Mention to anyone that you are traveling to Las Vegas, and you’ll receive a knowing smile. “Nice,” they’ll say, launching into a story about the time they went skinny dipping in the Bellagio fountain.
Sure, Las Vegas is synonymous with over-indulgence in all of the things. How can you possibly have fun in Las Vegas without drinking and gambling? Years ago, I would have been horrified at the mere suggestion.
Yet, as they tend to do, things change, and I found myself traveling to Las Vegas for 8 nights, as a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling shadow of my irresponsible former self. Adding to the pressure to have a great time, I was celebrating my birthday in Sin City. Thus, I have titled this trip:
The Las Vegas Challenge:
What to do in Las Vegas FOR FUN that doesn’t involve alcohol or gambling?
Turns out, quite a lot. If you are pregnant, sober, not into partying, traveling with children, or travelings for work, worry not, as Sin City has oodles of activities that won’t involve a pile of regret in the morning.
My 16 favorite things to do in Las Vegas (minus the booze and gambling):
1) Visit Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay:
Finding a peaceful corner of Las Vegas is already miraculous, but combined with the silent grace of gliding apex predators, this experience is very special.
Highlights include the nearly 360-degree view inside the aquarium tunnel, a touch tank, and a piranha display. We visited on a Sunday evening and had the place to ourselves.
Skip the Polar Journey exhibition next door, as sadly there are no adorable penguins inside, although the entrance fee is included with the Shark Reef ticket (price is $25).
2) Food crawl through the Downtown Container Park:
Located on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, check out this quirky eating and shopping area made entirely out of shipping containers. Its modern, family friendly, hipster vibe (complete with a music-blasting, flame-throwing, 55-foot steel praying mantis) has live music, movies in the 4-D experience dome, and an AstroTurf grass area for lounging.
Enjoying Cheffini’s hot dogs at the Downtown Container Park. Downtown Container Park at night. Hot dogs at Cheffini’s.
3) The Mob Museum:
Next door to the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, or Mob Museum. Visit off-peak (evening) to have the place to yourself!
The museum, located in a historic courthouse houses exhibits such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Wall. (It’s worth noting that if you are traveling with children, the exhibits may be too violent.)
If you are in town for a few days, make sure to buy the Mob Museum/Neon Museum combo pass, and save a few bucks.
5) Eat Amazing Food
Mexican grilled corn, sustainable fish ceviche at the Border Grill.
Prime rib and crab legs at 5 am? We’ve all done it (right?). Buffets aside, there are some epic food experiences to be had in Las Vegas. Celebrity chef restaurants exist by the dozen (I tried in vain to get into Gordon’s Ramsay’s new Hell’s Kitchen). Feeling adventurous? Try dining blind in a pitch-black restaurant.
For my birthday dinner we chose the 6-course tasting menu at Michael Mina, which is a solid option, however, my favorite meal of the trip, was at the generically-named Border Grill (Mandalay Bay). Expect delicious and creative Mexican food, with many vegan and vegetarian options, which you can enjoy (with a virgin margarita, of course) on the patio overlooking the Lazy River.
Too healthy? There’s always the Heart Attack Grill on Fremont St., where “nurses” will spank you a paddle for failing to finish your order of Double Bypass Burger and Flatliner Fries.
6) Sun Worship on the Pool Deck
Mandalay Bay Beach Cabana (credit: mandalaybay.com).
Despite visiting Las Vegas several times, I had never taken advantage of the most pleasant (and cheapest!) of thrills, and that is worshiping the desert sun on a rooftop pool deck.
OK, it’s only cheap if you’ve booked a room, but you need to stay somewhere! May as well stay at resort that has a beach (like the 11-acres of beach and pools the Mandalay Bay). The seminar I attended was located near Fremont St. , therefore I checked into the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino to take advantage of their rooftop pool.
7) Race Exotic Cars
Exotic Racing Experience, do it!
A few weeks before we traveled to Las Vegas,the husband turned 40, and I surprised him with the Supercar Driving Experience at Exotics Racing located at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A bit pricey, maybe, but he got to drive a Ferrari. In fact, despite having zero interest in cars, I had race car envy, and signed myself up for the Drifting Ride-Along experience, which was giddily-exciting.
Fremont Street is the pedestrianized “action” area of Downtown Las Vegas. Here you can eat at the Heart Attack Grill, watch live music, take your photo with “street performers”, and ride Slotzilla, the zip-line thrill ride suspended above Fremont Street.
The atmosphere reminds me of NYC’s Times Square mixed with a few scenes in Mad Max Fury Road, but it’s an amusing way to spend a few hours, especially if you are heading down to the Downtown Container Park.
Outside Binion’s Casino on Fremont St., Downtown Las Vegas Riders on Slotzilla, Fremont St, Downtown Las Vegas
9) Take in a show
Magicians, Cher, Cirque du Soleil…how can you possibly choose? Every show I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas has been excellent though my top two are Blue Man Group, which blew away my expectations, and the mesmerizing “O” by Cirque du Soleil.
Several women participating in my business seminar cut loose one night to see Magic Mike Live and breathlessly raved the next day. However, the husband would not be convinced.
10) Shopping Experience
Peering out a window at Bally’s Hotel and Casino, I was mesmerized by the line of people waiting to get inside the M&M’s World store. Why people, why?
Regardless of your shopping taste, Las Vegas has whatever you are into (like personalized m&ms!). My favorite place to escape the casino floor is the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian, which is an oasis of relative calm with reasonably priced, normal stores in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. Complete with gondoliers!
For window-shopping luxury brands like Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton, head over to the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace.
For a quirkier experience, check out the Downtown Container Park (above at #2) or the Las Vegas Arts District.
Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, Las Vegas
Need a break from all the neon? Hoover Dam is an easy 45-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip on the Nevada-Arizona border. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, especially considering it was built with 1930’s technology.
Multiple tour agencies offer round-trip transportation to the dam with pickup from your Las Vegas hotel. I rented a car to visit the Valley of Fire (see # 12 below) and chasing the setting sun, we managed to arrive at twilight, which made for a spectacular sunset.
Tip #1: The visitor’s center closes at 5 pm, however it is possible to park and walk along the dam until 7 pm. It’s not necessary to book a tour or visit the visitor center if you just want to take a few pictures.
Tip #2: If you want your pictures to be in color, make sure you aren’t using the black and white, artsy camera app on your phone. You’re welcome.
12) Day trip to Valley of Fire
Have a full day to spend in the desert? Do not miss the opportunity to explore the outstanding beauty of the Valley of Fire State Park located about 60 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Named for it’s astonishing red rock formations, here you can hike among boulders and cacti, witness ancient petroglypths, and try to spot a desert tortoise. Take advantage of the desert light and her shadows for some truly spectacular photographs. I recommend entering the Valley of Fire through the Lake Mead Recreation Area (Route 167) to maximize the desert scenery. (This means you’ll pay two park fees, but I think it’s worth it.)
Valley of Fire State Park
13) Day trip to Red Rock Canyon
For slightly different desert scenery, head over to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, less than 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon has a 13-mile scenic drive loop, where you can stop at many trail heads and hike among the boulders and Joshua Trees. The loop itself was fairly crowded, so to avoid “Sunday driver” fatigue, check it out mid-week, or early morning to avoid peak times.
View of the start of 13-mile Red Rock Canyon scenic loop from the visitor center.
14) Day trip to Mount Charleston
Mount Charleston, NV
Less than an hour from the desert floor and neon lights, you can climb mountain roads and find yourself among the conifers, and even snow.
Mount Charleston towers over Las Vegas at nearly 12,000 feet and offers visitors hiking trails, and even a small ski resort. The Mt. Charleston Lodge looked like a great place to grab a bite and enjoy the view.
(Unfortunately, I manged to severely injure myself that day, and lunch plans were aborted. If you go, let me know about the food!)
15) Experience the Old West
Bonnie Springs Ranch, a replica 1880s mining town, saloon, and motel, is a perfect lunch spot on the way to Red Rock Canyon. Dozens of live peacocks, ducks, and turtles roaming the grounds add to the fun, as well as a small zoo (of rescued animals) and horseback riding tours. Adults will appreciate the Ranch’s Old West kitschy vibe, but kids will absolutely love it, especially the scenic train ride around the property. Located 20 miles from the Strip off NV-159.
Bonnie Springs Ranch
16) Get on the water
Is there a more appealing way to escape the Las Vegas grime and heat other then slipping into some crystal clear water? Surprisingly, despite being land-locked, and in the middle of the desert, the Las Vegas area offers many opportunities to get near the water. Dozens of tour operators take visitors white water rafting, kayaking, wake-boarding, and paddle-boarding, in the nearby Colorado River, Lake Mead, or Lake Las Vegas.
I spent two nights away from the action to, instead, contemplate the view at Lake Las Vegas, which offered paddle-board and boat rentals. I was devastated that the pool at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resorts & Spa was closed for the season (it was February) and had to be satisfied with simply gazing at the shimmering water and sunsets.
Make sure to request a room on the bridge at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa. View from the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa .
Next time: Despite all the activities, one that I regret missing was a helicopter tour. Tour companies offer flights of the Las Vegas skyline at night or even trips to the Grand Canyon. (Starting at around $100 for a short flight of the Las Vegas skyline.)
Final Notes: So, the Las Vegas Challenge…was I successful? I definitely had fun, so yes.
Sure, it gets a bit much. Seemingly every whim or desire that anyone has ever had, in the history of the world, has been capitalized on, and everyone is trying to sell it to you, at the same time. That being said, it also means that there are nearly infinite choices. Want to spend the weekend partying, gorging on buffets, and never leaving the casino? Sure! Or wake up early, go for a swim, explore the desert, and then a vegan food crawl? You can do that, too. And that is the beauty of Las Vegas.
While Las Vegas certainly aims to entertain, it’s also a city where thousands of people push their boundaries a little bit every day. Step out of their comfort zones and try something they’ve never done before. I personally visited several new national parks, rode in a race car at 100-mph, and altogether had a fantastic week in Sin City without a drop of booze. I’m already planning my next trip. 😉
DC-airports serving Las Vegas: IAD, BWI, DCA
Airlines: From IAD: United, Southwest – From BWI: Spirt, Southwest – From DCA: American
Length of Flight: About 5 hours from Washington
Price: From $157 round trip (direct from BWI).
Highlights: Mesmerizing opulence, blinding neon, and an infinite array amusements. Oh, and some of the most starkly beautiful desert landscape in the country.
When to Go: Anytime, but consider February for clear, sunny days without many crowds.
Tip: Download the ride-sharing app, Lyft, when you land. Considerably cheaper than taxis and very convenient for getting around.
The Las Vegas airport, and most major hotels and casinos have a Lyft/Uber pickup “rank” seperate from the taxi area , just look for the signs.