With the rental car troubles and probably least interesting part of the route behind us, we were fully ready to enjoy the over the top and extravagant city in the middle of the desert that is Las Vegas. Our stay here was a bit longer than at some of the other big cities, because we had a little side trip planned on the second day.
Day 1: Hotels, Shops, Restaurants & Casinos
I’ll start off by saying that we weren’t visiting Vegas for the things it’s most commonly known for. Instead of gambling and partying, we were just here to experience the atmosphere, see the crazy sights, shop for a bit and maybe visit a show. We pretty much spent the entire first day doing that, going up and down the Strip mostly by foot, but also by using the LV Monorail. A one-ride ticket can be purchased for 5 USD (4.49 EUR) and a one day pass is 13 USD (11.66 EUR), but you can get passes valid for more days at progressively cheaper prices.
This single elevated track starts in the north at the hotel we were staying in (then called the SLS Las Vegas, now the Sahara Las Vegas) and goes all the way to the MGM Grand in the south. Most stations can be accessed directly from a hotel and for some you’ll have to walk for a bit, all the way through the hotel, to get to the Strip. Using the monorail is not really necessary for getting to places along the main part of the Strip, but our hotel was quite a walk north of that area, so we used the monorail a couple of times to avoid the heat and spare our feet.
There is a lot to see and do along and around the Strip. We just started on the north end and made our way south through the hotels and casinos, only going outside and facing the heat to cross the street and get into the next building. By the time we got to the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, we decided to just head back up again and check out some of the places we missed. Instead of mentioning everything in chronological order, here’s a categorized overview of the day.
Hotels & Casinos
Hotels and casinos are a big part of what Vegas is all about. The giant buildings, often themed towards recent and historical locations in the world, are what the main area (the Strip) consists of and just the most obvious city sights to come see as a tourist. Pretty much all of these hotels have giant lobbies and hallways full of slot machines, roulette tables, blackjack, poker and other casino games, both staffed and electronic.
Most buildings are connected somehow, so you can walk along the Strip indoors for large parts, experiencing the sudden change of scenery and ever present sound of slot machines. While we passed or walked through many hotels, there were only a few where we spent more time exploring.
- The Venetian: This is one of the most over the top hotels on the Strip. It’s basically a recreation of Venice, complete with canals and open squares, but all indoors. Most of that is actually a shopping mall, with fake blue sky ceilings to give you the impression you’re outside, but the rest of the hotel is also themed in a recognizable classic Italian style. You’ll see that in the painted ceilings, arched hallways and statue sculptures, as well as the occasional presence of Venetian carnival performers.
- Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel & Casino: Caesars Palace goes back in time to the Roman empire. The hotel buildings look like ancient Roman temples, just with dozens of floors, filled with statues of gods and emperors. The large courtyard pool area has several smaller pools also named after Roman gods. While the publicly accessible parts of the hotel look less impressive than The Venetian, there’s a lot to this hotel that you’ll only get to experience as a guest.
In addition to the many hotels and casinos, there are also a lot of shops on the Strip and further out. Most of them are large malls, often inside the hotels and casinos, or giant gift/souvenir bazaars. Basically, if you’re not walking past slot machines, you’re walking past shops (or restaurants). There were 2 larger malls we visited worth mentioning.
- The Forum Shops at Caesars: While the Grand Canal Shoppes are part of the Venetian, on a separate floor of the hotel building, Caesars Palace has its mall in a separate building to the side of the hotel area, but still all in ancient Roman style. There are several floors around the main entrance, but most of the mall is one path (and a side branch) leading into the Caesars Palace hotel. The hotel and the mall are separated by a large food court and the Colosseum theater.
- Miracle Mile Shops: This mall is part of the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. It looks more like a regular American mall, because it doesn’t have a particular theme. There’s probably a larger variety of food options than in the Forum Shops and everything is laid out in a circle on a single floor.
All of Las Vegas is a sight in itself, but the city provides a lot of interesting things to go see or do, as it’s pretty much built for entertainment. There are a lot of shows (concerts, magic, Cirque du Soleil, adult, and so on), but we ended up not booking any due to lack of time. This is a short list of what we did end up visiting while just strolling along the Strip.
- Fountains of Bellagio: Probably one of the most famous attractions on the Las Vegas Strip. The fountains in the Bellagio’s lake give a choreographed show every half an hour starting at 3:00 PM, or every 15 minutes from 8:00 PM until midnight. There are several possible songs, so the show is different depending on the track selected. It can be tricky to get a good view of the many and large fountains if you show up late, as the wall around the lake can fill up with people quickly, but with the schedule mentioned above it should be possible to get a front row seat if you just wait around a little bit for the next show to start.
- Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens: Inside the Bellagio is a roofed courtyard botanical garden full of flowers, trees and decorations in and around the gazebos, bridges and ponds. We had a little trouble finding it, as we came into the hotel through a side entrance, but the conservatory is straight ahead from the main entrance. The garden features an insane number of flowers and its design is updated for every season of the year. It’s rather small, but definitely worth a visit if you’re at the Bellagio for the fountains anyway.
- M&M’s World Las Vegas: While this is technically a store, I would say it’s much more an attraction. The colorful interior has several floors, full of M&M themed gifts, merchandise and of course lots of M&M chocolate. An impressive part is a curved wall full of M&M containers, laid out as a rainbow, where you can fill up your candy bag. At the time we were here, you could also get your picture taken with someone in an M&M suit. My wife could not pass up the opportunity to have a picture taken with Yellow, her favorite M&M.
- Coca-Cola Store Las Vegas: Also technically a store, with lots of Coca-Cola merchandise to buy. The most interesting part though is the beverage bar, where you can try some exotic soda flavors. While we came in to just have one drink, we ended up sharing a full tasting menu, containing 16 different flavors and a list with descriptions for them. Some flavors are only available in other countries, or not available at all anymore. Some are great, some not so much. More on this in a separate post at a later time.
- IHOP: The International House of Pancakes was located right across the street from our hotel. While not particularly fancy, it seemed like a good enough place to get an over-sized American breakfast.
- Ben & Jerry’s: I don’t think this ice cream brand needs any introduction. We looked for the store inside the The Forum Shops at Caesars to have a snack and cool down a bit. We ended up getting a lunch-sized amount of food and paying a fortune for it. Turns out ice cream is expensive in the desert.
- Buffalo Wild Wings: We initially wanted to go to Gordon Ramsay Burger next to the Miracle Mile Shops, but the line there was way too long, so we ended up at Buffalo Wild Wings close by. Here you can watch sports while eating chicken wings (among other things). While not fancy, the food is pretty decent and you can pick from a large variety of sauces for your regular or boneless wings to be marinated in. They’re listed on a spiciness chart and you really need to be careful with how high up on the chart you go.
Day 2: Side trip to the Grand Canyon by plane
The Grand Canyon is a sight to behold and one of the most impressive landscapes in the world, if you ask me. Located in Arizona (and the reason for that state’s nickname), it’s a 446 KM/277 MI long canyon carved out by the Colorado River, which is the fifth longest river in the United States (2,330 KM/1,450 MI). The canyon can get up to 29 KM/18 MI wide and over 1.8 KM/1.1 MI deep, which is hard to comprehend when you’re standing on the edge of it or even when you’re flying over it. Either way, the diverse landscapes look stunning and are definitely worth driving/flying there for.
We tried to include a visit to the Grand Canyon in our original driving itinerary, but that would make the overall trip a bit too tightly packed. Fortunately, Las Vegas is not too far away from the Grand Canyon by plane or helicopter and there are many companies offering tours to different locations, of varying length and using several modes of transport. We booked the Grand Canyon Connoisseur tour with Scenic Airlines, a 9.5 hour trip to the South Rim. That includes around 3 hours at the actual Grand Canyon, the rest is flight time (a little over an hour one-way), check-in and transfers from and to your hotel.
You can also do shorter trips, particularly to the canyon’s West Rim, but in my opinion that’s not worth your time or money. It’s a tourist trap that looks nothing like the actual main canyon, so don’t be swayed by the cool looking circular Skywalk glass bridge. The North Rim is definitely worth a visit, especially combined with a trip to the canyon floor and a drive to the Colorado River. It looks very different from the South Rim and also has way fewer tourists. Many tours also offer optional additions, such as a helicopter flight and landing to the Colorado River, driving ATV’s up to the rim’s edge and other vehicle trips.
Unless you go for a shorter afternoon tour, you’ll have to get up early, as you’ll be picked up between 4:00 and 5:00 AM, depending on your hotel. After a short ride to Boulder City Municipal Airport, getting weighed and assigned your plane seats, you can enjoy some beautiful views on your way to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. That starts with a great look at nearby Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, which are both on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Past that, the landscape will change to a mix of crazy looking rock formations, winding rivers and lush plateaus, until you touch down at Grand Canyon National Park Airport, just south of Grand Canyon Village.
The tour company charges extra for window seats, but there are only 3 seats per row and the plane is rarely full, so it’s not necessary to spend the extra money. We both got window seats without paying for it, with an empty seat between us. But you’ll have the amazing views even from that middle seat, especially if you know the person next to you and can lean over a little to look further down.
From the Grand Canyon airport, a bus will take you to Grand Canyon Village on the edge of the South Rim. There are many viewpoints and outposts along the never ending edge of the canyon, almost all of which you can walk along by foot (on the Rim Trail). This tour will take you to 2 different spots and you get to spend around an hour at each location.
Bright Angel Lodge
The first stop is Bright Angel Lodge, a store, restaurant and rest area where the bus driver will hand you your complimentary breakfast box (it’ll be around 8:00 AM by then), containing some juice, fruit, bread and candy. You’ll have to protect this box from the many squirrels running around everywhere, as they are not shy or scared and will steal whatever they can get their paws on. You’re not allowed to feed or touch them, because the food is not good for them and they carry disease and do bite. A lot of people ignore these rules though, because they’re just so darn cute!
From the lodge, it’s only a short walk to Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio. The building itself is a gift store, but behind it is a nice viewpoint where you can take great pictures of the canyon and use the telescopes there to have a closer look at it.
The other location the bus will take you to is Mather Point, another extended rock formation and the viewpoint closest to the park’s visitor center. It’s usually the most crowded part of the park, with people struggling to take pictures without anyone else in them from the nicest spots. Unfortunately, you won’t have enough time to go on hikes into the canyon, or even walk between viewpoints, but overall these 2 places the bus takes you to will give you a good impression of the Grand Canyon’s size and beauty, if the plain ride didn’t already. And getting here relatively early in the day means there are fewer people and it’s not as hot yet.
The bus will take you back to the airport and your plane will be in the sky again just past 11:00 AM. After the flight, you might have to wait a little before another bus takes you back to your hotel, but you’ll definitely be all done and ready to take a nap in your hotel bed before 2:00 PM.
Back in Vegas
After taking that nap, we had quite some time left to spend in Vegas, so we went to visit some places we marked on our map beforehand.
We hopped back on the monorail and went to The Linq promenade, a renovated area around The Linq hotel (previously the Imperial Palace) full of stores and restaurants. The main street goes from the Strip on one end to the High Roller on the other. The High Roller is the world’s biggest observation wheel (bigger than the London Eye) and gives you a great view of the Strip and its surrounding area. At 22 USD (19.79 EUR), we found the entrance fee a bit steep and decided to skip. You’ll probably have a better experience at night, at which that price goes up to 32 USD (28.79 EUR) per person.
Instead, we left the Linq area through the Flamingo hotel. Its courtyard is basically a park, including some stores, a wedding chapel and a flamingo wildlife habitat, housing several flamingos, ibis, ducks, fish and turtles. From there, we went back to the Miracle Mile Shops and Gordon Ramsay Burger. This time it was earlier in the day and the line was a lot shorter, but the amazing burger and truffle parmesan fries would have been worth a longer wait.
On the way back to our hotel, we decided to go through the Cosmopolitan to check out Eggslut’s location here in Vegas. We missed out on this recently popular mostly egg-based breakfast/brunch place back in Los Angeles, so considered it for breakfast for the next morning. After spotting it, we decided to finally give gambling a try. My wife usually plays some random number betting games in Tivoli back in Copenhagen, so she put some money into an automated roulette machine and lost a whopping 6 dollars. After that devastating loss, we went back to the hotel to go to bed early and prepare for the next day, our last in Las Vegas.
Day 3: Exploring around Las Vegas
We set aside the entire third day to spend outside of the Strip. That’s what most people see as Las Vegas, but there is quite a large city and some beautiful nature around it. Instead of having breakfast at Eggslut, we found a nice old-time cafe in Boulder City, which is on the way to the Hoover Dam and close to where we took off from to get to the Grand Canyon the day before. The place is called the Coffee Cup Cafe and it has everything you’d expect for American (and some Mexican) breakfasts and lunches, including a big and tasty cinnamon roll. From here, it was only a 15 minute drive to the Hoover Dam.
The Hoover Dam is a 221 M/725 FT high dam in the Colorado River, in the southwest corner of Lake Mead, on the border between Arizona and Nevada. It supplies electricity to those states and also California. It takes around 45 minutes to get from the Strip to the dam by car. After passing a checkpoint, you can drive down and across the dam, parking on one of the parking lots on the other side. Then you can walk back across and look down on both sides of the dam. You can get tickets for guided tours online or at the visitor center, some of which take you into the power plant and other parts of the dam structures.
Depending on the time of year and day, it can get incredibly hot around the dam, especially because there’s rarely any wind. We were sweating like crazy, taking breaks from walking in the few shadowed spots and drinking our lukewarm water. Next to the visitor center was even a giant cooling fan you could stand in front to cool down and dry up. After walking back and forth across the dam, we got back into the air-conditioned car and headed towards Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon
It takes about an hour to get from the Hoover Dam east of Vegas to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area visitor center in the west, or half an our from the Strip in Vegas. The vehicle entrance fee is 15 USD (13.52 EUR), but this is where we decided to get the America the Beautiful annual pass. That pass costs 80 USD (72.11 EUR), is valid for a year and gives you access to all participating national parks and some state parks. We were going to visit several and some of the more expensive parks in the next weeks, so in that case the annual pass is cheaper than paying for everything separately.
Red Rock Canyon features beautiful sandstone rock formations and mountains, all laid out around valley plains. A 21 KM/13 MI scenic loop drive starts at the visitor center and has several cool stops along the way (particularly Calico 1 and High Point Overlook) where you can get out of your car and go for a walk or longer hike. The one-way road is extremely well maintained and will eventually just lead you back out of the park. I can really recommend a visit if you’re staying in Vegas, because the park is easy to get to and through, providing amazing views and some peace and quiet from the busy Las Vegas Strip.
Fremont Street Experience
We left Red Rock Canyon after finishing the scenic loop to do some shopping at the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets. I can’t really recommend going to an open-air mall in the middle of the day with Vegas temperatures.
Pretty close to this shopping center is Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, north off the Strip. It’s home to the Fremont Street Experience, a collection of casinos, stores and attractions that spans around 5 blocks. Part of that is covered and it houses some recognizable buildings, such as the Fremont Street Hotel & Casino and the Golden Nugget. My overall impression was that this part of Las Vegas looked more tacky and run-down than the modern and well maintained Strip. You’ll definitely see different types of people here and the overall atmosphere is more rowdy. The coolest part of the experience is the SlotZilla, consisting of 2 different ziplines. The shortest is seated and 2 blocks long (minimum 24 USD/21.91 EUR), the longer “zoomline” is 5 blocks long (minimum 44 USD/40.18 EUR) and higher up, taking you flying horizontally, face down and forward like a super hero.
There were surprisingly few food options around, but the most prominent one is without a doubt the Heart Attack Grill. Customers get dressed up in hospital gowns and get their excessively large and greasy meals served by nurses, who will literally spank you if you don’t finish your plate. This didn’t seem like a particularly appealing option to us at the time and we also failed to find something nice at the nearby Downtown Container Park, a collection of outside food and other shops stacked on top of each other. We decided to just grab a quick bite on the way back to the hotel and prepare for leaving Las Vegas the next morning.
We bookmarked way more things ahead of time than we were able to do during our stay in Las Vegas. Here’s a quick overview of the things we missed out on:
- Stratosphere: The older, more well-known name of The STRAT Hotel, Casino & Skypod. That Skypod is at the top of the iconic tower at the north end of the strip, with all kinds of restaurants and thrill rides that provide an excellent view of the city. It costs 25 USD (22.53 EUR) just to get up there and attractions (3 options) will cost you extra.
- Valley of Fire State Park: This park full of red sandstone and gray limestone is about an hour drive from the Strip to the northeast. With sights like the Elephant Rock, Seven Sisters and ancient petroglyphs, it’s a pretty area to hike in, camp in or just drive through. It has a 10 USD (9.01 EUR) vehicle entrance fee if you don’t have the America the Beautiful annual pass. I had been here before on an earlier trip, so we decided to go to Red Rock Canyon instead.
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Lake Mead is the lake north of the Hoover Dam and essentially a very wide part of the Colorado River. It’s great for boating and swimming. If we had gone to the Valley of Fire, we would have opted to go there through the Lake Mead area from Hoover Dam. It has a 25 USD (22.53 EUR) vehicle entrance fee if you don’t have the America the Beautiful annual pass.
- Eggslut: This gourmet food concept, “inspired by a true love for eggs”, became all the rage and a the go-to place for a hip breakfast/lunch. We missed out on it in LA and also in Vegas, because we decided to have breakfast on our way to Hoover Dam instead of in Vegas before leaving.
- Gyu-Kaku: A restaurant chain specializing in Japanese-Korean barbecue. It was recommended to us by several people, but we never got to try it out, even though it has many locations in southern California and the whole US.
- Hard Rock Cafe: I usually want to go to the Hard Rock Cafe if there is one in the city, to try out the Local Legendary burger (a burger unique to the location, often using local popular ingredients). I already tried the Vegas one on a different trip, so it was not a priority and we ended up chosing other food options.
- Omelet House: This breakfast place with a lot of egg-based options was recommended by two American friends of mine. It’s located a bit away from both the Strip and Fremont Street, so we just never were close enough to it.