“Meihoukai, you have got to come up to East Fremont!” My friend Liz, a passionate Vegas transplant and trusted advisor on all topics, had been telling me this for years. Yet somehow it never quite made its way onto any of my Nevada itineraries. Four trips in and I’ve done my fair share of exploring outside South Las Vegas Boulevard — I did an entire Adventures Off The Strip series, after all — yet I’d never been to Fremont Street, and my one experience Downtown was staying in a seedy hostel in a dilapidated area, one of the few places I’ve ever stayed in my travels where I felt unsafe and ill-at-ease. It was not the greatest first impression.
My fifth trip, four years later, I finally made it back — and now I’m the one harassing my Vegas-bound friends to head there.
It’s true that The Strip has a magnetic sort of quality that makes spontaneous adventures off of it once you’re there unlikely. Thankfully, we planned a full day Downtown — or DTLV, as the kids are calling it — into our itinerary ahead of time. A fifteen minute cab ride north from our digs at Flamingo on The Strip later and we were smack in the heart of what our tour guide for the afternoon referred to as an “outdoor museum of popular culture.”
We’d signed on for Viator’s Pop Culture Walking Tour of Fremont Street in order to get an overview of a new (to us) area, and maybe pick up a historical tidbit or two. Man, did we get more than we bargained for — in the best kind of way.
Tours are run by one of two business partners, Babs or Rick. Rick led our particular tour, and told us the two came together over a shared love of Las Vegas, each bringing a different background to the table. While the bubbly Babs has spent decades working in the tourism industry, soft-spoken Rick is a working neon artist and, impressively, the former Urban Arts Coordinator for the city of Las Vegas.
Our meeting point was the Golden Gate, the first hotel ever opened in Vegas in 1906. It was the perfect spot to start delving into the history of this unlikely desert city. Long before The Strip was a twinkle in Nevada’s eye, Fremont Street was the first paved road in Las Vegas, a city that mushroomed up around a turn-of-the-century rail road stop. Speaking of the famous stretch, did you know that technically, The Strip is not in Las Vegas, but rather the unincorporated communities of Paradise, Winchester, and Enterprise, located in Clark County? By the time we left downtown, we sure did!
We lucked into a little slice of Vegas history all our own that day as well, walking through Fremont Street’s Las Vegas Club on the last day it would ever be open.
The Fremont Experience, the sparkly epicenter of traditional tourism in Downtown Las Vegas, is amazingly low-key by day. We were able to dip in and out of several casinos, stop to take photos, and chat casually as we walked. When we returned later in the evening it was a completely different and borderline overwhelming experience, and we were grateful we’d had a good look at the place before the hordes arrived.
Some of my favorite stops? Trying our hand at the slots at The Bayou with coins provided by Rick — it’s always more fun to gamble with someone else’s dough, right? — and checking out the gold bar dispensing ATM at the laughably-named Golden Nugget. I was shocked when Rick reported that despite the high stakes at some table games, 70% of casino revenue comes from slots — but tis true.
Five blocks later we’d made our way through the Glitter Gulch and reached the highly entertaining intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard — to the west, the tacky-tastic, come-one-come-all Fremont Experience. To the east, the uber-trendy, happening hipster-magnet Fremont East.
No surprise here, but Fremont East was a little more my style.
My ears perked up when Rick told us that as an artist, he found Las Vegas to be one of the most visually stimulating and creative cities in the world. His pride in it was palpable. Zoe and I are both art school survivors ourselves, and I admit Vegas doesn’t spring to mind when I think of the country’s great visionary centers. But that might be changing. Rick had fascinating insight into the Downtown Project, Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million investment in revitalizing the downtown area after transplanting his business and 1,500 employees there. The project remains controversial, though I admit that dozens of op-eds and articles later I’m still a little confused as to why — to this outsider, it seems like amazing life has been brought to a formerly struggling area by an energetic idealist.
Yet something else Rick said stuck with me, and encouraged the idea that for Vegas, constant change is par for the course. This is one of America’s most disposable cities, he claimed. Always reinventing.
Oh, and did I mention my girl Abby crashed the party? My favorite former Las Vegan and I overlapped in the city (once again!) for a mere twelve hours or so, and she was a great sport about joining us for our tourist traipsing.
The final stop on our official tour stroll couldn’t have been farther from our first (metaphorically anyway — distance wise it was only about eight blocks). The Container Park is one of the Downtown Project’s great success stories, an offbeat shopping, dining and entertainment area bursting with small local businesses. At the entrance are several decommissioned Burning Man art works, a nod to Hsieh’s enthusiasm for the Northern Nevada event.
I could have spent all day here! In fact, I was beginning to get the feeling I could spend an entire Vegas trip based in Fremont East, a pretty big call considering I once though staying off The Strip was hearsay.
We wrapped things up with an included cocktail back at the El Cortez hotel. Guys, the Pop Culture Walking Tour of Fremont Street is a must. At just 2-6 guests per tour, it’s the perfect size for having real conversations with the guide, and getting their amazing insider recommendations on the local area and beyond. The knowledge of the personalities, scandals, art and history of Vegas is simply unmatched. Tours run at 1pm and 4pm and last just 90 minutes, leaving you with plenty of time to explore other local attractions like the Neon Museum and Mob Museum, as well as the restaurants at bars of East Fremont or the bars of the Fremont Experience. For $25, including a drink? You’d be crazy not to.
I also plan to take another one of Babs and Rick’s tours — perhaps of the 18B arts district — next time I’m in town. As the brochure Rick handed us when he waved us goodbye promised, their tours are “quintessential urban field trips through one of the world’s great cities.”
We might have been a tad over-ambitious in our planning, but we tacked on both the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum to our tour day. We ran a little late to the Mob Museum and the ninety minutes we had there was barely enough to scratch the surface — definitely allot at least three hours there if you want the full unrushed experience. While parts of the museum glorified gun violence and mob control to a point that made me squeamish, the production value was top notch and the history amazing. I won’t rush back, but I’m glad I checked it out.
Our next stop, however, was one we simply could not stop raving about.
The Neon Museum is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The non-profit is dedicated to preserving the city’s history and art by telling the story of its most iconic art form. Neon signs rescued from the dumpsters of old casinos and local business are lovingly given new life here, where compulsory one-hour guided tours are led by enthusiastic Las Vegans.
Our visit in August coincided with average daytime temperature of 103° F, which force the museum to close mid day and only offer limited tours in the early morning and early evening when things are a bit cooler. Pre-booking is a good idea anytime as tours often sell out, but especially in these periods when just a few per day are available. Personally, I think I would have fared those scorching temperatures just fine — I love the dry heat of the desert, where your sweat evaporates right off your skin before you even have the chance to wipe your brow — but I have to say the sunset slot was pretty unbeatable. When we first walked into the neon graveyard, as the haphazard outdoor gallery is called, we saw the signs in their full sun-lit glory. As the sky darkened, a few of the signs blinked to life, putting on a beautiful show.
Tours are $18 by day and $25 by night with the usual array of student, senior, and other discounts available. It’s possible to buy them in a discounted bundle, like we did, with Mob Museum tickets for an additional $12. One thing I loved hearing was that this is a tour you can do over and over again — Abby mused she’s done it three or four times but enjoyed it just as much each visit thanks to the personal touch of the various guides, and the different sign histories and local anecdotes they choose to share.
I was totally enraptured by this unique experience, and couldn’t believe it when our hour was up.
And then we were unleashed. A couple hours of quality sightseeing under our belts, we felt we’d certainly earned ourselves a drink or two. In fact, exploring the bars and restaurants of East Fremont and the greater Downtown area was perhaps the part of the day I was most excited by. I did a ton of research ahead of time — mostly on Thrillist, but check my planning guide for more resources — and couldn’t wait to start tackling the list!
We wavered between a few of my top picks for dinner, including Le Thai, Park on Fremont, and La Comida, eventually settling on the latter. Our conclusion? Adorable, affordable, and hip. I only wish we’d done lunch in this area too to check out some of the competition.
We walked off dinner with one last stroll through the Fremont Experience. While I’m glad we took in the frenetic energy, bizarre buskers, crazy crowds and pounding lights and music for a moment, I also was okay with doing just a single lap. I thought The Strip could get kooky and crass, but it has nothing on Fremont. Prepare for your jaw to drop while people watching here!
We quickly hustled back to the relative calm of Fremont East.
I wasn’t sure what we’d find as far as a bar scene on a Tuesday. But I shouldn’t have worried. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Las Vegas is the city that literally never even considers napping, y’all. On my own personal cocktail crawl wish list were Commonwealth (where I swooned over the interiors), Downtown Cocktail Room (where I geeked out over the cocktail list), Don’t Tell Mama (which was closed for the night), Hogs and Heifers (which looked hilarious when we walked by), Atomic Liquors (which we sadly didn’t make it to), Beauty Bar (which was charging a cover), and Frank’s Tiki Room (which I adored for the kitsch, hated for the cigarette smoke).
Ladies, if you need a night off the heels; or anyone, if you need some space from The Strip, head up to East Fremont for a bar hop! We only crossed a small section off our list, leaving plenty to work on next time.
It might have taken me five trips to Las Vegas to finally make it to Downtown, but I doubt if I’ll ever pass through Nevada again without clocking some time in this vibrant and upcoming district — I’m actually flirting with the idea of staying up here for a few days on my next spin through Sin City. The art scene was an inspiration, the history was a treat and I simply can’t get over how many amazing bars and restaurants the area holds in such a compact walking distance. Most of all, I’m impressed with the revitalization of what was not too long ago a boarded-up, underutilized urban area.
I can’t wait to see what’s up next for Downtown.
Have you spent time in Downtown Las Vegas? Would you sacrifice The Strip to explore?
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