A low-key Las Vegas itinerary for art and culture vultures
I love its lopsided sense of scale and its commitment to nonstop indulgence. Like all good things, though, I can usually only manage Vegas in small doses. After a day or two losing dollars on roulette and drinking too many watered-down cocktails, I find myself looking for something … else. A way to recharge, or just find some respite from the crowds and the neon.
On a recent trip, I made an effort to look beyond the basics in Las Vegas, to find places that would still be fun and interesting to a visitor like me, but wouldn’t require tons of money, a reservation made three months in advance or a walk past rows of ringing slot machines.
Throw in some art, history, literature and signature only-in-Vegas quirkiness, and I had myself a whole new itinerary — without leaving town.
Writer’s Block and the Las Vegas Arts District
I remember visiting Las Vegas a decade ago and trying to find something I always seek out in my favorite destinations — an independent bookstore. One minor problem: There wasn’t one.
Whether it’s McNally Jackson Books in New York City, Daunt Books in London or El Pendulo in Mexico City, a great bookstore can ground you in a destination. Staffers can point you to books about the surrounding area and recommend local authors.
This seems especially necessary in a place like Las Vegas, which almost qualifies as its own booze-and-substances soaked literary genre, whether you’re reading “Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien or Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Then, in 2014, The Writer’s Block opened.
The city’s first indy bookshop expanded and moved to its current glass-and-stucco location on an unassuming corner just outside of the city’s Arts District a few years ago. A stroll through the shop reveals exposed beams, patrons pecking away at their own great American novels in the coffee shop and an “artificial bird sanctuary.”
There’s also a rabbit that lives in the children’s section, but it’s real.
After you’ve perused the selection — I walked away with “Desert Oracle” by Ken Layne, a sort-of periodical about life in the American desert — make your way a few blocks south to the heart of the Las Vegas Arts District. Spanning 18 blocks between Hoover Avenue and Colorado Avenue, it’s situated south and west of the attractions on Freemont Street, on the opposite side of Las Vegas Boulevard.
This pocket of restaurants, shops and galleries is anchored by The Arts Factory, an artist community and gallery space that was relatively quiet during the COVID-19 pandemic but is roaring back to life with events and shows. Look for its hard-to-miss exterior mural, and you know you’ve arrived.
The Arts Factory also hosts First Fridays, a monthly arts and culture festival where you can enjoy a street performance, buy a photograph by a local artist or sample dishes from a variety of food trucks.
Just be sure to check ahead for dates and tickets. The event is free to attend, but during the pandemic, it was capacity controlled and sold out quickly. It’s not clear how long this practice will last, or whether it will continue into the future.
If you’re arriving outside of a First Friday — or in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, as I did — there are still things to see and do here.
An excellent choice for lunch is18bin, where chef Jennifer Landry brings a southern sensibility to West Coast-style comfort food.
I loved the beet and avocado “sashimi,” which was prepared with jalapeño, vegan feta cheese and tomato marmalade, and an amazing seared tuna salad. Nachos and burgers get a similarly sophisticated treatment, and veggie and vegan dishes are plentiful.
A mix-and-match option lets you pair French fries with one of eight different seasonings (including Old Bay, salt and vinegar, sour cream and onion) and 11 sauces (think: guacamole, barbecue, tartar, truffle aioli, Thai sweet chili). Eat indoors or on the expansive patio, which offers plenty of shade from the desert heat.
As you’re wandering through the Arts District, you may stumble across a somber reminder of a harrowing piece of recent Las Vegas history. The LV Community Healing Garden commemorates the 58 people killed in a 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival held just off the Las Vegas Strip. Family and friends of those killed have contributed photos, art, souvenirs and other personal artifacts that make the park feel like a vibrant patchwork of memories.
This deeply affecting, peaceful spot is located a quick walk from 18bin and the Arts Factory.
Downtown Las Vegas and the surrounding area
The sights on and around Freemont Street, or “old Las Vegas,” are longtime staples if you’re looking to escape the pull of the thousand-room, megawatt casino hotels farther south on the Strip.
This area, which has a grittier vibe than you’ll experience in other parts of the ultra-shiny Strip, is where Las Vegas grew up.
Freemont Street wasn’t just the original Strip, where the first casinos opened in Las Vegas in the 1930s; It was also the first paved road in town. The area’s smaller scale, though not necessarily smaller crowds, can feel like a relief after a few days of high minimums and gut-busting buffets. You just have to know where to look.
Downtown Container Parkhas been upending expectations of what a Las Vegas experience should be since it opened in 2013. Bars, clothing shops, art galleries and even a tattoo parlor call this artful stack of 43 shipping containers home.
There’s always a reason to stop in here, in this reimagined idea of a shopping mall, whether you need to rest your sore feet after walking in the sun, you’re hunting for fun souvenirs or simply craving a late-afternoon bubble tea.
Be sure to pay a visit to the giant sculpture of the praying mantis (originally built for Burning Man) which periodically spews fire from its antennae. Kids aren’t allowed after 9 p.m.
For a sense of the local in this area, skip the Freemont Street Experience — a shaded arcade covering the street that includes an LED light show and a zipline — and move on to the smaller, independently owned restaurants and bars farther down on East Freemont Street.
Places like Eval Pie, Le Thai, Atomic Liquors and Park on Freemont are home to some of the best food and drinks in town, not to mention some of the quirkiest, most enjoyable decor. Wander here and stop into whichever place suits your mood.
And certainly, if you haven’t done some serious people watching at the El Cortez (one of the oldest still-operating casinos in town) on a weekday afternoon while playing $5 minimum roulette, run don’t walk.
For souvenir shopping in a setting that somehow both fully embodies the Las Vegas commitment to excess and smashes it to bits, stop at Bonanza Gift Shop. It promises to be the world’s largest gift shop, but is it really? (Who, seriously, is counting?)
Either way, one thing is for sure: Not a single item for sale within its walls is bespoke, handmade or crafted with love.
It’s also a lot of fun and a low-stress place to visit between events. Wander the aisles under the headache-triggering fluorescent bulbs and sift through a seemingly endless selection of tchotchkes emblazoned with the words “Las Vegas.” Engraved flasks, snow globes, walls full of T-shirts — it’s all there, even if you wish some of it wasn’t.
No visit to Downtown Las Vegas is complete without a trip to the (literally and figuratively) brilliant Neon Museum. Whether you love history, trivia or just watching pretty colored lights, this smart museum is among the best in town, and possibly one of the best in the country.
Walk through the neon “boneyard” where vintage neon signs have been restored and reilluminated. But really, the signs are just the way to tell the story of this iconic, one-of-a-kind city. My current favorite is the recently restored marquee from the Moulin Rouge, the first fully racially integrated property in town that led the way for the complete desegregation of Las Vegas.
On (and also a little off) the Strip
Just because you’re enjoying a day or night on the Strip doesn’t mean you don’t need a break from it.
If you’re admiring the fantastical flower displays and through-the-looking-glass aesthetic at the Wynn and the Encore, step across the street for lunch or dinner at El Segundo Solfor an entirely different, but equally whimsical scene. This relaxed Mexican restaurant has a sprawling outdoor patio that’s situated under a number of shady trees. Stick with simplicity and order tacos and fruity frozen margaritas, or get serious about the venue’s 100 different tequilas.
Located on Las Vegas Boulevard near the airport, the is where you can play dozens of vintage pinball games. I had fun seeking out popular games that I remembered from the mall arcades of my childhood (“The Simpsons” and a game that was launched as a tie-in to the 1991 “The Addams Family” movie). A fistful of quarters and a few hours is all you need here to let off steam, reminisce or kill time.
While you’re in the area, head over to the other side of Interstate 15 and into the warehouse that’s home to the Hollywood Car Museum. This fascinating, if haphazard, collection features vehicles that have starred in movies and television shows: various Batmobiles, a Delorean and the jalopy from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
The real draw for me was the Liberace Garage, which shares the space and houses a few of Liberace’s famously bedazzled automobiles. As fun as the cars are, they are among only a few Liberace artifacts on display here. The Liberace Museum, which housed a much more complete collection of artifacts belonging to the famously over-the-top performer, closed in 2010.
A quick drive west from the Strip along Spring Mountain Road puts in you the heart of Las Vegas’ Chinatown, which also includes an array of restaurants reflecting other parts of Asian cuisine. Whole articles have been written about the culinary gems that can be found here, from wonton noodles to sweets.
I enjoyed Gabi Coffee and Bakery for its head-turning confections (ube crepe cake, mango cheesecake, yuzu matcha macarons) and excellent coffee.
Its Instagram-worthy interior features a glass “greenhouse” where the staff preps the day’s specialties, overstuffed vintage furniture and clever stadium seating for socializing.
Featured photo by Axel Schmies/Getty Images.comes to The Points Guy as Editorial Director after leading content teams at ShermansTravel for nine years. Before that, she held positions at Travelzoo, iVillage and EverydayHealth, and lived in Paris.