Look away for too long and Vegas changes. The Vegas of Sinatra and Elvis and mobsters and showgirls has been replaced by Cirque shows and Britney Spears and musical fountains. The crooners may be gone but the spirit lives on – here are the best places to channel it.
Decades before garish LED screens presided over the Strip, handcrafted neon signs reigned as Vegas' original iconic art form. While much of this neon art has been dismantled (and, unfortunately, trashed) you can view over 150 lovingly restored artifacts at the Neon Museum. A tour of the museum's 'Boneyard,' full of retro signs dating back as far as 1930, is one of Vegas' most fascinating strolls.
While you're delving into the city's storied history, you might want to get gussied up in a few vintage duds. How about a hot pair of cat-eye glasses, a Rat Pack-inspired suit, or a cocktail dress worthy of a femme fatale? Our retro shopping pick: The Attic.
It's time to test your luck and possibly make your fortune. Follow the locals downtown to the original Glitter Gulch where the magic all began. We love Binion's for its famous zero-limit poker with beginner-friendly $2 minimum hands. Home to the World Series of Poker kickoff in 1970, you can't get more classic than this. If you're in the mood for blackjack, head to the deliciously retro El Cortez. Not only is it the oldest continuously operating casino (going strong since 1941), it is one of the only joints in town where the slots are the real thing. If you hit the jackpot, you'll enjoy the clatter of actual coins – none of that newfangled paper ticket nonsense.
Stationed in the city's former downtown courthouse, the Mob Museum recreates the bloody history of the mafia in America. Fire an imitation Tommy gun, peruse the case files of some of the most infamous criminals or see the actual bullet-riddled bricks from the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Head upstairs to sit in the same courtroom where the Kefauver Committee uncovered organized crime's grip on American society in the 1950s.
While more than one Strip establishment has made a halfhearted attempt to recreate a vintage diner experience, locals know that that the most authentic lunch counter is hidden inside an unassuming drugstore. For cheeseburgers and malts at old-fashioned prices, head to Vickie's Diner (inside White Cross Drugs, vickiesdiner.com). This original 24-hour restaurant does not pretend to be a 1950s soda fountain, because it is a 1950s soda fountain.
Long before the Bellagio's soaring water show drew legions of onlookers, the most awe-inspiring view in Vegas was something decidedly more provocative: mushroom clouds. Recalling an era when the word 'atomic' conjured modernity and mystery, the Smithsonian-run Atomic Testing Museum remains an intriguing testament to the period when the fantastical – and destructive – power of nuclear energy was tested just outside of Las Vegas.
Pay homage to Ol' Blue Eyes at Sinatra in the Encore, Steve Wynn's showpiece casino-hotel. While home-style Italian classics in an upscale atmosphere impress, don't miss the restaurant's most wow-inducing feature: Frank Sinatra's gleaming Grammy and Oscar awards in a display case near the hostess stand.
There's plenty of steak to be had in Vegas, with celebrity chefs and high-end chains all competing for diner accolades. So why not skip the competition and keep it old school? Serving steaks – along with tableside-prepared Caesar salads and Bananas Foster – since the 1950s, The Golden Steer has remained in a class of its own. Illustrious regulars of have included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and plenty of mobsters. For a scandalous story or two, head to the bar – bartender Johnny has been pouring martinis since the Rat Pack ruled town. Salty-tongued waiters charm you silly, but with no solicitous pretense.
Nevada has long welcomed starry-eyed couples – drunk, sober, or freshly divorced – into its wedding chapels. Witness a wedding at the historic Little White Wedding Chapel (alittlewhitechapel.com), once home to the 1950s nuptials that kicked off Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow's doomed romance, as well and Paul Newman's and Joanne Woodward's famously lasting one. If you're lucky, you'll hear 'Elvis' serenade the bride and groom.
After a night of 21st century clubbing on the Strip, the most bewitching Vegas nightcap can be found inside the Fireside Lounge. Imagine a neon den of Swinging Sixties-era cool, where couples cozy next to the bubbling fire pit and strangers trade sultry glances over their Mai Tais. Groups should head to a booth and order a Scorpion, a giant fishbowl of a cocktail served with multiple straws. If you find it's 5am and your craving for waffles has just hit, you're in luck: the Fireside just happens to be inside the strip's most outrageously fun 24-hour diner, The Peppermill.
Before you say farewell to Sin City, pick up a piece of Vegas history to bring home – say, an ashtray from the legendary Sands Hotel – from downtown's Retro Vegas (retro-vegas.com). Pssst… keep an eye out for a shot glass or a matchbook from the 1950s-era, Moroccan-themed Sahara Hotel and Casino, which closed in 2011 (now reopened as the SLS Las Vegas Hotel and Casino).
This article was originally published July 2011 and updated in January 2015.
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