How to do Las Vegas like a local

Nowhere does ‘big’ like Las Vegas, but the city is realising the benefit of turning down the intensity. Here’s where to head for the low-key side of Sin City.

By David Whitley
Published 1 May 2019, 08:00 BST
Artwork in the desert
Seven Magic Mountains.
Photograph by Getty Images

Parks and recreation

It doesn’t get much smaller than squeezing your business into a shipping container, but you’ll find plenty of them at Downtown Container PARK. Located on Fremont Street, it’s packed with shops and restaurants, as well as a stage for live music acts. Don’t miss the Dome — an immersive, pixelated playground with ultra-HD, 360-degree imagery.

Nearby Beauty Bar looks like a 1950s-style salon, complete with linoleum floors and standing-hood hair dryers above the seats, but this is a disguise for a reliably strong live music venue in a city that’s given the world hit bands like The Killers and Imagine Dragons. Smaller acts play on the more intimate indoor stage but catch the bigger names outside. 

The Downtown rejuvenation comes with some serious street art. The impressive murals — most of which were created during September’s annual Life is Beautiful Festival — can be spotted by mooching within a couple of blocks of Fremont Street East, although DTLV Art WALK runs guided tours if you’re keen to know more.  

Art has also come to the stark desert surroundings. Head south down Las Vegas Boulevard and a series of 30ft-high, luridly-coloured boulder stacks come into view by the Jean Dry Lake. This is Seven Magic Mountains — the rather incongruous work of Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, and its colourful weirdness is marvellously compelling.

Need to escape the city? Red Rock Canyon, out on the western edge of Vegas, has become the epicentre of the city’s healthy living set. Join them as they amble through the ochre rock walls, but Red E Bike provides e-bikes if you want to take in the landscape on two wheels.

Less conspicuous consumption

Locals tend to avoid the Strip wherever possible, with the Beerhaus a notable exception — largely because it’s next to the T-Mobile Arena, home to the Golden Knights ice hockey team. The modern take on a beer hall serves up a fine line of Nevada craft beers, such as the Joseph James Citra Rye American Pale Ale and Bad Beat Brewing’s Bluffing Isn’t Weisse.

And here’s a secret — even suburban malls can hide some pearls. Forte Tapas in Spring Valley, four miles west of the Strip, is a prime example. A meat-laden deli counter sits beside colourful, blanket-lined booths and an Eastern European twist on tapas — gorge on Russian beef and dill dumplings, Uzbek pilaf rice and Bulgarian wines from the family estate.

The Downtown Area around Fremont East is where Las Vegans go for a night out. Call in at Carson Kitchen — with its warehouse vibe, rock soundtrack and an unashamedly rich, jazzed-up comfort food where crispy chicken skin shares a menu with caviar and foie gras.

It’s arty meets party at Park on Fremont, which has wooden carriages and seesaws in a garden adorned with some rather risque paintings. There’s no-nonsense food and drink on offer, too, with dishes such as ‘garbage fries’ (piled with bacon, jalapeños and chipotle ranch) and devilishly good spiked coffee.

If you’ve still got room, head a few doors down to Therapy. The place has had quite the transformation — what was once a 99 cent store is now a playfully inventive kitchen. The menu includes buttermilk chicken and red velvet waffle sliders, and devils on horseback with soft truffle goat’s cheese.  

Sausage and broccoli rabe at Carson Kitchen.
Photograph by Chris Wessling

Donald Contursi’s top 5: evening hangouts

Downtown Cocktail Room
Hidden behind a steel trick door is an intimate speakeasy. This lounge-y, dimly-lit clandestine bar changes its cocktail list seasonally and the happy hour bargains can be had between 4pm and 7pm.

Lotus of Siam
East of the Strip, some would argue this authentic, family-run joint is the best Thai restaurant in the country. There’s plenty of excellent food on the menu, but it specialises in northern Thai cuisine — think spicy jackfruit or rice vermicelli curries.

There are higher rooftop bars in the city, but Inspire looks straight down Fremont East and all its restored vintage neon signs. There’s a little-known theatre inside, which is great for TED talks, comedy and burlesque shows.

7th and Carson
The woodfire oven’s the star, but there’s a commitment to whatever’s in season. I’d recommend the ‘legs and eggs’ — tempura crab leg, caviar and barrel-aged ponzu — and the breads from the oven are something special.

The Laundry Room
The Commonwealth is one of Downtown’s hippest bars, but look out for the speakeasy in the back. You have to text a certain number to get in, then phones are banned when you’re inside. Note — this isn’t somewhere to go for a Bud Light.

Donald Contursi is the founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, which aims to show off the best of Vegas’ food and drink scene.

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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