Unlike most people, when I hear the name Las Vegas, my heart does not start to race. Dollar signs do not flash in front of my eyes, and I don’t immediately start imagining all the different outfit combinations I could wear to the clubs, to the pool, or to a dinner and a show. Instead, I take a deep breath and try my best to calm myself.
The Las Vegas where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is probably my least favorite place to go on vacation. I hate the garish, over-the-top casino interiors, the roaming gangs of obnoxious, drunk 21 year-olds, and the general careless wastefulness that such an environment promotes. Maybe it’s because of my Northern Californian childhood, where from an early age, I was taught to separate recyclables and minimize water usage. In any case, Las Vegas as the epitome of “Sin City” does not sit well with me, and never really has. However, this has not stopped me from visiting three times in the past 4 years.
The main reason for these visits has been to see a college friend who lives there. If it hadn’t been for her, I probably wouldn’t have set foot in that city after my initial introduction to it during a family road trip to the Grand Canyon. But thanks to my friend, I have been able to see Las Vegas from a perspective that few non-natives ever see. And it is from this very perspective that I have been able to gain an appreciation for some of the amazing things that city has to offer. So I hope this article serves to present a side of Las Vegas that is rarely seen, and motivates those who would otherwise shrink away from the idea of traveling to Las Vegas to give it a try.
One thing about Vegas that is hard to deny is that there is some truly spectacular architecture to be found there. Of course there are the cheesy themed hotels on the Strip like the Excalibur or New York, New York. I am definitely not talking about those. In the past few years since I started going to visit my friend, a more sophisticated side of the city has emerged, partly manifesting itself through the new buildings springing up around town. Two buildings that I think embody this newfound maturity are the World Market Center and the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The World Market Center is unadorned, with clean lines. Yet it avoids being boring through its impressive size and the interesting angles created by the exterior wall. The Lou Ruvo Center is typical Frank Gehry, with its twisted free-form outer shell and its creative use of steel. The curves lead the viewer’s eye across and around the front part structure. Once you reach the back, it feels like a completely different building, stacked and logical.
Many people don’t acknowledge the fact that Las Vegas has a past reaching back into the beginning of the last century, a past that does not necessarily revolve around outlaws, mobsters and casinos. There are still buildings standing from that era, when more thought and care were put into the craftsmanship of important civic structures. My most recent trip took me to downtown Las Vegas, specifically to Las Vegas High School, a beautiful terra cotta-colored art deco building. The amount of consideration that was put into its decoration is apparent in the intricate floral patterns carved out around the entrances and along the top of the façade. In the same neighborhood, you can also find old Tudor-style homes that have now been transformed into law offices.
Another really amazing thing about Las Vegas is its geography. Nestled in a valley between dramatic rocky hills and mountains, the landscape itself is something to be seen. There are several state parks within easy driving distance of the city. Red Rock is about 30 minutes from the Strip and has good walking trails that lead you past (you guessed it) red rocks. The colors are really vibrant, especially when viewed against the contrasting clear blue sky, which is almost a sure bet on a visit to the desert.
This past trip, my friend and I drove to the Valley of Fire, about an hour and 15 minutes north of the city. Here the rocks are even redder than those at Red Rock. Their incredible hues are enhanced by the remarkable shapes that the wind and weather has carved them into. Native Americans used to live in this area, and you can sometimes catch a glimpse of ancient petro glyphs etched into the sides of the stone. It’s hard to imagine how they lived in such a dry and barren land, but at the same time you can imagine the natural beauty of the place convincing them to find a way to stay.
I’ve already started making a mental list of things I want to do the next time I’m in Las Vegas. Firstly, the Atomic Testing Museum, part of the Smithsonian, has exhibits about the history of nuclear testing in Nevada . Second, The Boneyard at the Neon Museum offers viewings of old signs that have been put out of commission. I can only imagine what it would be like walking into an old warehouse full of these artifacts of forgotten Las Vegas. I tried to go this during my past visit, but unfortunately you have to make an appointment ahead of time to view the collection, and the office is not open on the weekends. Finally, I want to time my next trip to coincide with the First Friday parties that take place in the arts district northwest of the Strip. Supposedly there are tons of artists and musicians who liven up the main street of the neighborhood with shows and music that last well into the night.
So, lesson learned. There are definitely things worth seeing in Las Vegas. You just need a little patience, and a lot of adventurousness and motivation to seek them out. But once you find them, it’s definitely worth the trouble.