The skyline is hyper-reality, a mélange of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and a pyramid. It is sensory overload that can reduce you to hapless tears or fits of giggles. But in the spaces between the visual madness, there's a bit of something for everyone, whether you want a wild party, a relaxing getaway, or something in between. Las Vegas is designed to keep you entertained, satisfied, satiated, and distracted from the real world outside its glittering borders.
Things to Do
The chances of getting bored in Las Vegas are slim at best. Start on the Strip where you could spend days goggling at the visual overload of the whole thing: Wonder at the appropriated skylines of New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas, and The Venetian; get your camera ready for the delightful dancing waters of the Fountains at Bellagio and the lava-spewing drama of the Mirage Volcano; or pull out your wallet and try your luck in one of the dozens of opulent casinos.
Las Vegas has become one of the premier shopping destinations in the world, with labels both brand and esoteric crowding the high-end malls. But here, shopping is more than just a way to rack up more credit card debt, it is an experience. Check out the Roman-themed street scene at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and the indoor version of Venice at The Grand Canal Shoppes, complete with its own canals and gondoliers.
Restaurants and Dining
Once an outpost of cheap buffets and barely edible prime-rib specials, Las Vegas is now an epicurean destination. You'll do fine at celebrity chef outlets from Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, but dig deeper to find the spectacularly intricate French cuisine at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon or the modern, luxurious interpretation of an all-you-can-eatery at The Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas. True foodies get off the Strip to experience eclectic Japanese at Raku Grill or the gourmet delights of Todd's Unique Dining.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Las Vegas comes alive at night, with a club scene that rivals Ibiza for its intensity and enough dazzling shows to give Broadway a run for its money. Marquee at The Cosmopolitan and XS at Encore are two of the better party-spot options these days, while almost all of the Cirque du Soleil productions are worth their high ticket prices. If you can snag tickets for a headliner like Lady Gaga or Gwen Stefani , you're in for a treat.
Best Overall Show: A perfect intersection of music and artistry can be found at Michael Jackson ONE, featuring the music and choreography of the King of Pop and the stunning visual theater of Cirque du Soleil.
Best Big Shows: The wow-factor winner is a toss-up between Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ and Mystère. The latter is more traditional if you can call a human circus that mixes dazzling acrobatics with dramatic visuals “traditional” in that it has only a loose semblance of narrative, whereas KÀ actually has a plot. Both are dazzling and, given the extremely high production values, seem worth the extremely high ticket prices.
Best Small Show: Only the space in which Absinthe is performed can be called small; the over-the-top acrobatics, stunts, dance, comedy, and mind-blowing originality certainly can’t be beat.
Best Classic Shows: Fare thee well, big, huge stage sets; pointless production numbers; showgirls; nipples on parade; and Bob Mackie headdresses. If you want more than just a musty blast from the past, check out Vegas! The Show, which celebrates multiple eras of classic Sin City entertainment in one spectacular package.
Best Magic Shows: This town almost doesn't deserve Penn & Teller and their master class in the art and artifice of illusion taught by guys who will both amuse and amaze. Meanwhile, mixing traditional illusions (big sets and big shocks) with a rock-'n'-roll aesthetic, Criss Angel's Mindfreak Live! will make you rethink everything you thought about magic shows.
Best Music Shows: Human Nature's Jukebox will shock you with how well four white Australian dudes can sing classic Motown songs, boy-band hits, and pop classics.
Best Daytime Shows: It’s almost as much of a comedy show as it is a magic show, but the set done by Mac King will leave you astounded with some great close-up tricks and laughing your head off at the same time. A similar mix of laughs and gasps can be found at the comedy juggling show done by Jeff Civillico.
Best Smart Show: This town isn't good enough for either Blue Man Group or Penn & Teller. The former is a wacky, yet surprisingly cerebral, performance art piece starring guys with their heads painted blue; the latter is a master class in the art and artifice of illusion taught by guys who will both amuse and amaze.
Best Local Hang: Hard-core types (including punks; off-duty strippers; off-duty waitstaff; and, on certain nights, Blue Man men, sans makeup, doing weird percussion things) gather way after hours at the Double Down Saloon.
Best Nightclub: If by "best," you mean "most popular," and by "most popular," you mean "people are willing to start standing in line hours before they open and pay $40 a pop, and that's before the alcohol, just to get a foot in the door," then Marquee beats out the competition by a long shot. But if substance over style is more your bag, head toward XS, where the lines are just as long and the covers are just as high, but the reward is a high-class indoor/outdoor club experience that truly lives up to its excessive moniker.
Best Ultralounge: That's just Vegas-speak for "fancy-pants hotel bar," but most of them are pretty nice, if trying too hard to be all that. Still, we like the vibe at Surrender, with its gorgeous indoor/outdoor atmosphere and sultry decor. If you prefer a room with a view, take the elevator up to ghostbar. Located high atop The Palms tower, it has a groovy ambience and some amazing scenery (both from the surrounding landscape and the pretty people hanging out at the bar).
Best Hotel Bar: The almost scientific construction of the cocktails at Petrossian makes this a must-visit bar for fans of mixology. Or you could immerse yourself in a different kind of intoxicating ambience at one of the bars inside the massive three-story Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan.
Best Gay and Lesbian Bar: Part sexy ultra-lounge and part high-energy dance club, the facility at Piranha/8 ½ offers a little bit of the best of both worlds in one fun package.
Best Party Places for 20-Somethings: The title for hottest nightclub can change quickly, but the see-and-be-seen set makes the most of the multilevel Marquee that offers four clubs in one.
Best Party Places for People Who Aren't 20-Something: So you want to go dancing, have a drink, and just enjoy yourself, but you aren't 23, thin, and/or model-gorgeous anymore. Your best bet is to visit a one of the hotel lounges like Mizuya at Mandalay Bay, where they have most of the fun without all the attitude.
Best Strip Club: You know you want to know. We give the honors to Treasures, because we think all strip joints should insist on production numbers with stage effects and look like old-fashioned English brothels.
Best Free Things to Do in Las Vegas
Watching the Waters Dance: The intricately choreographed water ballet that is the Fountains at Bellagio would be worth repeated viewings even if they charged to see it. The fact that they don’t makes it an almost perfect Vegas experience.
Enjoying the Changing of the Seasons: There are five seasons in the elaborately designed botanical gardens of the Bellagio Conservatory: Winter (holiday), Chinese New Year, Spring, Summer, and Fall. No matter which is on display during your visit, make sure your digital camera has a full battery charge. You’ll want lots of pictures.
Seeing a Volcano Erupt: When the free Mirage Volcano first “erupted” in 1989, shooting flames and faux lava into the sky, it literally stopped traffic on the Strip. That it doesn’t today only means that it has more competition for your attention, not that it is any less fun.
Watching the Sky Light Up: Many people considered it almost sacrilegious to convert the famed Glitter Gulch in Downtown Vegas into a pedestrian mall with a free light-and-sound show broadcast on a massive LED canopy overhead. Now the Fremont Street Experience is considered a must-visit.
Playing a Penny Slot: Yes, in order to win the big bucks sometimes millions of them on a modern penny slot, you have to bet much more than just one penny. But if you’re okay with smaller rewards and losses, you could stretch a dollar into 100 spins.
Beating the High Score: It’s free to just look at the restored classic machines at the Pinball Hall of Fame, and if you want to do more than just look, it’ll only cost you a couple of quarters. What other museum lets you play with its works of art?
Making Your Own Postcard: Nearly every hotel now has some sort of clever wall or giant piece of art that’s meant to help you populate your social media feed. But just down the road from the southernmost edge of the Strip is the original Insta-worthy installation, and one of the most photographed and imitated signs in the world. Get a picture of you at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, and you’ll have a postcard-worthy souvenir.
Local Favorites in Las Vegas
Gambling on a Budget: Finding a local at a Strip casino is rare. Why? Because Vegas residents know the limits are lower and the payback is often higher at neighborhood casinos like Red Rock Resort and Green Valley Ranch Resort.
Eating off the Strip: Those same locals who don’t gamble on the Strip usually don’t eat on the Strip either, unless they are trying to impress visitors. Instead, they dine at the less expensive but still fantastic local eateries such as EDO Gastro
Tapas & Wine.Becoming an Arts Lover: Leave the tacky Las Vegas snow globes for the souvenir-hunting tourists and get yourself some unique Vegas keepsakes at one of the arts collectives instead. The Arts Factory is leading the charge for the burgeoning arts scene in the city.
Hunting for Treasure: It may be surprising to find out that in a city like Las Vegas, where history is often disposed of with carefully timed implosions, antique shopping is a favored pastime of locals and visitors alike. Check out the fun finds at Retro Vegas.
Catching a Broadway Show: The visually and aurally stunning Smith Center for the Performing Arts has been a boon to the cultural life of Las Vegas, giving a proper home to everything from the philharmonics and dance troupes to their popular Broadway Series featuring titles like The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.
Walking the Streets: No, not that way. Instead, check out the fun First Friday Las Vegas street fair, which brings the local (and tourist) community together with live entertainment, art vendors, and lots of state fair–type food. Did we mention deep-fried cookie dough? We thought that would get your attention.