We all think of the same things when we think of Las Vegas. It’s one of those American cities—like New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans—with a highly specific iconography, whether based in fact or conjured in the popular imagination. We imagine casinos, nightclubs, seedy gentleman’s establishments (hi, Showgirls), and lots and lots of neon. But perhaps we’re getting it wrong.
A Lady Gaga residency in Las Vegas makes a great deal of sense. The songstress and newly-minted movie star’s soulfulness and startling authenticity have, for the duration of her career, found expression in all manners of glamour and grime, artifice and artfulness. Gaga, like Vegas at large, knows how to put on a show; and fans will have 27 chances to see it at the Park MGM resort’s 5,200-seat Park Theater between December 28, 2018 and November 8, 2019.
Still, wasn’t the Las Vegas gig once strictly reserved for has-beens? It was, after all, where a grizzled and gravelly-voiced Frank Sinatra would gamely take the stage, only to immediately forget his lyrics. When did 32-year-old global icons at the height of their powers become involved? This, it would seem, is a new day for Sin City.
For a taste of the finer, more contemporary side of Las Vegas—the one that exists beyond the slot machines and bottle-popping—a selection of attractions:
Where to Stay
Like its sister locations in New York and Los Angeles, the newly opened NoMad Las Vegas marries old-world grandeur with boutique-hotel intimacy. (“Boutique,” that is, by Vegas standards: The new NoMad has 293 rooms and suites, and only king-sized beds.) Incorporated into the property are a restaurant and bar—both overseen, as at the other NoMads, by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara—and the first-ever NoMad Casino, housed beneath a Tiffany-glass ceiling. A pool is set to open next year. “I think that our challenge—and hopefully our contribution—is creating something that sort of draws on flamboyance, but stays on the right side of good taste,” Andrew Zobler, the founder and CEO of Sydell Group (which owns NoMad), says. While the hotel’s Italian linens and hardwood floors deliver on all the modern luxury that those familiar with the brand would expect, small, deft touches—like photographs of the surrounding desert, and some of Vegas’s more unassuming, “non-Strip” areas—help to ground it in reality.
Where to Eat
Visitors to Las Vegas are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining. Restaurants associated with big-name chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Joël Robuchon are as ubiquitous as family-style buffets and Vietnamese hole-in-the-walls. This fall, two spots worth keeping on your radar are The Wynn’s new Cipriani outpost(expected to open in early November) and the Asian-inspired Catch Las Vegas at the Aria (opening later this month). If their menus don’t necessarily surprise—both are major metropolitan mainstays—they will know how to satisfy without needless bells and whistles. Also good: the elegantly spare Greek Sneek, a former backroom at the MGM Grand. Nestled behind the restaurant Crush, Greek Sneek is a modest 2,000 square feet (seating only about 100 diners), and specializes in classic Mediterranean dishes; Avgolemono chicken soup, kebabs, the works.
Where to Drink
In 2015, Las Vegas was estimated to have thirteen bars per ten thousand households. It may not sound like much, but that’s the sixth-largest ratio in the country. (New York didn’t even crack the top ten.) But what of quality? What of atmosphere? How many of those bars would a person be comfortable patronizing sober? Besides the handsome NoMad Bar, with its oxblood-colored banquette seating, studded leather sofas, and perfectly-faded oriental rugs, there’s the new Electra Cocktail Club at the Venetian. Yes, there’s some neon lighting involved—along with a drink dubbed “Unicorn Tears” (gin, fino sherry, lime, pineapple, and absinthe). But Electra’s special emphasis on “rums, agricoles, and mezcals” confirms just how seriously it takes its cocktail-crafting. Prefer something a bit more old-school? The low-key Griffin, a few miles north, boasts a barrel-vaulted ceiling, two crackling fireplaces, and a jukebox.
What to See
Concerts are fun and all, but what else is there to do in Las Vegas, especially in the daytime? For an aesthetic diversion, enthusiasts of modern architecture would do well to scope out certain historic sites during their stay. The architect Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980), who designed a string of thoroughly mid-century modern homes for people like Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, and the Ball-Arnazes in Southern California, also left a pretty significant footprint in Vegas. His designs for the Space Age-y La Concha Motel from 1961—since converted to the Neon Museum’s reception center—and fantastically angular Guardian Angel Cathedral from 1963 have both become minor cultural landmarks.
Other buildings appear to have taken cues from the Brutalist movement—the Flora Dungan Humanities Building at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for one example. Erected in 1970 by Walter Zick & Howard Sharp, the building rather resembles an enormous, taupe-and-white-striped air-conditioning unit on stilts…but it’s interesting! Others like it, mixed in with recent additions like the topsy-turvy, Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, can be found elsewhere in the city. One needs only to know where to look—and to go while the structures are still standing.
Where to Escape
Las Vegas prides itself on being one all-inclusive, escapist fantasyland; whatever happens there isn’t meant to follow you home. Still, surrounded as it is by stunning mountain peaks and sweeping desert flats, one shouldn’t resist the call to slip outside the city bounds. Easy hikes through the Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada are just an hour away by car, as are snow sports (weather permitting) at Mount Charleston, and the exquisite emptiness of the Mojave National Preserve. A bit further out—150 miles from the Strip—is the roughly 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument, only signed into existence in 2015 under President Obama. Rather than limit your Vegas experience to the blackjack table, get up, get out, and let the cards fall where they may.