Uncovering a different side of Las Vegas

Tamara Hinson

There’s more to this iconic city than neon lights and the drama of the casinos, as Tamara Hinson discovers…

Full disclosure: I’ve never performed an autopsy, or had any real desire to. But I now suspect I’d do a pretty good job. I’ve also discovered a knack for crime scene investigation, and the ability to identify a murder victim’s age by the condition of their bones. These somewhat unexpected realisations take place at Las Vegas’s Mob Museum, more specifically its latest attraction, the interactive crime lab.

Yes, Las Vegas might have casinos galore, dancing fountains, flamingo-filled pools and rollercoasters wrapped around its hotels, but venture away from the neon glow of the Strip and you’ll discover a very different side to Sin City.

 

The aforementioned Mob Museum is a fantastic example. Opened in 2012 inside a low, three-storey former courthouse (once Las Vegas’s tallest building), the exhibits provide an insight into the darker days of the city’s history. It’s a no-holds-barred exposé of a time when a small number of mobsters made enormous amounts of money, mostly by skimming casino profits. I learn about Al Capone (whose gun is on display), Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and Sam Giancana, and how many of the city’s most notorious gangsters were sent to Las Vegas from Chicago, where the gambling scene was also controlled by the mob. In fact, one of the most striking exhibits is the original, bullet-riddled wall of a Chicago warehouse. This was where, in 1929, seven members of the fearsome North Side Gang died in a hail of bullets fired by hitmen connected to Al Capone.

Previous signs make for an exciting exhibit at the Neon Museum

"Years ago, casinos got rid of old chips by embedding them in concrete and dumping them in the lake"

Equally gruesome is the gas chamber chair in which some of Las Vegas’s most notorious gangsters died, although there are plenty of less grizzly exhibits, too. In the section which looks at how casinos tackle the issue of cheating, there are displays of devices used by cheaters and a lump of plastic-flecked cement retrieved from the depths of nearby Lake Mead. Years ago, casinos got rid of old casino chips by embedding them in concrete blocks which were then unceremonioulsy dumped in the lake.

 

A little less dark (in more ways than one) is the nearby Neon Museum, a resting place for Vegas’s most famous signs. What’s become known as the “neon bone yard” can only be visited on group tours due to the value of the signs, so it’s worth booking ahead. Highlights include the original Stardust and Golden Nugget signs (my guide, Emily, explains that the “1905” on the latter was a nod to what many see as the year of Vegas’s birth) and I learn about sign-makers’ penchant for subliminal messaging. For example, when the letter S was used, it was often designed to resemble a dollar sign, in an effort to persuade gamblers to part with more money. And some of Las Vegas’s most iconic logos have now been brought back to life, thanks to Brilliant!, the museum’s new night time sound and light show which uses hi-tech lasers to light up the signs, restoring them to their former glory.

The exterior of The Mob Museum

But a word of warning: although this downtown area of Las Vegas, seven miles north of the Strip, is being regenerated, certain areas are still a work in progress. If you’re visiting at night time, consider using a cab to travel the short distance between the two museums and the area’s biggest attraction—Fremont Street, an undercover entertainment district where you’ll find the city’s longest zip line. In true Las Vegas style, riders are spit out of a giant slot machine.

Another advantage of calling a cab? You’ll have more room for all your purchases from the nearby Las Vegas North Premium Outlets, where you’ll find 175 stores, including Michael Kors, Neiman Marcus Last Call Studio and Nike. Recent additions include Escada, funky Rhode island-based jewellers Alex and Ani and Shake Shack, where I gorged on what might just be the world’s best (and largest) milkshake.

 

Las vegas is slowly shunning its reputation for super-sized food and unconstrained excess. Sure, Fremont Street has a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill where waitresses dressed in surgical whites serve up 9,982 calorie “Quadruple Bypass Burgers”, and yes, you can ditch cutlery to gnaw on chicken bones while knights joust metres from your table (that particular spectacle takes place at Excalibur), but the Strip is now also home to a number of fine dining restaurants too. One of the most recent additions is the MGM Grand’s China Tang, famous for its high-end Chinese fare. I also love the Cosmopolitan hotel’s vintage-themed Beauty & Essex eatery, where I eat the best salmon ceviche of my life, but only after plucking up the courage to walk through a side door in the pawn shop which acts as a false front for this speakeasy-style restaurant.

At the iconic nearby Caesars Palace, the newest restaurant is Hell’s Kitchen. I arrive to be greeted by an angry, swearing Gordon Ramsay (albeit a virtual one whose profanities are dutifully bleeped out) and take my seat by an open kitchen staffed by chefs wearing red and blue uniforms—a reference to the show’s two teams of contestants. Tiny pitchforks (the hit television series’ logo) adorn the walls and the menu is filled with Gordon’s signature dishes, including his beef Wellington and crème brûlée. Michelle Tribble, who recently won season 17 of the show, is head chef. “I’ll tell you one thing,” whispers my waiter conspiratorially, nodding towards the kitchen. “Michelle’s a chef who won’t hesitate to show anyone the door if they’re not pulling their weight.” Luckily, my beef Wellington lives up to the hype and I have no reason to risk her wrath with any complaints.

Displays at a Vegas art gallery

There are various ways to escape the madness of Las Vegas. At the art deco-themed Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas (the only hotel on the Strip without a casino), the walls heave with priceless pieces of art, fresh flowers scent the air and thick cream carpets muffle the faintest of noises. My highlight? The spa, which was given a major refurbishment in late 2016, has 12 beautiful treatment rooms and one of the most snooze-worthy relaxation areas I’ve ever come across.

And then there’s the greenery of MGM Resorts’ outdoor space, The Park—vast expanses of the stuff, complete with art installations, park benches and beer gardens, bordered by some of Las Vegas’s best bars and restaurants. My favourite? Beerhaus, with its leafy patio and German beer hall-inspired interior, and Sake Rok, where you can feast on sushi while your waitress takes part in a lip-sync battle with her colleagues. Sounds odd, but it works.

And while the crowds flock to the Bellagio for the nightly fountain shows, consider heading inside to the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, where 140 horticulturalists reinvent the garden every winter, spring, summer and autumn. Previous gardens have included a Capri-themed creation featuring enormous lemons made out of flowers, and a winter wonderland, complete with poinsettia polar bears and flurries of artificial snow.

The infamous Las Vegas Strip

 

My top tip? Don’t take vegas too seriously, and don’t miss an opportunity to see how the other half live. On my final night, we head over to ARIA Resort & Casino’s JEWEL Nightclub, a 24,000 square feet playground for Las Vegas’s beautiful people—many of whom flock to the luxurious VIP suites. It’s certainly an eye-opener. At clusters of seats on the other side of a velvet rope, I spot a gaggle of Rolex-bedecked clubbers placing orders for bottles of Dom Pérignon. Bottle after sparkler-adorned bottle arrives at their table, carried by waitresses who resemble Victoria’s Secret models. Then again, a glance at the menu reveals that a Methuselah (six-litre) bottle of champagne would set me back well over £20,000, so the least they can do is throw a few sparklers in.

As I sip my bottle of Corona (minus the sparklers, although served by a scantily-clad waitress who gives me serious guilt pangs about last night’s buffet-related indulgences) I realise I can’t remember the last time I was in a nightclub—and it’s certainly not because of Dom Pérignon-induced memory loss. But I’m fairly certain it didn’t look anything like this. Then again, Las Vegas is the one place in the world which will always defy expectations, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.