Nestled in the Nevada desert is Las Vegas. Hotels, casinos, nightclubs, and restaurants all vie for space among the neon and glitz in this city of sin. A lot of people don’t like Vegas – the party, the glitz, the expensive resorts, the fancy see and be seen atmosphere. But those people focus on the negatives of Vegas. I am constantly blown away by the city – the amazing mix of restaurants, diners, people, concerts, shows, and events. There is much more to Las Vegas than the Strip. And despite all the wealth on show, it’s pretty easy to pick up freebies in Vegas. Free drinks, meals, show tickets, and reduced accommodation can all be easily had – if you know where to look!
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Las Vegas
1. Take in a show
2. Experience Fremont Street
3. Eat, Eat, Eat
4. Head to Hoover Dam & Lake Mead
5. Visit the Neon Museum
Other Things to See and Do
(Click the title to expand the text)
1. Take a trip to the Grand Canyon
You can combine a trip to the Grand Canyon with an outing to Hoover Dam if you take one of the many coach tours for around $85. Try to factor in an entire day for your tour though as the canyon isn’t that close to the city. Since they are over 250 miles away, a tour of the Canyon and Hoover Dam can easily take up to 14 hours. While I think the Grand Canyon deserves its own trip, if this is the closest you can get to it, a rushed visit is better than no visit.
2. Explore Shark Reef
As one of the most prestigious sea-life centers in the world, Shark Reef Aquarium is a must see. Shark Reef tunnel, which is designed to look like a sunken ancient shipwreck allows you to come face to face with all kinds of sharks, sawfish, giant rays, endangered green sea turtles and rare golden crocodiles. Tickets cost $20, and it is located in Mandalay Bay Resort. It’s open daily from 10am-10pm.
3. See Vegas from Stratosphere
Offering the best views of Vegas, Stratosphere is the tallest free-standing observation tower in the US. If you’re feeling brave then consider having a go on one of the extreme rides at the top. The aptly named X-Scream propels you headfirst 27ft over the edge of the tower and leaves you hanging over 850 ft in the air. Admission to the tower and all rides costs $40. It’s open daily from 10am to at least 1am.
4. Hike Red Rock Canyon
If the bright lights of Vegas get too much for you then head out to Red Rock Canyon for a day’s hiking. The canyon is ringed by a road and each trailhead has a parking lot where you can leave your car to go hike before driving to the next trailhead. At 2.5 miles long, the Calico Tanks trail is the most popular in the area. You’ll pass a natural water tank on the way which leads up to a summit offering a great view of Las Vegas. Make sure to come early in the morning before it gets too hot, and bring a lot of water. Entrance costs $7 per vehicle and the scenic loop is open from 6am to at least 5pm. The visitor center is open daily from 8am-4:30pm.
5. Check out the Mob Museum
Las Vegas started with the mafia. Bugsy Segel built the Flamingo and, since then, the mob has controlled Vegas (see the movie “Casino”). With the rise of the mega resorts, they have had less influence, however. Still, the mob and Vegas are tied together and a wonderful and very detailed museum has opened to discuss the history of the two. Fun fact: my family used to be involved with the mob out in Vegas. It’s open daily from 9am-9pm and admission costs $25 (if you buy online, tickets are $20).
6. See the Mirage Volcano
Set to its own soundtrack, the volcano erupts finely choreographed fireballs and smoke 100ft into the air from the waters below, turning the waterfall to molten lava. The volcano show happens 7pm and 8pm and, on Saturdays, there’s also a 9pm show.
7. Stay at Aria
This my favorite hotel. Hands down. I love everything about Aria. I love the high tech rooms, the pool area, outdoor club, delicious restaurants, and modern look and feel to the hotel and casino. But my favorite thing? The smell. The whole place is scented with vanilla. It’s by far the best-smelling place on the Strip. I would recommend staying here but if you choose somewhere else, make sure you come and visit and at least enjoy one of the great restaurants.
8. Visit the Venetian
While gondola rides are super cheesy, overpriced, and touristy (just like in Venice!), the architecture and construction of this casino is magnificent and one of the best on the Vegas Strip. If anything, just walk through here. Simply put – it’s pretty and makes for a good stroll.
9. Watch the Bellagio Fountain Show
Soaring as high as 460 ft, The Bellagio has a fountain show that performs a magnificent light and water display set to music. It happens every fifteen minutes and crowds form about five minutes before the light show starts. I think it overhyped (probably due to Ocean’s 11) and while I wouldn’t make my night revolve around it like some people do, it’s worth seeing if you are nearby.
10. Go clubbing
Clubs in Vegas are some of the most prestigious (read: pretentious) in the world, so you can expect to wait in line for a long time, pay outrageous prices for drinks and entry into the club, as well as being rejected if you’re not dressed smartly enough. The biggest ones are Lavo, Tao, Marquee, and Haze.
11. Hang out in Boulder City
Along the way to the Hoover Dam, this suburb can give you a taste of local life in the area. Milos is the hot restaurant in this town. There’s also a main street and some shopping you can do, but not much more than that. But despite the lack of “things to do,” strolling around this quiet little community is a nice contrast to the crowds of Vegas.
12. Go Golfing
There are many golf courses in Vegas, including Shadow Creek, one of the best in the world. If you aren’t a member of any local clubs, many of the casinos can arrange day passes.
Let’s face it: Vegas is a casino city. Even at the airport, you find slot machines. There is every type of game in Las Vegas. If you can bet on it, you’ll find it in Vegas. And if you can’t bet on it, well, someone will let you in Vegas. All the casinos are different and while some of the better ones are experiences in themselves even if you don’t gamble, you can see my guide to the best casinos in Las Vegas for details on all the casinos.
14. Relive the past at Bonnie Springs
Pure tourist cheese (but that can be fun), Bonnie Springs Ranch is a former mining town that is now a “ghost town” where you can experience life in the Old West, ride horses, and watch reenacted gunfights. Admission to the Old Town is $10.
15. Get artistic at First Friday
On the first Friday of every month, the downtown area fills up with exhibits and displays from local artists during First Friday. It’s free and a great way to get a sense of the local art scene as well as mix with locals. Be sure to also check out Arts District 18B, the arts center of Las Vegas, which is home to cool bars, shops, galleries, and more.
Budget hotel prices – There are plenty of budget hotels and casinos (think Circus Circus) located on the Strip and slightly further afield with prices start from around $40 per night, or closer to $50 on the Strip. Many of the nicer Strip hotels start at around $100 per night with more luxurious hotels like the Bellagio, Venetian, or Aria starting at $150 or more per night. However, casinos offer tons of cheap room rates to get you into their casinos. There is always a deal being offered online so be sure to check before you book. Use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates. On Airbnb, you can find shared rooms a few streets over from the Strip from $15-25 per night. You can find entire homes in the same areas for around $55 per night.
Average cost of food – Most hotels and casinos have a buffet where you’ll pay $10-25. Outside the casinos, a meal at a sit-down restaurant will be around $25. If you’re eating at a restaurant in the casinos, you’re looking at spending at least $50 per person. If you get a bottle of wine, prices can be as high as $300. But there are also cheaper eateries at casinos, usually casual or to-go dining that’s a bit cheaper (around $15). Towards the middle of the Strip near Ballys, there are a number of cheap chain restaurants like Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Subway where you can find cheap eats. (You can find some of these in the casinos too but they are more expensive.) If you want to save money, get off the Strip! If you cook your own food, expect to pay $50 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods.
Transportation costs – In Las Vegas, you have a lot of options for getting around. A free option is taking a casino shuttle. A lot of casinos are owned by the same company and so they’ll offer services to those casinos. It’s a good way to get up and down the Strip and closer to any casinos that are further away without paying. There’s also the Deuce bus, which goes from the Strip to Fremont Street. It’s $8 for a 24-hour ticket. Las Vegas does have a monorail system that will take you down the Strip and stop at various hotels. It costs $15 for a one-day pass (or $5 for one way, $9 for round-trip) but there are also a few free routes depending on your destinations. UberX has a base fare of $1.50 and costs $1 per mile. If you’re renting a car, most casinos offer free parking or free valet (tips are expected).
Suggested daily budget
$40-100 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel or using hotel points for a cheap room, not gambling a lot, drinking free trips, eating away from the strip, cooking some meals, and using local transportation.)
Money Saving Tips
- Skip the weekend – Most people visit Las Vegas on a Friday or Saturday and stay for the weekend which means this is the most expensive time to visit. By visiting the city during the week you can avail of the significantly reduced room rates and restaurant prices.
- Gamble responsibly – It’s Vegas, of course, you’ll want to risk a few dollars in a casino, but don’t go wild. Only gamble what you can comfortably afford to lose, because chances are, the house will win.
- Get comps – If you’re gambling the casino will often reimburse some of your losses in the form of meals, discounted show tickets, and rooms. Make sure to ask about these!
- Use coupons – Coupons are almost a currency in Las Vegas; casinos will give you a book of them when you sign up for a (free) player’s card and you’ll find 2-for-1 offers on meals in restaurants on the Strip.
- Don’t pay cabs with a credit card – Taxis charge a $3 service charge when you pay with a credit card. Avoid the charge by paying cash.
- Eat at the buffet – Vegas as some of the best food in the world. With all the money flowing in, it should be no surprise but if you really want to save money on food, stick to the all-you-can-eat buffets. They will cost you about $20 a day.
- Eat cheap at 5-star restaurants – Prime-time seating at the Strip’s five-star restaurants is between 8 and 10pm, but these hot spots like to be full all the time, so most have both happy hour and pre-show menus to kick off their evenings between 4pm and 7pm.
- Go to Reverse Happy Hour – Most Vegas restaurants stop serving food by 10:30pm, but there are so many performers finishing up about that time that the Strip has a tradition of the post-10pm (or 11pm, depending on the place) “reverse happy hour,” with food and drinks starting as low as $3.
- Do brunch – Whether you’re pulling off a hair of the dog or are simply looking for a daytime gossip fest with the girls, a boozy brunch is a Sin City staple. And in Vegas, the best ones come with unlimited food and drinks on the weekends. (I order my mimosas bottomless and tell them to “hold the juice.”)
- Drink at the casino before hitting the club – To cut down on expensive drinks at the clubs, drink on the casino floor. The drinks are free as long as you’re playing one of the games. Sit down at a penny slot machine, play slow, and drink fast. You can have 10 drinks for the price of one at the club! Just make sure you tip the waitress.
- Get discount tickets to shows – My favorite part about living near the Strip is getting to see so many shows. Tix4Tonight has booths at Fashion Show Mall, Circus Circus, Town Square, Four Queens downtown, and various other locations around town. There you can find tickets for shows that night for 50 percent off. The booths open at 10am and accept both major credit cards and cash. Get there early! The location in front of the giant Coke bottle and M&M store is notorious for having the longest line, so try to avoid it.
- Grab a Vegas2Go – It’s a coupon and listings book for shows and some food specials. They’re in kiosks all over the Strip or you can ask the concierge at your hotel. Also check Vegas.com daily. It offers rotating deals on various shows.
- Get the Las Vegas Power Pass – This pass allows you to see a large number of attractions (and includes a free hop-off, hop-on tour as well as transportation on The Deuce). A one-day pass is $85. Some of the things you can enjoy with this pass are a free tour of the Hoover Dam, free entrance to the Divas Las Vegas show, and free entry to the Eiffel Tower experience.
- Save money on rideshares – Uber and Lyft (my preferred company) are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a taxi. The shared/pool option (where you share a ride with other people) offers even better savings. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).
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