With the pandemic slowly on the wane I decided to make a trip to see Omega Mart. It’s fair to say I planned the Las Vegas parts around it. While there’s a lot to like about Las Vegas, to be honest there’s a lot more to dislike. All things considered I think I made the most of it.
First of all, let me say I’m glad everyone has to wear a mask indoors everywhere in Las Vegas. Nevada is a state that notoriously does not care about health. And that leads me to my main issue: all the indoor smoking.
So it turns out a cloth mask absorbs smoke just as well as any other fabric, except it’s worse: since you’re breathing through it after an hour or so on the casino floors you’re not just smelling like smoke, you’re also smelling smoke everywhere you go. Yes I realize there are plenty of non-smoking places in Las Vegas but most of us are either staying at a casino hotel or going to shows at them.
I eventually figured out the hotel shampoo got the smell out so I was washing it by hand every night. Kinda gross, but I was never above doing laundry in a bathroom sink to save a few bucks.
Let me break the trip down by subject for all the stuff too small to fit into one of the other blog posts.
I stayed at the Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino. Since this was my first trip in a while I booked a premium (hotel speak for “newer”) room and paid extra for a fridge. I had a corner room for a week in their newest tower with a great view of the Mob Museum.
Part of the reason I went with this hotel was that I’d never been to downtown Las Vegas before and wanted something removed from the noise of The Fremont Street Experience… more on that in a bit.
Overall I thought the Downtown Grand was a reasonable value even though I didn’t go for the cheapest room. All the exciting downtown casinos are a very short walk away.
The only issue I personally had with the hotel was the elevators. It has one of those RFID card systems where it takes too long to read the card. I understand why this might be hard to fix in older buildings, but I don’t get why this is still an issue in brand new construction.
Oh and the entire building’s grid freaked out and went haywire the one night it rained. As a Californian I get that.
The Fremont Street Experience
Let’s rewind time and then fast forward: the oldest casinos in Las Vegas were located downtown mostly along Fremont Street and now operate under names such as Binion’s and The Golden Nugget. After The Strip opened, downtown Las Vegas suffered until the mid 1990’s when they intentionally turned several blocks of Fremont Street into a massive tourist trap.
The most notable feature is the pedestrian mall with a semi-indoor roof and a giant screen (recently replaced with LEDs.) This tends to sync to the music played on giant speakers throughout the area. A set of ziplines hangs just under the screen for those adventurous enough to try.
What really gives it the tourist trap label in my book are the street performers, doing everything from dancing to magic shows in exchange for tips. You could put any one of these types into any other tourist trap anywhere in the world and nobody would bat an eye.
I will say the musical aspect is entertaining, especially at night. And if you’re staying nearby there’s a Walgreens at one end of the Fremont Street Experience and an ABC Store at the other for all your basic needs.
Last time I visited Vegas, I stayed at and spent all my time at The Strip. Which, by the way, is only located in “Las Vegas” because of some weird postal rule. It’s not located within the actual city of Las Vegas for tax reasons.
Tacky as it is, I felt compelled to check out The Strip again about a decade later. It’s surprising how little has changed, aside from the live shows. And even some of those simply moved to a different casino.
Another thing that hasn’t changed about The Strip is how expensive it is. Somehow the $5 Footlong at Subway is a $15 Footlong here. Even the ATMs are charging rates that the IRS would be embarrassed to collect.
Overall I don’t mind the wacky theming, with various versions of Italy and the skylines of both New York City and Paris. At its best The Strip is kind of like the World Showcase at Disney’s Epcot Center but with big name shows and concerts. At its worst it’s endless smoke-filled casinos floors and bad life choices.
Now that said, I want to clarify that I will not defend Caesars Palace. If Julius Caesar himself proclaimed they were going to build a disproportionately stretched out tower with a big red neon sign on the top, they would have stabbed him to death on the spot. Or maybe that was how he died? Do your own research, people.
I’ve never seen anything quite like Area 15 before. The concept is like a small indoor mall where everything inside is some type of “experience.” These range from virtual reality to axe throwing to their anchor tenant, Omega Mart.
There are places to eat inside Area 15 including a restaurant, a bar, a cafe, and an ice cream shop. They’re all somewhat expensive. The bar sits under an artificial tree with twinkling leaves that looks like it belongs on the planet Pandora from the movie Avatar.
Outside the building there’s a bunch of sculptures to check out and a giant mural on the wall around the corner to the left of the entrance. There’s also a second building currently under construction for a planned expansion.
Mercifully, Area 15 is one of the few large shared indoor places in Las Vegas where smoking is not allowed.
Normally it’s not an issue to get to Las Vegas but I happened to travel during the weekend Southwest cancelled most of their flights — including mine. They automatically rebooked me on a flight so late I would have missed seeing Penn & Teller, so I went with an alternative flight with a short layover in Burbank.
This wasn’t the first time Southwest cancelled my flight although it was the most annoying to rebook because they cancelled so many other flights. Maybe Southwest’s motto should be “You can change your flight, but so can we.”
Taxis, Uber, and Lyft are the best ways to get around in Las Vegas for the most part. The only walkable part is the downtown, and even that gets to be a stretch for further away destinations like the Neon Museum. Unfortunately it may seem unwalkable because the stop lights are timed for an order of magnitude more car traffic than exists — the truth is the lights are there for cars, and when there aren’t any cars as a pedestrian you need to look both ways and use your common sense.
I took the RTC buses a few times. It’s not an unusable public transit system, but it’s not great. The buses are slow as hell and are meant to be used as a regional transit system, not a local one. The worst offender is a line known as “The Deuce” that goes from The Strip to downtown. Because it’s a double decker bus it takes forever to board and de-board at every stop.
The most insulting thing about RTC is they charge out of state visitors double the fare. It’s expensive enough that even if you have the extra time it’s tough to recommend for most tourists.
My only tip here is to consider how you’re getting to your hotel from the airport. If the hotel doesn’t have their own private shuttle, the two RTC buses to downtown are alright. It’s not well marked at the airport but all buses, hotel shuttles, and limo services meet downstairs from the baggage claim in the parking garage.
Dining and drinking
Coming from California I’m obviously used to high quality but very expensive food. Las Vegas used to be known for cheap buffets but these days it’s mostly expensive restaurants with celebrity chefs.
To be blunt I don’t think it’s worth considering dining at the casinos at all. Between the outrageous prices and the smoke filled dining rooms you’d be wise to go elsewhere.
One of the best meals I had was at Casa Don Juan in the Arts District. It’s not the only Mexican place downtown but they’re very friendly and the portions are generous. If I were in the area again I’d definitely return.
On Fremont Street it’s worth the short trek to Container Park if the weather’s good. Lots of great dining options and it’s mostly outdoor seating. The giant mantis sculpture out front puts on a fire show on weekend evenings, check their website for details.
If you want alcohol I recommend skipping the outdoor bars altogether on The Strip and The Fremont Street Experience. Their outdoor bars mostly serve sugary ice sludge that’s only going to give you a brain freeze and raging headache.
Aside from the previously mentioned Neon Museum tour I also went on three walking tours of Las Vegas and the surrounding area.
- Downtown Las Vegas day tour from Las Vegas Walking Tours. This is a great history tour about where Las Vegas got started and how the downtown has changed over the years and is continuing to change. The tour goes into a couple of buildings but it’s mostly outdoors. Headsets are provided due to the noise level.
- The Vegas strip walking tour expert via Airbnb. This is a highlight of some of the best parts of the strip like the conservatory garden at the Bellagio and the living flamingos at The Strip’s arguably oldest casino, The Flamingo. The guide was a real character who mentioned he had multiple weddings to officiate that day. Be warned that like any walking tour of The Strip you’ll be inhaling a lot of secondhand smoke.
- DTLV Art Walk. To be honest most of the Fremont Street area street art photos from this post were taken on this tour. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to know the guide a little and he gave me easily the best advice on what else to see and do in the area.