Sure, Las Vegas is synonymous with over-indulgence in all of the things. How can you possibly have fun in Las Vegas without drinking and gambling? Years ago, I would’ve been horrified at the mere suggestion.
Yet, as they tend to do, things change, and I found myself traveling to Las Vegas for eight nights, as a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling shadow of my irresponsible former self. Adding to the pressure to have a great time, I was celebrating my birthday in Sin City.
I mean, what can you do in Las Vegas without drinking or gambling?
Turns out, quite a lot. If you are pregnant, sober, not into partying, traveling with children, or travelings for work, worry not, as Sin City has oodles of activities that won’t involve a pile of regret in the morning.
My 16 favorite things to do in Las Vegas (minus the booze and gambling):
1) Visit Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay:
Finding a peaceful corner of Las Vegas is already miraculous, but combined with the silent grace of gliding apex predators, this experience is very special.
Highlights include the nearly 360-degree view inside the aquarium tunnel, a touch tank, and a piranha display. We visited Shark Reef on a Sunday evening and had the place to ourselves.
Skip the Polar Journey exhibition next door, as sadly there are no adorable penguins inside, although the entrance fee is included with the Shark Reef ticket (price is $25).
2) Food crawl through the Downtown Container Park:
Located on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, check out this quirky eating and shopping area made entirely out of shipping containers. Its modern, family friendly, hipster vibe (complete with a music-blasting, flame-throwing, 55-foot steel praying mantis) has live music, movies in the 4-D experience dome, and an AstroTurf grass area for lounging.
3) The Mob Museum:
Next door to the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, or Mob Museum. Visit off-peak (evening) to have the place to yourself!
The museum, located in a historic courthouse houses exhibits such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Wall. (It’s worth noting that if you’re traveling with children, the exhibits may be too violent.)
If you are in town for a few days, make sure to buy the Mob Museum/Neon Museum combo pass, and save a few bucks.
5) Eat amazing food
Prime rib and crab legs at 5 am? We’ve all done it (right?). Buffets aside, there are some epic food experiences to be had in Las Vegas. Celebrity chef restaurants exist by the dozen (I tried in vain to get into Gordon Ramsay’s new Hell’s Kitchen). Feeling adventurous? Try dining blind in a pitch-black restaurant.
For my birthday dinner we chose the 6-course tasting menu at Michael Mina, which is a solid option. However, my favorite meal of the trip, was at the generically named Border Grill (Mandalay Bay). Expect delicious and creative Mexican food, with many vegan and vegetarian options, which you can enjoy (with a virgin margarita, of course) on the patio overlooking the Lazy River.
If you aren’t drinking, but don’t want to miss the opportunity to make really bad decisions, there’s always the Heart Attack Grill on Fremont St. Pay for the privilege of “nurses” that will paddle you for failing to finish your order of Double Bypass Burger and Flatliner Fries.
6) Sun worship on the pool deck
Despite visiting Las Vegas several times, I had never taken advantage of the most pleasant (and cheapest!) of thrills, and that is worshiping the desert sun on a rooftop pool deck.
OK, it’s only cheap if you’ve booked a room, but you need to stay somewhere! May as well stay at a resort that has a beach (like the 11-acres of beach and pools the Mandalay Bay). The seminar I attended was located near Fremont St., therefore I checked into the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino to take advantage of their rooftop pool.
7) Race exotic cars
A few weeks before we traveled to Las Vegas, the husband turned 40. I surprised him with the Supercar Driving Experience at Exotics Racing located at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A bit pricey, maybe, but he got to drive a Ferrari. In fact, despite having zero interest in cars, I had race car envy and signed myself up for the Drifting Ride-Along experience in a Dodge Hellcat. I left $99 lighter but exactly ZERO regrets. So. Fun.
Fremont Street is the pedestrianized “action” area of Downtown Las Vegas. Here you can eat at the Heart Attack Grill, watch live music, take your photo with “street performers”, and ride Slotzilla, the zipline thrill ride suspended above Fremont Street.
The atmosphere reminds me of NYC’s Times Square mixed with a few scenes in Mad Max Fury Road. It’s an amusing way to spend a few hours, especially if you are heading down to the Downtown Container Park.
Outside Binion’s Casino on Fremont St., Downtown Las Vegas Riders on Slotzilla, Fremont St, Downtown Las Vegas
9) Take in a show
Magicians, Cher, Cirque du Soleil…how can you possibly choose? Every show I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas has been excellent though my top two are Blue Man Group, which blew away my expectations, and the mesmerizing “O” by Cirque du Soleil.
Several women participating in my business seminar cut loose one night to see Magic Mike Live and breathlessly raved the next day. However, the husband would not be convinced.
10) Shopping experience
Peering out a window at Bally’s Hotel and Casino, I was mesmerized by the line of people waiting to get inside the M&M’s World store. Why people, why?
Regardless of your shopping taste, Las Vegas has whatever you are into (like personalized m&ms!). My favorite place to escape the casino floor is the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. This oasis of relative calm features reasonably priced, normal stores in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. Complete with gondoliers!
For window-shopping luxury brands like Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton, head over to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.
For a quirkier experience, check out the Downtown Container Park (above at #2) or the Las Vegas Arts District.
Need a break from all the neon? Hoover Dam is an easy 45-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip on the Nevada-Arizona border. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, especially considering it was built with 1930’s technology.
Multiple tour agencies offer round-trip transportation to the dam with pickup from your Las Vegas hotel. I rented a car to visit the Valley of Fire (see # 12 below) and chasing the setting sun, we managed to arrive at twilight, which made for a spectacular sunset.
Tip #1: The visitor’s center closes at 5 pm, however, it is possible to park and walk along the dam until 7 pm. It’s not necessary to book a tour or visit the visitor center if you just want to take a few pictures.
Tip #2: If you want your pictures to be in color, make sure you aren’t using the black and white, artsy camera app on your phone. You’re welcome.
12) Day trip to Valley of Fire
““I know this really cool place in the desert”
—Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Have a full day to spend in the desert? Do not miss the opportunity to explore the outstanding beauty of the Valley of Fire State Park located about 60 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Named for it’s astonishing red rock formations, here you can hike among boulders and cacti, witness ancient petroglyphs, and try to spot a desert tortoise. Take advantage of the desert light and her shadows for some truly spectacular photographs. I recommend entering the Valley of Fire through the Lake Mead Recreation Area (Route 167) to maximize the desert scenery. (This means you’ll pay two park fees, but I think it’s worth it.)
13) Day trip to Red Rock Canyon
For slightly different desert scenery, head over to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, less than 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon has a 13-mile scenic drive loop, where you can stop at many trail heads and hike among the boulders and Joshua Trees. The loop itself was fairly crowded, so to avoid “Sunday driver” fatigue, check it out mid-week, or early morning to avoid peak times.
14) Day trip to Mount Charleston
Less than an hour from the desert floor and neon lights, climb mountain roads and find yourself among the conifers, and even snow.
Mount Charleston towers over Las Vegas at nearly 12,000 feet and offers visitors hiking trails, and even a small ski resort. The Mt. Charleston Lodge looked like a great place to grab a bite and enjoy the view.
(Unfortunately, I managed to injure myself that day, and lunch plans were aborted. If you go, let me know about the food!
15) Experience the Old West
Bonnie Springs Ranch, a replica 1880s mining town, saloon, and motel, is a perfect lunch spot on the way to Red Rock Canyon. Dozens of peacocks, ducks, and turtles roaming the grounds add to the fun, as well as a small zoo (of rescued animals) and horseback riding tours. Adults will appreciate the Ranch’s Old West kitschy vibe, and kids will absolutely love the scenic train ride around the property. Located 20 miles from the Strip off NV-159.
16) Get on the water
Is there a more appealing way to escape the Las Vegas grime and heat other than slipping into some crystal clear water? Surprisingly, despite being landlocked—and in the middle of the desert!—the Las Vegas area offers many opportunities to get near the water. Dozens of tour operators take visitors white water rafting, kayaking, wakeboarding, and paddle boarding, in the nearby Colorado River, Lake Mead, or Lake Las Vegas.
I spent two nights away from The Strip to, instead, contemplate the view at Lake Las Vegas, which offered paddle-board and boat rentals. I was devastated that the pool at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resorts & Spa was closed for the season (it was February) and had to be satisfied with simply gazing at the shimmering water and sunsets.
Next time: Despite all the activities, one that I regret missing was a helicopter tour. Tour companies offer flights of the Las Vegas skyline at night or even trips to the Grand Canyon. (Starting at around $100 for a short flight of the Las Vegas skyline.)
Sure, Las Vegas gets a bit much.
Seemingly every whim or desire that anyone has ever had, in the history of the world, has been capitalized in. Then, everyone is trying to sell it to you, at the same time, in the same place. It also means, no matter what you are into, chances are Las Vegas has you covered. Want to spend the weekend partying, gorging on buffets, and never leaving the casino? Sure! Or wake up early, go for a swim, meditate in the desert, and then a vegan food crawl? You can do that, too. And that is the beauty of Las Vegas.
While Las Vegas certainly aims to entertain, it’s also a city where thousands of people push their boundaries a little bit every day. Step out of their comfort zones and try something they’ve never done before. That week I turned 39, hiked new national parks, zoomed around a race track at 100-mph, ate gourmet hot dogs, and altogether had a fantastic week in Las Vegas without drinking or gambling. I’m already planning my next trip.
View from the Westin, Lake Las Vegas
Tip: Download the ride-sharing app, Lyft, when you land. Considerably cheaper than taxis and very convenient for getting around.
The Las Vegas airport, and most major hotels and casinos have a Lyft/Uber pickup “rank” separate from the taxi area, just look for the signs.
(A version of this content was originally published on Direct from the District.)
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