July 29, 2015
First things first: no, Las Vegas doesn’t begin and end with its infamous Strip. Enticing, casino-packed, and neon-lit as it may be, the Strip is only one part of this city’s urban buzz. And for those looking to explore a different side of Sin City, there’s never been a better time to visit.
Take Downtown Las Vegas. Found northeast of the Strip, the area is host to a flourishing Arts District, has seen the launch of many leading restaurants, and has established itself as a new cultural nexus in Vegas. And then there’s the North Strip, which, after years of being considered a veritable no-man’s-land, is seeing new stirrings of life. Once you’ve clocked in the requisite time seeing the Strip’s sights, then, be sure to veer off the main path. There’s a whole different side of Vegas to see.
For a long time, the North Strip - the one-mile stretch that runs between Convention Center Drive and Sahara Avenue – was considered something of a wasteland. It didn’t help that, during the recession, the construction of two sprawling new casino projects along the North Strip (the Echelon and the Fontainebleau) was permanently halted.
Fast forward to 2015, when all that is staring to change- particularly with the arrival of the swanky SLS Las Vegas last year. A harbinger for the area’s growth, the SLS began life as a 1950s-era casino known as The Sahara; after an extensive renovation, the landmark was reopened with plenty of draws. Like its top-chef run restaurants (José Andrés and Katsuya Uechi both manage eateries on-site), 1,600 revamped guestrooms and swanky pool parties.
And then there’s the new Rock in Rio site. Known officially as the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds, the huge lot at the corner of the Strip and Sahara Ave played host to the first stateside edition of the Brazilian festival this past May, attracting artists the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. It’s set to be a permanent addition to the North Strip, meaning a new slate of top gigs will draw crowds of revellers to the once-underdeveloped area.
And coming up next? The construction of the colossal new Resorts World Las Vegas on the old Echelon site promises future growth, while a projected expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center should see more business traffic in the area, too. It all points to a very rosy future for this once struggling stretch of the city.
For an even more thriving scene, it’s but a quick dash over to Downtown Las Vegas – where, beyond the glitz and freneticism of the Strip, an arts district, quirky venues, and trek-worthy restaurants are calling visitors ever northwards.
For explorers keen to discover the city’s artiest addresses, the best place to begin is the Las Vegas Arts District. Also known as 18b (named in honour of the 18 blocks that formed the district’s originally boundaries), the neighbourhood has expanded since its founding in the 1990s, and is now home to dozens of galleries, restaurants, art events, shopping destinations and other cultural draws.
Begin your 18b explorations at the Arts Factory – a restored warehouse of art – to peruse, purchase, and otherwise admire. A number of galleries both classic and contemporary occupy the space, and artist studios are also housed within. Alongside the makers and sellers on-site, the Arts Factory also hosts regular events ranging from concerts to poetry readings to life drawing classes.
If you time your visit right, you may just be able to take part in one of the city’s top art events. The district’s First Friday events are held, yes, on the first Friday of every month; each instalment draws approximately 20,000 local and visiting art lovers to tour its galleries, which remain open after-hours and serve up hors d’oeuvres and wine alongside the visual displays. But even if your travels don’t coincide, the First Street Art Trail provides amblers with a tour of the area’s public artworks.
Beyond 18b, enlivened Downtown Vegas hosts a number of new addresses that are catnip for the city’s hipper set. Like the Downtown Container Park, located on Fremont Street, one of the area’s main commercial arteries. A shopping centre composed of upcycled shipping containers, it’s host to a medley of fashion boutiques, galleries, restaurants, home décor outlets and other specialty shops. The container park even functions as a small business incubator, promising a new generation of local, independent businesses.
Speaking of restaurants: while Vegas’s casino colossuses are host to many of the city’s most high-flying, name-brand restaurants, those after something a bit more relaxed – but no less delicious – would do well to go on a culinary wander of Downtown Las Vegas. One of the highlights of the newest generation of eateries is Carson Kitchen, which turns out a variety of edgy plates – think cocoa-espresso strip steak, gyro tacos, and strawberry salad. For top-notch casual dining, eat. Chef Natalie Young has also attracted plaudits – her comfort food staples like shrimp and grits with over-easy eggs, a truffled egg sandwich, and killer grilled cheese are well worth the indulgence. And given the demographics, you’re bound to find trendy coffee shops. Try The Beat, which serves up snacks, vinyl, and booze alongside its java.
Beyond the galleries, culture vultures have more to explore in Downtown Las Vegas, too. Several museums are neighbourhood musts: The Mob Museum turns its focus to American history’s seedy underbelly, while The Neon Museum canonises the city’s iconic signs in its outdoor “˜Neon Boneyard’ exhibition space. For an evening out, meanwhile, the Inspire Theatre hosts comedy shows, movie screenings, live musical and theatrical events.
On your next trip, then, get your dose of the Strip – but don’t let that be where your holiday ends. From the revitalised North Strip to the flourishing Downtown Las Vegas, there’s simply so much more to see.
Header image: Downtown Container Park draws the cool crowds © Emily Wilson
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Las Vegas – the time to discover is now.
Have you discovered the North Strip or Downtown Las Vegas? What were your favourite spots? Share your picks with us in the comments section below.
Written by Claire Bullen