There’s a whole lot more to Las Vegas than the infamous Strip. If you want a break from the glittering lights, partygoers, and raucous atmosphere, take a short trip a few miles north to downtown Las Vegas.
The downtown area was the original townsite and gambling district in Las Vegas, and is now the urban core of the greater Las Vegas Valley. Compared to Strip, downtown Las Vegas offers a number advantages:
- It’s more relaxed, retaining that classic Las Vegas charm without being overwhelming
- There are more opportunities to meet and interact with local Las Vegans
- It’s easier to walk between casinos, bars, and restaurants
- Table minimums are cheaper, and odds are usually better too
- There are more cultural attractions, including museums, theaters, and more.
Let’s take a closer look at what you can see and experience in downtown Las Vegas:
Downtown Las Vegas is centered on three main areas:
- Fremont Street casino district
- Fremont East entertainment district
- Arts district (also known as 18b)
Several of these downtown districts are named after John C. Frémont, a settler who arrived in the area in 1844 and whose writings helped draw pioneers to the area:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.
Fremont Street Casino District
This area contains the original casinos of Las Vegas, including the El Cortez, Golden Nugget, and Golden Gate (the oldest casino in Vegas). These casinos are well worth a visit, even if you don’t plan to gamble: the Golden Nugget is home to a massive shark tank complete with waterslide, as well as one of the most award-winning pools in the city.
In addition to numerous museums, restaurants, and bars, the Fremont Street Casino District is also where you’ll find the renowned Fremont Street Experience—a pedestrian-only thoroughfare canopied with more than two million LED lights, a state-of-the-art sound system, and a nightly light show called “Viva Vision”.
Fremont East Entertainment District
The Fremont East entertainment district has been the site of much redevelopment in recent years, including a three-block, $5.5 million streetscape renovation that features pedestrian-only streets, landscaping, and retro-style neon signs.
Fremont East is one of Diana’s favorite spots in Vegas:
Also known as “18b” (because there are 18 blocks), the Arts District is centered on Main Street and Charleston Blvd. Home to the well-known First Friday event, this area is home to a mix of art galleries, studios, and stores offering antiques, vintage clothing, and other collectibles.
What To Do in Downtown Las Vegas
Downtown Las Vegas offers a vast variety of museums, cultural institutions, shopping opportunities, casinos, restaurants, and adrenaline-pumping attractions. Here are some of the most popular:
Neon Museum: Located in north downtown, the Neon Museum preserves and displays Las Vegas’s iconic neon signage in both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Don’t miss the Neon Boneyard!
Mob Museum: Explore the history of the mob from the perspectives of the mobsters and law enforcement. Check out interactive exhibits, immersive storylines, and more at this popular museum, located mid-downtown.
Smith Center for the Performing Arts: This art deco-style building features four separate performance spaces, with shows including everything from broadway to Yo-Yo Ma. It’s also home to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre.
Fremont East: Keep an eye on the ground for bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk. They offer glimpses into Las Vegas’s history, as well as interesting facts about Sin City’s many famous characters.
Trifecta Gallery: Located in the Arts District, this gallery is acclaimed for its diverse and locally-focused programming.
Container Park: This unique shopping center consists of shipping containers that have been converted into boutiques and shops featuring goods created by local craftspeople. Located in Fremont East, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the giant fire-breathing praying mantis out front.
Beat Coffeehouse and Records: This low-key coffeehouse, complete with a wide selection of vinyl records, is a popular hotspot for tourists and locals alike.
There are 11 casino-resorts in downtown Las Vegas, plus two more casinos. Table minimums are lower (only $5 at most places), and the odds are better too, which makes downtown Las Vegas a good place to test your betting skills without blowing your bank account.
SlotZilla: Soar 77 feet over the Fremont Street Experience on an 850-foot zipline that, in true Las Vegas style, shoots you out of a giant slot machine. For real adrenaline-seekers, check out the 110-foot tall zoomline, which suspends you face-down superhero-style and shoots you 1,750 feet the length of the Fremont Street Experience.
Viva Vision: The cornerstone of the Fremont Street Experience, every night on the hour between dusk and midnight (or 1 AM in the summer), the 90-foot high LED screen and canopy light up with an ever-changing light and sound show.
Eat and Drink
Downtown Las Vegas is home to many bars and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. Unlike the Strip, downtown is ideal for bar hopping between brewpubs, trendy cocktail lounges, and dive bars. Check out these popular spots:
Downtown Cocktail Room: Victoria from Pommie Travels recommends you check out this downtown speakeasy:
Insert Coins: Let off some steam in this 7,000 square foot arcade, complete with bar and lounge, and over 50 classic and contemporary video games.
The Laundry Room: Get that exclusive Vegas experience at this hidden bar inside Commonwealth (another popular watering hole). It’s only accessible by secret entrance for those with reservations. Ask at Commonwealth for more information.
History of Downtown Las Vegas
The city of Las Vegas was founded in 1905 when 110 acres of land located adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad were auctioned off. This small patch of land would eventually become the downtown area, and soon after in 1911, the city of Las Vegas was officially incorporated.
The famous Golden Gate casino opened its doors in 1906, five years before the city’s incorporation, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Nevada legalized casino gambling. 1931 was also the year construction began on the nearby Hoover Dam, which brought an influx of construction workers and their families to the area and caused a surge in downtown development.
It wasn’t until after WWII that Las Vegas began developing its reputation for lavish hotels, casinos, and big-name entertainment. During the 1960s, corporations and businesses began buying and building massive hotel-casinos, kickstarting the transition from “gambling” into the more reputable “gaming”. A couple of decades later in 1989, Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, the first mega-casino on the Strip, creating a hotspot that pulled people away from downtown Las Vegas.
In 1995, the Fremont Street Experience opened in downtown Las Vegas and initiated a massive revitalization project in the downtown core. While she was living in Las Vegas, Diana from D Travels Round watched downtown’s renewal take place:
Now, downtown Las Vegas is home to many hotels, high rises, cultural centers, and historic buildings, as well as residential and retail developments, and even micro-breweries. It’s a can’t-miss destination for any Vegas visitor!
How to Get to Downtown Las Vegas
Downtown Las Vegas is located a few miles north of the Strip. Follow Diana’s directions:
Staying in Downtown Las Vegas
There are a number of hotels in downtown Las Vegas, and they’re usually cheaper than those on the Strip. Read our hotel guide for more information.
The Ultimate Las Vegas Visitor Guide
Find answers to all your questions about Las Vegas in our Ultimate Guide!
Special thanks to all the expert travelers who contributed their tips to the Ultimate Las Vegas Visitor Guide!
Featured Image Source: John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons.