Tips for Las Vegas first-timers

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I’m pretty sure the phrase ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas‘ originated because people just plain forget, rather than want to hide, what they’ve been up to in Las Vegas. I can vouch for this too. I just returned from my tenth visit – yep, double figures – yet, whenever someone asks me for advice I draw a blank. It’s almost as if that 136 square miles of desert is some form of intellectual black hole where you end up leaving all memories on the floor with your plastic yard of ale.

Contrary to folklore, the city of Las Vegas has a wealth of interesting history, classy corners and shops that sell things other than Elvis shot glasses. Vintage shopping is growing in Las Vegas thanks to the expansion of the cool Colorado Street arts district and the considerable Charleston Antique Mall. Plus, if you enjoy bird watching of the winged variety, there are actual nature reserves surrounding the strip. You can get outdoors and go hiking in the Nevada backcountry and for a mere $350 (£223) you’re only a short helicopter ride (or four hour drive) from the Grand Canyon.

I plan to elaborate on this in future posts but let’s not get fancy here, most Vegas first-timers just want to throw gambling chips around like they’re Jay Z, have pictures with ‘Elvis’ and be the consistent level of drunk that means you’re intoxicated enough to dance on a podium with ‘Cheri from Michigan’ but not so much your hangover stops you getting up for the $10 breakfast buffet.

So here goes. If you’re visiting Las Vegas for the first time, here is my advice on what you should definitely do:

Bellagio Fountains

what-to-do-in-vegas
Fountain show at the Bellagio

There are other hotels that offer free shows you can watch from the strip (Treasure Island, Mirage), but the most famous and impressive are the dancing fountains at the Bellagio Hotel. Every half-hour from 3pm to 8pm, and every 15 minutes from then until midnight, onlookers are treated to musical water sequences featuring 1,214 spritzers that propel water 460 feet into the air to songs like Celine Dion’s ‘My heart will go on’, Elvis’ ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and the opera classic ‘Time to say goodbye’. It sounds lame, I know. But it isn’t. In fact, no matter how many times I go, I can’t watch without getting overly emotional! Those in the know make a reservation at Olives and if they’re lucky, get a table with a perfect view from the outdoor terrace.

(My favourite of all the fountain sequences…)

Low risk gambling

what-to-do-in-vegas
Black Jack at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

It’s daunting. Chips are changing hands, the way you play effects other people and if you stop concentrating for 30 seconds you might accidentally gamble your house by accident. I’m going to be totally honest, I am no hotshot Vegas high roller. I know very little about gambling so this advice is just based on my own experience because even when I have no idea what I’m doing, I like to get involved. I lost my money really quickly playing Roulette, Craps seems to have been invented by a drunk genius and the Poker tables are mostly propped up with over-agressive grannies. So, I play Blackjack. It’s a good idea to swot up on the basic rules beforehand but find a smaller casino with a younger crowd (try Hard Rock) because the tables tend to be quieter and minimum bets lower. Even though they’re not supposed to, the croupiers usually hint if you’re making a bad choice and the key thing to remember is that you’re playing the dealer, not the other players which takes away some of the pressure.

For those who’d rather bet with pennies than pounds, take a seat at the video poker. It’s easy to play and if you tip your waitress $3-5 to start, followed by a dollar a round you’ll be kept in as much free beer, whisky or vodka as you can drink.

Buffet Binge

what-to-do-in-vegas
The Buffet at The Bellagio

In Vegas, the dinner buffet is king. There are over a hundred fine dining restaurants along the strip but let’s face it, you can dine finely anywhere in the world. The appeal here is stuffing your face with giant crab legs, lobster rolls, prime cut steak, sushi, spag bol, cookies, cakes, cheese… for the equivalent of £20. If you want to eat, you can really eat here. They’re all pretty similar, but my current picks would be: Planet Hollywood Hotel for breakfast, Bellagio for lunch and Aria for dinner. Wear stretchy pants.

See the strip from above

what-to-do-in-vegas
Photo: Howard Ignatius

You’d have to be pretty jaded to not be awed by the spectacle of the strip from above. If your room unfortunately has a view of the car park rather than the money shot, there are plenty of places to take in the scenery. You could do worse than these towering heights:

The Stratosphere
The 350m high tower offers 360-degree panoramic views as well as being the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States. On top (literally) of that, there is also a theme park with some slightly terrifying rides. Thrill-seekers have to ride ‘Insanity’. I’ll do anything once, but that was definitely enough for me. It’s actually terrifying. The tower is $16 (£11) to access for non-hotel guests.

Mandalay Bay
The main difference between the top of Mandalay Bay and any other hotel view in town is that it’s located on the exact point at the south end of the strip where the road bends. This means the Foundation Room bar/club has an almost perfect view of the strip. There can be a cover charge of $30 (£21) but groups of girls sometimes get in free…

Seeing a show

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Photo: Jim Mullhaupt

You can’t really ask anyone what the ‘best show in Vegas’ is. ‘le Reve’, no, ‘Love’, no, ‘O’, ‘Blue Man Group’… the jury is out. 70% of visitors to Las Vegas take in a concert or show during their visit, some book in advance before they leave England, most just go to the one in their hotel or get tickets on the day at tix4tonight (under the big coke bottle – you’ll see it!). That’s where I pick up mine. Unless you are desperate to see a specific show, my advice would be to just decide what day you want to go, turn up at the booth in the morning and take your pick. Cirque du Soleil have the market share with most of the big hotels having their own one. I can’t give you a recommendation, they are basically all the same: high production, crazy impressive and brilliant entertainment. Big shows like Mariah Carey and Elton John will need to be booked directly and are not usually on offer at the booths. Don’t be put off the smaller, more local entertainers either – some are absolutely brilliant! A favourite of mine, Vinnie Favorito at The Flamingo, recently closed sadly, but there are so many hidden gems in Sin City if you take the time to check them out.

Pick a Pool party

what-to-do-in-vegas
Photo: Luiz Filipe

You can pay to see a bonkers show in an air conditioned theatre or you can crash a hotel pool party where there is plenty of entertainment available for free, courtesy of the other guests. Buff jocks, tanned lovelies in bikinis, celebrity ‘It’ girls, fat businessmen, loud middle-aged cougars and just about everyone in between can be found splashing around in one of Vegas’ infamous pool parties. You don’t have to wear a bikini, you don’t even have to get in the actual pool, but it’s definitely worth popping by to take in the (ahem) scenery and down a few fruity cocktails for good measure. The biggest and brashest are:

Daylight at Mandalay Bay – (weekends from mid-April) 5000 people dancing on a fake beach to superstar guest DJs. It’s essentially a daytime nightclub. Entry from $20 (women), $30 (men)

Rehab at Hard Rock – (from late April) The original party kid pose pit. Three pools, shady spots, poolside concerts and celebrity spotting galore. Entry from $30 (women), $50 (men)

Wet Republic at MGM Grand – (from mid-March) It’s massive, both in size and in reputation. Calvin Harris is a regular and it’s massively populated with the techno Europe crowd. Entry from $20 (women), $40 (men)

(yep, it’s better to be a girl in LV!)

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WHERE TO STAY

These are not strictly reviews but more a list of all the Las Vegas hotels I’ve stayed in and a little opinion on why you may (or may not) want to stay there…

The Bellagio

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Bellagio

Unbeatable location at the centre of the strip. Popular for weddings and well-off families. Due to the size and amount of guests, check-in often has a huge line. A tip (roughly $20) at the desk might get you an upgrade to a fountain facing room. The music from the show links to a TV channel in the room so guests can enjoy the spectacle from inside, so it’s worth the punt.
bellagio.com

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

where-to-stay-in-vegas
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
Photo: Thomas Hawk

One of my favourites. Smaller and less overwhelming than the big boys without compromising on atmosphere. The Pink Taco bar inside the hotel (a favourite of the Beckhams) makes for a great late night snack. Rooms are cool, as is the pool (when Rehab isn’t on). It is off the strip but transfers are speedy and frequent.
hardrockhotel.com

Planet Hollywood

where-to-stay-in-vegas
Photo: Rob Young

Still my favourite place to bunk in Vegas. Guests tend to be a younger crowd. Brilliant location, rooms with a strip view are directly across from the Bellagio fountains. Movie buffs will love the in-room movie memorabilia. The casino is easy to navigate, not as stressful as some of the larger offerings and the breakfast buffet is the best in town.
caesars.com/planet-hollywood

Excalibur

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Excalibur

Classed as a budget hotel, this is great for doing Vegas with kids (or big 30-year-old Princesses who like sleeping in castles!). Location, opposite MGM Grand and next to New York New York is great with a little monorail to ferry you between them. There is also a Krispy Kreme in the lobby…
excalibur.com

Mandalay Bay

where-to-stay-in-vegas
Mandalay Bay

If you have a strip view room, the location is fabulous as the hotel looks directly down Las Vegas boulevard. It’s at the very south end of the strip (closest to the Welcome To Las Vegas sign) so it’s not as convenient as other, more central locations. If you like sunbathing, this is probably the hotel for you – the ‘beach area’ features 2,700 tons of real sand, a 1.6 million gallon wave pool, three regular pools and a ‘European’ (topless) area. Tantastic! The Red Square restaurant is also delicious if you have some extra cash and want to chow down a great steak.
mandalaybay.com

Palazzo

where-to-stay-in-vegas
Palazzo

Toward the north end of the strip but still in a prime location opposite TI, The Venetian and the Fashion Show mall. Boasting the biggest rooms in Las Vegas, every room is classed as a suite (although, to me, they’re just spacious rooms to be honest). I enjoyed spending some peaceful time at the quiet, classy pool – but sunbathe in the morning as the pool is covered in shade by 3pm.
palazzo.com

The Mirage

where-to-stay-vegas
The Mirage. Photo: Jay Bonvouloir

I have to say, I wasn’t a fan of this hotel. I found the rooms basic and nothing special for the price. The whole hotel is a bit tired and in need of jazzing up. Sorry Mirage… The outside show is pretty cool though! You could pay them a visit just for that.
mirage.com

TI (Formally Treasure Island)

where-to-stay-vegas
TI hotel (formally Treasure Island)

I had a really great stay at TI (it used to be called Treasure Island but it’s currently going through some branding changes to move away from its kiddie image, hence the now odd-sounding ‘TI’). I stayed there with my dad a couple of years ago and for no reason at all we were upgraded and given a suite each! My dad loved it and I thought the whole hotel was fun, friendly and ideal for young families, couples and people who are in town to have fun. Location is really good in the centre of the strip. It’s not classy but I had a lot of fun in cheesy bar Señor Frog’s
treasureisland.com

THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay (now The Delano)

where to stay in las vegas
THE hotel at Mandalay Bay (The Delano)

This is the hotel for those who hate the big impersonal hotels of which Las Vegas is famous for. All the mod cons of its sister hotel (Mandalay Bay) without all the faff. The more boutique feel means you have access to more individual services – such as personal concierge – and the pool, spa and other shared spaces are calmer and just less ‘Vegas’.
delanolasvegas.com

For heaps more info, head over to lasvegas.com/uk

And that’s it! Have fun!

 

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