Surrounded by incredible natural desert landscapes, Las Vegas is somewhat of an anomaly. A unique city within the USA, the Las Vegas Strip lives in infamy. Full of huge casinos, even bigger hotels, dazzling lights and spectacular entertainment. Featured in dozens movies and countless “what happens in Vegas” never-to-be-told stories, it was time for me to see what Sin City was all about. I knew to expect a city of artifice, built to entertain and make you spend your money! It’s not a destination for everyone, and not my usual travel style. I’m not really a gambler either – I got bored pretty quickly when I tried the slot machines. But I was intrigued to get a taster of it for a few days!
After travelling by bus from the Grand Canyon, I spent three nights staying on the Strip by myself. I was then joining a group tour for a couple of weeks, which looped through Utah then returned us to Vegas for two more nights. From there, we continued west to Yosemite. So in total, I had about four days (two working, two free) in Las Vegas to explore as many casinos as possible!
I had booked to stay in Excalibur, for the sole reason that it’s one of the cheaper options on the Strip. All of the casino hotels are expensive, so if you’re on a budget, you’re best staying off the Strip. But I decided to splurge a little for the full Vegas experience! My room was huge, at least by European standards, though it was their smallest size. Two queen-size beds aren’t the norm outside of North America! They don’t provide any amenities in the room (e.g. tea/coffee, fridge) so you have to go downstairs and purchase it somewhere. I did have a great view of the Luxor pyramid next door though, and could watch the planes at the airport without being disturbed by the noise.
My room wasn’t themed really, but the rest of the hotel was – it looks like a giant Medieval castle, hence the King Arthur reference. There are huge towers from the outside and little castle-like touches inside. Though, to be honest, I found every casino floor started to look the same after a while. They have a jousting show too, but I didn’t go to it, instead spending my money on other entertainment.
Like most of the casino hotels, it has a pool too – or rather, several of them. I went for a quick dip the morning before check-out when I wasn’t working, but it was still very cold! I also tried their buffet breakfast, as buffets are a big thing in Vegas and this was a cheaper one. You have to eat and drink enough to make the price tag worth it and I wasn’t blown away by the food, but it was another experience to try anyways!
After arriving late the night before and working the next day, I was finally ready to venture up the Strip. I’d booked tickets to a show (below) so didn’t have time to go through every casino on the way, but got to see a lot from the outside. Including lit up at night on the way back! I did have time for one though, and decided to check out the Venetian. I’ve actually been to its sister casino in Macau already, which is one of the largest casinos in the world. A lot of Vegas casinos specialise in replicating other parts of the world, and the Venetian is one of the best examples of this. Which is super interesting when I’ve been to the real Venice as well!
The building looks like a Venetian palazzo from the outside, complete with a campanile (bell tower). You’ll catch your first glimpse of a gondola on the outdoor canal. Inside is a maze of shops and eateries that wind their way along the canal banks. Small bridges cross them every now and then, and there’s a central St Mark’s Square. I do mean maze, though; I got a little lost! Shopping wasn’t my priority, but it was fun to roam the canals, watch the gondolas and take in the fake sky overhead. The amount of detail is pretty impressive! I grabbed some dinner here too – nothing here is cheap, so I just sucked it up and accepted the prices for my four days in Las Vegas.
Cirque du Soleil: The Beatles Love
As the evening approached, I found my way out of the Venetian and crossed the road to The Mirage. The hotel has a jungle vibe, with the volcano outside (which wasn’t working due to the F1 construction) and a huge foliage display inside the entrance. My destination though was the Cirque du Soleil theatre, for their Beatles-themed show, LOVE. After seeing my first Cirque show in Montreal earlier this year, I was keen to see another while in Vegas, where there are about half a dozen to pick from. LOVE is one of the cheaper options and I thought it’d be fun to see something with familiar music.
Like all Cirque shows, the talent of the performers was incredible, with a wide variety of acts and apparatus used. I was constantly catching my breath in wonder at these death-defying tricks! This show featured plenty of dancers too, performing wonderful routines. The show almost felt like little vignettes, shorter scenes each with its own theme or story. Of course, being Beatles-themed, it all had a strong ’60s vibe for the most part. This ranged from the marching band style of Sergeant Pepper to the psychadelic hippie era. The staging and costumes were incredible too, with so many moving parts and video projections. It featured audio and video clips of the Beatles as well, tying the whole thing together. All in all, I really enjoyed the show!
Luxor & Mandalay Bay
After work the next day, I opted to explore a couple of the casinos close to my own. Many casinos are linked by sky bridges over the roads, either inside or out. You can get from New York New York, to Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay using one, or there’s a tram too. I headed south first, crossing into the gigantic black pyramid that is Luxor. This is Ancient Egypt themed, with the pyramid surrounded by other sand-coloured structures and statues outside. Inside, you can see the pyramid shape, with all the room doors lining it all the way up. I think it’d be a little scary with my fear of heights to leave my room and see that huge drop into the centre! Hieroglyphs cover the walls and there’s more statues and ruins inside. I wandered through the centre, before continuing on to the next hotel.
Mandalay Bay is most famous for its swimming pool complex, complete with lazy river, but it’s only accessible to guests. You can get a small glimpse just before the key-card access point though. The rest of the hotel matches the beach vibe though, full of plants, shells and other beachy-themed decor. They have an aquarium tunnel too, but I didn’t visit this. I did try a slot machine here for the first time. Since I was staying in an MGM-owned hotel, I’d gotten their rewards card which you can use to earn points on all slot machines and spending in any of their casinos, including Mandalay Bay. I lost about $30 and still hadn’t been offered a free drink – the roaming servers seemed to be sparse here – so I quickly got bored and gave up.
New York New York
Retracing my route back through all three hotels, I crossed from Excalibur in the other direction to New York New York. This one is pretty impressive from the outside, with its huge Statue of Liberty and iconic skyscrapers. Plus, of course, there’s the rollercoaster looping through it all! Not my cup of tea, but fun to watch it whiz past. There’s even a Brooklyn Bridge outside that doubles up as a stage or a giant screen (there was American football on). Cirque du Soleil have a New York-themed show here as well, but I had neither time nor money to go to all of them!
The theme continues inside and is one of the better-done themes, in my opinion. Next to the casino floor, you enter a series of streets full of eateries serving many cuisines from around the world. With the brownstone effect and the dim street lamps, it definitely has echoes of New York alleyways. I was even reminded of my Brooklyn food tour! Since it was hot and sunny though, I actually ended up dining outside instead. I came here for a couple of meals throughout my four days in Las Vegas, since it was close to Excalibur and had more options.
Park MGM, Aria & Cosmopolitan
To kick off the first full day of my four days in Las Vegas, I headed north up the Strip again to explore inside some hotels I’d only walked past so far. Park MGM, Aria and the Cosmopolitan are all connected, by both a tram and internal walkways. I actually found it hard to tell where one ended and the next began at times, since none of them have a strong theme. They’re all pretty modern and cool and artsy in general. There’s also a shopping centre attached to them, which is mainly luxury brands well beyond my budget. It’s got a cool architectural design to walk through though!
Park MGM won points in my book as the only smoke-free casino in Vegas. After a few days, I was getting really sick of the smokey smell in all the others. It also has this large dining marketplace called Eataly, which is made of various Italian food vendors under a floral canopy for a really bright, pretty setting. Aria is a little darker in style, with lots of black and gold decor, definitely one of the most modern casinos I saw.
And the centrepiece of the Cosmopolitan is the Chandelier bar, which juts out on a pair of balconies in the centre of the building. With pink lighting emanating from inside, it has hundreds of glittering strings of beads surrounding it, giving the impression you’re seated inside a chandelier. We ended up coming here for a drink on the last night, late after a show (more below!). It was cool to try it out for one and the bartender was great, but the hostesses were a bit snooty I thought.
The Bellagio is probably one of the more famous and most luxurious of the Vegas casinos. The fountains play no small part in that! Due to the construction for the upcoming F1 in a few months, you couldn’t stand in front of them to watch on the Strip. I ended up seeing them from outside the Bellagio’s front lobby and from the other side of the street. Neither was a perfect view, but I still got an idea of how impressive they are! And I liked that it was different music and patterns each time, not the same thing always on repeat.
Inside, the hotel is like a huge, luxurious Italian-style garden. There was a pianist performing by the lobby with glass flowers suspended overhead. These looked familiar to me, and I soon discovered they are a Chihuly creation, whose work I also saw in Seattle and Boston. The floral theme continues in the Conservatory, where they have an incredible, immersive garden exhibit that changes seasonally. Since it was September, we were into autumn (despite how hot and sunny it still is in the desert!) so everything was oranges and yellows. It was like an enchanted garden, with a giant storybook and fairy figures dancing through the huge mushrooms.
Don’t miss the chocolate shop either – it hosts the largest chocolate founatin in the world! It’s a really unique design, sort of built into the wall and ceiling, and would actually be easy to miss by mistake. I took a stroll through the corridors and was able to get a glimpse of the central pool complex, surrounded by gardens. I grabbed a coffee to just enjoy the scenery for a while, before exiting the other side of the hotel, through yet another shopping arcade.
Next to the Bellagio is another very famous Vegas casino, Caesar’s Palace. As the name suggests, it’s themed around Ancient Rome, with a Classical temple-like structure. The Coliseum hosts entertainment – currently Adele’s residency – and the Roman Forum on the side is their shopping mall. The theme is very well-done inside, with Classical Roman touches throughout the design.
The Forum is probably the most impressive, with a fake sky making it feel like you’re walking through the city streets. It’s interspersed with statues and fountains, including the animatronic “Atlantis Show”. Again, I wasn’t here for shopping but it was cool to see the level of detail that went into mimicking Rome (especially having been to the real city myself). Since I entered the Forum via the casino, I exited through probably the most impressive part of it, saving the best til last! It’s main entrance facing the Strip has a spiral staircase escalator that takes you down past huge statues, under a domed ceiling and frescoes all around. And then outside, you’ll find the Trevi Fountain replica!
Flamingo & Paris
Crossing the Strip and passing the Venetian again, I then popped into Flamingo. This definitely feels like an older casino in my opinion, with more vintage decor and throwbacks to the Vegas of decades ago. There’s a lot of neon and pink as well! I was mostly here to find the actual flamingoes, which live in the garden area next to the pool out back. There are a few other birds here as well, hiding in the palm trees and water features, so it was a fun little detour.
Next up, continuing the theme of replicating European cities I’ve been to, I went to check out Paris. I think this one is way more impressive from the outside, with its Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and hot air balloon. The fake sky inside is pretty dark and low and feels weird with the Eiffel Tower legs sticking through the roof. The smaller Parisian streets in the back corner were cuter, but felt a bit disappointing compared to the Venetian or Caesar’s. Wandering through them, I soon found myself in the adjoinig Horseshoe hotel. I was getting tired by this point, so I quickly doubled back and left Paris behind again.
After a pause while I ventured around the Utah parks, we returned for a couple of nights between trips to total up my four days in Las Vegas. The evening we came back, a few of us headed away from the Strip and instead went to Downtown Vegas. Specifically, we were going to the Fremont Street Experience, which hosts several more casinos, alongside dining and shopping.
The reason it’s an “experience” is that the pedestrianised street is covered by a roof that functions as a gigantic screen. They have all sorts of projections on it, and for about 10-15 minutes each hour, they feature the songs of a specific artist. We saw the Katy Perry and Shakira snippets while we were there. For the rest of the hour, live bands perform at a couple of different stages dotted along the street. There’s also a “superman” style zip-line overhead, which makes for quite a sight against the projections! Like Savannah and New Orleans, Las Vegas is one of the few US cities to allow public drinking. Of course, I’d seen hundreds of people doing this on the Strip already! We grabbed some drinks to wander along Fremont Street for a while, people-watching and popping into a casino for a quick round on the slots.
The Wynn & Encore
For the last of my four days in Las Vegas, I headed further north on the Strip to wander round a couple more casinos I hadn’t been in yet. I took it a little easier today in general though, leaving our off-Strip hotel late in the morning and returning for a break in the afternoon. I headed up to the Wynn and Encore first, mostly wandering through the former.
The Wynn has a large water feature by the entrance, which hosts their ‘Lake of Dreams’ show at night, visible from the cocktail bar. It’s still a pretty lake by day too though! Inside, there were a lot of floral displays to wander through and I enjoyed seeing all the spinning umbrellas above Bar Parasol. Since the F1 is approaching, there were a few race cars on display throughout both hotels. I also popped into the Fashion Show Mall across the street, which had some interesting artwork. I didn’t linger long, since I was shopping mall-ed out by now.
The last casino on my list was Circus Circus, which has a pretty obvious theme from the name! I’ve heard some people say they find this one a little creepy, but I disagreed. That could be my family’s fairground background coming out in me, though, as the arcade area felt so nostalgic! They even had more “old-fashioned” games reliant on coins still. They have free, live circus performances in the centre, which include acrobats and clowns. I arrived just after one ended and it would be almost an hour before the next, so I ended up not seeing any.
Towards the back of the hotel, you’ll find the Adventuredome, a large indoor theme park. I’m not a rollercoaster person and it was chockfull of families with kids, so I forsook paying the entrance fee. I managed to stick my head in for a quick look, before leaving the Circus for the day.
Cirque du Soleil: Ka
That evening, I was joining one of my new travel buddies from the group trip for not one, but two shows! He hadn’t been to a Cirque show yet, so I tagged along for “Ka“, in the MGM Grand. Of the three Cirque shows I’ve now seen, this one had the clearest, most cohesive storyline, compare to the more abstract or vignette-style structures of the others. It tells the tale of the Imperial Twins, who lose their kingdom and get separated, going on a series of adventures to try and get home again. It’s all generally Asian-themed (not one specific country or culture though) in terms of the costumes and the role of martial arts in the show.
It probably had one of the most impressive sets I’ve seen, with a stage that moves and turns and rotates! The performers obviously have to train a lot for the specifics of this staging and of course, they’re all very talented. But I wasn’t quite as wow-ed by this one – it was still great, but probably my least favourite of the three.
Magic Mike Live
Our second show was up the street in the Sahara, where we went to see Magic Mike Live. You’re actually allowed to take photos and videos at this one, and if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. The cast of very talented male dancers put on a fun, flirty and yes, rather raunchy show! The female MC was super funny and provides a loose storyline, about a waiter ‘Mike’ learning to dance from the rest of the troupe. It builds up to his final performance – which features a female dancer, rain and a floating glass stage.
There’s plenty of variety in the dances and music, and of course, lots of audience participation. You’ll not have a bad seat either – while those seated next to the stage naturally get a bit more attention, the dancers move through the audience regularly, including the balcony level above. So no matter where you are, there’s a chance you’ll get up close! They were swinging from zip-lines and sliding down banisters and dangling over the sides of the balcony. I also found it hilarious that there were staff members whose job it was to retrieve items of clothing from around the room! It was a super fun evening all round!
Four Days in Las Vegas
The next morning, we departed the city to continue our group trip, heading west into California and the mountains of Yosemite. Las Vegas is truly a unique destination. Even compared to other casino hotspots like Macau, this felt very different. To experience a tourist destination so centred around gambling and entertainment was quite a departure from my usual style of travel. It’s not a city I’d be rushing back to – since I don’t enjoy gambling and I’m not a big shopper, my options for things to do are a little limited.
But I had some good food & drinks, saw some fabulous shows, and enjoyed wandering round the casinos to see their themes and decor! I think four days in Las Vegas was plenty of time for me, as I’d seen my fill by then. With an unlimited budget, I’d have loved to see a few more shows, but I did well with the ones I squeezed in! It could be a fun place to return to with friends, rather than a solo trip, but I was surprised at how much I did still enjoy it alone. Just wandering around and people-watching was a fun activity. Overall, not my usual sort of destination, but an experience I’m glad to have had!