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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.

What follows are my picks for the Best of Las Vegas for 2013 in the categories of Hotels, Shows, Attractions, Restaurants, Buffets, Nightlife, Shopping, and Casinos. 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. There's also a story about my picks for the biggest news stories of the year.

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.

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The Best Hotels in Las Vegas for 2013

Comparing Vegas hotels continues to be one of the hardest parts of my job. How can you possibly pit a hotel like Bellagio against one like Red Rock Resort? They are both great hotels but they cater to different audiences, have different missions, are at vastly different price points, and are geographically so far apart that they could be in a differnt universe from one another. Trying to rank one of them ahead of the other and then seeing the very long list of hotels that I have to leave off the list makes me crazy year after year.

So to make myself a little less crazy, if that is possible, this year's Top 10 Las Vegas Hotels list was selected based on a slightly more narrow set of criteria than I usually use, emphasizing comfort, style, and overall "experience" over things like cost and value. So yeah, there aren't any budget properties on this list, but a great Las Vegas hotel for me should be more than just a place to sleep and shower. It should be special, memorable, and worthy of talking about after you get home, regardless of how much money it cost to stay there. It should be a unique and uniquely Vegas experience, one that you can't have anywhere else, and one that will make you get the bill at the end and say "totally worth it."

These 10 hotels do that and more, which is why I am selecting the following as the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Hotels in Las Vegas for 2013.

1. Caesars Palace

Caesars is just a few years shy of its 50th birthday. In a town that turns the destruction of its history into a spectator sport, the fact that the hotel even exists is noteworthy but the fact that it regularly trounces the competition in terms of quality, comfort, service, amenities, and fun is nothing short of miraculous. Every major hotel in Vegas hits a high point of its own, but Caesars seems to hit more of them more often in ways that would make the Romans proud. All hail Caesars Palace, the Best Hotel in Las Vegas for 2013.

2. Mandalay Bay/THEhotel/Four Seasons

Put the three hotels at this complex together and you have a little something for everyone. The standard accommodations at Mandalay Bay are far beyond simply standard, with luxury appointments and terrific style. The suites at THEhotel (soon to become a Delano), are just plain old gorgeous - the kind of digs you never want to leave. And the attention to detail in everything from the lighting fixtures to the bath amenities at the pampering Four Seasons leaves a lasting impression. Throw in all the other stuff - you'll note that the toppers of my casual restaurants, shows, and nightlife lists are all here - and you have what really is a fantastic Las Vegas experience

3. Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

You could take one look at the gorgeous, uniquely interesting rooms and the awe-inspiring views from their balconies and declare the Cosmo's spot on this list justified. But then you have to throw in a fun casino, an eye-popping design, some really terrific restaurants and entertainment, and a general attitude of wacky abandon that is missing in many of the more grown-up, corporate hotels on The Strip. Anyplace that has a pop-up wedding chapel where they do faux ceremonies with gumball rings is going to be a favorite of mine.

4. Wynn/Encore

I like the sweet suite accommodations at Encore and the casino at Wynn. I prefer the quieter main pool at Encore and the show at Wynn. I love the spa at Encore and many of the restaurants at Wynn. What were once marketed as two separate properties are now billed as one and together they create an irresistible, albeit expensive, package. If luxury is the most important thing on your checklist, this is the place for you.

5. Bellagio

Speaking of luxury... What had started to grow staid has been reenergized by new, super-luxe rooms and new amenities throughout the hotel. There's an undeniable energy here that had been missing for a long time and when you combine that with the iconic Fountains, Conservatory, and Cirque du Soleil show what you get is something we'll call either classic modernism or modern classicism. Either way, it's just a great hotel.

6. Aria Las Vegas

Most Las Vegas hotels impress upon first viewing but by the second or third time you walk through, the wow-worthy moments are rare. Not so with Aria. The boldly visual design still bowls me over, especially when you stop to appreciate all of the textures and shapes that are used where other places put up plain old walls. From outside to inside, from the casino to the rooms, Aria continues to strike a chord with me.

7. Red Rock Resort

Most Las Vegas hotels bill themselves as resorts but if you want the true resort experience your best bet is to head to the far west side of town to this gorgeous retreat perched on the edge of Red Rock Canyon. The casino is way more affordable and rewarding than you'd expect it to be when you see how richly detailed it is and the rooms are like cozy dens that you have to force yourself to leave. And with only 800 rooms, you'll get a level of service unlike the conveyor belt mentality at the 4,000 room mega-resorts.

8. MGM Grand

It's still too darned big, but all of the changes they have put in place over the last couple of years have made the size worth dealing with. Check out the new rooms; stylish and modern yet not overwhelmingly so. Then take a look at the terrific lineup of restaurants, shows, and nightclubs, many of which you will see on the other Best of lists this year. Grand, indeed.

9. The Mirage

24 years old and it's still a perennial contender on this list. How do they do it? By almost constantly improving the offerings, from cosmetic upgrades to changes to the lineup of restaurants and entertainment. It isn't a perfect hotel; others have bigger rooms and better amenities. But it's still a great hotel and that is nothing to sneeze at.

10. The Downtown Grand

I'm taking a flyer on this one, putting it on my list before it has a real chance to fully establish its bona fides. But what I've seen so far has impressed me in ways that a Las Vegas hotel hasn't in a long, long time. Visually, the hotel is a winner, with a retro-modern industrial design that makes it feel current yet classic. Prices are right and the service is beyond friendly. Could this steal the crown from the Golden Nugget as the best hotel in Downtown Las Vegas? It has for this year's list at least.

Reader's Choice: Caesars Palace

I love it when great minds think alike. The voting was tight, with hotels like Mirage and Bellagio coming close but in the end Caesars snuck it out to be the Vegas4Visitors reader's choice for Best Hotel in Las Vegas for 2013.

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The Best Shows in Las Vegas for 2013

The entertainment scene in Las Vegas has changed a lot over the last few decades. While the showgirl is an endangered species these days you can't throw a commemorative drink cup without hitting a French Canadian circus performer (for the record, please don't throw a commemorative drink cup while in Las Vegas). But the great news is that never before have the shows in Sin City been so diverse, offering a little something for everyone and a lot of it absolutely fantastic. Take a look at this list and you'll find magicians, jugglers, singers, dancers, acrobats, impressionists, and more, all of whom put on a heck of a show. These are my choices for the Vegas4Visitors.com Top 10 Awards Best Shows in Las Vegas for 2013.

1. Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil at Mandalay Bay

It's hard to separate the man from the music, but Cirque du Soleil not only does an amazing job of celebrating the (admittedly damaged) singer's songs, they elevate them to a new level of artistry that Jackson himself would probably be thrilled with (pun intended). Seeing the kind of stunts, dance, and visuals that Cirque is known for used to enhance, deepen, and, in some cases, completely reinvent some of the best pop music ever created is nothing short of mind-blowing. For me, that makes Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil the Best Show in Las Vegas for 2013.

2. Absinthe at Caesars Palace

It's the dirtiest, foulest, most profane show you will probably ever see outside of a strip club and yet it is also the most deliriously entertaining, reaching levels of jaw-dropping insanity that will leave you gasping (both from laughing too much and from the thrill of it all). The combination of blush-worthy humor and dramatic, up-close stunts creates an unforgettable night that is unlike anything else in Las Vegas.

3. Jeff Civillico at The Quad

A great Las Vegas show should have high energy, a sense of humor (either about the world or itself), and a unique talent on display that wows, amuses, and/or entertains. Civillico's juggernaut of a show has all of that and then some as the genially goofy guy juggles stuff, balances things, balances ON things, and cracks everyone up with his smart/silly, off-the-cuff patter. The afternoons in Vegas are a lot more fun with Civillico on the job.

4. Mac King at Harrah's

There's a reason that comedian/magician Mac King has been commanding the afternoon stage of Las Vegas for more than 13 years. His laugh-out-loud antics and how-did-he-do-that? magic are still just as fresh today as they ever have been and perhaps even more so, with King's finely honed sense of timing and presentation. One of the lowest ticket prices for one of the highest entertainment values makes this show a lock for the Top 10 year after year.

5. Vegas! The Show at Planet Hollywood

An already fantastic revue of the Vegas of yore has been energized even more with the addition of talented vocalist Josh Strickland (formerly of Peepshow) as one of the leads. He both blends in with and ups the game of the entire cast who seem to be having a ball as they rip through 70 years of Sin City entertainment. No other show in town has this much singing and dancing talent on one stage.

6. Clint Holmes at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

Vocalist Holmes is no stranger to the Las Vegas stages. His show at Harrah's was a crowd-pleasing throwback to the Rat Pack style songfests that used to rule this town but his new gig at the Jazz Cabaret theater at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is smaller, more intimate, and a million times more impressive. Holmes is a master and his jazz-fueled arrangements of pop classics are sonically and artistically thrilling.

7. Mystère by Cirque du Soleil at Treasure Island

When Mystère debuted at Treasure Island in 1993 it not only raised the bar for Las Vegas entertainment it turned the bar into a plaything for a bunch of French Canadian circus performers. Twenty years and eight Cirque shows later, Mystère still amazes, mystifies, and moves audiences with its dreamy staging and thrilling acrobatics. A true Vegas legend.

8. Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas

One of these days I'm going to stop talking about how Le Rêve was fairly derivative and not that great when it first opened. But it's hard not to bring that up when talking about how fantastic the show has become. Dark and moody but with numerous bright spots, visually arresting, and often gasp-inducing, Le Rêve is now the best Cirque du Soleil show that Cirque du Soleil doesn't produce and a lot better than some of the ones they do. You'll note that the similarly water-themed O by Cirque du Soleil, while great, is not on my Top 10 list.

9. Penn & Teller at Rio Las Vegas

Magic shows often work because they depend on the audience being easily fooled; tricked into looking over here while the con is happening over there. Penn & Teller, on the other hand, depend on their audience being smart, appealing not only to the emotion that makes you say "wow" but also to the intellect that makes you say "I'm in on the gag." Who knew magic could be this brainy and still so much fun?

10. KÀ by Cirque du Soleil at MGM Grand

The 2013 accidental death of one of the performers in was tragic but it did highlight a fact that we, the audience, often forget when watching Cirque du Soleil shows: the stuff these talented acrobats, aerialists, and stunt people are doing are dangerous. This is not smoke and mirrors special effects; this is real people putting life and limb at risk for your entertainment. That remains a stunning achievement of both stunts and story even after the tragedy is a triumph that can't be underestimated.

Reader's Choice: Love by Cirque du Soleil at The Mirage

Okay, so we can't always be simpatico. Vegas4Visitors readers continued to show their love for The Beatles themed production, making it their pick for Best Show in Vegas for the second year in a row.

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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 Erotic Heritage Museum, 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.

3. Dolphin Habitat/Secret Garden at The Mirage

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!

4. Fountains of Bellagio at Bellagio

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.

5. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

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.

6. The Fremont Street Experience

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.

8. Exotics Racing

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.

9. Bellagio Conservatory at Bellagio

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.

10. Lion Habitat Ranch

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.

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The Best Expensive Restaurants in Las Vegas for 2013

My definition of an "expensive" restaurant is one in which it will cost you at least $50 to have a full, satisfying meal. That doesn't mean you can't do it for less if you skimp but places this good will make you want the full experience, which will often bring a very high price tag.

Making this list was impossibly hard; for awhile I considered making it a Top 16 just because there were so many great restaurants I wanted to include. If this were a longer list, I would absolutely feature Table 10 at Palazzo, Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace, Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Sinatra at Encore Las Vegas, Top of the World at The Stratosphere, and Comme Ça at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. But I guess if I'm going to have a Top 10 list I should stick with tradition and only include 10 entries so here are my picks for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Expensive Restaurants in Las Vegas for 2013.

1. L'Atelier at MGM Grand

I've had the pleasure of eating here twice now, and both times have provided me with meals that I will remember for the rest of my life. The prices are verging on outrageous until you actually take a bite and then it all starts to make sense. This should be on your list of places to visit before you die and it is absolutely at the top of this list for me, making L'Atelier the Best Expensive Restaurant in Las Vegas for 2013.

2. Old Homestead at Caesars Palace

It's hard to beat a good, old-fashioned steak when it comes to a satisfying meal and in Vegas you have lots of options on where to eat them; this city is a cow's worst nightmare. But if you want to go beyond a good steak to a truly great one, there is only one place to do it: Old Homestead. This Vegas version of a restaurant that has been in business in NYC for more than 150 years is, by far, the best steakhouse in town. Crazy expensive, but absolutely worth it.

3. Aureole at Mandalay Bay

Inspired is a word I keep coming back to when I think of the dining experience at Charlie Palmer's almost legendary Vegas restaurant. It isn't because of the four-story wine tower complete with catsuit clad lovelies who fly up to fetch bottles for guest (although that's cool) and it isn't because of the gorgeous dining room and impeccable service (although it certainly helps). In the end it's because of the food; amazing blends of flavors and textures that will help you truly understand the definition of term "fine dining."

4. Raku Grill

A quick glance at the menu would lead you to believe that this restaurant shouldn't be on the expensive list. After all, each item is only a few bucks. But the skewers of meat, veggies, and fish cooked over a charcoal grill are bite sized and so insanely delicious that you'll wind up ordering a slew of them and easily running up quite a hefty tab. And you know what? It's so good you won't care.

5. Alizé at The Palms

French food can be intimidating to some but here at legendary Vegas chef Andre Rochat's restaurant it is accessible for just about any taste and pleasing to just about any palate. It's one of those places where you take a bite and then want to bang your fist on the table because what you have just tasted is so good you can barely stand it. Factor in the unparalleled view from the big windows overlooking The Strip and you have a perennial winner.

6. Buddy V's at Palazzo

I struggled for a bit whether to put this restaurant on the inexpensive or expensive list. You can do it fairly cheap if you try but the food is so good that you shouldn't have to limit yourself just to save a few bucks. Italian favorites from "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro are the draw here and once you taste the Sunday Gravy or lasagna you won't want to stop.

7. Bartolotta at Wynn Las Vegas

I'm not much of a seafood fan but if all fish tasted like it does here I'd be eating it all the time. Chef Paul Bartolotta has the freshest of the fresh flown in from the chilly waters of the northern Mediterranean daily and the simple yet elegant preparation turns what could be a pedestrian affair into a divine delight.

8. Fleur at Mandalday Bay

When Chef Hubert Keller re-imagined his beloved Fleur de Lys restaurant, which served exquisite full course and tasting menus, into this one that focuses instead on small plates, purists worried that the magic would get lost in the translation. They were wrong because everything that was amazing about the first Fleur still holds true with this one.

9. Todd's Unique Dining

In a town full of gastronomic delights, who would've thought that you could find some of best gourmet cuisine as this out-of-the-way, independent restaurant located in a strip mall in suburban Henderson? But find it you will as Chef Todd Clore turns out fantastic meals using only the freshest of ingredients, usually locally sourced and always lovingly prepared.

10. Andiamo Steakhouse at The D Las Vegas

There is much to love here, from the dark and clubby dining room to the stellar service and the terrific steaks. But it is the Italian favorites (pastas, risotto, gnocchi, and more) that make this place stand out among a sea of steakhouses. One of the only fine dining options in Downtown Vegas and absolutely the best.

Reader's Choice: Delmonico at The Venetian

Vegas4Visitors readers certainly didn't have a beef with Delmonico, making Emeril Lagasse's steakhouse their pick for the Best Restaurant in Las Vegas for 2013.

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The Best Affordable Restaurants in Las Vegas for 2013

If you read the above description of "expensive" restaurants it should come as no surprise that my definition of affordable means you can get a full, satisfying meal for less than $50 per person. It doesn't mean that you can't spend more, especially if you load up on appetizers and drinks, but you can have a great experience without breaking the bank.

And yes, I understand that $49 per person is probably not affordable for a lot of people, but I had to draw the line somewhere and that seemed like as good a place to do it as any.

As with the expensive list, there were a bunch of places I wanted to include that I couldn't find room for so I we'll give honorable mention to Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas, Ping Pang Pong at The Gold Coast, The Cupcakery at Monte Carlo, Rí Rá Irish Pub at Mandalay Bay, munchbar at Caesars Palace, Gordon Ramsay BurGR at Planet Hollywood, and Todd English PUB at Crystals at CityCenter.

And in case you're wondering why Capriotti's didn't make it on to the list this year, it was only because they have expanded to a dozen states and Washington DC, making it less of an experience that you can only get in Vegas. I still consider their sandwiches to be the best in the known universe and if you don't have one near you, visiting one while you are in Las Vegas is absolutely worth the time and effort.

So with those caveats in mind, here are my picks for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Best Affordable Restaurants in Las Vegas for 2013.

1. Citizens Kitchen at Mandalay Bay

This casual kitchen serves heaping platefuls of American comfort food from fried chicken to spaghetti and meatballs to one of the best versions of a meatloaf I have ever tasted (sorry mom, yours is good too). It's the way every one of those chain restaurants that serves conveyor belt versions of the same stuff should be like but isn't (and you know exactly which chains I'm talking about, don't you?). Fun, affordable, comfortable... Citizens Kitchen is the Best Affordable Restaurant in Las Vegas for 2013.

2. Culinary Dropout at The Hard Rock Hotel

This fun bistro treads some of the same territory as Citizens Kitchen but twists it up a bit with some hip menu items and an even hipper staff. You can go full-on comfort food and not be disappointed (the meatloaf here is fantastic too) or you can go edgier with a charcuterie plate or a chicken curry dish. Whatever you choose it's going to be good and not too expensive.

3. Eat Downtown Las Vegas

I can't speak highly enough of this tiny slip of a place off-the-beaten track in Downtown Vegas. It's got a great, retro-diner vibe and the food is like an organic, farm-fresh dream come true. It's only open for breakfast and lunch and whichever you choose, be prepared to get so much food that the next meal becomes irrelevant. And I command you to get the beignets. You can thank me later.

4. Hash House a Go Go at The Quad

If you don't know about the mad, twisted farm food at Hash House you really can't call yourself a true fan of Las Vegas. There are four of them in town (with a fifth on the way) and no matter which you go to you'll find enormous portions and a quality that simply can't be matched by most restaurants at this price point. Go, go, now!

5. La Comida

Although a bit on the pricey side for Downtown, this place is a comparative bargain when you consider the quality of the home style Mexican dishes and the fact that similar meals on The Strip would cost 30% more. This is the real deal: authentic regional recipes that have the kind of flavor and presentation that makes you think "mama" is in the kitchen cooking.

6. Lola's: A Louisiana Kitchen

This one is easy: it offers the best Creole and Cajun cooking I have tasted outside of Louisiana. That's actually not a high bar to beat since most attempts at the cuisine outside of its region of origin are pretty bad, but this one excels for its authentic New Orleans flavors and a zesty, let the good times roll attitude.

7. KGB at Harrah's

I've said it before and I'll say it again... best burgers in Las Vegas. I know you have your opinion on that particular topic but if you don't think KGB beats all the other competitors for the crown you are, to put it simply, plain wrong. Big, beautifully constructed, flavorful, juicy masterpieces; I want one right now.

8. PUB 1842 at MGM Grand

Gastropubs are already starting to wear out their welcome in my book but if they were all as good as this one from Chef Michael Mina I'd want one on every casino corner. Terrific food, including their own BBQ pit, and inventive, barrel-aged cocktails and craft beer makes this a fun alternative to the boring diners that are nowhere near as interesting.

9. Sugar Factory at Paris Las Vegas

I was leery walking into this place. After all, this is the restaurant version of the place that offers custom lollipops from celebrities like Britney Spears and various Kardashians. But imagine my surprise when I found a delightful, Strip-facing dining room serving up a huge variety of delicious food, from crepes to sandwiches to steaks and more. And those desserts! Worth it for that alone.

10. Radio City Pizza

Yet another reason to head to Downtown Las Vegas. This terrific pizza joint serves up slices or whole pies with inventive toppings and a presentation that will make you swoon. The breakfast pizza - basically a massive omelet on a pizza crust - will make you never want to eat at a breakfast buffet again.

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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.

1. The Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace

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.

3. Garden Court Buffet at Main Street Station

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.

4. Station Casinos Feast Buffets

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.

5. Spice Market Buffet at Planet Hollywood

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.

6. Carnival World Buffet at Rio Las Vegas

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).

7. Le Village Buffet at Paris Las Vegas

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.

8. Buffet at Bellagio

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.

10. Ports o'Call Buffet at The Gold Coast

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.

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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.

2. Insert Coin(s)

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.

3. ghostbar at The Palms

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.

4. Vanguard Lounge

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.

6. Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

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.

7. Share

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.

8. Atomic Liquors

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.

9. Artifice

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.

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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.

1. Zombie Apocalypse Store

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.

2. Bonanza Souvenir Shop

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.

4. Sweet Spot Candy Shop

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.

5. Amber Unicorn Books

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.

6. Gambler's General Store

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.

7. Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian/Palazzo

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.

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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.

1. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

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.

2. Caesars Palace

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.

3. Wynn Las Vegas

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.

4. Golden Nugget

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.

5. Red Rock Resort

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.

6. Green Valley Ranch

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.

8. Aria

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.

9. Downtown Grand

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.

10. Bellagio

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.

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Biggest Las Vegas News Stories of 2013

The good news for Vegas is that after several years of bad news (bankruptcies! closures! fewer visitors! locusts!) there was finally some good news as the economy started picking back up and people's attitude about Sin City picked back up as well. New development, increased tourism, more revenue, and even some new, purely Vegas wacky ideas started filtering into the conversation and turned the year into a hopeful sign that the city is on the way back.

Here are my picks for the Vegas4Visitors Top 10 Awards Biggest News Stories in Las Vegas for 2013.

1. Resorts World Plans Themed Mega-Casino

It sounds like something straight out of the 1990s: plans to build a Chinese themed mega-resort with thousands of hotel rooms, a massive casino, a mall, an indoor water park, a giant panda habitat, and a replica of the Great Wall of China. But Resorts World Las Vegas is not a headline from the heady days of Vegas' big boom, this is a current plan for the land that used to be home to The Stardust and is now an abandoned construction site. The first really surprising thing about this is that it's going to be a theme casino; something that hasn't really happened here since The Venetian opened in 1999. Second, that anyone is willing to spend billions of dollars to build something this big when the last financially successful resort to open in Vegas was the Wynn/Encore complex in the mid-2000s. Will this kick off a new wave of investment and development in Vegas? Will it draw more people and more revenue to a still struggling local economy? Will I be able to pet the pandas?! No matter how, or even if, it all turns out, the idea of it all is absolutely the Biggest News Story of 2013.

2. Life is Beautiful Festival Launches

I will freely admit that I thought this was going to be a disaster. Trying to do launch a two-day festival of this size and scope - with dozens of music artists, food vendors, arts projects, speakers, and more spread across 15 blocks of Downtown Las Vegas - in a city that has a hard time paying attention to anything for very long was lunacy as far as I was concerned. But the Life is Beautiful Festival turned out to be a huge success, not only from a logistical and organizational standpoint but from an energy and atmosphere one. In one weekend they managed to establish the Downtown area as a creative and cultural epicenter that can appeal to visitors and locals alike. I've already got the last weekend of October 2014 blocked out for the next one!

3. The Downtown Grand Opens

It took the better part of a decade but getting the former Lady Luck back up and running signals a watershed moment, not only for Downtown Las Vegas but for Las Vegas as a whole. The Downtown Grand is the capper in a run of remodels including The Plaza and The D that are steadily transforming Downtown into an affordable but still stylish alternative to The Strip and it's a solid step in recovery of the city. The fact that it's a well-designed, interesting addition to the Vegas scene seems almost like a bonus.

4. Downtown Resort Fees

Of course success, as they say, breeds contempt and a healthy dose of the latter must reserved for the hotels in Downtown Las Vegas that succumbed to the siren call of the resort fee. The battle had already been waged and lost on The Strip, with every major property now charging a nightly fee on top of their regular room rates to pay for things like Internet service and gym access. Even a lot of the local neighborhood casinos were demanding their share of the fee-ing frenzy. But Downtown had remained fee-free until this year when nearly half of the major hotels in the area (Golden Nugget, The D Las Vegas, Golden Gate, Plaza) added them, with the rest expected to follow suit sooner rather than later.

5. Britney Spears Comes to Vegas

Love her, hate her, or not care enough to feel one way or another, you have to admit that Britney Spears becoming a resident artist at Planet Hollywood for two years is a pretty big deal... although maybe not in the way you might be thinking. It's really less about Spears and more about what she represents; a sea-shift in the demographic appeal and pop culture popularity from the typical Vegas headliners that mostly cater to an older, more middle-of-the-road set (I'm looking at you Celine... and Elton... and pretty much everyone else). It's a gamble that may not work but if Brit's fans, who are exactly the kind of audience Vegas wants in its hip nightclubs and restaurants, show up, it could change the definition of a Vegas headliner forever.

6. Shopping Is the New Black

For a long time, development in Vegas meant finding ways to get more slot machines or gaming tables on the property. But these days shopping is the hot commodity, with new malls (big, small, indoor, outdoor, and otherwise) planned for The Flamingo & Quad, New York-New York & Monte Carlo, The Tropicana, Bally's, and Treasure Island. The latter is even replacing the long-running Sirens of TI show, which brings us to...

7. Sirens Pirate Battle Attraction Ends

For a decade, the pirate battle stunt show at Treasure Island was one of the best free attractions in Vegas, an epic bit of silliness that involved the British Navy, scurrilous scalawags, and a sinking ship. For the next decade it was an epic bit of stupidity, redone with a supposed-to-be-sexy update that involved scantily clad women, dumb music, and borderline offensive dialogue. Regardless of what it became, it was an iconic Vegas attraction that has now sailed into the sunset and for that, Vegas is a little less fun. Now what am I going to be snarky about? Oh right... PANDA!

8. Tragedy Strikes at Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil has always been a refuge from the real world, with its ethereal theatrics and impossible to believe acrobatics creating an entirely different, fantastical universe. But the death of performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot, who slipped from her harness during the climactic battle scene and plunged more than 70 feet to a pit below the stage in June, and the serious injury of another Cirque performer in Zarkana later in the year, reminded us that these are real people doing insanely dangerous things for our amusement. Sometimes the real world really sucks.

9. Violence in Vegas

Crime in Vegas is certainly nothing new, but this year seemed to have more than its share of tragic headlines: a rolling gun battle on The Strip ends with two people killed in a fiery collision with a cab; a carjacking ends with a crash that kills two, one of whom was a man in town for his bachelor party; a disagreement over a cover charge at a nightclub at Bally's ends with a good Samaritan shot dead... the list goes on and on. Vegas was built on the concept of being completely removed from real world concerns, but as a wise man very recently said, sometimes the real world... well, you know.

10. Vegas4Visitors 15th Anniversary

I know that it really wasn't that big of a story for Las Vegas but it was a big deal to me and this is my list so get over it. I launched Vegas4Visitors.com in September of 1998, just a few weeks before Bellagio opened, and the fact that it is still going after all these years is a testament to the city and the people who love it. I'm happy we're all still here to enjoy it.

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