend every May. The dusk-to-dawn electronic dance music party welcomes more than 140,000 people each night to enjoy nonstop DJs performing on at least eight different stages. The traffic outside the venue is a notorious nightmare, but you can beat the frustration by booking a helicopter or staying on site at Camp EDC, a “campground” site with air-conditioned tents or luxury pods.

Try different restaurants in one night with a foodie tour

$$$ Multiple locations If you only have one night in Vegas, the best thing you can do is leave dinner in the hands of the team at Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. The company specializes in culinary walking tours, in which guests sample signature dishes and drinks at top restaurants on the Strip or Downtown. No waits for tables, no lame restaurants, no retail stops -- just the best of the best, all in one evening. Come early for the brunch tour, go upscale with the steakhouse tour, or keep things casual with Finger Licking Foodie Tours -- a new concept introduced for 2020. The company is doing so well, it's expanded operations to Seattle, Santa Monica, San Jose, and St. Louis with more to come. There will be one of these tours in every big city someday, but just remember -- Vegas was first.

Treat yo’self with a spa day

$$-$$$$ The Strip There are a lot of spas in Las Vegas -- much like steakhouses and Cirque (or Cirque-ish) shows, every property has one. Many of them are excellent, but some are just so… Vegas. Check into the over-the-top Canyon Ranch Spa Club at the Venetian, which at 134,000 square feet and with more than 90 treatment rooms, is one of the largest day spas in the world. It also offers group fitness classes, sessions with personal trainers, and a 40-foot rock wall. The Sahra Spa, Salon & Hammam at the Cosmopolitan is one of the more luxe experiences, drawing inspiration from the sandstone of Red Rock and surrounding desert. Take a monsoon shower or lay on a giant heated stone slab in the Hammam room. Hot rocks not for you? Check out the Arctic Ice Room at the 50,000-square-foot Qua Baths & Spa at Caesars, the only one of its kind in the world.

Travel to a world of virtual reality

$$ The Strip Las Vegas has more than strip clubs for escaping the real world. Virtual reality attractions are booming right now. A great example is The VOID with experiences based on Star Wars, The Avengers, Jumanji, and more. Jedi geeks will love the first option. Sneak into Empire territory on a lava planet, shoot stormtroopers, and come face to face with one of your favorites in a surprise cameo. Zero Latency Virtual Reality at the MGM Grand's arcade-themed Level Up bar is nearly as good. The graphics aren't quite as sharp, but it goes farther in messing with your mind -- simulating walking up ramps and balancing over catwalks while shooting space aliens or zombies. VR Adventures at The LINQ is more low key, sticking to virtual roller coasters and flying around over the Strip. Crossing over into augmented reality territory, New York-New York takes things up a notch with its Big Apple Coaster -- a Coney Island-inspired outdoor roller coaster -- which now offers VR headsets so to simulate an alien invasion of Las Vegas.

Immerse yourself in the arts at the Smith Center

$$$ Downtown You might think a town with slot machines at the airport could care less about arts and culture, but wait 'til you check out the Smith Center. The stunning Art Deco palace of performing arts has three different rooms to showcase the finest in entertainment, including Myron's Cabaret Jazz lounge, the black box-style Troesh Studio Theater, and the stunning Reynolds Hall -- a stage that hosts major touring Broadway productions like The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, and Wicked, as well as productions from the Nevada Ballet Theater and performances by the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Do brunch Vegas-style

$$-$$$$ Multiple locations In Vegas, almost more than any other town, a filling (and sometimes hair-of-the-dog) morning meal is essential. Our town has no shortage of delicious brunch options, whether you like your meal boozy or dry. Spring and early summer are the best times for brunchin', before things heat up too much. And for something more casual than bottomless mimosas Downtown has four great coffeehouses: PublicUs, Vesta, Makers & Finders, and Mothership. Decisions, decisions.

Take a trip back to the Old West at the Pioneer Saloon

$$ Goodsprings It was originally ordered from a Sears catalog, but the oldest bar in Southern Nevada is still standing just a few miles near the California border. It's expanded dramatically over the years with a kitchen, dining room, patio, courtyard, and even a whiskey-aging program to keep people coming back for more. The place is also said to be haunted, so sign up for a haunted lockdown sleepover -- if you dare.

Enjoy an open bar on the High Roller

$$$ The LINQ If there's one touristy thing that every visitor and local alike should do in Las Vegas, it's a spin on the High Roller. You'll spend 30-40 minutes on the world's tallest observation wheel -- not to be confused with a "ferris" wheel, because you can actually stand up and walk around in this thing. Spend a few extra bucks and arrange a private bartender to serve drinks throughout your rotation. It's well worth the extra expense, since everything in Vegas is better with a drink and a great view. At the highest point, you'll be 550 feet in the air with perfect sight lines of the Strip, Downtown, and surrounding desert valley.

Watch the Golden Knights play, watch the Golden Knights practice

$$-$$$ Summerlin Ever since the Vegas Golden Knights reached the finals of the Stanley Cup in their debut season -- during a very tough year for the city -- they've earned their place in the hearts of Las Vegans. Nothing beats the energy of seeing a home game in person at the T-Mobile Arena, but you can also watch the team practice for free at the City National Arena in Downtown Summerlin while munching on food from MacKenzie River Pizza.

See a Cirque show -- it's kinda required

$$$-$$$$ The Strip At this point, Cirque du Soleil is as synonymous with Las Vegas as The Strip -- with seven current shows in custom-designed theaters. If you love the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo, The Beatles LOVE is a must. Ditto for King of Pop fans and Michael Jackson ONE. Mystere is the Vegas original, but never seems outdated. O takes things up a notch with water acrobatics and KA is a spectacle with a revolving, levitating stage. Zumanity is one of the most sensual shows in Vegas and the only Cirque production that includes nudity. The latest production, R.U.N. does its best to break from the Cirque mold, disregarding acrobatics and whimsy in favor of a gritty action thriller concept. Fair warning -- it's not for everyone.

Get the best views of Vegas from a helicopter

$$$ Multiple locations For the full cinematic Vegas-Strip-at-night experience, you could rent a convertible and drive down it -- and sit at the same traffic light for an hour. Or you can see it from above in a helicopter. Maverick offers tours of the Strip at night as well as the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, and other destinations. They'll even fly you to NASCAR and EDC at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a quick, scenic, traffic-free experience. 702 Helicopters also has tours of the Strip and Grand Canyon, as well as the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, formerly Vegas' best-kept secret and a coveted destination for hikers and climbers all over the world.

Wander the vibrant Arts District

Free-$$$ Downtown The easiest way for a tourist to not feel like one is by making a quick visit to the Downtown Arts District, about a mile south of Fremont Street. The community is growing dramatically and enjoying a reputation for local beer with Hop Nuts, Able Baker, a CraftHaus taproom, and the pending arrivals of HUDL Brewing Co. and the appropriately named Beer District Brewing. Vino lovers will likely prefer the new, modern Garagiste wine bar. The Arts District is also home to First Friday, an arts and culture festival on the first Friday of each month, and is loaded with second-hand shops with vintage furniture, clothes, and maybe a few souvenirs from old casinos imploded long ago.

Get out of town for a gorgeous hike

Free Multiple locations Look, we may be stuck smack-dab in the middle of the desert, but what that really means is Vegas has a big, wide-open backyard to play in with some gorgeous hikes right outside of town. We're talking Red Rock Canyon, 20 minutes from the Strip, Valley of Fire State Park, less than 90 minutes away, and the Grand Canyon less than five hours away if you're feeling ambitious.

Soak in the beauty of the Bellagio fountains

Free The Bellagio It may be the most obvious free thing to do in Vegas -- but it's one of the coolest. The sight of more than a thousand fountains shooting water nearly 500 feet into the air never gets old, whether accompanied by the music of Frank Sinatra or Tiesto. Shows tend to run every 15 minutes at night and every half hour during the day, offering a welcome dose of class and romance to your busy day of sightseeing. It's also one of the cheapest dates in Vegas. Follow it up with an equally free detour to the seasonal floral displays at the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens inside the hotel lobby.

Hit golf balls (and try the pretzel board) at Topgolf

$$$ Off the Strip While there are several Topgolf locations around the country, the one in Vegas smokes 'em all. You've got three levels to drive golf balls while staring straight at the Strip skyline -- which looks great day or night. Meanwhile, hang out in your own private bay while ordering drinks and food like a ridiculous Pretzel Board, which is kinda like a charcuterie and fruit plate served inside a giant soft pretzel, and order a 60-ounce “golf bag” party punch that's perfect to share. On weekends, enjoy a mimosa-fueled brunch at Hideaway Pool on the third level.

Explore the mines of Eldorado Canyon

$$$$ Nevada was built on the mining industry and one of the best examples is Techatticup Mine, about 45 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Located in Eldorado Canyon, the mine was a source of gold and silver, often hand-chiseled by candlelight, dating back to the Civil War era. Papillon has a great package that covers transportation and lunch, allows you to explore the site, and take an ATV ride through the desert. There are other tours you could probably take too, but Papillon's will fly you over the Grand Canyon by helicopter just to get there. Not bad.

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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas for Thrillist for more than four years. His work has also appeared in Modern Luxury, Leafly, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He's eating chocolate as he writes this. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelries.

Nicole Rupersburg lives in Las Vegas where you can find bottomless mimosa brunches every day of the week, A-list musicians in residency every night of the week, and snow still on the mountains in the middle of August when it's 115 degrees outside. Follow her on Twitter @ruperstarski.

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