Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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A Guide to Downtown Las Vegas

A few years ago if you had told me that I'd be calling Downtown Las Vegas the coolest part of the city I would have been calling you crazy. For the better part of the last few decades, the original Las Vegas, anchored by Glitter Gulch on Fremont Street, has been in a state of general decline. Oh sure, there were a few bright spots - a nice hotel here and there, affordable gambling - but for the most part it was an area that you only stayed in if you couldn't afford to stay somewhere better.

That all started to change a couple of years ago when Zappos, an online retailer, said it would relocate its thousands of employees from suburban Las Vegas to a new headquarters in the old city hall building. Anticipating the influx of hordes of new potential customers, new businesses started moving into the area and existing businesses started picking up their game. This, in combination with the arrival of some long-in-the-works projects like The Smith Center, The Neon Museum, and the Mob Museum have conspired to turn Downtown into the coolest part of Las Vegas.

This Guide to Downtown Las Vegas walks you through Downtown including the places to stay and the places to play, where to eat and drink, what to do, and what to see. Whether you choose to make Downtown the focus of your next Vegas vacation or just put it on your to-do list the next time you visit, this has all the information you need to make sure you experience the best the area has to offer.

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Getting to Know Downtown Las Vegas

Although there are things to see and do scattered throughout Downtown Las Vegas, there are five primary areas to know about.

Fremont Street is the main focal point and has been since the city was founded more than 100 years ago. It gained the nickname Glitter Gulch from the neon signs on the casinos and businesses that seemed to tower over the narrow street. It used to be that you wanted to stick very closely to the pedestrian only Fremont Street Experience between Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard as crime in the surrounding blocks, and a general lack of anything interesting to do, kept people at bay. Today the few blocks just to the north of Fremont Street have improved dramatically and boast several must-visit destinations including the fantastic Mob Museum.

The Fremont East District has become a showplace of what urban redevelopment can do to a once blighted neighborhood. Located just across Las Vegas Boulevard from the Fremont Street Experience, this used to be a dangerous area, more famous for its drugs and prostitution than for anything else. Now it offers some of the city's most interesting taverns and bars, an arts collective, a revitalized hotel classic in El Cortez, and more cool stuff being added all the time.

Union Park is the nickname for the old Union Pacific railway yard that used to take up the acreage just west of the Fremont Street Experience. A major redevelopment of this area has added the stunning Smith Center for the Performing Arts and lots of shopping opportunities that are worth checking out.

The 18b Arts District, so named because it encompasses the original 18 blocks designated as a creative mecca, is located just south of Fremont Street. Bounded roughly by Commerce Street to the east, Hoover Avenue to the north, 4th Street to the west, and Colorado to the South, the Arts District features galleries, stores, restaurants, and bars all with an artistic spin to them. It's also where you'll find the city's fun First Friday street fair. It's worth noting that the Arts District has always been a hit and miss affair, with the true diamonds separated by lots of rough, so to speak. It's not really a cohesive, strollable neighborhood yet so know where you're going, visit during the day (except for the nighttime First Friday), and stick to the main thoroughfares.

Finally, the Downtown Strip is the section of Las Vegas Boulevard between The Stratosphere and Fremont Street. Stubbornly refusing to engage in the gentrification that has improved the other neighborhoods, the Downtown Strip is a bordering-on-seedy stretch of pawn shops, wedding chapels, and no-tell motels. You won't want to spend a great deal of time here but there are a few things worth knowing about including the famed Gold and Silver Pawn Shop featured on the hit reality show Pawn Stars.

While fortunes are rising in the main neighborhoods, the rest of Downtown Las Vegas continues to be an area that you have no reason to visit and probably want to avoid. Crime is an issue in the off-the-beaten-track places but as long as you stay to the well-lit paths listed above you'll be fine.

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Where to Stay in Downtown Las Vegas

For a long time if you had asked me where to stay in Downtown Las Vegas the answer would've been fairly short, with the Golden Nugget and Main Street Station as my only answers. But redevelopment efforts at many of the area's hotels have turned cheap, uninspiring lodging into much more interesting affairs.

It's worth noting at the outset of this discussion that Downtown Las Vegas hotels are not Strip hotels. You will not find anything like the luxury rooms at Wynn Las Vegas or The Venetian but you also won't find the heart-palpitation-inducing room rates either. What you will find are usually simple rooms that have gotten a lot better due to some major revamps at several properties.

The Plaza got a $35 million makeover in 2011 that turned its bargain basement digs into much nicer accommodations outfitted with furniture and decor that were once destined for the multi-billion dollar Fontainebleau project on The Strip. Simple, sleek, and modern, the rooms here are now among the nicest in the entire area.

The D Las Vegas is the new name for what was long called Fitzgerald's. A top to bottom renovation turned the bland former Holiday Inn into a contemporary, more fun, destination. Rooms are still simple but with their vibrant red color schemes and modern flat-panel style amenities, they are a million times better than they used to be.

El Cortez anchors the Fremont East District and got its renovation a couple of years ago. The property is more than 70 years old (once owned by Bugsy Siegel) and while you can still see its age here and there, it's now a much lighter and brighter affair with basic, but satisfying rooms. The Cabana Suites in a neighboring building are funky, retro-modern affairs that are worth the extra few bucks they cost.

The Golden Gate is the city's oldest hotel, dating all the way back to 1905! It has undergone a series of makeovers to keep it up-to-date including a recent one that expanded the property and redid all the rooms. All but the recently added suites are tiny but they are lovingly decorated with solid, dark-wood furnishings in a blast-from-the-past style.

The Gold Spike offers what is perhaps the most stunning turnaround story. Once a metaphorical (and perhaps literal) rat trap, a major renovation made the rooms in the main building and an adjoining former low-rent motel into fun digs with retro furnishings and more modern appointments.

Other Downtown stalwarts such as The Four Queens, The Fremont, and The California haven't gotten the makeover love but they still offer perfectly respectable rooms at more-than-respectable prices.

And finally, while they are getting more competition these days, The Golden Nugget and Main Street Station are still definitely at the top of the list when it comes to choosing a hotel room Downtown. The Nugget's rooms in their two older towers were inspired by those at The Mirage when Steve Wynn used to own the joint. The rooms in the newer Rush Tower are comparable in size and scope to most of the near-luxury hotels on The Strip (like Mandalay Bay for instance) but nowhere near as expensive. Main Street's rooms, meanwhile, are small and simple and on their own aren't much to write home about, but when you put them in context of everything else this gem of a property has to offer they take on a special meaning.

Of course the primary reason that most people stayed in Downtown Las Vegas continues to be a big lure: cost. While room rates are ticking up, especially at the hotels that have received makeovers, you can still get a room in Downtown Las Vegas for a fraction of what you'd pay on The Strip. Weekday rates as low as $29 are not uncommon and you can easily find a nice room for less than $100 on the weekends.

Note that all of the hotels listed above are in the Fremont Street and Fremont East Districts. While there are hotels and motels in other areas, none are worth your time or effort.

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Downtown Vegas Gambling

Just as with the lower room rates, the lower gambling stakes have drawn a budget conscious audience to Downtown casinos for years. Looking for those elusive $5 blackjack tables? You'll find them here and not just one at which you can never get a seat. Lower limits, friendlier dealers, and lots of video poker machines continue to be the hallmarks of gambling in Downtown Las Vegas.

The Golden Nugget still has the best casino in Downtown Las Vegas. It's muted earth tone color scheme and comprehensive offerings make it endlessly appealing and the fact that I usually walk out with more money than I walked in with doesn't hurt either.

Main Street Station's casino has high ceilings and lots of natural light, making it one of the more visually interesting casinos in the area. Their dealers are legendary for their friendly nature and willingness to help you learn games you might not be familiar with. This is where I first sat down at a Three Card Poker table.

Binion's is a classic Las Vegas experience. Once home to the World Series of Poker, this place feels like it was made for serious gamblers and still draws them after all these years with its smoky, old-Vegas feel.

The Plaza and the D Las Vegas have both gotten major upgrades recently that turned boring, tattered casinos into much more modern affairs. The Plaza's casinos is a little dark for my tastes but has the latest machines and lots of gaming tables while The D has a more party-hearty vibe that, while certainly an improvement over its Fitzgerald's days, can be a bit exhausting. I do love the retro casino on the second floor of The D that has machines that take and dispense actual coins. Remember those?

The El Cortez, Fremont, Four Queens, The Golden Gate, and The California all fall in the "everybody else" category. There's nothing expressly wrong with them but there is also nothing, beyond low limits and friendlier dealers, to make them destination casinos. They are worth wandering into if you are on a casino hopping expedition but not worth going out of your way for.

The Gold Spike has a tiny casino that is nice but not really more than a curiosity.

There are lots of other places to gamble in Downtown Las Vegas but most are either shabby or tourist traps. Avoid any casino that has a "showgirl" in front of it trying to lure you in with a free spin on a slot machine or "fun book" of coupons. They are usually shams.

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Cool Things to Do in Downtown Las Vegas

Gambling used to be the only thing of consequence to do in Downtown but now several of the city's must-see attractions are here, putting the area back on your must-do list.

The Mob Museum and Neon Museum should be at the top of any visitor's list. The former is a fun, interactive, and fascinating look at the history of organized crime in America and in Las Vegas. The latter offers a walk through the famed Neon Boneyard where classic signs from around the city are displayed and restored. Both are fantastic, one-of-a-kind experiences that you simply should not miss.

The Fremont Street Experience, of course, has been wowing audiences for almost 20 years now. The light and sound canopy over Glitter Gulch broadcasts eye-popping visuals and stages scattered here and there offer live entertainment almost every night.

Look up and you'll see the Fremont Street Flightlinez soaring overhead. Although it will be closing soon to make way for a new zip line attraction (see Future of Downtown Vegas below), it's still a thrill for now.

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has given the city its first true cultural destination. Comprising several theaters and a park, the center offers everything from the symphony to Broadway touring shows to concerts by big name headliners. Every time you are planning to visit Vegas you should check the center's website to see what will be playing while you are in town.

Other than those, there are no shows in Downtown Las Vegas worth talking about. Instead of Cirque du Soleil and spectacle sized concerts you mainly get small celebrity impersonator shows, some tacky topless reviews, and the occasional random magic act. You'll have to go to The Strip if you want a proper showroom experience.

Downtown Las Vegas has two fun street festivals every month. First Fridays focuses on art and entertainment along with the typical festival food offerings while Vegas Streats features the city's best food trucks plus music and other entertainment.

The Downtown 3rd Farmer's Market is only open on Friday mornings but it should absolutely be on your to-do list if you want to experience a different type of Las Vegas - one where food isn't served from behind a sneeze guard.

Other possibilities include the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, The Old Las Vegas Fort, and the Discovery Children's Museum, the latter of which opens in March (see Future of Downtown Vegas).

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Eating Your Way Through Downtown Vegas

One of the areas in which Downtown continues to lag behind The Strip is in food category. When the most notable restaurant in the area is the Heart Attack Grill, but not necessarily for good reasons, you may have a problem. Having said that, there are a few bright spots.

The brightest of the bright is the branch of Hash House a Go Go at The Plaza. Offering some seriously twisted farm food, this is the place you should go for breakfast even if you aren't a fan of breakfast.

Oscar's is a classic steakhouse at The Plaza from the former mayor of Las Vegas. Located in the iconic dome in front of the hotel, it offers a retro vibe, some pretty good eats, and some kick-ass cocktails.

The Plaza also has a branch of the fantastic Gigi's Cupcakes and a Pop Up Pizza place.

Speaking of retro, check out Hugo's Cellar at the Four Queens. Unapologetically old-school, the food is called things "gourmet" and "continental" and the atmosphere is charmingly romantic. And yes, ladies still receive a rose upon entering.

At the opposite end of the "fine dining" spectrum is American Coney Island at the D Las Vegas. Chili dogs are the specialty here and it's obvious why the parent restaurant has been in business for almost 100 years in Detroit.

Triple 7 Brew Pub at Main Street Station serves up a wide-ranging menu of very satisfying pub-grub food. If you are looking for a good burger or sandwich, perhaps with a tasty beer to wash it down with, this is where you should go.

Also at Main Street Station, the Garden Court is one of the best buffets in town. It's wide ranging selections of high-quality food, a low price point, and a charming, light-infused dining room make this one a winner.

The Fremont Paradise Buffet and the Golden Nugget Buffet are fine but nothing to get too excited about.

Other low-cost but fairly pedestrian dining options include the diner style Market Street Cafe and Magnolia's Veranda.

And of course there's the infamous Heart Attack Grill and their 10,000 calorie burgers and lard-fried fries.

Finally, don't forget Denny's. Normally I don't like to drive people to chain restaurants that they can visit in any city in the world but this one, at Neonopolis, is a one-of-a-kind branch with neon lights, a bar, and a wedding chapel. Yes, even the Denny's is Downtown cool!

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I'll Drink to That: Downtown Vegas' Vibrant Bar Scene

One of the biggest drivers of the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas has been the booming bar scene. A host of fun, funky, and/or fabulous taverns, clubs, bars, and saloons have popped up, creating new energy and drawing in new audiences.

The best of the bunch are located in the Fremont East District including the video game inspired Insert Coin(s), the craft cocktail heaven of Vanguard Lounge, the cozy den of The Griffin, the hipster hangout that is Beauty Bar, the show tune haven at Don't Tell Mama, the sleek ultralounge space at The Downtown Cocktail Room, and the multi-level speakeasy at The Commonwealth. Every single one of them is worth visiting in their own right but they are all within steps of one another so why not hit them all?

Other fun places include the Triple 7 Brew Pub at Main Street Station, which has frequent entertainment and lots of beer on tap; Hogs & Heifers Saloon, a biker-themed joint that inspired the movie (and copycat bar) Coyote Ugly; and Mob Bar, a tiny slip of a joint that mixes retro cocktails with a wink-and-nod to the prohibition era.

Downtown is also on its way to becoming a prime destination for the gay and lesbian crowd. Drink and Drag is already up and running at Neonpolis, offering a nightclub experience plus bowling, games, and other merriment staffed by drag queens while Krave Massive is in development right upstairs, aiming to be the biggest gay nightclub in the world when it opens in late spring.

Pretty much every casino in the area has at least one bar, many of which face or are open to Fremont Street so you can have a cocktail and do some people or show watching.

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Shopping in Downtown Las Vegas

For a long time shopping in Downtown Vegas meant buying cheap souvenir t-shirts or other junky garbage that you gave to people you only kind of liked when you got home. Nowadays there are several great ways to spend your money on things you may actually want to keep for yourself.

Start at the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North, a collection of high-end outlet stores in the Union Park area where you can find lots of brand name merchandise for less money than you'll pay in the regular stores.

If you're in the market for some home decor, go right next door to the Las Vegas Design Center. This multi-showroom facility has furnishings and accessories from the best designers in the business, often long before it makes it into the department stores in your town.

Fans of one-of-a-kind and artistic endeavors have two great outlets to check out in Downtown Vegas. Emergency Arts in the Fremont East District and the Arts Factory in the Arts District both have boutiques and galleries from local artists featuring everything from paintings to custom clothing.

Blasts from the past can be found at a couple of really interesting stores. The Toy Shack at Neonopolis has current toys and games but specializes in collections of amusements from days of yore. That beloved toy you had when you were a kid? They probably have it and if they don't, they can probably get it for you.

Meanwhile Retro Vegas has some cool mid-century modern furnishings mixed in with their rescued and restored bits of Vegas memorabilia.

Speaking of restoring things, Rick's Restorations, featured on the show American Restorations, is adjacent to the Arts District. Not only can you pick up some of the bits of Americana they have saved but you can get a tour of the facility and meet the crew.

And as long as we are talking about reality shows, there's the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop on the Downtown Strip, featured on the show Pawn Stars. Expect a line to get in.

Lastly you would be remiss if you missed the Gambler's General Store adjacent to the Arts District. Here you'll find pretty much everything you could need or want related to casino gambling, from cards to slot machines and beyond. What could be more Vegas than that?

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The Future of Downtown Las Vegas

If you look at the list of proposed and in-the-works projects in Downtown it looks like the resurgence of the area is not going to stop anytime soon.

The biggest project underway is the revamp of the hotel formerly known as the Lady Luck. The Downtown Grand, as it will be called, is going to have 650 new rooms done in a sleek and modern style; a big casino with all of the latest games; more than a dozen restaurants, the most interesting of which will be an indoor/outdoor mix and match food court allowing you to pick and choose from the various outlets and a DJ at night; and a rooftop pool with its own restaurant, a movie screen, gaming tables, grassy areas, and more. It is project to open in mid-2014.

The Las Vegas Club, a rundown property at the head of Fremont Street, is reportedly going to get a makeover of its casino done by Las Vegas showman The Amazing Johnathan. What that will be like is anyone's guess but it will be interesting.

There's also a rumor that Binion is going to close and be completely remodeled as well. The hotel portion shut down a couple of years ago and any plan to redo it would bring that back online.

The coolest, funniest, wackiest new project planned is SlotZilla, a zip line attraction that will launch people out of a 120-foot tall slot machine replica down Fremont Street. That should be up and running this summer and is destined to become an iconic Vegas destination.

Another iconic bit of Vegas history will be making a comeback when the Liberace Experience opens at Neonpolis in 2014. It will be an interactive museum showcasing the legendary entertainer's life and will mark the return after the 2010 closure of the Liberace Museum, which had been in business for more than 30 years.

Central Container Park will be a nearly block long retail and entertainment complex made almost entirely out of old shipping containers. It will be open this summer in the Fremont East District.

Lots more bars are the one way including Krave Massive, being billed as the world's largest gay nightclub with more than 80,000 square feet of space atop Neonpolis (due this spring) and Atomic Liquor, a revitalization of a classic old bar in the Fremont East District that should be open soon.

The Discovery Children's Museum is opening its new location at The Smith Center in March and the Nevada Shakespeare Company will be launching a new theater just north of Fremont Street in 2014.

The latter complex will also host a new version of Rosemary's, the beloved local restaurant that closed a couple of years ago.

Other noteworthy dining developments include a Mexican joint from chef Michael Mina, several new dining outlets at the Downtown Grand as mentioned above, and a couple of pizza joints in the Fremont East District.

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Sky is Falling Award of the Week goes to the Show in the Sky at The Rio, which will be closing. The Mardi Gras style floats and vaguely lewd dancers will take their last swing around the ceiling on March 31, 2013. No word on what, if anything, will replace it.

The Golden Shovel Award of the Week goes to the SLS, the hotel that will replace the Sahara on the north end of The Strip, which had its groundbreaking this week. The new property will feature completely revamped rooms, new restaurants and nightclubs, an updated casino, and more when it opens in 2014.

The Magical Anniversary Award of the Week goes to Penn & Teller who are celebrating their 20th Anniversary of working in Las Vegas with a contract extension that will take them through 2018 at The Rio. That will make them the longest running headliners at the same hotel in Vegas history.

The Someone Like You Award of the Week goes to Divas Las Vegas at The Quad, which has added an Adele impersonator to their lineup who, naturally, does a disco mashup of the award-winning singer's hits.

The Are You Ready to Rock Award of the Week goes to the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, which will be featuring members of the classic rock band Def Leppard April 4-7. Those aspiring to learn at their leather-clad feet can sign up for a package that includes classes, food, drinks, and a concert experience. More info at rockcamp.com.

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