In a city where building demolitions are widely trumpeted affairs, you wouldn't expect there to be much history left standing. But if Las Vegas is synonymous with novelty, there are enough vestiges of the past to keep history buffs fulfilled, at least for a long weekend.
Originally a Mormon mission at the site of subterranean springs, Las Vegas grew into a ranch and railroad outpost that became a town in 1905. Its short history has been remarkable primarily for explosive growth, with Clark County now home to almost two million residents. Most visitors, however, make their home on the Strip, the row of gaudy resort casinos lining Las Vegas Boulevard, and miss out on Sin City's history.
The real genesis of the wild-and-woolly Las Vegas gambling scene was downtown's Fremont Street, where sawdust joints first opened legally in 1931. The city has struggled to revitalize Fremont since the mid-1990s - with some businesses succeeding, and others languishing - but it's still the top attraction for history devotees and the home of retro Las Vegas.
Fremont Street is called Glitter Gulch, and with good reason - there are more than a dozen casinos and hotels. While the Strip has the feel of a bling-bling Disneyland, Fremont is Vegas as Wild West boomtown in all its tawdry, smoky, neon glory.
Fremont Street didn't fare so well with the profusion of resort casinos on the Strip beginning in the '70s. To revive it, in 1995 Las Vegas officials created the Fremont Street Experience, a 90-foot-high steel canopy over five blocks, with a 550,000-watt sound system and millions of LED lights that produce six-minute psychedelic displays on the hour nightly (877-VEGAS4U,vegasexperience.com). There also are several bandstands where visitors can enjoy live music.
TRY OLD-STYLE GAMBLING
Geodesic canopy aside, Fremont Street retains much its old-time charm (and luridness), with the slightly dilapidated neon forms of Vegas Vic and Sassy Sally gazing down upon the throngs of gaming fans.
For gamblers, the casinos around Fremont Street - Binion's, Four Queens, Lady Luck, the Golden Gate and others - reputedly offer some of the best odds in town. At some gambling halls, such as Mermaids, the payoffs on slot machines are in actual coins (702-382-5777). Try the Las Vegas Club Casino for what have been billed as the most liberal blackjack rules in the world (800-634-6532, vegasclubcasino.net).
BATHE IN NEON
The advent of neon signs in the 1920s kicked things up a notch on Fremont, where sawdust joints evolved into more polished casinos under the Day-Glo beacons associated with Las Vegas today. In 1996, the Las Vegas Neon Museum began collecting and displaying the city's classic signs, and it now has more than 150 ($15, 702-387-NEON, neonmuseum.org). Fremont Street is dotted with vintage neon signs, from the original lamp at the Aladdin Hotel to the Hacienda Hotel's horse. Even more neon relics are displayed at the Museum's three-acre Boneyard and can be viewed by private appointment.
VISIT VEGAS HISTORY
For those who want to leave the kitsch and glitter behind, there are two favored options in Las Vegas. At Las Vegas Springs Preserve, on the site of the original springs that fed this desert city, you can enjoy historical walking trails, archaeological sites, gardens and restored historical structures (702-822-7700, springspreserve.org).
The site of the oldest standing building in Nevada has been preserved at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park (702-486-3511, parks.nv.gov/olvmf.htm), where Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City organized a settlement in 1855.
TRY A VEGAS WALKABOUT
Take an unofficial Vegas walking tour. The city's oldest operating hotel opened in 1906 at 1 Fremont, a building that now houses the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino (800-426- 1906, goldengatecasino.com). At 301 Stewart Ave. is the neoclassical post office, opened in 1933, and constructed around the same time is the old, Art Deco Las Vegas High School at 315 S. Seventh St. The El Cortez Hotel & Casino at 600 Fremont was downtown Las Vegas' first major resort, built in 1941 in the Spanish style (800-634-6703, elcortezhotelcasino.com). The West Las Vegas Historic Neighborhood, just west of downtown, was Las Vegas' African-American neighborhood, with its own nightclubs, casinos and hotels. Segregated in the 1940s and '50s, Las Vegas saw its first major interracial hotel and casino when the Moulin Rouge, at 900 W. Bonanza Rd., welcomed both blacks and whites in 1955.
TAKE IN A RETRO SHOW
For those nostalgic for the "good old days," there's one act left with classic showgirls - bejeweled, bedecked and often topless. Jubilee at Bally's Las Vegas on the Strip has been running for almost three decades, but, to fans, it never grows old ($57.50-$117.50, 702-967-4585, ballyslasvegas.com).
Vintage-seekers should know The Rat Pack Is Back at the Plaza Hotel and Casino ($59.20-$89.70, 702-386-2444, ratpackisback.com). Catch up with impersonators of Frank, Sammy, Dean and Joey - supposedly dubbed the "rat pack" by Lauren Bacall - in a classic Las Vegas dinner theater setting.
SOAK UP NIGHTLIFE
In 2002, the city anointed a nightlife district adjacent to Fremont Street's canopied blocks called the Fremont East District. With a large neon sign heralding its bars and nightclubs, Fremont East attracts both locals and visitors alike. The bricked-up windows at The Griffin make it rather forbidding, but its cavelike interior, warmed by fireplaces and jukebox tunes, typically draws a young, hip crowd (702-382-0577).
If you're looking for a speakeasy-style lounge, try the nearby Downtown Cocktail Room with its leather-armed chairs, chaise longues and low lighting (702-880-3696, thedowntownlv.com). It has an air of old-fashioned sophistication - along with imaginative cocktails.
You might walk right by the Beauty Bar Salon of Beauty unless you needed hairstyling (702-598-1965, thebeautybar.com/las_vegas). This unusual bar mixes manicure demonstrations with its martinis against a backdrop of 1950s salon decor and frequently offers live shows and DJs in its backyard "trailer court."
WHERE TO STAY
Among downtown's numerous options, one of the most alluring for history enthusiasts is the Main Street Station Casino, Brewery & Hotel (from $36 a night, 800-713- 8933, mainstreetcasino.com). The hotel itself is not that old, but owners have cultivated the ambience of a Victorian-themed gentlemen's club. The lobby is made entirely of wood, including a vintage key cabinet, while the casino has pounded-tin ceilings, antique-style gas lamps and chandeliers, lazy ceiling fans and leaded-glass skylights.
Opened in the 1940s, the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino has seen a series of overhauls to become downtown's most elegant resort casino (from $59 a night, 800-634-3454, goldennugget .com). The pool includes a striking, 30-foot-deep shark aquarium with a water slide running through it. Take a break from history in the Golden Nugget's upscale spa, arcade room and fine restaurants, but also investigate what's billed as "the biggest golden nugget in existence," the 61-pound Hand of Faith, on display near the hotel's main lobby.
WHERE TO EAT
Before you stuff yourself on the $7.95 prime rib dinners and overflowing, underpriced smorgasbords that are the stock in trade of Las Vegas dining, step into the past at the Triple George Grill (702-384-2761, triplegeorgegrill.com), with its mahogany wood bar, high wooden booths, tile floors and walls full of black-and-white photos.
For more vintage ambience and waitresses out of central casting, try Du-Pars Restaurant (800-426-1906, du-pars.com), in what used to be the no-frills Bay City Diner. Once the place to get cut-rate cuts of meat, it's a bit pricier these days (you won't find the 99-cent shrimp cocktail that used to be on the menu), but it retains the same colorful clientele and old-school decor. (Plus, the pancakes are out of this world.)
For perhaps the cheapest treats of all, try the famous deep-fried Twinkies or Oreos at Nathan's in the Mermaids Casino. At 99 cents, they're hard to beat, plus there's a range of greasy accompaniments - chili dogs, corn dogs, French fries. Try to get them freshly made.