LAS VEGAS — No matter how many times one treks to this city, there’s always something new to discover, and something old to treasure. And there’s so much more beyond the Strip that’s worth discovering; the city is as multifaceted as those cartoon gemstones depicted on hundreds of casino slot machines.
Here’s a brief guide to three very distinct ways to enjoy your visit, outside of the usual gaming/resort experience.
Wayne Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah Museum
What would a visit to Vegas be without checking out Mr. Las Vegas himself? You have two opportunities to do just that. The new Casa de Shenandoah Museum is situated on Newton’s legendary 52-acre estate (3310 E. Sunset, about 20 minutes from the Strip), and features everything from his private jet to his luxury car collection to a treasure trove of memorabilia obtained throughout his 60-year career, much of it spent on the stages of Las Vegas. If you want to catch the man himself, check out his new, cabaret-style show at Bally’s Windows Showroom. It’s a mix of personal anecdotes, photographs, videos and live music. Visit www.casadeshenandoah.com; www.caesars.com/ballys
The Neon Museum Las Vegas
For decades, Las Vegas was the neon center of the world, notable for its myriad casino and gambling hall marquees. One by one, these illuminated pearls of the desert went the way of the rotary phone. As properties were demolished to make room for modern resorts, the marquees were sent to the “neon graveyard,” some in pieces, some intact. You can check out some of the most iconic at the museum, and along downtown streets, where several of them have been completely restored and stand majestically against the desert sky. Guided tours only, $15-$25. Visit neonmuseum.org to make your reservation.
Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge
Sure, Martin Scorsese used it for a scene in “Casino,” (Jerry Seinfeld also stopped there for his “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” web series), but this “tucked away,” neon-lit lounge/eatery — hidden among the behemoths of the Strip — has been serving locals and tourists alike since 1972. It boasts some of the best (and biggest) breakfasts in town (lunch and dinner items are not too shabby, either). Highly recommended: the French toast ambrosia, Marco Polo omelet, eggs Benedict, Peppermill burger, Philly cheesesteak and of course the ultimate dessert gem: strawberry shortcake. The fire pit in the lounge (magenta pink and teal blue booths are the soul of the eatery’s decor) is one of the coolest places to enjoy a cocktail or two. Long waits on the weekends. Visit peppermilllasvegas.com
‘UN-VEGASLIKE’ LAS VEGAS
In addition to the gorgeous dancing fountains spectacular at Bellagio, or the “erupting” volcano at the Mirage (both free), there are some other sights that are truly wonderful “escapes,” ready to fill up you day with anything but the sound of slot machines or throngs of people.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
If you have rented a car, do yourself a favor and head out to this incredible destination, a mere 35 minutes (17 miles) from the Strip and one of the most incredible natural wonders you will encounter. There is nothing like the quiet of the desert to refresh the spirit, and Red Rock does not disappoint. Its myriad colors and striking natural contrasts, from desert plants to wind-swept canyons, will take your breath away. Hike, bike, take the scenic drive, but don’t miss this beautiful addition to your Las Vegas stay. Allow at least two hours. Admission is a mere $7 per car. Visit www.blm.gov/nv/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas.
Mt. Charleston (The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area)
Picnic areas, hiking trails, campgrounds, skiing, snowboarding are the “extras” in this gorgeous escape (35 miles) from the city far below. You can drive for hours, up steep embankments and through gorgeous canyons as you move from desertscape to pine-tree-lined mountains. The temperature can be as much as 30 degrees cooler than that on the Strip, so be sure to pack a light jacket or sweater (Mt. Charleston itself boasts an elevation of more than 11,900 feet). The scenery is beyond magnificent, and you can stop in for a quick bite at either the Lodge or the Resort, or bring a picnic lunch. Visit gomtcharleston.com for all you need to know (including weather conditions) before you head out.
Richard MacDonald, at the Bellagio
This American figurative sculptor is celebrated in a stunning exhibit of his work, centered on the theme of “Duality” (at his gallery in City Center). I happened upon an exhibit of 20 of his sculptures in a newly created modern gallery at the Bellagio resort and found myself drawn to the starkness and diverse magnitude of the works. The free and quiet respite from the gaming experience is located near the Cirque du Soleil “O” Theater. And cap off your gallery visit with a gelato at Cafe Bellagio. You can enjoy your favorite flavor along an outdoor terrace overlooking the resort’s gorgeous pools.
NEW LAS VEGAS
Libertine Social, Mandalay Bay
James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef Shawn McLaine has made his culinary imprint on Las Vegas in a big way. This is his third eatery in town, and by far his most eclectic and exciting. The vibe here is “wow,” the menu and cocktail menu deliciously vibrant. Leather couches, wing chairs, table and counter seating, a chef’s table, and so much more in this ultra-chic gastropub showcase McLaine’s culinary skills to the max. With yummy small plates (the ahi tuna rolls are a must), a locally sourced menu and outstanding (and sexy) cocktails, it’s one of the coolest new kids on the block. Visit mandalaybay.com
Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., at TI
The kids will especially enjoy this super-high-tech immersive and educational attraction (the S.T.A.T.I.O.N. stands for scientific training and tactical intelligence operative network) wherein you interact with various aspects of the Marvel universe. Opened in June, it’s a super cool glimpse at the Marvel superheroes (and some villains), amid an array of “Avengers” and “Captain America” film costumes and props, a full Iron Man suit, Bruce Banner’s lab, and a host of 3-D interactive exhibits. Allow 90 minutes. Tickets start at $34. Visit treasureisland.com.
Perhaps the biggest change along the Strip? The days of free parking at Las Vegas casinos are over — for the most part.
It was a given that resorts offered complimentary valet parking (please always tip those valet parkers!) and free self-parking. Since June, however, MGM resorts throughout the city are now charging for your vehicles, and it can set you back anywhere from $5 to $18 for your visit, depending on whether you self-park or valet, the length of your visit and if you are a hotel guest or rewards card member. There are other rules concerning in-and-out privileges and special event/concert parking, and those (and more info) can be found at mgmresorts.com/parking. The good news for self-parkers: Your first hour or less of parking is free, and you have 60 minutes from the time you pay till the time you exit the self-park garages. (Most non-MGM properties still offer free parking, FYI.)
Of course, parking fees are nothing new to Chicagoans, but it can be jarring for those who’ve grown accustomed to the free park, uhm, perk, in Las Vegas. In addition, there are cabs, and you can always opt to hoof it from resort to resort or shell out $12 for an all-day monorail pass instead.