Pack your dancing shoes, your hiking boots, and your flip flops, but leave your sensible shoes at home. Las Vegas is where New Year’s resolutions come to die. From the first glimpse of neon glowing in the middle of the empty desert, Las Vegas seduces the senses and indulges your appetites. An oasis of flashing marquees, endless buffets, feathered showgirls, chiming slot machines, and grand recreations, the city surrounds visitors—all 35 million of them each year—as a monument to fantasy. Here, you can stroll the streets of Paris, float down a Venetian canal, lie on a tropical beach, soak up Rat Pack swank, and most of all dream that tremendous riches are a slot pull away.
After a brief attempt to pawn itself off as a family destination, the Neon Jungle has stepped into its sequins, ordered a Jäger Bomb, and hollered, “Hit me, baby!” But no one back home has to know you’ve succumbed to Vegas’s siren song. After all, “What happens in Vegas….”
With odds overwhelmingly favoring the house, jackpot dreams may be just that: dreams. The slim chance at fortune is powerful enough to have lured vacationers into the southern Nevada desert for more than 75 years, ever since the Silver State legalized gambling in 1931. At first, the cowboy casinos that dotted downtown’s Fremont Street were the center of the action, but they soon faced competition from a resort corridor blooming to the south on Highway 91. Los Angeles nightclub owner Billy Wilkerson dubbed it “The Strip” after his city’s Sunset Strip, and together with Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo, the first upscale alternative to frontier gambling halls. Their vision left a legacy that came to define Las Vegas hotel-casinos. This shift to “carpet joints,” as opposed to the sawdust-covered gambling floors of frontier Las Vegas, was only one of the many reinventions Las Vegas has gone through—from city of sleaze to Mafia haven, family destination, and finally upscale resort town—each leaving its mark even as the next change takes hold.
Today, each megaresort offers more to do than many a small town. Under one roof you can indulge in a five-star dinner, attend spectacular productions, dance until dawn with the beautiful people, and browse in designer boutiques. If there’s still time, you can get a massage and ride a roller coaster too. The buffet, a fitting metaphor for this city with an abundance of everything, still rules in the hearts of many regulars and visitors, but an influx of celebrity chefs is turning the town into a one-stop marketplace of the world’s top names in dining. Similarly, cutting-edge performers such as Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil have taken up residence alongside such beloved showroom fixtures as Elvis impersonators and Jubilee! These hip offerings are drawing a younger, more stylish crowd that harks back to the swinging ’60s, when Las Vegas was a pure adult recreation and celebrity magnet.
Some say Old Vegas is as hard to find as a game of single-deck blackjack. It’s true that you can no longer have your picture taken in front of Binion’s million-dollar display, but the King and the Rat Pack can still be found in impersonators and tribute shows, torch singers still croon in low-lit lounges, and showgirls still prance in sequined headdresses (and little else).
That’s not to say the city wholeheartedly relishes its reputation as Sin City. Downtown’s art district, Broadway productions, gourmet restaurants, and a few top-notch attractions for kids balance sin with sophistication and sanity. And despite the go-go reputation, Las Vegas really is a small city surrounded by idyllic retreats and world-class recreational activities.
Lounge beside a gurgling snowmelt stream on Mount Charleston and feel last night’s hangover wash away. Skim across Lake Mead on a rented Jet Ski, and soon you’ll forget all about that bad beat at the hold ’em table. Gaze at mesmerizing Red Rock Canyon long enough, and your swivel-hipped karaoke rendition of “Viva Las Vegas” seems almost résumé-worthy.