This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Before there was the Strip, there was Downtown. Today, Las Vegas is alight with humongous themed casinos offering big pools and glamorous parties. But there was once a time when Vegas danced to a different tune.
The modern Las Vegas was born out of the sand when The Flamingo Hilton opened in 1946. She used to present a different kind of charm back in those glamour years. Crooners, cigars, cabaret girls and those looking to find fame and fortune defined what Las Vegas was about in the early days.
The sand is now long gone, replaced by concrete, cars and the most recognizable line-up of casinos in the world – the Las Vegas Strip. Casinos are continuously built, imploded and then built again. Sports cars, tanned bodies and families flock to soak in pools, eat in endless buffets, catch a show and play some blackjack.
However, old-timers will remember the other Las Vegas that flourished prior to the Strip. It still survives and thrives in its own special way today. Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas!
Downtown revolves around Fremont Street. One of the must-visit places in Las Vegas, there is a charm to Fremont Street that has people coming back year after year. The whole street is now a carfree zone, having been converted into an arched-roof covered pedestrian mall. The ceiling above the mall creates the perfect canvas for a spectacular light and sound show that thrills visitors every night on the hour from 6 pm to midnight (1 am on weekends).
This is a part of Las Vegas where you still find young party-goers collecting plastic bead chains and filling up their large margarita sippers from the casinos’ streetfront vending shops. For some reason it’s not as contrived as other parts of Las Vegas, allowing a more laid back feel to those who frequent Downtown.
The casinos are what we love about Downtown. They feel like the casinos of old, before they were owned and run by faceless companies and actuaries wearing boring suits. Most of the casinos have stained carpets and waiters and waitresses whose best days are behind them, but are far from gone. This is the sort of place where you don’t mind drinking whiskey straight out of a glass with a thumbprint on the edge of it, because the waiter didn’t polish it properly with his old white towel.
The sports books still write up their odds by hand and the seats at the poker table are by no means ergonomic. The table felt tends to be thinner, the lighting dimmer, and air conditioners chug away in the corner. The rooms are cheap, yet clean, with starched white linen and small dingy bathrooms. You can still get your shoes polished by a real-life shoe shine guy who actually does it for a living, not just paid by the establishment in a vain attempt to create an atmosphere of yesteryear. A Downtown casino is the real deal!
There are a couple of very good steak houses Downtown, but the majority of the food inside the casinos is more café style. It’s nice to get an old-fashioned tuna melt or Reuben sandwich instead of Subway or Pizza Hut in a food court. The Downtown clientele are more old-school and this is what they expect and enjoy. You won’t find any Orange County trustfund kiddies hanging out here. There are plenty of stories to be told and Downtown folk have no problem sparing 10 minutes of their time for a chat.
Do yourself a favor and get yourself Downtown next time you are in Las Vegas. By all means stay and spend most of your time on the Strip, but make sure you take in some history with a visit to the old Las Vegas.
129 East Fremont Street
Telephone +1 702 385 7111
This is the best property on Fremont Street, better even than a lot of casinos on the strip. It is clean, recently renovated and has the most luxurious rooms to be found Downtown, as well as a very upmarket pool area.
The Golden Nugget also has an excellent gaming floor and a fine poker room with some of the friendliest and most professional staff going around. Even though it is the nicest of the Downtown casinos, its relaxed surroundings maintain a laid-back charm.
128 East Fremont Street
Telephone +1 702 382 1600
Binion’s, formerly and famously known as the Horseshoe, is the spiritual home of poker. Their Hall of Fame Poker Room has a Gallery of Champions featuring photos of past World Series of Poker champions, where visitors take photos and comment on their favorite, and not so favorite, players. The poker room is a good one and they have excellent low limit tournaments running daily.
The casino is somewhat tired, and the days when Benny Binion proudly walked the floor of his showpiece Horseshoe property are well and truly over. But make no mistake, this is still a great property to visit.
217 Las Vegas Blvd North
Telephone +1 702 384 8444
This gem of a casino bills itself as the “friendliest casino in Vegas”. It has 162 recently refurbished rooms and a very nice outdoor and pool area. There’s free parking, and a nice little bar with reasonable food, all in a good location.
Did I mention that you get all of this from as low as US$20 a night?
1 Main Street
Telephone +1 702 386 2110
Featuring over 1,000 rooms and a brand new casino, the Plaza is considered one of the more swanky Downtown venues.
They have a fitness center should you want to burn off a few of those kilos you picked up at one of the buffets, and there’s even a hair salon featuring stylists in bikinis and lingerie!
202 Fremont Street
Telephone +1 702 385 4011
Four Queens is a well-known Downtown casino that has featured in many movies. It is recognizable by its iconic and dazzling light display at the front door.
Plenty of well-priced rooms, along with great dining options and bars make this a fantastic place for those looking to save a few dollars, or just simply visit and enjoy! The Four Queens is very typical of the casinos you will find Downtown.