Reno, a town known for gambling, divorce and long-dead silver mines, is turning its luck around. Cocktail bars and farm-to-table restaurants are breaking with the city's seedy past, art galleries are tapping into newfound creative energy and adventure tour operators are offering a different kind of risk.
Reno has always lived under the shadow of its bigger-but-younger sibling down south. For the past few decades, the Biggest Little City’s status as a gambling and divorce destination has waned as Las Vegas sold the package deal of dice, glamour and showgirls, and divorces became easier to attain across the US. For a while, Reno’s future seemed destined to become another of the ghost towns that dot the Nevada desert. But these days there’s more going on.
The redevelopment of Midtown
Like many cities in the US, modern-day Reno suffers from an over-reliance on cars and suburbs. Sprawl is a problem. Luckily long-forgotten parts of Reno are thriving thanks to a few initiatives designed to bring business and life back to empty buildings and deserted neighborhoods.
Not too long ago, the Midtown District was the holdout of drifters and washouts, and travelers mostly stuck to the blocks of casinos downtown or the large resorts to the south. These days a determined collective of small-business owners have transformed the district into a diverse area of mom-and-pop shops, trendy restaurants and boutique stores.
South Virginia St makes up the core artery of Midtown, but venture a few blocks east or west to find some true gems. Early risers can check out Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs for what many call the best breakfast in town. Then head over to the town’s handmade clothing scene at Never Ender (neverenderreno.com). At night, swing by Chapel Tavern for a strong drink and a game of pool.
Reno's emerging artists
Reno’s art scene has never been better. With an ambitious art program at the local university and 23 major galleries in Reno, there’s no lack of local talent and venues to display their work. Throughout the city visitors might spot artworks from Burning Man, the yearly desert gathering north of Reno that hosts artists from around the globe.
The University of Nevada at Reno’s Department of Art holds regular exhibitions of work from students and established artists, encompassing genres like digital media, ceramics and drawing. The Sheppard Contemporary Gallery (unr.edu) is a 2000 sq ft space on UNR’s campus that houses rotating exhibitions of every variety. For a look at the kind of new talent Reno is nourishing, stop by the Student Galleries South for exhibits displaying artwork from undergrad and graduate students, as well as student-curated collections.
Reno Art Works (renoartworks.org) is a local organization that provides work spaces to artists, and the organization often runs events where visitors can see new art and interact with artists. Check out the organization’s main event, Reno Sculpture Fest, held in May. Visitors hoping to find off-the-beaten-path artwork can also check out the Midtown Mural Tour (artspotreno.com/midtown-mural-tour), a walking tour of the district’s best outdoor paintings from local, national and international artists. Guided tours are available on weekends ($10 per person).
Food and drink from the source
Where Vegas seeks international ingredients and chefs, Reno finds locally. New restaurants are popping up all over town, with chefs who source ingredients from area farms and ranches. For dinner, head over to Louis’ Basque Corner, for a lamb-heavy experience of the city’s sizeable Basque community. If you find yourself in town in October, grab tickets for Reno Bites Week (renobitesweek.com), a restaurant festival that brings together all of the city’s best local eateries.
Nowhere is Reno’s craft food and drink movement better seen than on East 4th St. This block of once-blighted warehouses and empty brick shells is turning into a source of the city’s best tipples and treats. Housed in the former train station, The Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery (thedepotreno.com) features a menu of pub food with a creative twist (try the fish and chips with malt aioli), plus a lengthy list of house-made beers and spirits. Just down the street, Under the Rose Brewing Company (undertherosebrewing.com) brews European-style beers, like its earthy and spicy French-style farmhouse saison. With two more brewhouses opening in 2016, this district is going to be the place to be for craft beer drinkers.
Gateway to the great outdoors
That sound you hear? It’s the giddy yell of a kayaker entering a frothy set of class III rapids. Reno’s access to the great outdoors makes it the perfect gateway for nature lovers, but there’s adventure to be had right in the middle of downtown. BaseCamp, the Whitney Peak Hotel's new rock climbing gym (whitneypeakhotel.com/basecamp), is luring climbers to its 7000 sq ft indoor climbing space. Beginners and pros are welcome to test their grip strength at the indoor bouldering park, or try their hands at the 164ft climbing wall outside – the largest in the world. Also downtown, the Truckee River Whitewater Park provides kayakers with a half-mile, heart-pounding waterway containing class II and III rapids.
Nearby Lake Tahoe has enough year-round adventure to soothe even the gnarliest of adrenaline junkies. Perhaps Tahoe is best known for its excellent skiing, but area resorts and businesses have been tapping into summer activities like obstacle courses and stand-up paddleboarding, turning it into a year-round destination.
In summer, cruise into the lake’s crystal-clear waters aboard a kayak or paddleboard from Tahoe Adventure Company. If that’s a little too pedestrian, clip into the bike ride of a lifetime on the Flume Trail, a vertigo-inducing mountain bike trail that hugs the side of Lake Tahoe’s steepest peaks. Stop by Flume Trail Bikes for a rental and a ride to the trailhead.
Next take the Heavenly Gondola for breathtaking panoramic views of Lake Tahoe’s crystalline waters. At the top, run through Heavenly Mountain Resort's new gamut of summer activities: rope courses, zip lines and hikes – all at 9000ft above sea level. Then have your apres-hike at Stateline Brewery down below at South Lake Tahoe.
Where to stay
The new Whitney Peak Hotel is Reno’s only non-smoking, non-gambling boutique hotel, and its downtown location makes for an excellent home base to explore the city. For a more typical experience of Nevada’s Vegas-style opulence, check out the Peppermill south of downtown.
Alexander Howard traveled to Reno with support from Travel Nevada. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.