When you think of Las Vegas, you almost definitely think of the Strip. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do that.
Okay, the Strip isn’t the worst place in the world. A lot of the hotels and restaurants are legitimately great, it’s full of fun shows, and its irrational mashup of outlandish architecture needs to be seen at least once in your life. And even though I absolutely can not stand being there for more than two days, that first day and a half is usually good. (The Las Vegas Strip is the concept of diminishing returns manifested as a street—there’s only so much fun I can have there before I have to get out as quickly as possible, and that switch flips in a hurry.) Still, if all you know of Las Vegas is the Strip, with its overpriced drinks, cheesy nightclubs, and Disneyland-gone-to-seed vibe, you might not have the highest opinion of this city.
The key to a good Vegas trip is getting off the Strip. That doesn’t just mean hitting the Fremont Street Experience, the street in Old Vegas that has been turned into an open air entertainment complex. I’m also not just talking about driving out to Hoover Dam—yeah, it’s a really big dam, and pretty great if you’re into massive engineering projects and/or dams, but you should know about that already. The key to a good Vegas trip is getting off the Strip and embracing the surprises you can find in the process.
Here are some of my favorite things to do in Las Vegas, all of which require getting off the Strip and exploring the rest of the city.
1610 E Tropicana Ave
Look, I’m biased. Pinball’s one of my two or three favorite things in the world. Nothing beats bashing the ball around while drinking a good beer. My wife and I dig it so much that we’ve got seven machines in our living room.
I just went and played one of them. It was fun.
Obviously I’m going to love any place called the Pinball Hall of Fame, at least if it’s halfway decent at commemorating the game. Tim Arnold’s Vegas arcade is legendary among ‘ball fans not just because it has a large number of machines that spans over seven decades of pinball, but because of the rarities among that collection. This is the only place you can play prototypes of such legendary games as Goin’ Nuts, an early ‘80s design that takes a novel approach to the basic rules of the game, or Pinball Circus, a vertical pinball machine inside an upright arcade game cabinet. The Hall of Fame building itself embodies the spirit of pinball—it feels a little old, a little dirty, a little off-putting, like a secret among gruff old men who have definitely had mustaches at some point in their life. It’s beautiful. Arnold is planning moving the museum to the Strip next year, so catch it in its current location while you can.
770 Las Vegas Blvd N
Okay, the Pinball Hall of Fame might have met its match. The Neon Museum is a gorgeous tribute to the bright lights of Vegas’s past. Here you can find beautiful neon signs that used to light up the Vegas night, emblazoned with the names and logos of such legendary casinos as the Stardust, the Sahara, the Silver Slipper, and more. Knowledgeable tour guides explain the backstory of almost every sign, providing a fun and informative architectural history of Las Vegas. It’s also home to a light show from installation artist Craig Winslow; “Brilliant” brings a selection of dead signs back to life, along with the spirit of classic Vegas itself, using projections timed to a musical score that evokes the history of the city. It’s a powerful sensory experience with a surprising emotional resonance. And there’s also one heck of a gift shop, if you’re looking for Vegas mementos that are a little bit cooler than the typical tourist bait.
707 Fremont St
If you want to check out locally-owned restaurants and shops in a unique setting, head down Fremont Street to the Downtown Container Park. This outdoor strip mall is made up entirely of shipping containers, and offers a different shopping and dining experience to anything you’ll find on the Strip. I’m partial to the Panchero at Cheffini’s Hot Dogs—a frank with tiny chunks of chorizo, a zesty red bell pepper aioli and chimichurri sauce. It’s hard to overlook a complex of shipping containers with stores in them, but just to make sure, they’ve put a giant fire-breathing mantis in front of the whole thing. Just look for the 40-foot-tall scrap metal sculpture that regularly pumps out flames.
Frankie’s: 1712 W. Charleston
These two bars offer very different takes on the classic tiki experience. Frankie’s, my favorite bar in Las Vegas, leans hard into the dive bar side of things. It’s a small, dark room with classic tiki decor designed by Bamboo Ben and carvings by Tiki Bosko, whose work used to be found in the Tropicana and at other tiki bars in Vegas. The menu featuresdelicious (and deceptively strong) rum drinks and other classic tiki cocktails, and the jukebox is full of old surf and punk music. And yes, the mugs are amazing. Frankie’s nails the classic tiki style to a T, but doesn’t feel arch or contrived; it feels like a great neighborhood joint that could easily be my main bar, only with an amazing sense of style.
The Golden Tiki: 3939 Spring Mountain Rd
The Golden Tiki, meanwhile, is a bigger, brighter and glitzier take on tiki. If Frankie’s feels unpretentious and lived in, Golden Tiki feels like an immaculately stylized homage to the tiki bars our forefathers would’ve congregated in. It reminded me of Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s, only larger and brighter. Again, the drinks were wonderfully stiff, the mugs were fun and kitschy, and the decor combined elaborate tiki designs with classic Hollywood and Disney memorabilia. The Golden Tiki is a great place to take somebody you want to impress, whereas Frankie’s is a great place to get drunk in very warm and inviting surroundings. If you’re at all interested in tiki bars or getting drunk, definitely check ‘em both out.
I used to assume this place was a chintzy tourist trap—the Vegas equivalent to the many “witch museums” in Salem, Mass., that try to pass hastily made dioramas and community theater reproductions of the witch trials off as history. The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement is much better than that. It’s a breezy bit of pop history that actually cares about the history, offering a broad overview of organized crime’s role in America while also playing to the audience’s more sensational expectations by including exhibits like an actual brick wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It’s not just about the mob’s role in Vegas, but all of America, and there’s no town where a museum about the mob would make more sense. There’s also a fully operational speakeasy in the basement, with its own original moonshine, if you can’t go that long in Vegas without having a drink.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.