A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who lives in Las Vegas said to me that “Vegas has no culture.” I think he was joking; it’s hard to tell sometimes. But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. It may be hard to see the culture from inside a casino-resort on the Strip, but it’s there. Who creates the culture of a place? Its artists, of course. Find out where the artists spend their time, and you’ll find the culture.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing a lot about “the 18b Arts District” in Las Vegas, mainly due to its popular monthly First Friday event, featuring artists displaying their works, food trucks, live music and a general block party vibe. Sadly, I am almost never in town on a Friday night, let alone the first Friday of the month, so I’d never made it to 18b to check it out.
Prior to my January Vegas trip, I received an email from a PR/marketing firm offering to show me around the Arts District so I could get a sense of what’s there. I thought it was high time I visited the neighborhood, so I took them up on that. If you, like me, don’t have access to a car when you’re in Las Vegas, you can get there via SDX or Deuce bus from the Strip or Fremont Street and get off at the 18b Arts District stop on Casino Center Drive. (If you have access to a car, you’ll also find parking along the street in this neighborhood.)
In hindsight, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a little worried about the safety of this neighborhood ahead of time. But it’s bordered by other neighborhoods that local friends of mine have told me are sketchy, and since I don’t live there, I think I can be forgiven for not really knowing where a sketchy neighborhood ends and a safe neighborhood begins. I recommend figuring out a starting point for your Arts District visit ahead of time and getting directions to it from the bus stop. It’s easier to find things that way. I’m not sure I would have known which way to start walking from the bus stop if I hadn’t had directions. (Then again, I do get lost easily.)
The neighborhood is very understated compared to the Strip and Fremont Street–which is not a bad thing. It’s a real, locals neighborhood of businesses. At times, things look unfinished. That’s because they are. The Arts District is a work in progress.
What’s great about this district is that it’s a funky, bohemian neighborhood full of creative entrepreneurs and artists doing interesting things. This neighborhood won’t appeal to everyone, just like Fremont Street doesn’t, and the Strip doesn’t, and like staying at an off-Strip hotel seems anathema to some people. Different strokes.
But if you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys getting off the beaten path; if you eschew the tourist traps while looking for opportunities to mingle with locals; if you have ever found yourself sick and tired of the fakeness of the Las Vegas Strip and wondering where to find the “real” Las Vegas, you might enjoy the Arts District.
Don’t think First Friday is the only time worth visiting. Poking around during the day can be a rewarding experience. It offers you the opportunity to explore at a relaxed pace, speak with shopkeepers and artists, and really see what’s here during the light of day. Besides, how many of us can schedule our vacations for the first Friday of the month?
My tour started on Main Street, where I met marketing professional Nancy Higgins at Inside Style, a luxury interior design business. But you might want to start your own tour of the District at one of two buildings a block from the bus stop: The Arts Factory or Art Square, which are across the street from one another. The Arts Factory houses art galleries and studios, clothing and jewelry stores, and a yoga studio. There’s also a tapas bar, Bar + Bistro, that looks exactly like the kind of locals place I’d go to after work for a drink and a bite with friends.
Want to see some local theater in an intimate setting? The amusingly named Cockroach Theatre is located across the street at Art Square, along with a hair salon, design studios, art galleries, eateries, and an outdoor art garden. There’s even a camera club here. (Art Square was sold last month, but as far as I know, the business composition of the building remains the same, for now.)
At the Arts Factory, Nancy introduced me to Alex, who was busy producing paintings for an upcoming show. He has been creating in the Arts District for 14 years. (That’s 14 years of creating culture in Las Vegas, for those keeping score at home.) He showed us some works of collaborative art he is creating with two other artists. They don’t discuss what they’re doing during the process, they just share a canvas. I found that fascinating.
We stopped by the Trifecta Gallery, where owner Marty Walsh (aided by her oh-so-cute dog) was closing the gallery and packing up to move to Ireland. She stopped to greet us and chat for a bit. There were still paintings and sculptures visible from the gallery’s recent exhibit, “Parade, the Collective: The Art of Cirque du Soleil Employees,” including a neat, flowing sculpture created by one of the dancers. (A new business, Jana’s Red Room, has already opened in the former Trifecta space, so it wasn’t empty for long.)
If you’re a lover of public art and street art (aka murals), as I am, keep an eye on this neighborhood. There is already some neat street art here and there should be even more in the future, all part of the District’s Art Trail. I’ll share some of my photos of the street art in a future post. But here’s one of the most visible works:
I’m not an art collector and not much of a shopper, but even I enjoyed wandering in and out of these businesses in the Arts District, mainly because it was an opportunity to see a side of Las Vegas I haven’t seen before. I also had the opportunity to converse with the business owners, shopkeepers, and artists; it’s refreshing to speak with creative people about what they’re doing, rather than just speaking to people in the tourism industry.
For those of you who are shoppers, the Arts District is a great place to shop for souvenirs if you’re looking for something unique and handcrafted by local artisans (rather than mass-produced in China) and much more affordable than what you find in high-end stores on the Strip. The talent here is incredible. Even as a non-shopper, my second greatest regret was that I was traveling carry-on only this trip and had no room for souvenirs, because I saw some groovy steampunk jewelry and wall art at a boutique called Unhinged.
I know what you’re wondering: If that was my “second greatest” regret, what was my greatest? That I only had an hour to explore this neighborhood (I had another appointment I had to get to). But that’s okay, it gives me an excuse to return. Among other things, I have an intense desire to try the lavender latte at Makers and Finders coffee shop and eat my way around the tapas menu at Bar + Bistro.
Before you visit 18b, remember that it is an evolving neighborhood. Buildings are being bought and sold, old tenants leave, new tenants come in. Don’t assume that all the businesses listed below will still be there by the time you visit. Do your own homework ahead of time.
Here’s some more information to know about the 18b Arts District:
What does the 18b stand for?
The neighborhood is comprised of 18 blocks.
When to Go
- First Friday: On the first Friday of every month, the neighborhood hosts a huge party with art on display, food trucks, live music and entertainment. For this event, free shuttles run between Fremont & 6th (near the El Cortez and Downtown Container Park) and the Arts District (shuttle stop is at Main St. and Colorado).
- If you’re an art collector, Preview Thursday: On the night before First Friday, art galleries stay open until 10pm to allow collectors to check out new art shows without fighting through the crowds of First Friday.
- Try to time your visit around happy hour or meal time to fold in a visit to one of the great bars or restaurants here.
- Note: Many galleries are closed on Sundays and Mondays, so if you’re coming for the art, I’d pick a different day.
You can find a map and brochure of the Arts District at the tourist racks around town. What follows is not an all-inclusive list, but a small sampling of the businesses that can be found here as of the writing of this post. (There are also a whole slew of art galleries too numerous to mention.)
Artifice Bar (1025 S 1st St #100) – A bar/lounge with music and entertainment offerings.
The Arts Factory (107 E. Charleston Blvd, one block from the 18b Arts District bus stop) – Here, you’ll find two floors of art studios, a yoga school, and the Bar + Bistro restaurant.
Art Square (Located at 1017 & 1025 South First Street, across the street from The Arts Factory and 1 block from the bus stop) – There are galleries here, Unhinged (an art fashion boutique store), an art garden, two restaurant/lounges (Artifice and Mingo), the Cockroach Theatre, and more.
Bar + Bistro (107 E Charleston Blvd #155 at the Arts Factory) – Tapas restaurant and bar with a great-looking menu. This place is definitely on my “must try” list for my next trip.
The Buffalo Exchange (1209 S Main St) – This sustainable clothing store (located in 17 states) sells “gently used” clothing.
Casa Don Juan (1204 S Main St) – Family-owned Mexican restaurant.
Cockroach Theatre (1025 South First Street #110) – This is a small, local theater company founded by former students from UNLV’s theater department. The theater itself is intimate, seating just 99 people. If you’re interested in serious theater, check it out.
Inside Style (1119 S Main St) – A luxury interior design firm. Definitely out of my price range, but they’ve got some nice stuff here.
Makers and Finders (1120 S Main St) – One of the hottest coffee shops in town.
Mingo Kitchen & Lounge (1017 South First Street, #180) – In addition to the restaurant and lounge, you can also eat outside here.
Reclaimed Art Suppliez (1114 S Casino Center Blvd) – Reclaimed is a creative reuse center, collecting and reselling recycled and reclaimed art supplies and materials. It also houses an art gallery and local events, like open mic night.
Retro Vegas (1131 S Main St) – Features retro furniture and and other home decor from decades past.
Rockin Bettie (1216 S Main St) – A vintage clothing store.
Unhinged (1017 S. First Street, Suite 155) at Art Square – This art fashion boutique sells the works of local artists and artisans, including clothing and bags and jewelry and paintings–you name it.
The Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S Main St) – This bar offers a patio, craft beer, hard cider and skilled bartenders creating cocktails in an artsy setting. You can often catch local DJs here.