Welcome to the most fabulous city on earth! Nick Boulos helps you navigate the neon, meet the Mob, stroll the Strip and – finally – escape into the great US wilderness beyond
Since its founding in the early 20th century, Las Vegas – known as Sin City – has grown to become America’s favourite playground. Now excessive and extravagant – and proudly so – the Vegas area was once known only to Native Americans. The Mormons arrived in the 1850s but the town didn’t take shape until 1905, following the opening of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad.
Today, Vegas is a big, brash metropolis, appearing like a neon mirage out of Nevada’s dusty deserts and mountains. The main action is found along the 7km section of Las Vegas Boulevard, known as ‘the Strip’.
However, though it may be famed for its gambling and raucous nightlife, it’s not entirely without culture. Place a bet on Vegas and you may discover there’s more to it than slot machines and stag parties.
Remember to secure travel authorisation at least 72 hours before departing for the US (via ESTA: esta.cbp.dhs.gov). It’s also advisable to carry details of your flight and hotel booking when clearing immigration. Flights land at McCarran International Airport, 8km south of the city centre. Direct flights from the UK take around ten hours; returns cost from £565. The international arrivals hall in shiny new Terminal 3, which opened in 2012, has a small information stand, an ATM and a currency exchange booth.
The airport’s close proximity to the city centre means the transfer is quick and easy. Several shuttle companies, including SuperShuttle, operate services to all the major hotels. A return journey costs $13 (£8); journey time is 15-20 minutes. Tickets can be purchased at the counter in the arrivals hall. Upgrade to a private chauffeur driven car for $38 (£24). A taxi to the Strip will cost from $15 (£9) and is available directly outside the terminal.
Alternatively, catch the inter-terminal shuttle (every 12-15mins) to Terminal 1; public buses 108 and 109 leave from here (www.rtcsnv.com). They travel close to but not along the Strip, which might mean a long walk to your accommodation. One-way fares cost $2 (£1.25).
Las Vegas is linked to most major US cities by domestic flights. For years there’s been talk of building a rail line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, 435km south-west; there are still no concrete plans. Buses do to link the two, though; Greyhound has regular departures to LA (6hrs; www.greyhound.com), plus many other US destinations.
Interstate 15 runs through Vegas, heading north-east towards Salt Lake City in Utah (6hrs) or towards California in the opposite direction.
Top tip: When flying into Vegas, book a seat on the right for good views of the Strip. Those on the left should spot the Hoover Dam, about 15 minutes before landing.
Embrace the razzmatazz, then leave to explore iconic US landscapes
Start at the Neon Boneyard (770 Las Vegas Blvd Nth; $18 [£11]) to see a collection of historic signs that once shone brightly from Vegas’ most famous establishments.
Then hit the fascinating Mob Museum (300 Stewart Ave; $20 [£12]), which charts the rise of the US gangster and the dark days when they ruled Vegas.
Continue south to the heart of the Strip (which is almost 7km long) and tour the world in an afternoon. Start at the Egypt-themed Luxor Hotel (3900 Las Vegas Blvd Sth) and move on to Manhattan replica, New York New York Hotel & Casino (3790 Las Vegas Blvd Sth). Don’t miss a gondola ride at the Venetian Resort (3355 Las Vegas Blvd Sth), which comes complete with its own ‘Rialto Bridge’.
Across the road is the Bellagio Hotel (3600 Las Vegas Blvd Sth). Visit its Gallery of Fine Art to see works by renowned artists; the current Andy Warhol exhibition ($16 [£10]) runs until January 2014. Pause outside to see the Bellagio fountains. Set to music and lights, the fountains perform every 15-30 minutes between 3pm (12noon, Sat-Sun) and midnight.
Dine at Twist, on the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental (3752 Las Vegas Blvd Sth), for innovative food with twinkling views. Then venture out to get a photo by that famed ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign (5100 Las Vegas Blvd Sth). And if you’ve got any cash left, well, if only there was a way of losing it here...
Top end: One of the newest hotels in town is the swanky Aria (3730 Las Vegas Blvd Sth). Rooms boast panoramic city views, luxurious beds and all mod-cons. There’s also a spa, pools, and, hanging from the ceiling in the lobby, a striking art installation of giant technicolour butterlies. Doubles from $149 (£94), room only.
Mid range: Offering a more intimate alternative to most Vegas accommodation is the design-focused all-suite Rumor Boutique Hotel (455 East Harmon Ave). Located 1.5km away from the Strip, the property is bold with eclectic art throughout and a nice palm-fringed pool in which to cool off. Doubles from $99 (£62), room only.
Budget: The 155-room Carriage House Hotel (105 East Harmon Ave) is a centrally located and casino-free Vegas option. Comfy rooms have small kitchenettes (microwave, fridge, utensils) and free Wi-Fi. Doubles from $89 (£56), room only.
Linger a little. Las Vegas has plenty to keep you entertained for a couple of days – as long as you’re not afraid of a bit of bling. However, it may be wise to bid farewell before you lose too much money on the blackjack table.
Sin City’s biggest appeal is its proximity to many of America’s greatest natural wonders, most famously the Grand Canyon, 450km away. Day tours by air are available but it’s tempting to continue from the Canyon, hit the open road and explore the expansive deserts and national parks of Utah (www.goutah.co.uk). Hike among the pastel-coloured rock formations of Bryce Canyon or ride horses across Monument Valley, which is dotted with those towering buttes made so famous by John Ford’s Westerns.
Alternatively, head west into California (www.visitcalifornia.co.uk). The Golden State’s Death Valley National Park is a two-hour drive from Vegas. It’s officially the world’s hottest place – a sweltering temperature of 56.7°C was recorded here in July 1913. Discover the secrets of the native Timbisha tribe and visit the mysterious ‘sailing stones’ – boulders that seem to slide across the parched desert floor. It’s a phenomenon that has puzzled geologists for decades.
Timezone: GMT8 (Mar-Nov GMT7)
International dialling code: +1
Visas: UK nationals must obtain an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization; $14; esta.cbp.dhs.gov) at least 72 hours before travel.
Currency: US dollar ($), currently around $1.58 to the UK£.
Highest viewpoint: The best views are from the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower’s observation deck, located 300m above the Strip.
Health issues: The biggest worries heat and sunstroke.
Recommended guidebooks: Las Vegas (Time Out, 2012); Las Vegas (Rough Guides, 2011).
Web resources: The website of the Las Vegas tourist board (www.visitlasvegas.co.uk) is comprehensive; Discover America (www.discoveramerica.com) has lots of useful info on the area.
App: Pocket Guide Las Vegas (free; pocketguideapp.com) has handy maps and info on most sights.
Climate: Arid with little rain, Las Vegas enjoys more than 320 sunny days a year. Summers are sweltering (July sees highs of 41°C) while winters can be surprisingly nippy, with temperatures dipping as low as 4°C in January.
Thieves have been targeting female toilets. They are reaching over cubical doors and swiping handbags that are hanging on the door hook while the victim is on the loo.