Las Vegas beyond the casinos

Five of the best alternative Las Vegas experiences

Ianthe Butt writes on emerging travel trends and luxury for titles including Condé Nast Traveller, Brides, Sunday Times Travel Magazine and The Independent.



It’s synonymous worldwide with the high-octane glamour of casinos yet it’s more than possible to craft a Las Vegas itinerary that’s instead packed with epic natural wonders, enlightening museums and exhilarating outdoor experiences –  all without a slot machine in sight. A stay at Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas is a good place to start as it’s one of the few places on the Strip without an in-house casino, allowing for maximum relaxation in the heart of this wonderfully frenetic city.

For neon nights

From the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign by famed designer Betty Willis, to the jauntily hatted cowboy Vegas Vic who looks over Fremont Street, Las Vegas’s neon signs are legendary. Visit Downtown’s Neon Museum for a whistle-stop tour through its unique Neon Boneyard – where the city’s no-longer-in-use and damaged signs are lovingly restored and displayed post-retirement. Neon junkies can see the scrawling lettering of the Stardust sign – immortalised in Martin Scorsese’s <Casino> – rubbing up next to oversized duckling, cocktail-glass-shaped and Aladdin’s lamp signage. Plus, there are quirky sculptures; a giant fibreglass skull from Treasure Island Casino is so vast it can be viewed from space via Google Earth. Book a night-time tour to see the signs lit-up in rainbow hues, giving a sense of what they would have looked like in their heyday.

For epic scenery

Seeing the psychedelic tangerines and burnished crimson reds of the Grand Canyon, a geological wonder where the Colorado River snakes its way through old-as-time rock formations, is about as visually astonishing as the natural world gets. Bag the best views of this world-famous gorge from above, during a flight-seeing trip with a local helicopter tour operator, or on foot from the vertigo-inducing glass platform called the Skywalk.  

For tranquil treks

Given that most of Las Vegas’s perceived action takes place indoors, it isn’t necessarily a place that screams, ‘explore the Great Outdoors’. But just 20 miles west of the Strip, you’ll hit Red Rock Canyon. It’s a haven for wilderness lovers, a conservation area of outstanding natural beauty where 3,000m-high gnarled mountains streak through a basin in the Mojave Desert. Scenery is rugged, and punctuated by cacti and Joshua trees. Keep your eyes peeled for wild donkeys, roadrunners, and majestic bighorn sheep. Gen up on hiking routes at the Visitor Centre, or for an introduction to Red Rock’s hot spots book a drive with Pink Jeep Tours, whose local guides will give you the inside track on the area’s geology and nature.

For history buffs

Another Downtown hit is the Mob Museum, where the outlandish exploits of Las Vegas’s rival mobster gangs (and law enforcement agencies fighting to control them) are brought to life in painstaking detail. Stripping back the Hollywood glamour of familiar seen-on-screen gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel, ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Al Capone, multi-sensory exhibits lay bare the shadowy world of organised crime, and the events that shaped Vegas – and the world’s – history. Housed across three levels of a former federal courthouse just north of Fremont Street, it includes an original courtroom, restored to its 1950s set-up when it hosted real-life court hearings investigating organised crime, and sobering artefacts such as a portion of the wall from Chicago’s St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929.

For adventure lovers

If you fancy taking to the water, local tour operators such as  Vegas Glass Kayaks offers guided trips paddling along the clear waters of the Colorado River through the striking Black Canyon. Stop off at bubbling hot springs, pretty Emerald Cave and Willow Beach. Yes, it’s outdoorsy, but this is Vegas, and everything in Vegas comes with added glitz – even the kayaking. Hence a new evening tour, complete with transparent kayaks that have been retrofitted with neon lights. Only in Vegas.

Immerse yourself in… Las Vegas

Stunningly designed and beautifully appointed, Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas is a Forbes triple-five-star luxury hotel at the heart of the Strip. With city and desert views, it offers serenity and luxury in a non-gaming environment.