You roll in to Nevada just before midnight Friday, five hours and two coffees from L.A.. The city glows low as you pull off I-15 several miles south of the city and onto the far reaches of Las Vegas Boulevard. Shabby casinos dot the roadside, beckoning incandescently with 69¢ dinner deals, free drinks, and girls girls girls.
We know you're too cool for those basic club parties on The Strip. And absolutely nothing sounds worse than wading through tourist herds at a mall, right? We've got you. Stay where the lights are low and hang with us for a guide to an invisible Vegas, a parallel city less travelled.
First thing's first: food. Like everything else in Vegas, showstoppers like José Andres' Bazaar are on the Strip, but the weird, wonderful and memorable are almost all to be found elsewhere. For breakfast, skip the greasy spoons and hotel diners and head straight to Makers & Finders, a latin-style café in the arts district. Not only do they do some of the best coffee in town, they're probably the only place that does legit matcha. The food is good, and includes light, fresh fare from salads to ceviches and breakfast staples like their version of bandeja paisa, a hip riff on the national breakfast of Colombia: pork belly, steak, avocados, rice and beans. Egg optional.
For lunch, explore Chinatown. Unlike in more urbane cities, it isn't a cohesive, walkable neighborhood , but rather blocks and blocks of Spring Mountain Road lined with vaguely Asian-themed strip malls. But while the district may look like a bad cultural appropriation, it is in fact home to a vibrant constellation of restaurants serving cuisine from across Asia: there's everything from bulgogi and pho to ramen, boba and shabu shabu. You're probably best off exploring for yourself, but we'd reccommend Veggie House, a low-key gem for vegan Chinese.
For dinner, you've gotta go old school: the Golden Steer is a steakhouse that pretty much looks like it did when it opened in 1958. It's a white tablecloth affair, and one of the last real tastes of old Vegas around. If you're into carbs, try Chicago Joe's, a convivial old-school Italian joint inside an old house serving giant plates of pasta.
Though all of the glory days hotels on the strip have been demolished, the city is nonetheless full of architectural easter eggs. You have to squint to see the good stuff, but if you know what's there and are willing to look beyond a few layers of bad renovations, there's a lot of history still standing.
For example, the Westgate hotel, now a run-down, second-rate sleep spot for convention goers, was opened in the 60s as the "The International," a marvel of modernism whose inventive 3-wing design became the template for resort hotels for decades. The currently Bally's building, which was previously the MGM Grand, was the site of an historic fire in the 1980s that killed dozens of people and is basically the reason modern American skyscrapers are so fire safe.
If you're into wandering side streets, you can also find a a treasure trove of interesting houses. There are many Modernist gems—tidy, well-proportioned Palm Springs-style dwellings from the 50s and 60s, though very few of them are maintained as meticulously as in that other desert city—as well as other DIY architectural concoctions of various flavors that just wouldn't fly in most other cities.
Downtown is a pastiche of styles, from railroad moderne (The Golden Gate, opened in 1906) to late-Modernist-slash-Brutalist (the 4 Queens, The Plaza), to high-postmodern (the light show enclosure of Fremont St. was designed in the 90s by Jerde). There's also a nightmare-inducing blob of a Frank Gehry building that, no joke, houses a center for "brain health," some delightful non-sequiturs like the neoclassical former courthouse that now houses the Mob Museum, and even the transplanted conch shell-shaped entrance to the long-demolished La Concha motel that now welcomes people to the Neon Museum.
Speaking of the Neon Museum, don't miss a tour there. Despite the fact that tourists obviously love them some neon, iconic signs continue to slowly disappear from nearly everywhere in the city. This museum has dedicated itself to preserving and sharing the city's light-tube treasures. Book prior to your trip to ensure a spot.
You can still find a fair bit of neon out in the wild in Vegas, but it's rare, usually in disrepair, and rarely as show-stopping as the stuff that once lined the city's streets. Follow Las Vegas Blvd. from the strip to downtown, and then on toward the north to see a couple dozen signs that mostly sit in front of rundown motels, wedding chapels, and casinos.
Ok, nobody needs a guide for where to drink in Vegas. It goes without saying that you should avoid those plastic whale bone thingies and the trashy spots that fill them up with technicolor sludge, but you should also steer clear of bars in Strip hotels and their weak $28 cocktails. In any event, you'll find your way to a libation. As a general rule, look for low-key places where the bartender has a name like Peg or Lorna and serves up some snark with that drink. You should feel like you're walking on clouds after one, or you're doing it wrong.
Frankie's Tiki Room is a solid off-strip bet, for its dark 1960s tropical den-of-vice atmosphere, chill tunes and excellent, strong drinks. Our favorite: the Three Dots and a Dash, a concoction of rum, allspice dram and some other stuff. Gloriously, Frankie's staff don't ruin the old-school vibe with sports games or daytime TV and instead play only vintage film clips on the couple TV screens behind the bar.
Try as it might, Vegas still can't crack the artsy vibe it's been going for for a while. Renaming and revamping a rundown section of downtown into an arts district was a good start, but the city still has no world-class institution that would regularly bring in similarly world-class art. That said, there is some interesting site-specific art around. Some must-sees include Mike Ross' massive "Big Rig Jig" sculpture, which towers above the parking lot of an abandoned motel on Fremont, Nancy Rubin's "Big Edge" mass of canoes behind the Vdara, and, of course, Ugo Rondinone's whimsical, candy-colored contemporary Stonehenge off I-15 halfway to Jean, NV.