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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
December 23, 2013
Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards: The Best of Las Vegas 2013
When we convened here last year I talked about how 2012 was the year in which it seemed like Vegas had turned the corner; certainly not fully recovered from the nearly catastrophic global recession but certainly starting to shake it off. There was hope that 2013 would be the year when things really got back on track and Las Vegas would go back to being the physical manifestitation of the "id" that we all needed to forget about those bad times.
In some ways that happened. Lots of new stuff opened this year, from hotels to restaurants to shows and attractions and nightclubs, and even more was planned. A new energy seemed to permeate all corners including a terrific new festival that solidified Downtown Las Vegas as the place to be. The LVCVA even relaunched their "What happens in Vegas..." campaign, a subtle signal that the city is ready to get back to the business of hedonistic delights.
But a lot of this still feels tentative in a way, as if Las Vegas and the people who visit it are testing the waters to make sure that it isn't too hot or too cold before the jump in. Because of that, a lot of what you'll see on this year's lists was on last year's lists, but that's okay... new doesn't always mean good and sometimes the tried and true is what you need to get things right.
This week I am unveiling my picks in five categories: Best Attractions, Best Buffets, Best Nightlife, Best Shopping, and Best Casinos. Hotels, two categories of dining (expensive and affordable), shows, and the biggest news stories of the year will be unveiled next week. And once again this year I'm making it not be all about me by including your Reader's Choice votes for the bests in several categories as well.
As always, my choices are bound to elicit some commentary. If you have something you want to add, we'll be having a discussion about it on the Vegas4Visitors Facebook group.
The Best Attractions in Las Vegas for 2013
This was probably the hardest list to create this year, since picking only 10 meant I had to leave off a lot of really worthwhile, fun, interesting, and/or unique attractions, which says a lot about the category and how much it has grown in the last few years. Keeping people entertained with something other than gambling is the mantra in Vegas these days and now there are more things to do than ever before.
So I'm giving honorable mention to the Pinball Hall of Fame, the Discovery Children's Museum, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, the Mirage Volcano, the Downtown Container ParkDowntown Container Park, The National Atomic Testing Museum, and Springs Preserve just because any list of the best attractions in Vegas should really include them.
Here are the official picks for the Vegas4Visitors.com Top 10 Awards Best Attractions in Las Vegas for 2013.
1. Neon Museum
There are a lot of interesting museums in Las Vegas but none of them celebrates the real history of the city like this one. Both an art gallery and a walk through Sin City's past, the Neon Museum displays the signs and decoration from long gone casinos, hotels, restaurants, wedding chapels, and more and tells their story in ways that both entertain and illuminate (pun intended). Without a doubt the Best Attraction in Las Vegas for 2013.
2. Mob Museum
The city of Las Vegas would not exist with the mob; or at least not in the grand spectacle way that it does. Mafia money funded Vegas from the 1940s through the 1970s and this amazing museum chronicles organized crime's involvement here and around the country. This endlessly fascinating facility is the type of place you could spend all day in - and should.
Still the most un-Vegas thing to do in Las Vegas, this fantastic animal exhibit is a great place to go to get away from the madness that lurks outside its gates. Want to relax? Go play with a dolphin (or watch others do it) and you'll forget all about whatever is stressing you out. If you can afford one of the more immersive experiences, where you get to paint with or train dolphins, do it!
Fifteen years after it opened and it is still one of the most iconic bits of Vegas showmanship and something you can't help yourself but to stop and watch. Those big finishes - with the water blasting up as high as the hotel behind it - are such a thrill that you kind of want to forget about where you were going and hang around for the next show.
Before this fantastic facility opened a couple of years ago, Las Vegas was more known for its pop culture than its actual culture. The Smith Center is rapidly changing that with theater, dance, music, and more that has elevated the city to a national stage. Yes, the Cirque shows on The Strip are good, but if you want to see a great show the next time you are in Vegas, check to see what is playing here.
In 1995, purists howled when Glitter Gulch was turned into a pedestrian mall the Viva Vision light and sound canopy was hoisted overhead. Today it is hard to picture it any other way and remains Downtown Las Vegas' most iconic destination. Much like the Bellagio Fountains, it is virtually impossible to not stop and watch the show when it is going on, no matter how many times you have seen it before.
7. Wet 'n' Wild
When the original Wet 'n' Wild water park, located on the north end of The Strip, closed in 2004, no one thought it would take the better part of a decade for a city like this to get a new water based amusement park. But wow, was it worth the wait! About the only wrong with this fantastic facility is how popular it is but all those people you have to wait in lines with understand what you do: this is a really cool place to get wet.
Adrenaline junkies should forget the roller coasters and other thrill rides in town and come here instead. There is absolutely nothing like putting a Ferrari or Lamborghini or Porsche through its paces on a twisting road course, pushing the car's limits and elevating your heart rate in the process. Expensive but worth every single penny.
The seasonal displays here are always a must-visit as far as I'm concerned. Nothing will get you in the Holiday (or Fall or Summer or Spring or Chinese New Year) mood than a stroll through the gardens under a beautiful atrium skylight.
The lions may have been sent packing from their home at MGM Grand but you can still see them here at this terrific facility. And not just see them; get up close, interact, learn, and even train them. Even though they aren't on The Strip anymore, the lions are still a part of Las Vegas culture.
Reader's Choice: Bellagio Fountains at Bellagio
This one wasn't even a contest. The dancing waters at Bellagio washed away the competition by getting the vast majority of the votes, making it your choice for Best Attraction in Las Vegas for 2013.
The Best Buffets in Las Vegas for 2013
As more and more affordable restaurants serving big portions of a wide variety of food open in Vegas and the prices of the all-you-can-eateries keeps going up, is the Las Vegas buffet in danger of becoming irrelavent? Well, no, but it does force them to become a lot more interesting, more epic, and more quality-focused to hold on to their market share. That is evident as you look at the entries on this list, my picks for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Best Buffets in Las Vegas for 2013.
I'll admit that I still don't totally "get" this place. The sheer scope of it is a bit overwhelming to me, the food is good but not fantastic, and the prices are downright outrageous. But like Sherman's army marching to the sea, it is virtually impossible to resist the force of it. It is the biggest, most audacious, most expensive, most insane buffet in Las Vegas and that's exactly what the Best Buffet in Las Vegas for 2013 should be.
2. Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas
Just because I didn't put this buffet at number one doesn't mean that I don't think it's the best buffet in Vegas. How does that figure? Well, the Bacchanal Buffet takes number one by being a crowd-pleasing bit of Vegas silliness but if I personally am going to spend the kind of money these types of buffets cost, I'd spend it here. The Wynn buffet is elegant and upscale from the beautiful, sun-dappled garden room to the fine foods served. It doesn't feel like you are eating at a buffet, which makes it a great buffet in my book.
I'm lousy at math but I'm sure there's some kind of formula that could scientifically prove that this is the best buffet value in Las Vegas. The prices are almost suspiciously cheap and yet the quality is fantastic, rivaling buffets that cost two or three times as much.
As always, I'm lumping these Feast Buffets into one bucket just because no matter which one you choose - Red Rock Resort, Green Valley Ranch, Santa Fe Station, Sunset Station, and beyond - the quality and selection will be top notch and the prices incredibly affordable.
I still say that this place was better when the hotel that surrounded it was The Aladdin, but even though its star has diminished a bit in my opinion, it is still a terrific buffet (as is evidenced by its placement on this list). The wide variety of food goes past the typical American/Salad/Chinese/Mexican thing to much more interesting, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired fare and it's not as outrageously expensive as some of the other Strip buffets.
From a pure option standpoint alone, this longtime favorite buffet proves its worth by offering one of the biggest varieties you're going to find at a Vegas buffet. The food stations are interesting and the cost seems less crazy these days (but only because there are so many other more expensive options in town).
Yes, the Disneyland-style experience of eating in a stylized representation of the French countryside is silly fun but it's really the food that seals the deal here. It has enough Gallic influences to be intriguing without going so far as to be intimidating for the meat and potatoes crowd.
Long before Bacchanal came along, this buffet was making people sit up and pay attention to what had been a fairly pedestrian eating experience. It set the standard for a quality of food and ambience that was more than just a dine and dash, all-you-can-eat refueling. After more than 15 years, it's still one of the best in town.
9. Studio B Buffet at M Resort
The energy of this place is undeniable, with a modern edge, lots of light, and some really great food. It's a bit of a trek to get there but totally worth the drive.
Normally cheap means low quality but at this small but satisfying buffet you'll find a much higher quality to price ratio than you would expect. It's about a third of the cost of the big buffets but not a third of the goodness.
Reader's Choice: Garden Court Buffet at Main Street Station
Value seemed to be the watchword in the selection of this Downtown favorite as the Reader's Choice for Best Buffet in Las Vegas for 2013.
The Best Nightlife in Las Vegas for 2013
It is difficult to overstate how important the nightclub scene has been to Las Vegas over the last few years. While room rates and casino revenue have become stagnant, the money brought in by the big clubs on The Strip is expected to exceed $1 billion in 2013, with the majority of the Top 20 grossing clubs in the United States here in Vegas. Nightclubs have become the most important part of a hotel's portfolio of assets and are driving the development of everything from how the casinos look to the atmosphere of restaurants, pools, rooms, and more.
While the booming club scene may be mostly appealing to pretty twenty-somethings (and their appreciators), there are still lots of great places to drink and party in Vegas that don't require a size zero body and lots of daddy's money, so many so that I have to put some in the honorable mention category including The Commonwealth, XS, Marquee, Hyde Bellagio, The Griffin, and The Lady Silvia.
The list below is diverse, with clubs and bars, taverns and honkytonks, gay and straight, upscale and low rent all cohabitating into one list that I call the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Nightlife in Las Vegas for 2013.
1. Light at Mandalay Bay
After years of loathing most Vegas nightclubs and totally not understanding why people put up with them, I have finally seen the Light. This partnership between a local nightclub powerhouse and Cirque du Soleil means you get an experience that is more than just pretty people doing less than pretty things with really loud music playing. Instead you get a nightclub as carnival experience that is boldly visual and even intellectually stimulating. Sure, you can still just bliss out and dance, but those looking for a more complete package finally have a place to party.
When you walk into this place it's hard to tell if the nightclub makes the video games less nerdy or if the video games make the nightclub less attitudinal. Maybe it's both. Regardless, the marriage between the two has produced one of the most fun places to drink, dance, and play in Vegas.
A bordello inspired revamp of the decor has certainly made this long-running ultralounge more visually appealing but its appearance on this list is really more about the shifting tides of popularity in Vegas. This used to be a haven for the see-and-be-seen set, where attitudes were as high as the drink prices and cover charges. It still costs a pretty penny to get in but the cooler-than-thou crowd has moved on to other stomping grounds, leaving behind a friendlier, more egalitarian group that just wants to have a good time. It's a welcome change in my book.
Intricately constructed craft cocktails are all the rage these days and there are few places in Vegas that serve better examples than here at this tiny slip of a joint on Fremont Street in Downtown. Inspired fusions of flavors at prices that won't break your bank are the specialty and you can consume them in a casually relaxed atmosphere that will make you wonder where the time went.
5. Body English at the Hard Rock Hotel
When Vegas nightclubs go away they usually stay gone for good. Not in the case of Body English, the underground (literally) club that had a rebirth in 2013 after being closed for a few years. It's smaller and therefore less overwhelming than most of the mega-clubs on The Strip but still has enough of the party-friendly atmosphere that you are guaranteed a good time.
I could just stop at the fact that it's a bar inside of a giant chandelier and that would pretty much justify its placement on this list, but its more than just a gimmick. There are actually several bars here, each offering a different vibe that allows you to find the right one for your mood. Great people watching opportunities here.
The high-profile failures of clubs like Krave and Drink and Drag didn't bode well for the gay nightlife scene in Vegas, but with a place like Share you really don't need much else. Downstairs is a high-energy dance floor, upstairs is a sexy ultralounge, and throughout are hot dancers, a friendly crowd, and drinks and cover prices that won't bankrupt you.
First dubbed the Atomic in 1952, this place has seen its share of ups and downs in the last six decades. For a long time it was a dump in a dumpy neighborhood but now both the bar and the area around it have been revitalized, offering a new opportunity for people to experience a Sin City classic.
It is only a couple of miles from the high-profile clubs of The Strip but it might as well be in a different universe all together when you consider how laid back, friendly, casual, and completely devoid of attitude this place is. With a funky boho vibe and an eclectic lineup of music, events, and shows, this club puts the "art" in party.
10. Gilley's at Treasure Island
There's a little bit of something for everyone at this yeehaw themed party bar, with line dancing lessons, cowboy karaoke, and a mechanical bull, naturally. It's a great place for both tourists and locals to relax and have a rip-roaring honky tonk of a good time.
The Best Shopping in Las Vegas for 2013
With no fewer than five shopping complexes under construction or planned for major Strip hotels, the mall may be challenging the casino for the hearts and minds of Vegas visitors. Eventually I'm hoping that will give us some new entrants on this list but for now the 2013 list is almost identical to the 2012 list. That's okay; even though they are repeats, they are still great places to shop and therefore are my picks for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Stores and Shopping Experiences in Las Vegas for 2013.
Yes, this is ultimately a survivalist store (the world is coming to an end!) but the thing they are trying to survive, in this instance, is a zombie apocalypse and that's just funny. From "Fast Zombies Suck" bumper stickers to zombie-shaped target practice cutouts, this is a must-visit for "The Walking Dead" fans and anyone else with a healthy sense of humor.
Everyone needs to buy a tacky Vegas souvenir at least once in their life and this is the place to find them. It's also the place to find souvenirs that aren't tacky and a few that are just plain old weird. Come on... you need to have something to give to your neighbors after you get home.
3. The Toy Shack at Neonopolis
Remember that favorite childhood toy that you spent hours playing with? There is a good chance that they will have it here or be able to get it for you. Blasts from the past have never been this much fun.
Those who know me know that I'm a fan of sweets so should it be surprising at all that a place called the Sweet Spot would show up on this list? Packed with unique chocolates, gummies, hard candies, and more plus a wide selection of retro candies, this place is a sugar lover's dream come true.
You remember books, don't you? Those things made out of paper that you used to pick up and read before your eyes got glued to your Kindle? If you do remember them fondly, Amber Unicorn is a haven for you, with a small library's worth of volumes on just about everything, all lovingly tended and catalogued.
Worshipers of Vegas often make a pilgrimage to this temple of all things gambling. If you're looking for the perfect way to bring a bit of Sin City casinos back home with you (presuming what you're trying to buy is legal for you to own where you live), this is the place to find it.
Now that it has taken over the Shoppes at Palazzo, the Grand Canal Shoppes mall is nearly one million square-feet of highly themed retail bliss. From the indoor canal and the replica of St. Mark's Square in the Venetian to the indoor garden atrium and waterfall at Palazzo, its fun to look at and a fine place to shop, too.
8. Town Square
I'm not usually a fan of outdoor shopping malls in Vegas - it gets really hot here in case you hadn't noticed - but this one, done as a charming small town complete with, yes, a town square, has such a wide variety of stores, restaurants, entertainment, and recreation that I'm willing to overlook the unrelenting sunshine.
9. Retro Vegas
This pink palace of antiques gets a lot of attention for its mid-century, Danish modern furnishings (and rightfully so - they are gorgeous), but it's the cool bits of Vegas history that draw my attention. I still really wish I could've afforded that chandelier from The Desert Inn.
10. Emergency Arts
The local artist scene is booming in Las Vegas and nowhere is there a better example of their work than at this Downtown arts collective. From the funky galleries to the fun boutiques and the hipster (in a good way) coffee shop, this is one of the coolest scenes in town.
The Best Casinos in Las Vegas for 2013
What makes a great casino? Well, winning while gambling there certainly helps. But with jackpots seemingly fewer and farther between these days, one has to factor in more than just how fat your wallet is when you leave when picking a list of favorites. The overall ambience is a big part of it; a fun space and friendly staff will go a long ways toward softening the blow of how much money you have lost. Options are a big part of it, too. Give me lots of different types of games and lots of different places to play them and I'll be happier than if I'm stuck in one place the entire time.
With all that in mind, here is my list for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Casinos in Las Vegas for 2013.
For some reason the casino at The Cosmo hasn't really caught on with the public; gambling revenue has been one of the hotel's weakest points. But I think this place has everything: an easy to navigate layout, lots of gaming options, friendly dealers and staff, and an eye-popping design that seems to get more and more gorgeous every time I look at it. Okay, so it's not always the most rewarding casino but that's why they call it gambling. If I'm going to lose my money I'd like to do it in a place like this so for my money The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas has the Best Casino for 2013.
The classic kitsch factor here is off the charts, something I really appreciate when I see lots of places trading their fun environments for boring upscale "luxury" (I'm looking at you Luxor). The Roman detail is grin-inspiring and the place is so huge and rambling that you have lots of different spaces available to suit almost any gambling mood.
I know I just whined about upscale luxury but here they have done it in a way that seems to not take things quite so seriously, with touches of whimsy that keep the proceedings light. The casino is well-organized so you won't get lost and yet there are plenty of options to keep you entertained.
Downtown Las Vegas' best casino has a warm, earth-toned atmosphere and some of the friendliest dealers in town. Things are a bit crowded but that's typical of Downtown so it's easily forgiven, especially when you factor in the low limits and higher payouts.
When you've got visual wonders like The Cosmo and Aria, it's easy to forget that Red Rock Resort incorporated textures (wood, stone, glass, fabric, etc.) into their design aesthetic years before it happened on The Strip. It's still one of the most gorgeous casinos in town and offers lots of gaming options and low limits.
Red Rock's sister is like a warm family room of a space, with natural wood and stone accented by soft lighting that makes it more cozy than crazy. It's everything that a good neighborhood casino should be.
7. Mandalay Bay
For most of its existence I felt that the casino here was bland, too dark, and oddly laid out. Revamps to the decor and the floor plan combined with a new audience of club-goers has given the place a new energy that is impossible not to appreciate.
If this was strictly about the visuals and the inventory, Aria would win hands down. It is one of the biggest casinos in town and is absolutely stunning to look at, with a dramatic flair that I love. So why is it relatively low on the list? Because every time I have visited lately I might as well have just thrown my money on the floor. Then again, losing is a part of gambling so maybe it's just my luck.
The newest casino in Vegas is small and offers mainly very low-limit gaming so that gives it a couple of demerits in my book, but it is the prettiest by a billion miles. The industrial chic architecture combined with a fun flea-market sensibility to the furnishings and decor makes this a great place to spend your money. Oh, and best gaming table chairs in town.
Some people find the casino here a little stuffy and for a long time I was one of them. But I've grown to appreciate the more grown-up sensibility here that keeps things classy but still provides enough fun to keep it engaging.