Reno is becoming pretty cool. They are transforming themselves from a downtown district primarily dependent upon gaming culture into an edgy, artsy town. These fun things to do in Reno will help you explore offbeat options outside of the casinos.
Reno really surprised me with its street art, public sculpture, art museums and cool shopping spots. I asked Geralda Miller when this transformation began. She’s the Executive Director of Art Spot Reno, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the arts in Reno.
Her theory is that Reno’s arts ethic is a byproduct of the gaming economy. Casinos have always hired musicians and dancers, providing enough work in Reno for them to settle there permanently.
” There is a strong sensitivity to the arts and it’s a rich city filled with creatives”
In the 1990’s the City Council got with the program by designating 2% of the hotel room taxes toward an “Art Ordinance”. They have since funded 185 permanent works of art, temporary installations, performances and festivals. Every year, the artists and makers who roll into nearby Burning Man, bring their works and some of the pieces find a permanent home in Reno.
This mindful effort has given the town a cool edge and provided some pretty fun things to do in Reno for art-lovers.
This article is a partnership with Hotels.com, Reno Tahoe tourism and the Whitney Peak Hotel (who hosted my stay). All opinions are my own, of course. This article also contains affiliate links, which means that if you chose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.
Where to Stay in Reno
Reno sits at a major intersection of I-80 and I-580, so there are motels oriented toward travelers strung along both freeways. Hotels.com covers the whole Reno metro with plenty of beds for whatever your price point. But if you are in Reno for a fun weekend, then I’d suggest staying in the downtown core.
I stayed at the Whitney Peak Hotel and it was just delightful. My dog and I were on a road trip, which included hanging in South Lake Tahoe, driving around Lake Tahoe and Reno. I needed a pootch-friendly hotel and the Whitney Peak delivered. They gave Cocoa her own bag of goodies upon check-in, which included a toy, snacks, poop bags and a drinking cup.
For about $40 extra, you can upgrade to the Club level which pays for itself with a concierge service, breakfast, 24-hour lounge with snacks, drinks and a happy hour. It’s on the 15th floor of the hotel and has killer views of the Riverwalk.
7 Offbeat & Fun Things to Do in Reno
Strolling Along Riverwalk
No matter how many air filters the casinos deploy, the air inside is always a thick brew of smoke, perfumed air conditioner and a whiff of desperation. So, if you’re planning to spend an evening gambling, then you may want to consider cleansing your lungs the next morning with a airy stroll along Reno’s Riverwalk. This peaceful strip of green space bisects downtown. with a series of dog-friendly parks and pedways.
Start at the City Plaza and head west along the river. If you go as far as the outer edge of Idlewild Park before turning around, you can get a nice 4 mile round trip out of it.
Spotting Public Sculptures
There are several clusters of public sculptures in Reno. If you take the aforementioned Riverwalk stroll, you’ll see three of them right in City Plaza. These include the “Believe” sculpture by Jeff Schomberg, “Creatures of Nevada” by John Battenberg and a temporary installation called “Space Whale”, by Matt Schulz.
Walk further west along the Riverwalk and you’ll come to the Rotary Club sculpture garden at Bicentennial Park. It’s set with several whimsical works (like the one pictured above).
There is another cluster of works at the Playa Art Park (on 5th near Circus Circus). The park has murals and a rotating display of installations that were originally shown at Burning Man.
Read More: If you are into outsider art, then head down to Southern California because Joshua Tree town has a strong outsider arts ethic, that includes a crochet museum and an installation from an alternative dimension (among other things). Then go to the East Jesus Gallery in Slab City to see some Burner art in its native habitat.
Spotting Street Art
Reno’s no slouch either.
Geralda’s Art Spot organization has been helping to coordinate murals for years now. She sees the murals as an outdoor urban gallery and an “…opportunity for people who are intimidated by museums to enjoy art”.
There is a series of large scale murals in the downtown Riverwalk district. In 2017, 31 artists were commissioned to spray up downtown in a flurry of new murals. Circus Circus has dedicated some of its Virginia Street wall space to murals and they host a 48 hour mural marathon every July.
There is also a lot of mural activity happening in the Midtown neighborhood. This neighborhood used to be a neglected wasteland, but through a concerted effort at neighborhood revitalization, Midtown has become pretty cool. Public art creates a pride of place which helps to stimulate any neighborhood revival.
One thing I found particularly interesting about the Midtown Murals is that the ethic is very grass roots. While there are some pieces by world class artists, most of the works are by local artists who have been commissioned by local businesses.
Art Spot offers a monthly art walk and monthly street art tours. They will also arrange a public tour for groups of six or more.
Exploring the Nevada Museum of Art
This art museum was quite a surprise to me. It’s small enough to be doable in an hour or two, but they have an interesting variety of artworks. The museum has a permanent collection focused on landscape photography, art of the west, contemporary art and works that represent a “work ethic”.
They are currently running a multi-year program with the Smithsonian which will bring in art from iconic American artists like Hopper and O’Keeffe.
Gallery Hopping at the Sierra Arts Foundation
The Sierra Arts Foundation has a mission to foster the region’s art community with teaching programs, concert series and exhibitions.
They run a delightful gallery just south of the river that hosts group and solo exhibitions and artist talks.
Chillaxin’ in the Sundance Bookstore
You can’t have an artsy town without a great indy bookstore to anchor it and the Sundance Bookstore is holding down that fort quite nicely. Sundance is located in the beautiful 1906 Levy House, which is part of the art museum property. Mark Twain used to live in these here parts and I think he would be right at home in Sundance’s historic building.
Each room of the mansion houses a different genre. They’ve devoted generous space to staff pics and they also have a lot of face-outs, which make it easy to browse.
Thrifting at the Junkee Clothing Exchange
Junkee is of the most cool things to do in Reno. It’s way more than a clothing exchange. In addition to normal used clothes, they have vintage clothes, a costume shop and affordable antiques and furniture.
Even if you aren’t a Thrifter, it’s worth going in to see the kooky displays.
Getting to and Around Reno
If you are flying into Reno, here is some information regarding which carriers fly there and ground transportation options. If you are driving there from the Bay Area, consider taking the scenic route around Lake Tahoe. If you are coming up from LA, here are some cool stops along the Highway 395 corridor.
Once in town, everything that I’ve mentioned here is walkable. Even getting to the far end of Midtown’s murals is only 1.5 miles south.
Along with edgey and arty sometimes comes sketchy and there is indeed some of that in Reno. So stay on your toes, ignore the weird looking guys with the grungy backpacks and take an Uber if you don’t know where you are going.
Enjoy your time exploring Reno’s artsy vibe and have a great weekend getaway.
Read More: If you are into street art, check out my guide for the best street art cities around the world.
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