Get your retro going with this guide for things to do in Downtown Las Vegas that will minimize your budget and maximize a kitschy good time.
If the Las Vegas Strip is your glitzy and sparkly ideal date, then downtown Las Vegas is your super cool aunt who isn’t fancy but you want to hang out with her because she’s a ton of fun.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, downtown Las Vegas began to develop its reputation as an outlaw city. They were the first to legalize the quickie divorce (in 1911), to legalize gambling (in 1931) and to open a Casino resort at the El Cortez (in 1941). After the strip became developed in the 50’s and 60’s, the downtown district began to languish. But, in 2010 several mothballed hotels were remodeled and Zappos founder Tony Hseih has helped to refresh the downtown landscape.
The result is a downtown Las Vegas that embraces its retro history while still managing to offer the Big Dumb Fun that people to go Vegas for. What follows is a guide focused on things to do in downtown Las Vegas that are retro, cheeky, kitschy and totally cool.
Here are some shortcuts to this guide:
6 Retro Kitsch Things to Do in Downtown Las Vegas
3 Free Things to Do in Downtown Las Vegas
2 Fun Things to Do for Adrenaline Junkies
The Best of Downtown Las Vegas for Hangry People
Walking Tours of Downtown
Getting Around & Parking in Downtown Las Vegas
Where to Stay
6 Retro Kitsch Things to do in Downtown Las Vegas
Exploring the Downtown Arts District in Las Vegas
Spend an afternoon in the downtown Arts District (DTLV). This area of downtown is located about two miles west of Fremont Street and it’s in the throes of gentrification. It’s not a huge area and you can easily spend a few hours strolling around, checking out the retro chic stores, spotting the street art and finding a hip bite to eat.
Get in the mood for retro chic by starting at Retro Vegas. They feature mid-century modern furnishings, lighting, kitchenware and vintage clothing.
Open Mon-Sat 11a-6p, Sunday 12p-5p.
Then go pull a Texas hold-em and go all in at Vintage Vegas. This store is so retro chic that they don’t even have their own website. But they do have a great sense of humor, greeting customers with a slogan that says “dead people’s junk and cool crap”. It’s a siren call for bargain hunters and hipsters.
Open everyday 10a-6p.
Las Vegas Oddities
This place is as if your Cool Aunt Las Vegas became a crazy cat lady who was also obsessed with taxidermy. But don’t let that scare you, or at least not too much. This shop calls itself the “weirdest little store in Vegas” and it’s not hyperbole. They have a startling collection of mummified animals, bones, bugs, fossils and cheeky, but creepy jewelry. It’s like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum but all of the goods are for sale, along with normal items like t-shirts. Just go there.
Finding Retro Kitsch Closer to Fremont Street
The Neon Museum pays the ultimate homage to local history and it offers up the best of downtown Las Vegas. It is a littered boneyard of old neon signs which have played such an import role in the city’s visual history. The museum was founded in 1996 and is dedicated to collecting, preserving and studying the neon history of Vegas. They offer public tours both during the day and at night. The tour tells the background stories of the signs, giving insight into how Las Vegas’ fortunes have evolved over the past century. It’s the most retro-y of retro things to do in downtown Las Vegas and you should definitely make time for it.
Tours run everyday from 10am-2:30p and pick up again after dark until about 10:30. They sell out and you are best to book ahead, especially on the weekends. Daytime tours are $19 and nightime tours are $28.
The Mob had (still has?) a heavy influence in the development and growth of the gambling industry so it is fitting that the museum is located where legalized gambling began. I found the museum one of the most informative things to do in downtown Las Vegas. It takes a hard look at the Mob and it’s involvement in murder, bootlegging, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and the evolving attempts of law enforcement to combat all of those things. The exhibits are remarkably thorough and you could easily spend several hours in the museum.
Open daily 9am-9pm. They get busy so you can save time and money by booking tickets in advance.
All of that partying in Vegas can do a number on your brain cells, so do yourself a favor and perk them up with a visit to the Writer’s Block bookstore. They are a fine little indy bookstore located just a few blocks from Fremont street and within staggering distance of Atomic Liquors. They have a great selection of general fiction, sci-fi and kids books.
They have also earned a place in my heart by running a literacy program in their back room, funded by their in-store kitschy “artificial bird sanctuary”. The bookstore owner co-founded 826 National with author Dave Eggars and they are part of a loose network of organizations teaching literacy and creative writing skills to kids from underserved communities. All of these organizations have kooky “stores” attached to them that they use for program income and you can visit them by checking out my guides for literary Los Angeles, San Francisco and Shoreditch London.
Open Mon-Sat 10a-7p, Sat 11a-5p.
3 Free Things to do in Downtown Las Vegas
It’s easy enough to empty out your pockets in Vegas what with the gambling, pricey attractions, drinking and more gambling. You can do Las Vegas on a budget and one way to save yourself a buck or two is with these three free things to do in downtown Las Vegas.
Music on Fremont
The Fremont Street Experience is located smack in the heart of downtown. It is a cacophony of blinking lights, attractions, crowds…and…music. There are three stages on Fremont street offering free live music and DJs. The music usually starts around 6pm and can go as late as 2am.
This is very much an adults-only thing because as soon as the bands start, so do the buskers. And in downtown Vegas, the buskers quite often aren’t wearing any tops, even if they are otherwise dressed as a nun, or a 78 year old in a pink velour track suit. I’m never going to be able to un-see that.
Hey, the best of downtown Las Vegas may be cool and kitschy, but it ain’t for kids.
Container Park Legos
One thing to do in downtown Las Vegas that is indeed kid friendly is to play with the giant legos located at the deep end of the the Container Park. It’s also a nice spot to sit down and chill if you have been doing a lot of walking around.
The Container Park has stores, restaurants, bars and also hosts irregular music and entertainment events in the stage above the Lego area. You can find the schedule here.
Hunt Street Art
Where there is grit and hip, there follows street art. Gentrified neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission and Chicago’s Wicker Park have well established street art movements. The slow gentrification of downtown Vegas means that it is also a developing a street art scene. You can find quite a bit of it along the Arts District corridor at Main Street between Charleston and Colorado. Be sure to check out the alleyways to the east and west of Main as you will find some real gems hidden among the parking lots and garbage dumpsters.
There are also some larger pieces closer to Fremont street, particularly on Carson street and 7th street.
2 Fun Things to Do in Downtown Las Vegas for Adrenaline Junkies
What you won’t find on this list of what to do in downtown Last Vegas is a compendium of meditation retreats, yoga studios and zen rock gardens because that’s not why you are going to Vegas, right? If you want to get your heart racing, then check out these adrenaline boosters.
Fear the Walking Dead Survival Experience
Um, so I kinda fear zombies and have a go-bag in my hall closet in case of the zombie apocalypse. So what better way to shake myself out of my comfort zone than to do a ride where you flee moaning cannibals. Super fun, right?!?
I did this ride by myself and found myself clinging to the stranger lady in front of me. She tried to shake me but I didn’t let go, so she had to drag me through the scary sections. Surprisingly, she didn’t invite me out for a celebratory drink after we survived the ride.
If you’d also like flood yourself with fear, you can do so for $24 everyday from 1:20pm to 11:40pm. You can save time in the line by purchasing tickets in advance.
I’ll be honest, after nearly being killed by zombies, I didn’t have it in me to manufacture more adrenaline for the Slotzilla zipline. But it does look fun, so go for it. They offer two versions of it; the $25 version sends you down seven stories for two blocks in a harness and the $45 version sends you eleven stories for five blocks, superhero style. Purchase advance tickets here.
Open everyday noon to 1am.
The Best of Downtown Las Vegas for Hangry People
The Strip tends to offer either uninspired chain food or celebrity chef menus at five star prices. But downtown Las Vegas offers a lot more quality and variety at reasonable price points. The menus are creative and, in keeping with the kitsch theme, often include goofy combinations.
Rise & Shine Breakfast
Who knew that visiting a donut shop would be one of the most fun things to do in downtown Las Vegas! The Donut Bar is one of those artisan donut boutiques with a cheeky twist. Unlike some donut boutiques that are seriously twee with their caramelized bacon and green tea blah blah blah, the Donut Bar makes fresh, creative, HUGE donuts designed to remind you of your childhood. I had the “Samoa” donut which is modeled after my favorite Girl Scout Cookie flavor. But they also offer a two pound monster of a donut wrapped around a pop-tart. They have a ton of rotating options so you have a lot of choice.
They open on Mon-Fri 7am, Sat-Sun 8am, and they close when they sell out of donuts. On a slow weekday, that could be as late at 1pm but on a hangover fueled Saturday or Sunday, they can sell out as early as 11am so drag your ass out of bed and get there early-ish.
Makers & Finders Coffee
Makers & Finders is a Latin-inspired coffee and breakfast joint in the Downtown Arts District. I had the chilaquiles, because who doesn’t want to eat breakfast nachos? But they also have omelets, Latin hash, eggs benedict and other jazzed-up breakfast staples.
Open Mon-Thurs 7a-8p, Fri-Sat 7a-9p, Sun 9a-3p.
Las Vegas Lunch
Bin702 is a located in the Container Park and is amazing how much delicious they have packed into one little shipping container. For starters they have a wide selection of wine and beer on tap. THEN, they add a fine selection of cheeses and charcuterie. THEN, they up the ante with a remarkably creative selection of grilled sandwiches, WHICH, is crowned by the “Flamin’ Hot Cheeto”. This sandwich includes three kinds of cheese, including a house-made cheese spread flavored with, you guessed it, flamin’ hot Cheetos. Then, just for grins, they also coat the outside of the bread with crushed Cheetos and grill it. If this sandwich doesn’t embody your cheeky Cool Aunt Las Vegas, then I don’t know what does.
Open Sun-Thurs 11a-12a, Fri-Sat 11a-2a.
Pizza Rock is a great spot for filling up before heading out for the drinks. They aren’t original to Las Vegas and they aren’t retro, but they do know how to make a fine pizza, or rather 39 pizzas. They are serious about their pizza dough and have different dough recipes for different types of pizza. So the Neapolitan pizza (my fave and cooked at 900’f) is different than the Roman pizza (cooked at 700’f), etc. The menu is huge and so is the restaurant so they can accommodate large groups with varied tastes.
Open Mon-Thurs 11a-12a, Fri-Sat 11a-2a, Sun 11a-12a.
Oak & Ivy
Oak & Ivy is a friendly craft cocktail bar located in the Container Park. They specialize in whiskies and offer updated versions of old fashioned cocktails like Manhattans, Negronis and Mint Julips. They have inside and outside seating and if it’s not too busy, the bartender will talk your ear off.
Open Mon-Thurs 1pm-12am, Fri-Sat 11a-2a, Sun 11a-12a.
Atomic Liquors is old school. So old in fact that it is Las Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar. In its heyday, it served a local working class clientele occasionally boosted by visits from the Rat Pack and Smothers Brothers. The owners died in 2010 but the bar has been “restored” to its former glory with a murky interior, long L-shaped bar and booths. They also have a nice outdoor patio area. Unlike Oak & Ivy, they don’t serve fancy cocktails, just basic well drinks and a wide selection of tap beers.
Open Mon-Wed 4pm-2am, Thurs 2pm-3am, Fri 2pm-4am, Sat 12pm-4am, Sun 12pm-2am.
(Some of the following links are affiliate links, which means that if you click through and make a purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Walking Tours of Downtown Las Vegas
Learn the best of downtown Las Vegas with the help of a guide. The following tours offer guided walks that will give you an insider’s look at downtown through foodie tours, downtown by night, background on the Arts District and a photography tour.
Getting Around & Parking in Downtown Las Vegas
Getting from the Airport If You Don’t Have a Car
- Cabs are plentiful in Vegas (except during a large convention). Catching one from the airport to Fremont street will cost ~$37.
- Uber will pick you up at the airport, but they are only allowed to do it in the parking lot. For terminal 1, go to the T1 parking lot, level 2M. For terminal 3, go to the T3 parking lot, valet level. Rides start at $19.
- You can pre-arrange a Super Shuttle ride for $17.
Getting Around if You Don’t Have a Car
If you are staying on the Strip and want a ride to downtown, you can catch a cab for ~$28 or an Uber for $12-17. You can also take the deuce or express buses. They run a regular schedule along the Strip to Downtown every fifteen minutes between 9am-12am. A two hour pass is $6.00 and a 24-hour pass is $8.00.
There is also a free downtown shuttle that runs a loop which includes Fremont street, the Arts District, the bus terminal and the outlet mall.
Parking in Downtown Las Vegas
- If you are visiting the Arts District, there is plenty of free street parking on and around Main Street.
- If you are staying downtown, the hotels have parking and most of them offer it free to guests (although some of the hotels aren’t clear about it on the booking sites, so do your homework).
- If you aren’t staying downtown but want to drive your own car, there is some metered street parking available within a few blocks of Fremont street but expect it to be very full on evenings and weekends.
- All of the hotels offer public parking. Some of them offer it as valet-only and most of the others charge by the hour with daily maximums topping out at $10-16. Many of the hotels will also validate parking if you eat, drink or gamble on the property.
Where to Stay
When you peruse any of the downtown Las Vegas hotel reviews on Trip Advisor, you will not find uniformly good reviews for any of the hotels. Most of the complaints revolve around: smoky smells, noise, and resort fees that aren’t worth the amenities provided. You can avoid the noise by requesting a room that faces away from Fremont Street. You can avoid the smoky smells by choosing a newer hotel (with better air filtration) and you can avoid the resort fees by choosing an older hotel that doesn’t offer resort-like amenities. Pick whichever is the most important to you and optimize for that.
Budget: Four Queens
Four Queens is as retro as you get. This hotel probably hasn’t been updated since the Mob took over Vegas in the ’50s. Original carpeting and everything! But I stayed here because I wanted something cheap and convenient and the Four Queens delivers. You won’t get any amenities and they charge extra for wifi, but the parking is free and they don’t charge those bullsh**t resort fees. Check reviews and book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
4-Star: Golden Nugget
The Golden Nugget is the only full four star hotel downtown. They have 2,000 rooms, a lagoon style swimming pool, a shark tank with water slide (WTF?), a spa and shops. They also have free valet parking and wifi but charge a resort fee of $33 per night. Check reviews and book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
3.5 Star Steal: Downtown Grand
The Downtown Grand is a newer 3.5 star hotel with consistently decent reviews and a cool rooftop pool scene. They run deals and can have rooms as low as $60 on weeknights. Check reviews and book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com or check their own website for deals.
They say that you can have fun in Vegas if lady luck shines on you but I think it’s about making a choice. If you choose the best of downtown Las Vegas, you will definitely have a blast. Downtown is for regular people and you can hook into it’s history while being shown a great time by your Cool Aunt Vegas. Good luck!
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