While The Strip may be the end all to many Las Vegas getaways, past those glitzy few miles is a remarkably different city. I searched for the real Vegas, past the glamour and decadence, and found a fascinating mix of cultural renewal and urban deterioration within Sin City.
Here are the top 5 cultural experiences and attractions that truly defined Las Vegas for me:
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s well-publicized Downtown Project has culminated in this segregated block of downtown Las Vegas, amidst abandoned casinos and empty parking lots. Within an oasis of modified shipping containers and friendly guards, you can feel a new optimism for Vegas’ urban renewal. Hipster boutiques and quirky decor transported me to the promise of a new micro utopia – not quite realized, but impressive considering spirit and age of the place.
Compared to The Strip, walking through downtown Las Vegas was startling and surreal. A focus on tourism, coupled with collapse and slow recovery of the housing market, has resulted in a post-apocalyptic emptiness to the central core. While pockets of revitalization are emerging, the whole of downtown is dead, abandoned, and in varying stages of decay. A fascinating urban landscape.
Tourists missing the Vegas of yester-year may appreciate the Fremont Street Experience, which is rough around the edges and filled with nostalgic references. From go-go dancers atop outdoor bars, to street performers of all types, the cheesy, seen-better-days entertainment side of Vegas has found new life here. The Fremont Street Experience culminates in a spectacular lights show every night at dusk.
One of the other odd pockets of rejuvenation downtown is Las Vegas’ fledgling arts district, coined ’18b’ for its 18-block radius. Unlike Container Park, no hard limits or barriers separate this part of town, but you definitely know once you’re in it. Hip and casual dress, bumping music, and bars without signs mark prime hipster territory. The monthly “First Friday” festival draws up to 20,000 visitors to browse, buy, eat, drink and mingle in this new arts & culture hot spot.
The fifth experience on my list has nothing to do with arts & culture – except for the fact that if you’re going to make the trek all the way downtown, then you’d better find yourself at Viva Las Arepas.
Viva Las Arepas is a no-frills Venezuelan eatery bursting with flavour and authenticity. The place is named for its arepas, an amazing corn tortilla bursting with meaty fillings. It reminded me of the cross between a baked pie (crust) and a samosa (flavour). The arepas were just the tip of the iceberg – I also sampled empandas and spicy chicken wings to tasty success. In over-priced, over-touristy Vegas, Viva Las Arepas was a steal. And oh yes, was the food worth it all right.
Photo Credit: Cecilia Lu.