Las Vegas has the Strip and the lights and the sizzling scene making, from writhing pool parties to bank-breaking boxing matches. But when it comes to “local color,” the city has several choice spots and happenings worth the exploration, whether visitor or Las Vegas local. Beyond the neon is a big backyard full of mountain and desert beauty. And the city, itself, has plenty of secret spots you won't find in guidebooks.
If you get close enough to hug one of the great ponderosa pines at the top of Mt. Charleston you’ll discover the bark gives off the tantalizing odor of vanilla. Take the trail to Cathedral Rock (trailhead just across from the Mt. Charleston Lodge – a moderate 3-mile roundtrip hike with a 1,200-foot ascent) and find yourself in what could substitute for heaven. The tall pines, mixed with high desert aspens, shade a trail that is kept clean and clear to the Cathedral Rock summit and its eagle eye pan of the valley from 8,000 feet. Find Mt. Charleston about 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Where do the locals go to getaway from the crowds in this great desert resort? Lake Las Vegas; This 300-acre lake some 20 miles from Las Vegas toward the city of Henderson features three top-shelf hotels, a casino and a quaint Italian fishing village-themed outdoor promenade that rings with activity on weekends. The dining and entertainment esplanade called Montelago Village often hosts arts and crafts markets, dine-arounds and wine-arounds, as well as movies under the moon and concerts on the lake and under the stars. Undulating foothills, golf greens, pockets of millionaire homes and plenty of peace and quiet surround the hamlet. Recommended: picnic dinner purchased at Coffee Cantata, a gourmet café in the village, enjoyed on softy grassy green by the lake during an evening jazz concert. Also wine tasting over the water at Sunset & Vines.
Believe it or not Las Vegas has a thriving arts community beyond the commercial mall art galleries featuring dolphin fantasies and European village life. First Friday takes it Downtown to the Las Vegas Arts District found amid a 10-block sprawl running along Main Street just south of Fremont Street. On the first Friday of each month the art galleries, lofts and studios there open their doors and local artists and community supporters bring on the music, the food, the dance – a rolling block party of arts in celebration running from 6 pm to midnight with hip cafes and bistros, prop studios and second-hand artifacts stores stoking the action. Some neighborhood faves: the Boa Shop (handmade feather accessories) and Main Street Antiques and Art for great Vegas memorabilia. The party is the perfect way to discover a hidden part of Las Vegas exploding with a very different creative energy than what is found on the Strip.
It’s not all gourmet burgers and vodka martinis in Las Vegas. You can also find fab pho, Asian brews, and serious pork buns along Spring Mountain Road in a Chinatown setting that goes on for miles heading west from the Strip. Unlike older cities, however, Chinatown here is more of a China Boulevard. The restaurants, stores and services run strip mall to strip mall for five miles or more, although The Centre at Spring Mountain and the adjacent Chinatown Mall that provide a cluster of at least a hundred Asian-inspired businesses, can be considered the gateway. Top choices: Sam Woo Barbeque, Little Saigon for pho and YY Foot Spa for pedi-accupressure massages that cost $19 for 30 minutes.
Whether you need a hundred bucks in a hurry and want to sell that football hero ring or just want to see what that bauble is actually worth, Las Vegas is the epicenter for 24-hour pawn shops. What began as the perfect place to pick up gambling cash, or dump a spouse’s possessions in the heat of a divorce, pawnshops in Las Vegas have drawn a following of late from engaging reality TV shows exposing just what happens behind the counter in these nefarious places. The shops line up in a phalanx of pawnography and possibility along Las Vegas Blvd. north between Charleston Blvd. and Bonneville Ave. And the people line up to get in them -- especially at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop of “Pawn Star” fame -- to test their luck in treasure trading and chance to be a featured segment on reality TV.
Lark Ellen Gould is an award-winning journalist focusing on culture trends and curiosities in Las Vegas. She has written more than five books about the city.