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Ask any visitor about downtown Las Vegas and you’ll find they’re probably only acquainted with the area on a limited basis and mostly familiar with the Fremont Street Experience and its larger-than-life Light and Sound show. History buffs and repeat visitors may also be aware that Fremont Street is where Las Vegas was born in 1905 and continues to house some of the city’s most legendary, vintage casinos.
Despite downtown’s impressive history, iconic casinos and free entertainment, the area continues to take a back seat to the glitzier Las Vegas Strip when it comes to visitor traffic.
But downtown embodies the saying “down but never out,” and with a number of major developments on the horizon, today’s downtown is rapidly developing into a kinder, gentler Vegas.
And my favorite reasons to visit downtown? Admittedly, not all of them are open yet, but when they do, they’ll be a force to behold.
Fremont Street ExperienceJust because you’ve heard about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. The Fremont Street Experience is Las Vegas at its finest, with the world’s largest big-screen television and 12 million lights. Free Viva Vision shows happen hourly, starting at dusk. Two performance stages provide free entertainment for visitors, who also pop in and visit 10 casinos. Thrill-seekers will especially enjoy the area’s newest attraction, an 800-foot flightline (zipline) that soars over part of Fremont Street, at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. www.vegasexperience.com
Fremont East Entertainment DistrictIn late August 2007, the city of Las Vegas completed a $5.5 million streetscape effort for the downtown area encompassing three blocks from Las Vegas Boulevard to Eighth Street, known as the Fremont East Entertainment District. In addition to a “visual improvement program” where developers are reviving the old glamour of vintage Las Vegas with retro-looking neon signs, the improvements also include wider sidewalks and more pedestrian-friendly streets. More importantly however, the city’s Redevelopment Agency has contributed funds to this effort in order to attract non-gaming nightclubs, lounges and entertainment venues to the area.
The effort is paying off and the pub crawl is becoming a regular happening in downtown, as the area is starting to get known for its quality and diversity of nightlife. Some of the newer venues include Vanguard Lounge, introducing a beach casual flair to downtown; Maharaja Hookah Cafe serving coffee, tea and hookah pipes in a non-gaming atmosphere; and Azul Tequila, Las Vegas’ largest Latin nightclub.www.lasvegasnevada.gov/Government/7589.htm
Golden NuggetAs a person who used to railroad her family’s vacation plans, if the hotel didn’t include a swimming pool, I only wish my childhood self could have experienced the pool at the Golden Nugget. This $30 million complex comes complete with a three-story waterslide AND a shark tank. The pool is adjacent to a full aquarium, giving the feeling of “being there,” and if that’s too tame, the waterslide, with a see-through tunnel, slides directly through the aquarium. Built on several levels, The Hideout area is for adults only, with a two-story infinity pool. Guests can rent chaise lounges, chairs or cabanas. Obviously a pool this popular gets full pretty quickly, so reservations are recommended.www.goldennugget.com/amenities/pool.asp
El Cortez Hotel & CasinoThe El Cortez Hotel & Casino — the longest continuously running hotel/casino in Las Vegas — recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. The most notable change is the new Cabana Suites, a sister property next to the historic, original property. Located just adjacent to the trendy bars of the Fremont East Entertainment District, the Cabana Suites opened in June 2009. The new property’s bright, green rooms may not be for everyone, but they bring a modern, artsy flair to downtown.
The El Cortez Hotel also owns what is likely one of my favorite downtown experiences, Emergency Arts Las Vegas. Located in what was once the Fremont Medical Building, Emergency Arts is a creative collective that brings together artists, musicians, writers, graphic designers and retailers. The bottom floor features “The Beat” a coffee shop and general hangout where visitors can eat, have a coffee or just hangout. Here, visitors can also buy vintage vinyl, browse artist spaces, shop from an eclectic collection of goods or visit the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
Bridging the gap between what’s new and what’s next is the new, 61-acre Symphony Park.
It will house the currently under construction Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which broke ground in 2009 and is anticipated to open in 2012. The $475 million, three-theater complex will be the home to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theater, and will put Las Vegas’ cultural scene on the map with its programming blend of performances from local arts groups and international touring companies. Theater facilities include the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall, a 300-seat cabaret theater for more intimate performances and a 200-seat studio theater for rehearsals and local events.
But Symphony Park isn’t just about the theater. It already houses the fully operational Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a cutting-edge facility that is producing ground-breaking research on patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases as well as those suffering from other memory and brain disorders. While not a visitor attraction in its own right, the facility is once again reinventing architecture in Las Vegas. The Frank Gehry-designed Keep Memory Alive events center, completed in May 2010, is an iconic building featuring 99 windows with no two alike. The events center comes complete with a full kitchen and accommodate up to 900 for reception-style events, making it the ideal size for convention planners looking for a unique, off-site venue.
The Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement
My bonus pick, which isn’t slated to open until 2011, is the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, nicknamed the Mob Museum.
The museum is anticipated to serve as a cornerstone for downtown redevelopment — attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually — and is expected to generate an economic impact of more than $60 million during construction alone. The facility, housed inside a former post office and federal courthouse, is one of the last remaining, historically significant buildings in Las Vegas and is the only building in the city designated as significant at a national level.
The museum, which is owned by the City of Las Vegas, will present real stories and actual events in mob history, with a focus (wink, wink) on how law enforcement defeated and continues to battle organized crime. It relies heavily upon Ellen Knowlton, former FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Las Vegas Division, for its factual details.
The Fremont Street Experience continues to impress // (c) 2010 Fremont Street Experience
Fremont East Entertainment District // (c) 2010 City of Las Vegas
The waterslide at the Golden Nugget travels directly through the aquarium tank // (c) 2010 Golden Nugget
A suite at the El Cortez Cabana Suites // (c) 2010 El Cortez Hotel