USA Travel: Why Las Vegas should be on your wanderlust wish list

One of the city’s most photographed attractions is at the end of the Strip. Photo / Getty Images

With world-class cuisine, stunning desert scenery, and plenty to see, you don’t have to be a gambler to enjoy Las Vegas, writes Ashlyn Oswalt.

Driving from the desert environment to Vegas is a perfect metaphor for the city itself. You’ll spot it in the distance, usually after cranking the air conditioning to full blast and sweating a bum in your seat.

It’s shimmering – the city, not the butt – and you’re not exactly sure if it’s real. As you approach it seems to come alive, with glowing lights of every color of the rainbow. Seconds ago you were in the solitude of red sand, but now you’re in the center of town, your eyes blinking wildly at towering replica Egyptian pyramids, street performers and more flashing lights.

Because the city is surrounded by desert, there are many opportunities to explore the great outdoors near Las Vegas.  Photo / Getty Images
Because the city is surrounded by desert, there are many opportunities to explore the great outdoors near Las Vegas. Photo / Getty Images

Welcome to Las Vegas. Sin City gets a bad rap for only existing to gamble, booze and wreak havoc. While Vegas has plenty of those, there’s also plenty of fun to be had if that’s not your scene. While no trip to Vegas is complete without a stroll down the Strip and down Fremont Street, there are plenty of other reasons why Vegas should be on your must-see list.

Cheap accommodation

It’s cheap to stay in a nice hotel in Vegas. You can stay in the heart of the action, sleep in a comfortable king-size bed, order room service from fancy hotel restaurants, and get free parking, all for around $100-$200 a night. Most hotels are casinos, so they expect to recoup their lost dollars by gambling, but there’s no rule that says you have to gamble during your stay.

The Bellagio's fountains shoot into the sky every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the day.  Photo / Getty Images
The Bellagio’s fountains shoot into the sky every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the day. Photo / Getty Images

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Most hotels have several restaurants inside, pools – sometimes even on the roof! — or free entertainment for hotel guests. Although prices increase on the weekends, it’s not hard to find accommodation for under $100 a night on weekdays. Places like the famous Luxor have long-running shows like the Blue Man Group and a wedding chapel where you can get married, while the Golden Nugget has a shark tank with a waterslide that – sure – runs through it.

The food

Celebrity chefs have flocked to Vegas since 1991, when celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck was convinced to open a version of his popular restaurant at Caesars Palace. With big names like Gordon Ramsay, Giada De Laurentiis, Guy Fieri and Thomas Keller all owning restaurants in the city, tourists have countless cuisines to choose from. For a one-stop shop, try the Cosmopolitan for Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, David Chang’s Momofuku and Milk Bar, and Italian American Superfrico.

While most of these well-known chefs offer fine dining experiences, there are many more affordable options that offer hearty meals, fancy options, and quality food at every price point. If you’re looking for a real treat, head to the Heart Attack Grill on the Fremont St Experience to don a hospital gown and eat dishes like the “Bypass Burger.”

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The other parts of the city

If you’re wondering where Vegas locals hang out, it’s not the Strip or Fremont Street. Chances are they’re hanging out in the Arts District, aka 18b. The neighborhood is full of trendy art galleries, craft cocktail bars, Mexican restaurants, and breweries, as well as plenty of murals to admire.

Las Vegas also has a Chinatown with more than 150 restaurants and six Asian supermarkets. It has become a foodie destination, with famous chefs opening outposts of their restaurants in the neighborhood.

The neon lights of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas are hard to miss.  Photo / Getty Images
The neon lights of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas are hard to miss. Photo / Getty Images

Outside

Just 25 miles from the Strip lies another wild world. Covering 77,000 hectares of the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area features towering red sandstone formations, Native American petroglyphs and dinosaur footprints. Wind your way through the park with more than 20 hiking trails to choose from, or take the 13-mile (21 km) scenic drive, although reservations are required.

Away from the city lights, nearby Valley of Fire State Park offers stunning sandstone landscapes and hiking trails.  Photo / Getty Images
Away from the city lights, nearby Valley of Fire State Park offers stunning sandstone landscapes and hiking trails. Photo / Getty Images

Less than an hour away is the Instagram-famous Valley of Fire, Nevada’s oldest state park. Among the petrified trees, petroglyphs and short hiking trails is more bright red Aztec sandstone. The park got its name from the shifting dunes that formed the unique color patterns on the rock more than 150 million years ago.

swimming pools

Vegas is hot – summer temperatures can reach over 40°C. Luckily, it excels at pools, mostly rooftops, with gorgeous aesthetics, DJs, and massive silly drinks via pool bar service.

Mandalay Bay Hotel's man-made beach is a popular place to cool off.  Photo / Getty Images
Mandalay Bay Hotel’s man-made beach is a popular place to cool off. Photo / Getty Images

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Best of all, you don’t even have to be a hotel guest to enjoy them, as many hotels offer daily rates for pool use and cabana rentals. With spots like the Flamingo, which hosts celebrity DJs and artists, or a sophisticated view of the city from the boulevard’s rooftop pool, why even be tempted to sit in a casino?

The casinos

The casinos are a feast for the eyes and cost nothing to go in and explore. Head down to the Strip and stroll through the ones you like. Each has been carefully decorated to capture a specific aesthetic, and the restaurants, bars and shops are often themed. Be sure to stop by Paris Las Vegas to gaze at the night sky and stroll the streets of Paris croissant in hand, or take a gondola ride at The Venetian.

Forget gambling, the gondola ride is the biggest draw at The Venetian Casino.  Photo / Getty Images
Forget gambling, the gondola ride is the biggest draw at The Venetian Casino. Photo / Getty Images

Make time to wander, be sure to go after sunset to enjoy all the lights, and don’t miss a show at the Bellagio Fountains, which runs every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the day.

While Vegas can easily be dismissed as a gambler’s city, it’s also a place of culinary delights, visual oddities, and cheap accommodation near beautiful outdoor locations. What’s not to love?

Visit visitlasvegas.com for more travel ideas