MGM Grand, Excalibur, Bellagio, Stratosphere. The list goes on and on for spectacular, eye-popping hotels on The Strip in Las Vegas.
But that is all the new Vegas, several miles away from where the city grew up –- on Fremont Street.
For our first visit to Vegas, we opted for the quieter –- but still vibrant –- downtown area.
We stayed at the El Cortez on Fremont Street, the longest continuously running hotel and casino in Las Vegas, which opened in 1941. Its Bugsy Siegel restaurant pays homage to the early days of its namesake and other mob associates such as Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, all of whom purchased the hotel in 1945.
It didn’t take long for Las Vegas to boom after the county issued the first gambling license in 1931 to the Northern Club. That same year, soon after Fremont Street was paved, the city got its first traffic light, and more casinos started popping up downtown. For years, it was gaudy Fremont Street hotels and casinos that were portrayed in travelogues and movies, earning the area the nickname “Glitter Gulch.”
But by the 1990s, most of the hotels and casinos had relocated to The Strip. Downtown began its revitalization with The Fremont Street Experience, notable for its barrel vault canopy that covers four blocks, providing shade from the intense sun, plus space for one of the most spectacular light shows in the world.
Today, Fremont Street has a whole new vibe with a zip line flying overhead, street musicians and three outdoor music stages, plus shops, restaurants and hotels along a five- block stretch.
While our hotel -– El Cortez –- had its charm, with a classic, vintage, look, it also seemed a bit worn. On the plus side, it is tiny compared to the monstrosities along The Strip and has plenty of gambling options, including keno and sports gaming.
If you’re looking for something bigger, just a few blocks away is The Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in the heart of Fremont Street, with one of the best buffets around.
Also within walking distance is the fascinating Mob Museum. Its official name –- The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement –- tells you these are not just cute, colorful displays but intriguing accounts of actual events and people. Housed in the old Las Vegas courthouse, exhibits include the courtroom of a 1950 phase of the Kefauver hearings that illuminated the nation about the reach of organized crime. An extensive photo display depicts virtually every mobster from every big city in the country. The three floors of the Mob Museum hold all sorts of artifacts, such as an electric chair (that you can sit in!) and the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall, numerous photos, exhibits, videos and interactive displays.
Just a block away from El Cortez is another surprisingly fun area called Downtown Container Park, an example of how Vegas is trying to entice families. The block- square open area contains a large children’s play area of huge blocks and physical interactive games, a stage for entertainment and two floors of shops and eateries with lots of shaded areas in which to relax.
The best part of our visit was not all the man-made glitz and glitter, but Mother Nature’s fabulous show. That was provided by a Pink Jeep tour of Red Rock Canyon, less than a half-hour from Vegas. Our van featured comfy captain’s chairs, providing a relaxing perch from which to view the beauty of mountains and desert. Our first stop on the 13-mile loop was the visitor’s center, which provided a perfect panorama of the multihued Calico Hills, as well as an introduction to the flora and fauna in the area. One of the most interesting in that last category is the Joshua Tree, so named by Mormons for its prayerful stance. Those crooked desert plants can live 500 years.
There were stops at High Point Overlook for some stunning views, as well as Willow Springs, where we viewed the trickle of water and Native American pictographs and agave roasting pits.
If you choose to visit Red Rock Canyon by car, you have the option to explore 19 trails, ranging from easy to strenuous and from ¾-mile to 6 miles, plus a chance to view denizens of the desert hills, including bighorn sheep and wild burros.
Once back in the hustle and bustle of the city, you can plan to see one of dozens of fabulous shows, the most popular of which are the various incarnations of Cirque de Soleil (from Michael Jackson to the Beatles tributes), magic spectacles like Penn & Teller, Motown Review -– even the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater.
If you don’t have a car, the futuristic-looking Vegas buses can take you from Downtown to the Strip and the boatload of shows, gambling and food options in style. The double-decker buses are, of course, air-conditioned, with numerous stops downtown and along The Strip.
If you go
El Cortez Hotel & Casino: elcortezhotelcasino.com
Mob Museum: themobmuseum.org
Downtown Container Park: downtowncontainerpark.com
Red Rock Canyon Tour: pinkjeeps.com
Las Vegas shows: vegas.com/shows
Las Vegas Bus Transportation:rtcsnv.com