In 2011, while sitting on the beach in Cambodia during what became a particularly memorable night, a conversation with a few fellow travelers turned, well, to travel. As the sole American citizen in our triad, they were eager to hear my thoughts on visiting my home country. I asked them what cities sounded most interesting to them if they were to plan a visit.“Las Vegas!” they exclaimed, practically in unison. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Not bustling New York City? Not star-struck Los Angeles? Not historic Boston, or the nation’s capital of Washington, DC? They shook their heads.
“Las Vegas is real America,” one of them said.
I laughed at the time, but the more we traveled the more I heard that sentiment echoed. During our South African wine tour outside Cape Town, while eating pasta in Tuscany, and while sipping prosecco in Venice, it seemed everyone we talked to wanted to experience the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip more than they wanted to see any other tourist destination. And they all shared the same belief that Las Vegas is representative of “real America.”
I have been to Las Vegas dozens of times. In high school, when I thought I wanted a career in theater, I visited with my dad for my sixteenth birthday to see performances I still vividly remember. For most of my career I traveled to Las Vegas professionally, attending or staffing conferences that attracted thousands of participants not just for the education but for the nightlife. Twice, Adam and I have visited as part of family vacations, and Adam also spent time there with his family—in fact, he considered the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for graduate studies. Las Vegas offers something for everyone, from relaxing by a pool to the thrill of roller coasters encircling enormous hotels to some of the best food and drink on the planet. If you have never visited Las Vegas before, or if you’re wondering how you can make the most of a visit to the famous Strip, here are som of our favorite things to see, do, and eat—and just as many tips for making the most of your experience!
What to Do on the Las Vegas Strip: Walk the Strip
There is no experience quite like walking the Las Vegas Strip, a 2.5-mile stretch of road that connects dozens of luxury hotels, casinos, entertainment experiences, and restaurants. Standing on the Strip is worthwhile for the people watching alone, but it’s also unique in that visitors can pass by some of the world’s most famous landmarks without leaving the United States- well, replicas of famous landmarks. Here are a few must-see stops to make during your walk on the Las Vegas Strip.
► Volcano Eruption at the MirageThe Las Vegas Strip practically explodes three times each night with the eruption of the volcano at The Mirage. Take your spot on The Strip at 8 PM, 9 PM, or 10 PM (for free!) as fireballs shoot into the sky and lava flows down the side of a volcano, all timed to a terrific soundtrack. If you stand close enough you will feel the heat of the flames, a sensation that makes you feel like you might be swept away by the liquid fire that spews and streams from the volcano. Be sure to arrive early for the best chance at securing a great, front row spot. The further back you are in the crowd the harder it is to appreciate the experience, and most visitors will have their phones in the air to record the show which makes it doubly hard to see the eruption. The closer you are to the front, the fewer screens will obstruct your view.
► The Welcome to Las Vegas Sign
The quintessential Instagram-worthy photo stop to make is the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Located on the northern end of the Strip (quite close to the airport!), the famous sign that imprints t-shirts and coffee mugs in every souvenir shop stands in all its life-sized glory, welcoming visitors to “Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.” The line for a photo op is often long, so consider timing your visit early in the day, when most travelers are still sleeping. Most people take a few minutes to incorporate all kinds of poses into a mini photo shoot, so think about what photos you want to take before it’s your turn to be sure you are efficient without feeling too rushed. Watch the people ahead of you for ideas about how to frame your shot, and don’t forget to take a picture of just the sign in addition to a few selfies. There are often one or two locals on hand who will offer to take your photo; remember they expect a tip for their help, so feel free to decline the offer to help if you don’t have a few dollars to spare.
► Ancient Egypt at The Luxor
You can’t miss the Luxor, an enormous pyramid-shaped hotel that looks like it could have been lifted from Giza and dropped on the Las Vegas Strip. As you walk down the Strip, pause for a few moments to see not only the hotel’s structure but the huge sphinx and obelisk as well. We saw the famous Great Sphinx and more obelisks than we could count when we visited Cairo, Karnak, and Luxor, but if your plans don’t have you visiting Egypt in the near future the Luxor’s impressive display combined with the heat of a Las Vegas summer will have you wondering if you didn’t magically transport to a different desert to see the real thing!
► Fountains of Bellagio
If you have never seen water perform a choreographed dance to music, take your spot in front of the Fountains of Bellagio for an amazing free performance. Presented frequently during week days (and even more frequently on weekends), you’ll never have to wait too long for the fountains to come to life, as almost 20,000 gallons of water shoot more than 20 stories into the air. The show is incredible during any time of day, but schedule your visit at night to see the display set against an illuminated backdrop that includes the Eiffel Tower and the High Roller Ferris wheel. Like the Mirage’s volcano, it’s a good ideas to arrive early to avoid seeing the show through someone’s phone screen.
What to Do on the Las Vegas Strip: Inside the Hotels
There is a lot to see as you walk down the Las Vegas Strip, but there is even more to see inside each of the hotels. Most Las Vegas hotels feature exhibits, artwork, restaurants, and attractions that can entertain you for hours. Here are a few of our favorites.
► Ride New York New York’s Big Apple CoasterThrill seekers love the Big Apple Coaster, which starts inside the New York New York hotel before propelling passengers outside and around the New York City skyline. Reaching speeds of almost 70 miles per hour, a series of weightless falls and loops make the two-and-a-half minute ride exhilarating. Don’t be surprised if one ride isn’t enough! Let your heart rate slow a bit with a walk through the arcade, which is full of fun games. A walk through the hotel itself will make you feel like you’re in the Big Apple; a Nathan’s hot dog might be the perfect ending to the experience.
► Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay
Mandalay Bay’s aquarium is one of the best we have visited, and it’s a great place to escape the heat and delight in watching hundreds of fish and reptiles as they effortlessly swim through the water. Interactive activities including stingray and turtle feeds offer an up-close encounter with some fascinating animals, and there is a lot to learn about the aquarium’s conservation efforts and animal behaviors. For most guests, though, it’s the dozens of sharks that lend their name to the aquarium that draw them in. Don’t leave without walking under the two tunnels; looking up, you’ll see sharks swimming above your head and get a sense of what it feels like to stand on the ocean floor.
► Gondola Rides at The VenetianTransport yourself to Venice inside the Venetian hotel, where you can sit in a gondola and float through the waterways of the Grand Canal just like you might in Venice, Italy. No detail was left out to create this experience, where gondoliers serenade passengers as the thin boats drift under bridges and a bright blue sky. Gondola rides are offered outside as well, but the indoor ride somehow has a more iconic feel. If gondolas are particularly interesting to you, sign up to be one of just nine daily students at The Venetian’s Gondola University, where you can learn the tricks and techniques of piloting a gondola. If relaxing is more your speed, a gondola ride will be a great highlight during your trip to Las Vegas.
► Visit the Pools
Most hotels feature lavish swimming pool complexes, and we always build in a day for nothing but lounging poolside when visiting Las Vegas during warmer months. Two of our favorites are Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand. Mandalay Bay’s famous beach lets you sink your toes into real sand on your way to the lazy river or the wave pool. MGM Grand also has a lazy river in addition to multiple other swimming pools that range from party scenes to quiet retreats. Consider splurging on a cabana, which includes concierge service that will make you feel like a VIP. During one family vacation our pool day coincided with a party hosted by Prince Harry, and although we weren’t on his guest list it was fun to be in the same space of royalty—and proves you never know who you will see in Las Vegas!
► High Roller Ferris Wheel at the Linq
One great way to see both the famous Las Vegas strip and the massive Las Vegas Valley is to take a ride on the High Roller, a Ferris wheel at the Linq Hotel. The High Roller is the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, and with rotations that take 30 minutes you have plenty of time to enjoy the 360-degree views from the top. Las Vegas is a fun, fast-paced city on the ground and a beautiful city from the air, and the Linq is a fun way to experience the latter (or find respite from the former!).
► Conservatory & Botanical Gardens at the BellagioJust steps away from the Bellagio’s lobby, reality slips away in the Conservatory. The glassed-in space houses gorgeous botanical gardens that are updated seasonally to reflect various themes and experiences. Thousands of flowers bloom, artfully arranged to create fairytale-like scenes. If you have visited Las Vegas in the past and seen the botanical gardens, include them during future visits anyway. The scenes change regularly, which means every few months the conservatory is transformed into a world you have never before seen.
► Ride the Big Shot at the Stratosphere
The Las Vegas skyline is like nothing else—and for real daredevils, you can visit the top of the Stratosphere for an unforgettable view almost 1,100 feet above The Strip. The Stratosphere’s Big Shot is a space shot ride like Disney’s Tower of Terror, which straps you into a chair and sends you 160 feet upward within mere seconds. It’s not for the faint of heart; the speed and heights combine to create a truly terrifying experience. If you want to test your limits—and if you don’t suffer from vertigo or acrophobia—the Big Shot is worth every minute, every cent, and every scream. If something slightly safer sounds more appealing, The Stratosphere has a nice observation deck that offers similar views.
► Eiffel Tower Experience
Take in city views from a different perspective at Paris and the Eiffel Tower Experience. 46 stories in the air, an observation deck and popular restaurant greet guests looking for a few iconic pictures. The Eiffel Tower itself is a half-scale replica of the original in Paris, France. Visit the top to explore the observation deck, where below you can see the Bellagio’s water show just across the street.
Which Hotel Should I Stay at In Las Vegas?
There is never a shortage of places to stay in Las Vegas. When we visit we typically stay in one of the major hotels; our favorites have been Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand (and their affiliated Signature at MGM Grand), Venetian, and Mirage. If those locations are out of your price range, plenty of smaller hotels can be found both on and off the Strip. Check out the “see all deals” link in the box below for dozens of hotel options, including our favorites.
What to Do on the Las Vegas Strip: Shopping, Shows, and Gambling
Las Vegas is full of entertainment options, and in addition to rides and gambling it’s a big destination for live performances and shopping. Here are a few of our favorite ways to spend time (and money!) when visiting Las Vegas.
► Catch a Show
Las Vegas is home to musical theater, concerts, and specialty entertainment, and chances are there will be a show you’ll love when you visit. Perennial favorites include a range of Cirque du Soleil shows, such as O and The Beatles Love, which feature talented aerialists contorting themselves as the fly through the air. Several musical artists have residencies throughout the city, which means they hold multiple concerts during the week; in addition to limited run events by guest musicians it’s never difficult to find a great concert on the strip. Magic shows and comedy clubs round out the entertainment scene; Adam loves the Laugh Factory Comedy Club at the Tropicana, and I am always happy to work the famous Blue Man Group into Las Vegas plans. Whatever you choose, consider purchasing tickets before you arrive (great seats do not always sell out early, but they can!). Last minute tickets are often an option, but if you have your heart set on a certain show or date it’s a smart idea to buy tickets in advance.
► Enjoy Some ShoppingMore than 150 stores and restaurants line the halls of the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, and while many of the luxury retailers are beyond most tourists’ price ranges it’s very worthwhile to spend some time window shopping your way through the impeccably designed “shopping wonder of the world.” In addition to such specialty shops as Versace, Gucci, and Cartier, more approachable stores such as H&M, Lacoste, and Gap are on hand. Don’t overlook the restaurants; you’ll find everything from popular chain restaurants to some exquisite, high-end establishments.
The Grand Canal Shoppes inside the Venetian present a great retail and dining experience not dissimilar from what you’ll find at the Forum Shops. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the stores, so fans of retail therapy might want to incorporate both experiences into a Las Vegas itinerary. Specialty stores and restaurants greet you at every turn, and shopping (even window shopping!) along the indoor canal will make you feel like you have transported far away from the busy Las Vegas Strip.
► Gambling and Casinos
Most big hotels strategically place restaurants, shopping, and even elevators to guest rooms in the casino, so you will see plenty of flashing gaming machines—and if gambling is of interest, Las Vegas is a dream destination. While Las Vegas was once synonymous with gambling, there is much more to do now beyond the tables and slot machines. Gambling culture is prevalent but certainly not a requirement in order to have a great experience. Adam enjoys visiting the sportsbooks when we’re in Las Vegas- not because he likes to gamble, but because they have huge rooms full of dozens of big screen TVs that broadcast multiple live games at the same time. If you want to gamble but have never tried it before, it is possible to take a course on your game of choice before putting down your hard earned money.
► Hershey’s Chocolate World and M&M World
Chocolate lovers rejoice! Whether you crave a classic Hershey bar or a tin of M&Ms in any color combination you can imagine, Las Vegas is home to two stores that will satisfy your sweet tooth. We love Hershey’s Chocolate World (so much so we visited their flagship location in Hershey, Pennsylvania), and the Las Vegas location is full of clothing, toys, and candy featuring your favorite products. The bakery on the first floor is stocked with mouth-watering treats, and the milkshakes are heavenly. M&M World is famous for an entire wall of M&Ms sorted by color; mix and match based on your favorite colors (or do what we did- pick out some blues and oranges as an ode to the Road Unraveled logo!). Located just across the street from one another, make plans to visit them both for the ultimate decadent shopping trip.
What to Do on the Las Vegas Strip: Eat and Drink
In Las Vegas, you can find everything from cheap eats to fine dining; you can grab a hamburger at McDonald’s or enjoy a $5,000 wagyu beef, foie gras, and truffle burger at Mandalay Bay’s Fleur. Here are a few of our favorite places to eat and drink when we visit Las Vegas (and don’t worry—the $5,000 burger doesn’t make our list!).
► Hash House a Go Go
Hash House a Go Go bills itself as “twisted farm food,” a perfect description of some truly decadent soul food. For a moderate price tag, comfort food favorites tower over similar meals elsewhere on the Strip; we promise you have never seen portions quite so big! Although the pancakes are tempting (and come in flavors like Snickers and banana brown sugar), try the famous sage fried chicken and waffles which is piled high and speared with a knife to keep it all from falling down. The quality is exceptional, and while you probably won’t clear your plate (thank goodness for to-go containers!) you’re bigger-than-life meal will make you feel like you are living the true Las Vegas experience.
► Chandelier BarYou will feel very Vegas-glam sipping a cocktail inside the two-story chandelier at the Cosmopolitan. There are three levels inside the chandelier, each serving handcrafted cocktails, beer, and wine. We prefer the top of the chandelier, a great spot for relaxing and people watching. Each level has a unique menu; at the top, try the Champaign Socialist to combine bubbles with pear and vanilla flavors—a refreshing, glamorous treat.
► Las Vegas Buffets
Most hotels offer buffets, and you can sample some excellent food if you add a buffet to your list. We’re partial to the buffet at the Bellagio, which is famous for all-you-can-eat shrimp and crab legs as well as exceptional sushi, chef stations featuring prime rib, and an enormous dessert display. Other buffets, including the Buffet at Aria, the Buffet at Wynn, and Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan are Strip favorites and offer some world-class fare.
► Chin Chin
We have always enjoyed the tasty dim sum at Chin Chin, located at New York New York. Dumplings of all kinds are a great start to a meal (or a meal in themselves!), but the noodle soups and sushi are delicious as well.
► Noodle Shop
There is plenty of good Chinese food in Las Vegas, and we really enjoy Mandalay Bay’s Noodle Shop for some classic dishes. The ramen with pork belly is especially tasty, as are the dumplings, and the friendly service is some of the best on the Strip.
► Secret PizzaYou won’t find this one on the Cosmopolitan’s hotel directory; Secret Pizza only serves people in the know. Find it on the second floor of the Cosmopolitan, close to the entrance to the convention center, through an open but unmarked door. You might smell the tasty pizza before you enter, but you’ll know you are in the right place when you walk down a short corridor and see the ordering counter (and, usually, a few patrons eagerly enjoying their secret snack!).
► Ri Ra Irish Pub
If you’re looking for an energetic bar with tasty pub food, Ri Ra at Mandalay Bay is a great spot to add to your list. With a menu loaded with Irish favorites as a classic beer list featuring plenty of Guinness options, Ri Ra is a fun place to stop for dinner or a round (or two!) before a night exploring the Strip.
► Le Cirque
The Bellagio’s Le Cirque is a renowned restaurant served in five courses, and while it is certainly a splurge it is a memorable one to make. Braised veal cheek, Maryland blue crab, and wagyu beef have all rotated through the menu. You’ll have a limited selection for each course, but whatever you do make sure you choose the chocolate ball for dessert!
Las Vegas has no shortage of great steakhouses, and Gallagher’s at New York New York is a great one to add to your dining wish list. As a nice, traditional New York steakhouse you’ll be treated to a menu featuring signature cuts as well as other favorites like salmon, pork chops, and lamb. Try the cowboy rib-eye, a classic choice, with sides like mashed potatoes and onion rings.
Plan Your Visit to Las Vegas
We created a handy Google Map to highlight all the locations we mentioned in this article. We hope you can use this to plan your own Vegas Vacation!
Tips for Visiting the Las Vegas Strip
Want something? Just ask. Las Vegas is an easy town to navigate on your own, but if you are looking for a special experience all you need to do is ask. Hotels typically have great concierge service, and they can help you with anything from dinner reservations to VIP club access to recommendations for making the most of your experience. When staying at Mandalay Bay, we asked concierge for their recommendation for the best view of the city from the hotel. Minutes later we were on the VIP list for their private club—a luxury we wouldn’t have been afforded if we didn’t ask!Go with a budget. Las Vegas can be an expensive city. Hotel deals are easy to find, but your meals, taxi rides, and entertainment will quickly add up. Consider your budget before you arrive and keep track of how much you spend. If you have a strict budget, checking in on your spending every day will help you ensure you have money for your must-do activities and avoid unpleasant surprises.
It’s not always hot. Las Vegas may be in the middle of the desert, but it’s not always hot there. Evenings can be chilly, and winters are downright cold. If you are planning a pool vacation, summer months are your best bet—most hotels do not have indoor pools. If your travels take you to Las Vegas in the winter, bundle up and prepare for some cold temperatures at night!
Bring your walking shoes. The hotels in Las Vegas are huge, and city blocks are downright enormous. Your visit to the Las Vegas Strip will most likely require plenty of walking, whether it is between hotel destinations or even just from the lobby to your room. Pack comfortable shoes and prepare to get a little bit of exercise, which is a great way to work off one of those trips to the buffet!
Be prepared to be approached. Like most major cities, Las Vegas locals will seek to sell all kinds of services to tourists. Be wary of anyone trying to hand you papers or cards on the street (some content is adult-oriented), and watch out for the costumed characters like Spiderman and Mickey Mouse who wave and offer to take photos with you. They are perfectly harmless, but they will expect you to pay for the photo op—and the prices may be more expensive than the value you place on them.
Enjoy the Las Vegas Strip!
Although it caught me by surprise when fellow travelers mentioned Las Vegas as their idea of “real America,” it unquestionably makes sense. Las Vegas has mesmerizing performances, world-class food and drink, and exceptional hotel experiences. It connects people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe, a destination for USA-based tourists and international tourists seeking relaxation, entertainment, and escapism. Is Las Vegas representative of the USA as a whole? Perhaps not (but then again, what city would be?), but it most certainly represents the part of the United States that loves glamour and fun.
If Las Vegas is on your travel list, the Vegas Strip will be a welcoming host to your vacation. Just remember, in a world where Instagram-worthy moments happen at every turn, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas these days. Then again, you may just find you don’t want those memories to stay locked away on the Strip—and you may want to add a return trip or two to your annual vacation plans!
More Information: VisitLasVegas.com
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experiences at various locations in Las Vegas, Nevada. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.