“Dean Martin” drank my martini.
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Okay, he wasn’t really Dean Martin; he was a Dean Martin impersonator at a Rat Pack tribute show in Las Vegas. But he came down from stage, introduced himself to my table-mates and me, and asked to “borrow” my drink for his next number. Then he took my Ketel martini up on stage, sang and danced a bit, and exclaimed, “Sorry, Leslie, I need this more than you do!”–and guzzled the potent mix of vodka and vermouth.
Since the “idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over” first bore fruit, Las Vegas has been different from other bucket-list destinations, thanks to the sheer over-the-topness of it all. I’ve loved it for 30 years. When I lived in Newport Beach, I used to road trip there with a friend. Now that I’m back on the East Coast, I try to visit every year or so. So I wasn’t surprised this month when the personal-finance site WalletHub named Las Vegas the Most Fun City in America.
What to do in Las Vegas
Here are some of the funnest things I’ve found to do in my decades of Vegas travel:
1) Play at the Casinos
The heart of Las Vegas is the casinos, pulsing with the sounds of overhead music, slot machines, and enthusiastic players.
There are lots of slots, table games like Black Jack, and usually a dedicated poker room. My favorite casino is the Encore, with its sleek red decor and lots of natural light, a rarity in Las Vegas.
In the unlikely event that you win big at the casino, there’s no limit to the high-end shops where you can return your winnings. Most hotels have long passageways that look like an indoor Rodeo Drive, with boutiques ranging from Bulgari to Versace. They expect browsers. I was once trying to explain the Tiffany toggle to a companion at the jeweler’s shop at Bellagio, and a saleswoman immediately opened up a case and fastened a sterling-silver bracelet on my wrist.
WalletHub found Vegas tied for Most Restaurants per Capita (along with Orlando, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco). Vegas restaurants range from all-day diners to celebrity-chef show-stoppers. You can find creative interpretations of virtually any cuisine you want–Italian, French, Mexican, Asian, steaks and seafood, and more. Resort bars are typically well-appointed and well-staffed. There is some substantial turnover in restaurants. I recommend spending some time perusing menus on the Web to find the places you want to try.
4) Tour the Museums
Las Vegas has a number of off-beat museums. The Mob Museum is one of the most intriguing; its authentic artifacts and interactive exhibits teach the fascinating history and far-reaching impact of organized crime.
5) Soak up some Sun by the Pool
Most resorts have multiple pools. There are small pools, large pools, wave pools, hot tubs, lazy rivers, and so on. There are separate pools for guests staying in the better suites and over-21 “toptional” pools. And then there are the party pools, basically daytime nightclubs in the water, complete with drinks, DJs, and dancing, and cover charges. You can usually order food and drink delivered to you poolside. You can also often reserve a cabana or daybed in the shade, which is nice as the pools fill up on hot days under the scorching Vegas sun.
6) Relax at the Spa
Resort spas in Las Vegas are like luxury spas elsewhere, only more so. They offer the expected range of services like scrubs, massages, and facials, and the spa personnel tend to be top-notch. They typically have sister salons that provide hair and nail treatments, as well as dressing rooms equipped with high-quality hair-care supplies. They boast facilities like jacuzzi tubs and saunas and steam rooms, which you’re welcome to use all day if you have an appointment for a service. You can also purchase a day pass if you don’t have a treatment scheduled, though to be honest, if you’re willing to buy a pass, you may as well pay the extra to enjoy a treatment. My favorite spa is the Encore‘s, and I’ve had the best haircuts of my life at its sister salon.
7) Hop on a Ride
Vegas has several roller coasters and other amusement rides. The Strat offers rooftop thrill rides, including an 829-foot open-air sky jump. The Voodoo Zipline sends tourists soaring at 33mph, 490 feet above the city, between the two towers of the Rio hotel. The much more tame High Roller at the Linq is a 30-minute ferris wheel that offers fantastic views of fabulous Las Vegas.
8) See a Show
Seeing a show is a quintessential Vegas experience. There is something for every taste, from concerts to comedy, and often both in the same show.
I’ve seen wonderful performers from Penn and Teller to Elton John, but my absolute favorite performance was the small Rat Pack tribute show, when “Dean Martin” drank my martini.
If you don’t want to commit several hours to a ticketed event, some hotels also offer short complimentary performances. Big Elvis at the Piano Bar at Harrah’s is a fan favorite on Thursday and Friday afternoons. “Lake of Dreams” at the Wynn is a multimedia spectacle featuring surprises from puppetry to holograms, which runs nightly every half-hour after dusk.
But the most iconic complimentary show takes place outdoors at Bellagio‘s recreation of Lake Como, where 1,214 amazingly choreographed fountains shimmy, swing, and spin in perfect time to music that can range from classical to show-tunes; the performance starts every 30 minutes during the day and every 15 minutes at night.
9) Explore the Exhibits
Vegas hotels also offer unique attractions to wow tourists. Mandalay Bay boasts an aquarium open to ticket-holders of all ages, and the opportunity for adult certified divers to swim with more than 30 sharks. The Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo features 15 acres of gardens hosting rare birds, fish, and–you guessed it!–flamingoes. The colorful botanical gardens at the Conservatory at Bellagio change seasonally.
10) Stroll the Fremont Street Experience
The Fremont Street Experience is a nightly block party in downtown Vegas. You can see live bands on several stages, dazzling light shows on an overhead canopy, and tourists flying above you on a zip line.
bonus: Take a Day Trip
Ready for a break after all this excitement? Intriguing attractions a short drive from Las Vegas include Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire State Park.
Where to Stay in Las Vegas
Hotels are like friends. They have their charms and their foibles. It’s good to know a lot of them. For a range of reasons, these are my five favorite hotels in Las Vegas:
the iconic Strip resort, a part of Vegas history
all-suite hotel at Mandalay Bay,
offering exclusivity including a dedicated pool,
with full access to the larger resort’s amenities
my overall favorite, elegant with exceptional service;
I once spent 48 hours there without ever going outside
a kitschy knock-off of Venice,
but with a wealth of restaurants and shops at every price point,
and large elegant rooms with sunken sitting areas
unusual as it has no casino, which means smaller crowds;
what it does have is a City Center location, steps away from Aria, and fully equipped suites;
I once stayed in a corner suite with a full kitchen (including coffee maker!) and a beautiful view of the Bellagio fountains
So what do I mean by charms and foibles? Well, like just about everything else in Las Vegas, the hotels have their distinctive quirks:
You can reserve a very nice room for a reasonable price. Hotel rooms in Las Vegas tend to be large.
Even the standard rooms at the newer resorts are more like studio suites, with defined sitting areas featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and spa-style bathrooms, with double sinks, oversized showers, deep soaking tubs, and separate water closets.
And many of them offer frequent room sales, with rates under $200, lower or sometimes complimentary for high or even moderate rollers.
You can also tip your way to a good-value “complimentary” upgrade. Checking in for two nights in an inexpensive room at Mandalay Bay, my companion slipped the desk agent $20. He upgraded us to a one-bedroom suite with a separate sitting room and a powder room in the Delano. If you want to try this, offer around $10/night, rounded up to the next denomination. Just discreetly place your hand on the counter with the bill visible underneath it and ask, “Is there any chance for a complimentary upgrade?” Once you show him the money, the agent will want to find something for you. When he does, slide the bill across the counter, smile, and say, “Thank you.”
On the other hand, the daily resort fees can top $40, and rooms on the Strip are taxed at 12 percent of the full amount. And the nickel-and-diming doesn’t stop there: Want to skip the long check-in lines? That could cost you $50. Need a late-check-out? Be prepared to pay extra. Getting ready to leave the Delano, my companion and I were still in our suite fifteen minutes past the ridiculous check-out time of 11 a.m. We received a text offerring us a “late” check-out of 1pm–for an extra charge that was more than our nightly room rate.
As for in-room amenities, the higher-end places have everything from robes and slippers to electronic gadgetry that lets you open the draperies without getting out of bed. But most of them don’t have coffee makers, and you can pay around $4-5 for a cup at the lobby cafe. And except for Cosmopolitan, most of them don’t have balconies.
Gaming companies have their own rewards programs, just like airlines. You can earn redeemable points on virtually everything you pay for at a casino resort, including your room, meals, show tickets, spa services, as well as gambling, and you can earn status that comes with special perks, like complimentary rooms. Caesars Rewards, for example, also offers a branded credit card, which gives you the opportunity to earn even more points, and you can often also score 2.5 percent cash-back via Rakuten by booking through the program’s Web site. In addition, some resorts are also affiliated with hotel-chain programs; for example, Cosmopolitan has its unique rewards club called Identity and is also affiliated with Marriott’s frequent-travel program Bonvoy.
Perhaps one of the most taken-for-granted unique aspects of Vegas hotels is safety. Remember Terry Benedict (modelled after Steve Wynn) in Ocean’s 11? “In my casino, there’s always someone watching.” There are cameras and security personnel everywhere. I feel safer at a casino resort on the Strip than almost anywhere else.
But keep an eye on your drink when “Dean Martin” is around.