As one of the country’s top travel destinations, Las Vegas is a highlight in many of our travel plans this year. Whether you’re visiting for a major conference, planning your ultimate spring break, or taking a family vacation, knowing when to visit, what to see, and where to eat can be tricky if you’ve never been before or if you’re on a budget.
Zeke Quezada, who has worked in the travel industry for the past 15 years and is an expert on Las Vegas travel for About.com, shares some tips with us for planning a trip to Las Vegas in 2014.
The Daily Meal: If traveling to Las Vegas for a conference or work, where should travelers go to eat and drink to maximize their free time?
Zeke Quezada: Let’s assume that your conference is at one of three spots. The Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo Center, or the Mandalay Bay Conference Center. With that in mind, in order to maximize your time, you want to stay local if you are at the Sands Expo Center (Venetian and Palazzo) or Mandalay Bay.
At the Venetian/Palazzo, this is one of those spots where I might suggest a food court. I know, who wants to do that, but they have two and they have plenty of low-cost, quick, and convenient options. There are plenty of excellent options at these properties. Do you want to have a power lunch? [Try] the Taverna Menu at Carnevino. [It's] high-end and among the best steakhouses on the Las Vegas Strip, but lunch at the bar area is a bit more comfortable and casual. [There are] quick and convenient meals at The Bar at Table 10 in the Palazzo Shoppes, I Love Burgers at Palazzo, and Grimaldi’s also in the Palazzo. If you want to combine your drink and your dine, I’ll suggest Public House at Venetian as their beer list will have you filling your free time with plenty of craft brews and the poutine will make you want to hug a French-Canadian.
If I need a drink I am always at Fusion Mixology Bar. This small bar is right on the casino floor but it might as well be hidden away in a closet. Most people do not recognize the infused spirits or the impressive cocktail list. Ask any mixologist on duty to make something unique just for you and they take on the challenge and will attempt to blow you away with their skills. The Bourbon Room works for drink but you’ll need to have your '80s rock band mode locked in, and the Laguna Champagne Bar is a good meeting spot. If it’s happy hour, walk into Morel’s for some cheese and wine or LAVO for an easy transition in to the Las Vegas nightlife scene.
At Mandalay Bay your options for a quick bite should not include the food court unless you like mall food. You can, however, walk over to Citizens Kitchen and Bar, where they do comfort food the way you would do it if you wanted to sit on the couch watching bad TV all day with some snacks. The portions are ample and you can forget about watching your cholesterol. Open 24 hours a day with a decent list of adult beverages to help you relax after a long day of walking the aisles and talking shop at a conference. Order the banana pancakes and get a little of the taste of Maui right on the Las Vegas Strip. A few places that are excellent: Kumi Japanese food for a meal at the bar, Auroele for happy hour and a long glance at their wine tower, and StripSteak for beef cooked in clarified butter. If you want casual, go with Burger Bar, where the beer list is epic and the $10 burger is worth it. [Try] Slice of Vegas for a quick slice of pizza and a salad. [And try the] margaritas at Hussong’s Cantina, where you’ll need to have the roasted bone marrow and the tomatillo salsa.
If you just need a drink, Red Square has a very cold vodka bar and Minus 5 Ice lounge actually has a full bar inside the ice. Beer lovers will have fun at Rí Rá Irish Pub; make sure to talk to the staff about the furnishings and décor. If you want to step up your game, the Verandah lounge is classy and Mix lounge is dynamic. Use the Eyecandy Sound Lounge as a meeting space.
Did I skip the Las Vegas Convention Center on purpose? Yes and no. You could walk into the Las Vegas Hotel (formerly the Hilton) and the Sports Book is still an ideal place to watch a game and have a drink and the lounge acts at Tempo still can kick off a high-energy atmosphere into the casino. However, the monorail is right outside the Convention Center, so you might as well hop on that and end up at the MGM Grand or pretty much anywhere on the Strip. If you choose to do that, think about Michael Mina’s Pub 1842 at MGM Grand for food and drink or Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill at Caesars Palace. Both locations are accessible from the monorail.
TDM: For families on vacation, what are some family-friendly hot spots to hit?
Quezada: I have two boys who have been helping me do research on the Las Vegas strip for years, so even though I may have broken a few child labor laws, these are suggestions that actually work for kids.
Discovery Children’s Museum is ideal for families with younger children. The interactive exhibits will keep your kids busy while stimulating their need for new and cool ideas to fill their small brains. If your child loves to touch stuff, this where they will be happiest, but if you are looking for a spot to catch your breath while your child is entertained, you might want to think again, as interactive means you’ll be playing along.
Springs Preserve is ideal for the kids who also love to touch and explore but who also might want to run around a garden or climb on a few rocks. You’ll get some history about the Las Vegas valley and the surrounding desert as well as information about sustainable living in the desert environment. This is the un-Vegas attraction that will convince you that there is more to Las Vegas than bright lights and pretty people in bad clothing.
Red Rock Canyon is 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, but have your kids climb on the rocks or hike through the canyons and you’ll forget that you traveled to the gaming Mecca of North America. Stop at the visitors center to find the proper age appropriate hike and have your kids take part in some plant and animal identification projects.
Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo is free and it gives your children some time to walk around the grounds of the Flamingo hotel while chasing a few birds into the bushes. It is not a major attraction, but each of my boys has loved the opportunity to count turtles or try to identify fish species in the pond. You can never go wrong with a picture of a pink flamingo.
For the art-loving family, take a walking tour of the City Center Art Collection and then hit the garage art at Cosmopolitan. There is no shortage of great artist on display and you just might find a few very impressive pieces here that you can also see at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The family with girls who love to shop will be crazy about the Forum Shops and the Grand Canal Shoppes at Venetian. Is this a statement without merit? Well, since I have two boys I never really pursued this angle until we visited the Strip with friends with girls of the exact same age. While my kids went indoor skydiving, they went shopping. It doesn’t mean that boys don’t like to shop, I am sure some do, but if you have kids that love to spend your money there are plenty of options walking distance from all the Strip hotels.
Must I include Circus Circus? Yes, my kids still enjoy Adventuredome and even though they have seen all the Cirque shows they still appreciate the free circus in the middle of a casino. No lines at Adventuredome is good for your kids but bad for you if you have to ride with them.
TDM: How about for the older crowds on vacation?
Quezada: I should point out that there is something in the air in Las Vegas that makes even the most senior of seniors find the proverbial fountain of youth the minute they hit the Las Vegas Strip. Perhaps Ponce de Leon was looking for the fountains of Bellagio? Walk around any casino deep into the night or into the very early morning and you will see that mature Las Vegas visitors will still be guarding their favorite slot machines or sitting behind a large stack of chips at the poker tables. Las Vegas is not wasted on the young.
A day at the Bellagio is always a good idea, with afternoon tea at Petrossian Bar to start an adventure that leads to a stroll through the Bellagio Gardens with a quick peek at the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby. After looking at the conservatory and gardens, a quick sweet snack might work while admiring the largest chocolate fountain in the world at Jean Philippe Patisserie and then a late-afternoon visit to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Before you are off to see "O" by Cirque du Soleil, dinner at Le Cirque with a view of the fountains will add touch of elegance to the evening.
Million Dollar Quartet plays in the Harrah’s Showroom nightly and you can spend an evening with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. If you are a fan of the era, this is one show that will bring to life some icons of the music industry.
The Auto Collections at the Quad is another way to step back in time and admire some vintage vehicles from a time when craftsmanship was the norm and cutting corners was not a common practice just to add in some better gas mileage.
TDM: When are the best times throughout the year to visit Las Vegas?
Quezada: Late spring and early fall are about as good as it gets when it comes to selecting dates to visit Las Vegas. The crowds are thinner and the pools are still right for working on your color. The kids have all gone back to school so no need to worry about saying something inappropriate in front of a 6 year old that is determined to practice her snorkeling technique near your knees. If you have a family or are in need of going cheap, summer is that time of the year when you get the most for your money. It is crowded but the atmosphere is festive and the party seems to start around Memorial Day and go almost to Halloween.
TDM: Where are the best parties in Vegas?
Quezada: When you just need to have fun, Las Vegas is about as good a place to do it as any because you can always find a party. If you want a cheap party, the Carnaval Court at Harrah’s is ideal. No cover, live music, and drink specials. Everyone is having a good time and as the evening progresses everyone is in the mood to dance. Flair bartenders and DJs keep the energy up and the constantly evolving crowd keeps things very interesting. Two patios that help with an inexpensive outdoor, casual party are Cabo Wabo Cantina at Planet Hollywood and Carlos 'n Charlie's at the Flamingo. They have both been imported from South of the Border and they have a bit of that let-loose party atmosphere that the spring break crowd is looking for year round. I go to Carlos 'n Charlie’s for the ceviche and to Cabo Wabo for the view of the Strip.
When it is time to take the party to the next level, I start at Lily Lounge at Bellagio for drinks and then in to HYDE Bellagio for the lounge scene. The view of the fountains and the ample space to spread out make it ideal for a nightlife experience that is more than just a typical nightclub cattle call.
A few other places I’ll take someone special for a party yet an enjoyable experience: Ling Ling Lounge at Hakkasan at MGM Grand is intimate yet comfortable. The outside tables at LAVO at Palazzo for a pre-nightclub drink and conversation and Level 107 at Stratosphere for happy hour and drink specials with a view of the Las Vegas Strip.
TDM: How can someone on a budget do Las Vegas on the cheap, especially when it comes to food and drink?
Quezada: Yes, the simple answer is that Las Vegas does not have to be expensive. In fact, relative to the top travel destination in the country, Las Vegas is a bargain. Most people already know that drinks are free when you are gambling, but they don’t often know about how many great happy hours can be found at most hotels.
Heading to Downtown Las Vegas has always been cheap but recent remodels at hotels like The D and The Golden Gate have made it also a nice place to stay for less. Cheap food options are abundant and the local bar scene is going to change the way you think about Downtown Las Vegas.
When it comes to food, Las Vegas can be outrageously overpriced but you can also find quite a few gems at affordable prices. If you go super cheap you can hit Tacos El Gordo right next door to Wynn Las Vegas or a slice of pizza at the hidden pizza place at Cosmopolitan. Burgers are in abundance and some very good ones at that can be found at KGB inside Harrah’s and BLT Burger at the Mirage. When I am looking for a cheap meal Pink's at Planet Hollywood, the hot dogs at Gordon Ramsay BurGR, and Earl of Sandwich always do the job for me at an affordable price. When looking for a reasonably priced restaurant, families can go with chains such as Bucca di Beppo and Cheesecake Factory for big portions and relatively affordable meals while foodies can be treated to José Andrés’ China Poblano and Scott Conant's D.O.C.G. both at Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Don’t mind Sharing? Serendipity 3, Hash House A Go Go, Carmine's, and Carnegie Deli, all lend themselves to sharing their big portions and cutting down on the cost of a meal on the Las Vegas Strip.
Food courts range from above average to avoid-at-all-costs and buffets no longer are the great deal that they once were.
- Travel Destinations
- Las Vegas Strip
- Las Vegas Convention Center