By Spencer Spellman, on September 4, 2013

What happens in downtown Las Vegas

“Hey, let’s all go to downtown Las Vegas,” said no (sober) bachelor or bachelorette on a night painting the town along the Las Vegas Strip. For many travelers, downtown Las Vegas has been more of a novelty or the more grungy side of Sin City that should largely be avoided. However, spend an evening – or better yet, a weekend – in downtown Las Vegas and you’ll see that there’s more than meets the eye. So what awaits those who would venture up the Strip to downtown Las Vegas? Speakeasies, rare stories and memorabilia from the mob, good (and cheap) food, entertainment that can’t be had on the Strip, and a lot more.

As the entire bar (albeit a tiny bar) erupted into song as the pianist played a rendition of Sesame Street’s “We Are All Earthlings,” I turned to my friend and said, “There’s no way this is Las Vegas.” The resident mixologist, June, brought over my drink, a flavorful handcrafted cocktail that can be described as nothing short of a “party in your mouth,” thanks to the szechuan flower tidily laid atop it, which I had been instructed to eat, sending my taste buds on a flavor roller coaster. Yes, we were in Las Vegas, but this was no common Las Vegas experience. Then again, how could a speakeasy bar called Laundry Room that required a secret phone number and access through a secret passageway be considered commonplace? This would be the first of many pleasant surprises that downtown Las Vegas would offer.

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Neon Boneyard

I recently spent an entire week (that’s right, no more than three hours on the Las Vegas Strip) in downtown Las Vegas and I still didn’t get to do everything I wanted to. I first had my sights on the quirky and unusual parts of downtown Las Vegas. I started at the Neon Museum Boneyard. Ever wondered where those bright, glitzy, neon Las Vegas signs go when the businesses are no more? They go here. I stumbled across over 100 legendary signs, both small and large and in charge, some of which still light up (you’ll have to take the night tour to see those).

From here, it was just down the street (all of downtown Las Vegas is very walkable) to the Mob Museum. Housed in one of the most historic buildings in Las Vegas, an old federal courthouse, the Mob Museum treats guests to an interactive tour through the history of the mafia. Sit in an electric chair, hear old mafia court cases, or if you’re really feeling lucky, get married

Since I strategically planned my visit during the middle of Southern Nevada’s hot summer, it was time to cool down. And what says Las Vegas like a Vegas pool party? But, the Las Vegas Strip isn’t the only place to find a pool party. I changed into my bikini (er, board shorts) and it was off to the Golden Nugget, which is in fact home to an actual gold nugget, the largest in existence, coming in at over 60 pounds. However, if you’re anything like me (a 30-year old kid), or if you have kids of your own, then you’ll likely be spending some time shooting down the three-story water chute, which winds past the hotel’s very own shark tank. The 200,000-gallon shark aquarium has recently opened for guests to tour for a fee.

But I couldn’t talk about downtown Las Vegas and not mention the Fremont Street Experience. This is where the magic happens, and also where the best people watching can be had, be it a Kid Rock look-alike strumming the guitar for tips or Iron Man posing for photos. The summer months feature free concerts – and not just shows by cover bands. This summer’s free concert series featured the likes of Fuel, Hinder, Three Days Grace, Sister Hazel, and Third Eye Blind, just to name a few. 

Burrata at Andiamo

If you’re staying in downtown Las Vegas, the Fremont Street Experience is likely where your accommodations will be, as it’s along Fremont Street where you’ll find the Golden Nugget, Four Queens Hotel and Casino, Golden Gate Hotel and Casino (home of the first hotel in Las Vegas), and the newly renovated D Hotel. Whether you’re staying on the Strip or off the Strip, this is where you come for fine Vegas dining, but without the Vegas prices. Within the D Hotel is Andiamo Steakhouse, made popular in Detroit, and now located in downtown Las Vegas. For a taste of Old Vegas and what I call the “Cirque du Soleil” of eating experiences in downtown, go to Hugo’s Cellar inside the Four Queens Hotel, where your meal can include a salad made table-side, a sizzling appetizer cooked directly on your table atop a granite slab, and for dessert, Bananas Foster, flambéed with fire shooting up from your table.

For less tourists, and more Vegas locals, walk just down Fremont Street to Fremont East, where you’ll find a handful of unique local bars, a pizzeria, and a local Thai eatery (serving cheap drinks). It’s here in Fremont East that you may find yourself getting the local hospitality and touch that you want from travel, but don’t often expect from Vegas. Walk into the handcrafted cocktail bar, Commonwealth, and ask about The Laundry Room, which if you’re lucky, you’ll get a reservation and be led into the secret passageway to the semi-secret speakeasy. Follow the house rules and like me, maybe you’ll get serenaded by a pianist. 

What have been some of your favorite local finds from your travels?