This post focuses on Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. If you would like to view a quick summary of my travel and photography recommendations, please scroll down to the end of this post.
There are many ways to experience Las Vegas depending on interests, budget, etc. I prefer a more low-key Las Vegas vacation with beautiful views, good food, and mostly free activities. So, here is my version of what to see and do on the Las Vegas Strip and in Downtown Las Vegas. To make planning and navigating easier, the restaurants/bars and activities are described in order based on their location from north to south. It’s very easy to plan an expensive vacation in Las Vegas. However, it takes a lot more research to plan a relatively affordable vacation in Las Vegas. Because I have traveled here many times for various reasons, I have ended up doing a few fancier things that I can point out if that’s your style. However, most of what I mention is more affordable or free.
You will most likely do a lot of walking while in Las Vegas. It’s entirely possible to end up covering 10+ miles (16+ kilometers) in a day. So, make sure to pack some comfortable shoes. Along the Strip, there are several pedestrian bridges, which are nicer and safer to use than waiting at a stoplight to cross the road. To escape the heat and sun, you can walk through hotels/casinos/malls on the way to your next destination. These places might seem like confusing mazes, but there are almost always signs hanging from the ceiling to help guide you. Although navigating Downtown Las Vegas requires a little more know-how, the Strip is very easy to navigate with just about everything along one road: Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also several other options for getting around, including the Las Vegas Monorail, free trams, free shuttles, buses, Lyft, Uber, and taxis.
Depending on where you go and what you do, Las Vegas can be a very dressy town. If you have fancy clothes, make sure to bring some for the evenings. It’s pretty difficult to overdress in Las Vegas. Remember that some of the restaurants and bars have strict dress codes, especially when it comes to shoes.
My favorite hotel that I’ve stayed at in Las Vegas is Vdara. Centrally located along the Strip, it’s a calm, quiet refuge due to not having a casino. The modern rooms have huge windows, a sitting area, and a kitchenette. I recommend requesting a room with a view of the Fountains of Bellagio. I also love the “bouquet” of canoes and waterfalls at the entrance. Nearby is another lovely hotel without a casino: Mandarin Oriental. I haven’t stayed there yet, but, from what I can tell, it would also be a great place to stay. It can be fun to stay at one of the famous themed hotels though. Themed hotels in Las Vegas are often inspired by a travel destination or historical time/place. Venice, New York City, and the Egyptian pyramids are just some of the places you can “travel to.” Many of the hotels in Las Vegas also have gorgeous outdoor swimming pools. If lounging by the pool will be an important part of your vacation, the outdoor grounds and pools could be a major factor in choosing a hotel. If you don’t mind taking a risk, you can try booking your hotel room at the last minute for a significantly discounted rate using an app like Hotel Tonight.
Left: Kitchenette leading to the sitting area in my room at Vdara Right: View of the Fountains of Bellagio from my room at Vdara
The number of restaurants and bars in Las Vegas is overwhelming. I have narrowed it down to what I consider to be the best and/or most unique options. You will get more for your money in Downtown Las Vegas compared to the Strip, which can be very expensive. My favorite restaurant in Downtown Las Vegas is Carson Kitchen. It feels like you’re dining in an urban loft, and the food is delicious. Remember that this restaurant does not take reservations. Next door is the best sushi in Downtown Las Vegas, Bocho Sushi. There are several neat bars in Downtown Las Vegas, including some speakeasies. Depending on your style, Downtown Cocktail Room, The Laundry Room, Commonwealth, The Griffin, Oak & Ivy, and Atomic Liquors are some good options. In between Downtown Las Vegas and the Strip are the Top of the World restaurant and 107 SkyLounge at the Stratosphere, both offering 360-degree-views of Las Vegas. On the northern end of the Strip, Costa di Mare at Wynn is an award-winning seafood restaurant with private cabanas surrounding a serene lagoon. Mizumi at Wynn offers Japanese cuisine overlooking a waterfall and koi pond surrounded by gardens. Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace offers French cuisine by Michelin Star chef Guy Savoy and houses a Krug Chef’s Table. Lago at Bellagio features small plates, modern decor, and a spectacular view of the Fountains of Bellagio. é at The Cosmopolitan, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, offers a tasting menu of “Spanish avant-garde” dishes with only two seatings available each night. Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan has a Mediterranean menu and Greek decor with views of the Strip. If you watched The Rescuers Down Under growing up and dreamed of dining on a chandelier like Bernard and Bianca, you’ll probably love the The Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan. I love Mandarin Oriental. Every time I have been there, the staff have been so kind and helpful. Their MOzen Bistro has delicious food at relatively inexpensive prices (the Bento Boxes are particularly fun), they have afternoon tea in their Tea Lounge every day, their Mandarin Bar has a gorgeous view of the Strip along with creative drinks and free bar snacks, and their secluded Pool Cafe is high up on the roof surrounded by the Aria towers. Skyfall Lounge at Delano is on the top floor of the hotel with an incredible view of the Strip from the patio. Delano‘s sister property, Mandalay Bay, also has an incredible view of the Strip from its Foundation Room.
Left: The Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan Right: Pool Cafe at Mandarin Oriental
View from Skyfall Lounge at Delano
Part of the classic Las Vegas experience is eating at a buffet. The Buffet at Wynn is one of the most upscale buffets in Las Vegas. It’s known for its whimsical decor, selection of patisserie, and chocolate fountain. Le Village Buffet at Paris features cuisine and decor from five provinces in France along with made-to-order crepes. The Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan is a high-end buffet featuring small plates with unique offerings like bone marrow. The Buffet at Aria features cuisine from around the world, including freshly-baked naan from a Tandoor oven and a wheel of gelato.
I also have recommendations for less-expensive food options on the Strip. Luke’s Lobster in the Fashion Show Mall offers a shrimp roll, crab grilled cheese, clam chowder, and lobster bisque each for $10 or less. Paris Baguette at The Venetian has some affordable options. Sushi Roku in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace has several specials under $20 for lunch and happy hour. China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan offers individual tacos so that you can order based on how hungry you are. Each taco (including vegetarian options) is between $4 and $7. They also offer noodles, dim sum, and ceviches for mostly under $15. Five50 at Aria offers pizza to-go by the slice and also a lunch special on weekdays that consists of soup or salad along with pasta or personal pizza for $18.
Here’s one last note about food and drinks in Las Vegas. I found a couple unique ATM’s and vending machines while wandering around. Sprinkles Cupcakes has a cupcake ATM outside their bakery. The ATM offers a variety of cupcakes including vegan and gluten-free options. It was fun watching the cupcake (in a box) travel along the conveyor belt on the screen then appear in the ATM. I also came across a champagne vending machine next to the elevators on the 23rd floor of Mandarin Oriental. It’s by far the classiest vending machine I have ever seen.
Left: Sprinkles Cupcakes cupcake ATM Right: Champagne vending machine at Mandarin Oriental
There are lots of free activities in Las Vegas. The Lake of Dreams at Wynn has a lit-up, 40-foot waterfall surrounded by pine trees. There’s a show on the lake every 30 minutes from dusk until 12:30 AM. The varying shows incorporate water effects, lights, holographics, and music. You can view the Lake of Dreams from the Terrace Lounge or, if you feel like food/drinks, from the Parasol Down patio, SW Steakhouse, or Lakeside Seafood. The Waterfall Atrium at the entrance of the Grand Canal Shoppes between The Palazzo and The Venetian is already beautiful on its own, plus the artwork it showcases. The pastel storefronts, soft clouds painted on the ceilings, and canals in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian make wandering along the cobblestone walkways pretty wonderful. The Mirage has tropical gardens, waterfalls, and a volcano that erupts every evening at 8:00 PM and 9:00 PM (also at 10:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays). Trails wind through the lush grounds of the Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo, home to several species of birds (including Chilean flamingos), fish, and turtles. You can watch pelican feedings at 8:30 AM and 2:00 PM daily. The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace has an aquarium, fountains, and the Fall of Atlantis show hourly every day from 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM. The Conservatory & Botanical Gardens at Bellagio change throughout the seasons and have a special display for Chinese New Year. The Fountains of Bellagio at Bellagio go off every 30 minutes from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM (they start earlier on weekends and holidays) and every 15 minutes from 8:00 PM to 12:00 AM. It’s a mesmerizing display of choreographed water, lights, and music. Paris features a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower along with other famous Parisian landmarks and quaint cafes. Akhob by James Turrell, housed behind the Lois Vuitton store in The Shops at Crystals, is a color immersion light installation. I have yet to see it, because my recent trips to Las Vegas have been last minute (otherwise, I definitely would have included some photos!). It’s recommended to book your reservation at least a month in advance by calling (702) 730-3150. If it’s booked up during your visit, you can also ask to be put on the wait list and hope for the best. M&M’s World is a four-story homage to everything M&M’s. It has every color of M&M’s you could ever imagine plus a 3D movie. You can stroll along the streets of New York and see recreated famous landmarks in New York-New York. Luxor is the last stop for my list of free activities in Las Vegas, where you can marvel at the iconic architecture and decor modeled after ancient Egyptian monuments. At night, you can see the Luxor Sky Beam, the strongest beam of light in the world.
Lake of Dreams at Wynn
Left: “Another Sky” by Anne Patterson in the Waterfall Atrium at the entrance of the Grand Canal Shoppes Right: “LOVE” by Laura Kimpton in the Waterfall Atrium at the entrance of the Grand Canal Shoppes
Left: Sky painted on the ceiling in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian Right: Canal in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian
Left: Tropical gardens at The Mirage Right: Volcano at The Mirage
Left: Entrance to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace Right: Fountain of the Gods in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
Conservatory & Botanical Gardens at Bellagio
M&M’s at M&M’s World
If you’d like to try gambling in Las Vegas, it’s best to think of it as an experience. Decide how much you’re willing to pay for the experience, and make sure to stick to that amount of money. Then, if you lose it all, it’s not a problem. Also, find a casino with a style/theme you enjoy. Once you choose a casino, sign up for their players club card for a chance to get discounts and free stuff. Two fun casino games that you’ve probably seen in movies or TV shows are Roulette and Craps. Roulette is one of the easiest casino games to learn. While gambling, you can order free drinks from servers who will occasionally stop by your table (remember to still tip the server). However, depending on how much you have decided to gamble (and probably lose), these can actually work out to be very expensive drinks.
There is no shortage of shows, concerts, and other events in Las Vegas. If you have room in your budget, I recommend booking tickets to at least one of them. With so much to choose from, you’re sure to find something that sparks your interest.
Las Vegas looks best all lit up at night. So, it’s important to find a way to stabilize your camera to accommodate slow shutter speeds in low light. I recommend bringing along a mini tripod, like the one I describe on my gear page. If you don’t have a tripod with you, try balancing your camera on a railing, table, etc. (make sure to hold onto the camera strap just in case it tips over). For slow shutter speeds, most professional photographers have some type of remote shutter release to avoid camera shake from pressing the shutter button. My solution for this is to set the self timer so that my camera takes the photo well after I’ve pressed the shutter button.
RESTAURANTS & BARS
- Downtown Cocktail Room
- The Laundry Room
- The Griffin
- Oak & Ivy
- Atomic Liquors
- Carson Kitchen
- Bocho Sushi
- Top of the World at the Stratosphere
- 107 SkyLounge at the Stratosphere
- Costa di Mare at Wynn
- Mizumi at Wynn
- Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace
- Lago at Bellagio
- é at The Cosmopolitan
- Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan
- The Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan
- MOzen Bistro at Mandarin Oriental
- Tea Lounge at Mandarin Oriental
- Mandarin Bar at Mandarin Oriental
- Pool Cafe at Mandarin Oriental
- Skyfall Lounge at Delano
- Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay
LESS EXPENSIVE FOOD ON THE STRIP
- Luke’s Lobster in the Fashion Show Mall
- Paris Baguette at The Venetian
- Sushi Roku in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
- China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan
- Five50 at Aria
UNIQUE ATM’S & VENDING MACHINES
- Lake of Dreams at Wynn (shows every 30 minutes from dusk until 12:30 AM)
- Artwork in the Waterfall Atrium at the entrance of the Grand Canal Shoppes between The Palazzo and The Venetian
- Wandering along cobblestone walkways past pastel storefronts, soft clouds painted on the ceilings, and canals in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian
- Tropical gardens and waterfalls at The Mirage
- Volcano at The Mirage (shows at 8:00 PM and 9:00 PM Sunday-Thursday plus 10:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays)
- Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo (pelican feedings at 8:30 AM and 2:00 PM)
- Aquarium and fountains at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
- Fall of Atlantis at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (shows every hour from 11:00 AM until 10:00 PM)
- Conservatory & Botanical Gardens at Bellagio
- Fountains of Bellagio at Bellagio (shows every 30 minutes from 3:00 PM until 8:00 PM and every 15 minutes from 8:00 PM until 12:00 AM)
- Half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and other famous Parisian landmarks at Paris
- Akhob by James Turrell in The Shops at Crystals
- M&M’s World
- Wandering along the streets of New York and seeing recreated monuments at New York-New York
- Recreated Egyptian architecture and decor along with the Luxor Sky Beam at Luxor
- The Palazzo & The Venetian
- The Mirage
- Caesars Palace
- The Cosmopolitan
- New York-New York