Best of Vegas

The overwhelming majority of people in Las Vegas at any given moment will be headed home on I-15 tomorrow or have a plane to catch the day after.

For every 60 people who visit Vegas each year, there’s only one actual resident. Having been one of them, I know that there are so many things to see and do that planning a three-day trip can be really overwhelming, especially for first-timers. But having been one of them, I’ve also given the tour to enough friends and family members that I can confidently say I know what’s up.

Best Place to Stay

There are lots of really nice luxury hotels in Las Vegas. The Flamingo isn’t exactly one of them. But with pink fluorescent lights casting a Pepto-Bismol-like glow over everything, it might be the tackiest hotel on the planet, which makes staying there a uniquely Vegas experience.

Significantly more affordable than top-tier hotels like Bellagio and Caesars Palace, the Flamingo is a great place to stay because it’s conveniently located right in the middle of the Strip with one of the best pools in town.

The Best Place to See the Strip

At 1,149 feet, the Stratosphere Tower is not only the tallest structure in the state of Nevada but the second-highest observation tower in the entire Western Hemisphere. You’d think the height advantage and location — the Stratosphere is the northernmost Strip property — would make it the ideal vantage point, but you’d be mistaken.

Because Las Vegas Boulevard starts to curve at Desert Inn Road, many of the iconic casinos are not visible from the observation deck. The view is much better from Mix Lounge atop Mandalay Bay’s THEhotel, located at the Strip’s opposite end. From Mix, you have an unobstructed view of Luxor’s great obsidian pyramid, the MGM Grand’s glittering green lights, and the fake New York City skyline.

But while the Stratosphere may not be the top spot to see the night lights, it more than compensates with panoramic views of the Las Vegas Valley and its surrounding mountains, especially if you go at sunset.

Best Place to See a Free Show

There are always a ton of people gathered outside the Bellagio’s eight-acre lake. Las Vegas is so hot that many of them are fantasizing about jumping in, but that’s illegal. Standing there, they’re probably also waiting for the Fountains of Bellagio.

Every 15-30 minutes, streams of water shoot more than 200 feet in the air in a choreographed water show familiar to anyone who’s seen Ocean’s Eleven. In-person, the dancing fountains are so spectacular, you won’t even mind hearing that awful Titanic song.

Best Place to Eat Way Too Much

New York pizza, Maine lobsters, Memphis barbecue… everyplace has its cliché dining experience. In Vegas, that would be the buffets, most of which are pretty much interchangeable.

The Mexican fare and mariachi band set Sunday Margarita Brunch at Garduños restaurant in the Palms apart, but the servers who make sure your margarita glass is topped off make it the best. That’s another reason Las Vegas is loved by all: it’s socially acceptable to get totally ripped on margaritas at 11 a.m. on a Sunday.

Best Place to Throw It All Up

The attractions at Adventuredome in Circus Circus are mostly for kids. The Roller Coaster at New York-New York is pretty cool but extremely uncomfortable for those of us who have bony asses. The gondola ride through the Venetian is nice, but it’s mellow enough that even pregnant women and people shorter than 54 inches are allowed on.

As far as rides go, it’s hard to compete with Insanity, the one that has you dangling off the side of a building, 900 feet over Las Vegas Boulevard. A mechanical arm extends from the Stratosphere’s observation deck, spinning you at high speeds while you’re suspended at a 70-degree angle and can’t help but look down and what would happen if you fell. But don’t worry, you won’t.

Best Place to Buy Stuff You Don’t Need

The rule of thumb is that anything purchased in a hotel gift shop will cost 800 times more than necessary. In the shadow of the Stratosphere Tower, just past a huge vacant lot where the alcoholic bums hang out, sits the world’s largest gift shop. Taking up an entire strip mall, Bonzana Gift & Souvenir Shops offers 40,000 square feet of keychains, shot glasses, snow globes, showgirl dolls, and baby clothes that say things like, “I Happened In Vegas!”

Best Place to Take a Taxi

Being photographed in front of the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada sign is one of those Vegas musts, like seeing the Bellagio water show or losing the deed to your house at the craps table. The sign is located on an island in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, immediately surrounded by several lanes of people who can’t drive. Your best bet is to take a cab. It’s only a couple of dollars and attempting to walk, you’re liable to get yourself killed. Your driver will take your picture, too.

Best Place to Go That Isn’t In/Next to a Casino

All of the slot machines and strippers make it really easy to overlook the fact that National Geographic Adventure Magazine named Las Vegas the best city for outdoor activities in the country. Within a five-hour radius are California’s beaches, Utah’s ski resorts, and several national parks, including the Grand Canyon.

Much closer than any of that is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just 15 miles west of Las Vegas proper. Some hotels have tours available; if you’ve got a car, you can drive the park’s 13-mile loop for just $5. Red Rock is a series of majestic, brilliant red sandstone peaks, with tons of rocks to climb, trails to hike and bike, and breathtaking scenery to simply watch in awe.