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Returning to Las Vegas: Free Fun in A City I Don't Like

I didn't love Las Vegas on my first visit to Sin City, in 2007—and I'm still not a fan.

For one thing, it's toxic. Nearly all the stores and restaurants travelers or tourists want to visit are in casino hotels, many of them requiring crossing the casino pit—and every single one of the casinos I've been in, in two trips, allows smoking. In many casinos, even the nonsmoking areas (most of the public spaces outside the casino pits) are contaminated by cigarette smoke seeping in through the floors, walls, and ceilings. Even the quiet, nearly deserted, mellow casino in Lake Las Vegas, where my conference was held, was too smoky for me to spend more than five minutes there. For another, with the constant bombardment of flashing lights and loud music, it's just not a pleasant environment. And then there's the culture: the objectification of women taken to absurd degrees.the romanticizing of guns, gambling, and gin.and the logical outcome: scores of beggars lining the streets and homeless people sleeping in doorways.

Still, I'm a happy person who tries to make the best of every situation. So, twice in a row, I've made the best of Vegas. In 2007, I spent a lot of time poring over activities lists; this time, we mostly just wandered—enabled by an $8, 24-hour bus pass that made getting around a cinch.

Here are some of the fun things we did:

  • Watch and photograph several people harness-jumping off the 107-storey Stratosphere tower that dominates the northern end of the Strip (it costs $107 to $140 to
  • Visit the beautiful flower and plant conservatory inside the Bellagio, and also enjoy huge and tasty desserts—gelato for Dina, and an almond croissant for me—and high-quality drinking water (a rarity in Vegas) in the gelateria there.
  • Take the Strip/Downtown Express bus to Fremont Street, center of the northern area called Downtown, in decades past the center of town. We walked the several-block-long pedestrian mall, some of it under a canopy, enjoyed a much more relaxed vibe than on the Strip, saw three Elvis impersonators walking together, and gawked at the historic hotel casinos like the legendary Golden Nugget. Oddly enough, there's a zipline down one block, under the canopy. I think of ziplines as a way to see nature, but here, for $15, you get to swing rapidly across a block of old casinos. Strange! The canopy was great for staying cool in the bright sun, but it also trapped smoke filtering out of the casinos.
  • Go to one of the free circus shows at Circus Circus. Geared for little kids and too smoky to stay, unfortunately.
  • Enjoy a thoroughly delicious guayaba smoothie in the Java Spot, a café inside the Riviera—where we had another Elvis siting, this time a look-alike and not an impersonator.
  • Enjoyed two delicious Indian meals moderately priced, with entrees starting at $13 in this land of $6 ice cream and $40 dinner entrees—first at the wonderful and elegant Tamba, 3743 Las Vegas Boulevard (upstairs from the rather tawdry Hawaiian Marketplace, across from City Center). We had another excellent Indian mealwhen we came back to Vegas after our conference, a week later, not as elegant but the food was similarly priced and similarly terrific: Bombay Indian Cuisine, 3049 S. Las Vegas Boulevard (behind Encore Casino, somewhat north of the busiest part of the Strip. On our first evening there, we ordered two terrific dishes: grated paneer (Indian cheese) in a hot red sauce, and yellow lentil dal with ginger. Both were so tasty that we went back the next night, but we were less thrilled with our choices (chana masala and a vegetable fritter appetizer plate).

Just to confuse, these restaurants with very similar addresses on the same street are about two miles apart, and the one with South in the address is farther north. This is in keeping with Vegas's amazingly frustrating signage that we encountered over and over again, whether driving or walking. One encounter with a wrong sign delayed us more than half an hour when we returned our rental car, and the sign that said "Rental car return, next left" took us into a golf course from which there was no way to exit in the correct direction. We also got on the wrong road another time when the map gave the highway a different number than the signs. Driver, beware!

Shel Horowitz's latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. He continues to edit Global Travel Review, which he founded in 1997.

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