Many people visit Las Vegas and never make it any further than the main tourist area known as the Strip, which is a shame, because they’re missing out on a whole other Las Vegas experience if they don’t at least pay one visit to Fremont Street. This five-block section of casinos and souvenir shops north of the Strip, including the area known as “Glitter Gulch,” is the older core of Las Vegas, and what is still considered by many long-time Vegas fans to be the “real Las Vegas”.
First, there’s the Fremont Street Experience (with a capital “E”). This is the Viva Vision light show that takes place on the overhead canopy every hour on the hour from dusk until midnight. On the FSE’s website, there’s a woman exclaiming “it’s like the biggest big screen TV ever!”–and it kind of is. It’s amazing what they can do with a canopy of 12.5 million LED lights and some music blasting from huge speakers up and down the street. Viva Vision is “state-of-the-art light and animation display technology”. In plain English, that means it is a giant music video. There are several shows with different themes, including tributes to Queen, Kiss, the Doors, and Don McLean’s American Pie.
What really cracks me up about the light show is watching the people who are watching the light show. One year, I was dashing between casinos in search of a ladies’ room with no line and happened to go out onto the street in the middle of one of the light shows. It was like being in a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum version of the Fremont Street Experience: Nobody was moving except for me. Everyone else seemed frozen in time, staring up at the show as if it were a UFO or something.
Then there’s the Fremont Street experience (with a little “e”), which offers a more down-to-earth Las Vegas than what you find on the Strip. There are two stages featuring free music by live bands, which creates a block party atmosphere up and down this outdoor pedestrian mall. Naturally, this being Vegas, you can drink your alcoholic beverage on the street while watching the bands. Crowds will gather around the fantastic spray paint artists who will paint pictures on request in a matter of minutes. The work they do is phenomenal and amazing to watch, though I always wonder how long one can be in that line of work before the spray paint fumes cause brain damage.
The dress code Downtown is–well, there is no dress code, so if you don’t feel like dressing up while on vacation, feel free to wear your jeans or shorts. No one is going to point and snicker at you. (Not that they will on the Strip, either, I’m just saying there isn’t the same “dress to impress” attitude Downtown that exists on the Strip at night.)
Downtown is a great place to go if you have mobility issues, or if your feet are just tired from all the walking up and down the Strip you’ve done early on in your trip. It’s a very compact area. You can walk out of one casino and into the next one in seconds.
When the temperatures are soaring in Las Vegas, it can actually be a bit cooler walking outside under the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience than on the Strip. But I’ve spent little time here during the day. My reason is that Downtown lacks things to do during the day other than gamble. They tried to open a shopping mall (Neonopolis) on the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, but it has been unable to draw and retain tourist traffic (or tenants, for that matter). The one time I went there, about a year after it opened, I felt like I was in an old Western–you know, where the hero rides into town and there’s not another living soul on the street, but he can see fearful faces peering from behind curtains in windows. I could hear my footsteps echo in the courtyard of the mall. There was nobody else there. I’ve never gone back.
Other than that drawback, though, Downtown has a lot going for it if you’re on a tight budget. You can find $5 blackjack Downtown, prime rib dinners under $10, and more reasonably priced drinks than most of the mega-resorts on the Strip will offer. If you’re looking for something to do during the day, you can easily get to and from the Strip by bus.
Best Bets Downtown:
- The light show, of course.
- For the best view of Fremont Street, head to Firefly Tapas restaurant, located in the globe of the Plaza on Main Street; it faces straight down Fremont Street.
- Shop for souvenirs at the small stores along the pedestrian mall.
- Take advantage of one of the cheap prime rib meal deals; there are lots of them. I can recommend the one at Triple 7 Brew Pub at Main Street Station and the one at Magnolia’s Veranda at the Four Queens.
- Check out the world’s largest gold nugget (known as the “Hand of Faith”) at the (you guessed it!) Golden Nugget hotel.
- While at the Nugget, check out their pool area with the slide that goes through a shark tank. It’s pretty cool.
- Get a $1.99 shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate deli.
- Grab a beer at the Triple 7 Brew Pub at the Main Street Station (across Main Street to the right of the Plaza). On the way, stop and look at the old Pullman train car they have outside.
- If you’re a guy, check out the section of the actual Berlin Wall that’s on display in the men’s room at Main Street Station.
- If you have a cast-iron stomach, go to Mermaids for one of their deep-fried Twinkies.
- Grab a drink and people-watch from the second-floor balconies at the Vue Bar at Fitzgeralds or Gold Diggers at the Golden Nugget.
- For a nice dinner at a reasonable price, try Tinoco’s Kitchen at the Las Vegas Club. Outside the restaurant, check out the “Lobster Zone”–it’s like one of those arcade games with the claws where you select a prize, only in this case, the “prize” is a live lobster, and you can have it for dinner. It’s totally sick.
- Take advantage of the table minimums here, which are much better than what you’ll find on the Strip.