When gamblers tire of the glitz of the Strip, they head downtown. Gambling halls with cheap booze and loose women sprang up here by the railroad tracks before the city was even founded in 1906. Today, Fremont Street (named after the U.S. army officer and early Western explorer John Fremont, who first mapped the Las Vegas area) is the best place to get a whiff of vintage Vegas. That is, the way it used to be before megaresorts swallowed up the Strip.
Start your downtown ramblings at the democratic (1) Plaza (1 N. Main Street; www.plazahotelcasino.com) casino hotel. Sitting beside unused railroad tracks, this 1970s-era casino is a haven for low rollers. Head upstairs to the domed plaza for bird's-eye views of Fremont Street’s pandemonium.
Back downstairs, exit the Plaza. Walk north for one block, passing the outdoor exhibit of Buffalo Bill Cody’s private railway car, to (2) Main Street Station (200 N. Main Street; www.mainstreetcasino.com) casino hotel. Inside this neo-Victorian gambling hall, discover an eclectic assortment of authentic relics and antiques, including a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Pick up a self-guided tour brochure from the hotel lobby.
Backtrack south to the Plaza. Walk east across Main Street to the open-air pedestrian mall of Fremont Street. Look up at the canopied (3) Fremont Street Experience (along Fremont Street from Main Street east to Fourth Street; www.vegasexperience.com), which blasts supersonic LED light-and-sound shows hourly every night for gasping crowds. On your right is the old-fashioned (4) Golden Gate (1 Fremont Street; www.goldengatecasino.net) casino hotel, which opened in 1906. Go inside to devour a famous 99-cent shrimp cocktail while listening to the player pianos roll.
Sports fans beeline across the street to the (5) Las Vegas Club (18 Fremont Street; www.vegasclubcasino.net) casino hotel, where genuine autographed sports memorabilia hangs on the walls. A few doors farther east, Vegas Vickie, a sassy neon cowgirl, kicks up her heels on top of the Glitter Gulch strip club. Cross to the south side of Fremont Street and walk east. At the corner of First Street, say “Howdy” to Vegas Vic, a more vintage neon sign that’s a downtown landmark.
Walk another half block east. On the north side of Fremont Street is legendary (6) Binion’s (128 E. Fremont Street; www.binions.com) casino hotel. Opened by Texas cowboy Benny Binion, a man who wore gold buttons on his shirts, this classic casino opened in 1951. It single-handedly spurred the transformation of downtown casinos from sawdust-covered gambling halls to classy carpeted joints. Binion’s is also where the World Series of Poker took hold. On the opposite side of Fremont Street, you can’t miss the sparkling (7) Golden Nugget (129 Fremont Street; www.goldennugget.com) casino hotel. It’s downtown’s poshest place to stay and play, although it no longer displays the world’s largest gold nugget, the Hand of Faith.
“See refurbished vintage neon signs aglow with all their original pizzazz installed along the Third Street cul-de-sac just north of the Fremont Street Experience.”—Erika Pope, spokeswoman, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (www.visitlasvegas.com). The Neon Museum’s outdoor displays continue east across Las Vegas Boulevard and into the Fremont East entertainment district, where hip bars and trendy nightclubs are emerging, including the (8) Beauty Bar (517 E. Fremont Street; www.beautybar.com), built from an imported 1950s New Jersey beauty salon.
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Explore the submissions, share your favorites, and check back for the winning images.