No lengthy history lessons. No backstory. No explanations. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of how this city came to be, look elsewhere. ‘Cause it ain’t here. This is Vegas. Las Vegas. Sin City. And for readers of The Open Road Ahead, what happens in Vegas certainly does not stay in Vegas. (Well… mostly).
My wife and I just returned from a week in southern Nevada. Rather than attempting to give a complete timeline of everything we did and every single adventure we experienced, this post will give you our recommendations of places to visit, tours to take, and restaurants to enjoy. So pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit back, and let me take you to America’s Playground:
We began our trip at Newark International Airport, bleary-eyed, at 6:00 am. Owing to the time zone difference, we arrived in Las Vegas, over 2,000 miles away, at 8:30 in the morning. Destinations
Destination One: The Mob Museum
Anyone who knows the history of Las Vegas (or who has watched the films The Godfather, The Godfather II, and Casino) will know that Las Vegas has a long history of organized crime. The Mob Museum, established in 2012 in the old Las Vegas Post Office and Court House, tells the story of the seedier history of this city.
While waiting in line to purchase our tickets, we checked out these post office boxes, which are original to the building’s 1931 construction.
Despite the way that Hollywood has at times romanticized the mafia, the Mob Museum gives an honest account of the crimes and heinous actions of organized crime in the United States from the 19th century through today.
From the 1920’s through the 1940’s, the Arizona Club was the biggest saloon and gambling hall in Las Vegas, with strong ties to the mafia. The third floor houses a large exhibition about the earlier history of mob involvement in Vegas (via The Mob Museum website).
This Columbia Deluxe slot machine from the mid-1930s was one of the exhibits in the Arizona Club.
On February 14, 1929, members of Bugs Moran’s gang were lined up against a brick wall in a garage and gunned down by associates of Al Capone in what is known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This is not a reproduction – the museum acquired the actual wall which was taken from the garage before the building was torn down. The bullet holes are original but the red was added by a previous owner to draw attention to the holes – it is not real blood.
The Thompson Submachine Gun was originally designed for the US Army to use in the trenches of World War I. After the war, it became a favorite of both law enforcement and criminals. The Tommy Gun (also known as the Chicago Piano) was the weapon used for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Organized crime has long been involved with sports gambling. One of the most notorious early examples was the 1919 World Series, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing in exchange for receiving money from gamblers.
The courtroom, original to the building (including the furniture) had a special exhibit about the Kefauver Hearings, US Congressional investigations of organized crime in the 1950s. The hearings were credited with galvanizing public opinion against the mob.
The museum makes a strong connection between organized crime in the early 20th century and the mob of today. One of the exhibits was of James. J. “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston-area criminal who was captured in 2011 and was murdered in prison in November of last year. One of the most chilling sections was a display of photos of people that Whitey or his associates had killed, many of whom had no connection to crime other than having been a witness.
A letter written to a reporter by Whitey Bulger, penned while Bulger was in prison. The museum does an excellent job of taking a no-nonsense approach to organized crime, displaying objects like this, but providing excellent context and background to help you understand the heinous acts of many people associated with organized crime.
The museum does have a somewhat more lighthearted side, however… the basement houses a Prohibition-era speakeasy, where you can sit and sip cocktails, all made from authentic recipes from the 1920s.
My wife and I definitely sampled the recipes – she tried the Giggle Water (right) and I ordered the Scofflaw (left).
Located in the Downtown section of Las Vegas on Stewart Boulevard, The Mob Museum is open daily from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm. A general admission ticket is $26.95, a Deluxe Pass (which gives you access to general admission plus one special exhibit) is $38.95, and a Premier Pass (which gives you access to general admission plus every special exhibit) is $44.95. Discounts are available on the website, so check before you go. We purchased the general admission and were happy with our decision. The Mob Museum is an excellent educational experience, and we would highly recommend visiting if you are in the Las Vega area.
Destination Two: Hollywood Cars Museum
Our next destination was the Hollywood Cars Museum. My wife had found this online and planned out the trip to see this very cool exhibition hall that has famous cars from television and movies.
In Las Vegas, Uber can be a cheaper alternative to taxi cabs. We used Uber almost exclusively during our vacation, but our best driver was Ronald. He was polite, friendly, and gave us good advice on sites to see in the city. His 2016 Acura MDX was spacious and comfortable. Ronald also told us about his pride and joy, a 2008 Acura MDX with 240,000 miles on the odometer. Yes, my superpower is striking up conversations about high mileage vehicles.
With cars ranging from KITT from Knight Rider to the Mercedes featured in The Hangover, the museum was everything I hoped it would be.
My first stop was the iconic Mitsubishi Eclipse driven by the late Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious. As is the practice for most cars used in films and TV shows, this is one of several identical vehicles used in filming. This particular one was the vehicle that was shot up by Johnny Tran, the villain of the first film.
A stunt car from The Dukes of Hazzard (a 1970 Dodge Charger).
From the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, this is the Ford V8 in which the criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, are shot to death.
“In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they did not commit…” This is the stunt van from the 80’s TV hit The A-Team.
And of course, my favorite TV show of my childhood was Knight Rider, which followed Michael Knight and his faithful supercar KITT as they fought against the criminal underworld. Sadly, this is a reproduction (which I spotted due to the incorrect number of fog lights and inaccurate interior). While many of the cars in the museum are authentic, several other are replicas, which the museum plainly states on the information placards.
In the middle of the collection hall were several vehicles from the James Bond universe, including the AMC Matador flying car, driven by villain Scaramanga (played by Christopher Lee) in The Man with the Golden Gun.
The centerpiece of the collection, though, was the Lotus Esprit submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me. Of the six built for the film, this is one of only three survivors. It was discovered in a junkyard in the Bahamas before being painstakingly restored. And yes, it was built to be drivable underwater.
“I’m Robin Leach, with those champagne wishes and caviar dreams…” This 45-foot long stretched Mercedes-Benz limousine, complete with a heart-shaped hot tub in the rear, was featured on the 80’s paean to the uber-wealthy, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
This roller skate hot rod was built for fashion designer Marc Jacobs.
This Ford Torino was one of the stunt cars from the TV show Starsky and Hutch.
Not all the vehicles were cars… this is the lifeboat used for the filming of Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks.
In the rear of the museum is the Liberace Garage, which housed vehicles and other important artifacts from the life of entertainer Wladziu Valentino Liberace. The centerpiece is this 1961 Rolls Royce Phantom V, which was Liberace’s personal vehicle for several years before becoming a show car.
This piano dragster was designed for Liberace to use at the opening of his shows. However, he passed away in 1987 before he was able to ever ride in it.
Located on Dean Martin Drive, the Hollywood Cars Museum is open every day from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. Tickets cost $15 for adults. However, children 15 and under can enter for free, and the website also offers a $5-off ticket. We found our tickets on Groupon, and so were able to save some money on the price of admission. If you are interested in cars, pop culture, or the artifacts of famous movies, then this museum is definitely worth a stop.
Destination Three: National Atomic Testing Museum
We traveled across town to visit the National Atomic Testing Museum, which is associated with the Smithsonian Institute.
Nevada was the site of more than 900 above- and below-ground nuclear weapons tests. The test site was a mere 65 miles from Las Vegas, and bright lights from nuclear explosions were often visible in the Las Vegas sky.
The number of authentic artifacts on display was impressive. This rocket was fired through the mushroom clouds during the Christmas Island Tests of the 1960s. The rocket was used to test for radioactive elements that would exist during a nuclear explosion.
The museum had several nuclear weapons on display, including this nuclear artillery shell. The idea of nuclear artillery was short-lived. As the video below shows, artillery has a short range, and so US soldiers would be exposed to some of the blast and shockwave from their own weapon.
Even something as simple as caution tape took on an ominous appearance when found beside these old nuclear weapons.
The 1940’s through the early 1960’s was a time when “atomic” was cool – toys, books, drinks, and even cereal celebrated the nuclear age.
Perhaps the strangest item we saw was the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab from 1950, a chemistry set which allowed children to create and study nuclear reactions using actual radioactive elements. Its reputation as the “world’s most dangerous toy” is well earned (via Wikipedia).
Numerous nuclear tests were conducted over the Pacific Ocean during the 20th century. This is page one of a four-page letter from a Japanese scientist to the Chief of the Atomic Energy Commission, detailing when the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, eighty miles away from a nuclear test, suffered radiation poisoning.
Owing to the harmful effects of testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, testing moved underground, where the fallout could be more easily contained. This is an actual test chamber for underground nuclear weapons testing.
A B-53 thermonuclear weapon, one of 350 built. Taken out of service in 2011, this weapon was designed to penetrate reinforced bunkers. Despite my appreciation of military history museums, the sheer number of ways that humanity has thought up to kill one another is staggering.
Located on East Flamingo Road, the National Atomic Testing Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm and Sunday from 12:00 pm until 5:00 pm. Tickets are $22 for adults, Students, active duty military personnel, and seniors age 62+ can enter for $18, youth ages 7-14 can enter for $16, and children 6 and under can enter for free. If you are interested in military history, or the science of the nuclear age, this is definitely worth a visit.
Destination Four: The Grand Canyon
270 miles to the west of Las Vegas is Grand Canyon National Park, where visitors can witness one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world.
Despite my aversion to bus tours, we made reservations with GC Tours for the five hour trip. Taking a tour bus was cheaper than renting a car and driving the route ourselves. We were picked up bright and early at 6:00 am for our journey to Arizona.
Our first stop was to the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Built between 1931-1935, this 724-foot tall hydroelectric dam provides electricity to Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona.
We drove over the dam, but could only stop briefly before we were on the road again. I would certainly like to come back for a complete tour of the facility.
Our next stop was Seligman, Arizona. The town is along Route 66, one of the original national highways. Where many other towns have withered away after being bypassed by the interstate highways, Seligman has survived as a tourist stop for those seeking Route 66 nostalgia.
The tourist shops of Seligman were filled with out-of-town visitors looking to purchase souvenirs and take their photo with a Route 66 sign.
Tired of being mobbed by all the other tourists, my wife and I used the time to wander through town, walking beside Route 66. Along the way, we saw a small sign that indicated the town was also a stop along an even older route – Beale’s Wagon Road, a wagon trail that ran from Arkansas to California from the 1850’s until the 1920’s.
After over five hours of riding in the tour bus, we finally arrived at Grand Canyon National Park. We spent three hours at the South Rim of the canyon. The rim is dotted with lodges such as Bright Angel Lodge (pictured), where guests can have a meal, purchase souvenirs, or rest. Bright Angel, part of the Grand Canyon National Historic District, was built in 1935.
We walked out of Bright Angel Lodge and came to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It took our breath away.
277 miles long, at places 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep, the Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years by the shifting landscape of the Colorado Plateau and the flow of the Colorado River.
18 types of rock form the geology of the Grand Canyon. Phantom Granite (pictured) is over 1.6 million years old.
One of the National Park placards at the rim had this to say: “Perhaps the best we can do is just feel the canyon’s enormity. Measure yourself up against it. We are minuscule in comparison.” For the next several photos, I’m going to step back and not provide any captions. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
The Hopi House is located in the Village at the South Rim. The building, built in 1904, is designed to resemble a Hopi Pueblo. It is now a store, selling handmade goods from local Native Americans.
The items that most caught my eye were the Storyteller Statues, made by the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico.
We ate lunch in the El Tovar Dining Room in the El Tovar Hotel (built in 1905). This is as good of a shot as you’re going to get. After we ordered our meal, the power went out across the entire park. Ours was the last meal served, as our order was completed moments before the electricity died. We had the Traditional Navajo Tacos and an order of nachos. Of course… you can’t see it, so you’ll have to take my word on it.
Kolb Studio, built from 1904 through 1926, is situated on the side of the canyon wall. We browsed the small gift shop on the main floor. Having hiked a perimeter trail along the canyon, eaten good food, and filled with memories of great sites, we boarded the bus to return to Las Vegas.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To enter the park, there is a fee of $35 per vehicle. If you are interested in hiking the canyon, be sure to check the trail information with the National Park Service, as on the day we arrived, some of the trails were still icy and snow-covered. The Grand Canyon is listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders, and is worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. While the bus ride from Las Vegas was long, it was certainly worth it. I would love to return to this magnificent site again, and explore more of the canyon and its surroundings.
Located on a side street off Freemont Street in the Downtown section of Las Vegas, La Comida serves authentic Mexican fare at reasonable prices.
We split an Ensalada Organica as an appetizer. My wife ordered the enchiladas while I had the chicken fajitas (pictured). The homemade guacamole was the highlight of my dish. And the margaritas were terrific, too. Therapy
Located on Freemont Street, Therapy is a gastropub serving delicious food and a wide range of drinks.
I ordered the “Ricky Ricardo” Cuban sandwich while my wife had the Spinach and Bacon salad (smoked beets, crispy bacon, spinach, pear, candied pecan, and bacon vinaigrette). Both were excellent, but my appetizer choice of the Therapy Signature Salad, however, was the highlight of the meal. Scarpetta
Our dinner choice for our last night was Scarpetta, an Italian restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino on the Strip. One of the biggest (and most surprising) challenges was finding gluten-free food in Las Vegas, as it almost seemed an afterthought at most restaurants. Scarpetta, however, has a separate 3-page gluten free menu.
My wife enjoyed the Pici (lobster, tarragon, almonds, and chili pesto on gluten free pasta) while I had the short rib agnolotti. Our appetizer (pictured) of diver scallops (scallops, braised pork belly, sweet peas, and scallop sherry au jus) was simply amazing. Downtown and The Strip
Downtown is the original Las Vegas, where legalized gambling had its start in the city. The heart of Downtown is Freemont Street, where the first Vegas casinos were built. Freemont Street is covered by a canopy that has 12.5 million LED bulbs, creating light shows above the main pedestrian thoroughfare.
The abundance of neon signs gave Downtown its nickname of the “Glitter Gulch.”
Covering the Freemont Street Experience, 12.5 million LED bulbs allow for creative designs and performances.
Despite the newer and ritzier casinos built on The Strip in the last thirty years, this section of Las Vegas has received continuous attention and investment, allowing older casinos such as the Golden Nugget (built in 1946) to survive.
The Las Vegas Strip, a section of Las Vegas Boulevard, is a 4.2-mile long corridor of casinos, hotels, and resorts. Beginning with The Mirage, the Strip is home to many of the mega resorts that are synonymous with Las Vegas such as Caesar’s Palace, Luxor, the MGM Grand, LINQ, and Bally’s.
The Strip during the daytime. Visible are Planet Hollywood (right), Paris (center) and the entrance to Bellagio (left).
The casinos on the strip are known for relentlessly pursuing their themes. Paris Las Vegas, for instance, features a 540-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower.
The Las Vegas Observation Wheel is part of the Linq Hotel. Day prices are significantly cheaper than evening tickets – it costs $22 for an adult to ride in the daytime, while the price rises to $32 for an evening visit.
In one of the upscale malls on the Strip was this floor display for Dream Racing, which allows you to rent your dream car for several laps on a track. For instance, $300 gets you seven laps around a track in an Acura NSX.
Bellagio, a resort that was inspired by a lakeside town of the same name in Italy. Every day the Bellagio features performances of water fountains in the man-made lake which “dance” to music.
An installation of art for Chinese New Year decorated the Bellagio Conservatory.
Over 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers cover the ceiling of the lobby in the Bellagio.
We also took in a performance of O, the water show of Cirque Du Soleil. O has been performed at the Bellagio since 1998. The theater has a special 1.5-million gallon water tank below the stage. This is a photograph of the ceiling of the theater. the steel structure descends from the middle of the ceiling with an acrobat performing between the rails.
And just for fun, a three-minute video of some of the sites in Las Vegas. If you watch closely, you can see: Freemont Street and the LED canopy, neon signs, street performers, the old casinos of Downtown, zip lining along Freemont Street, the Bellagio, Paris, dancing water fountains, the Bellagio conservatory, a chocolate waterfall, and the Bellagio fountains at night.
After a fun-filled week, it felt good to return home to New Jersey, though, and get back to familiar surroundings.. although I will kind of miss all the neon!!
And while it is not an exotic car rental and it did not appear in a movie or TV show… at the end of the trip, it felt good to get behind the wheel of my old Accord again.
We had some fantastic experiences over the past week. The Grand Canyon is a natural wonder that everyone should experience at least once in their lives. However, if visiting again, I think I would rather explore Arizona and come to the Canyon on a more leisurely trip than a five-hour bus ride from Nevada. Of the places we visited in Las Vegas, the Mob Museum receives our strongest recommendation – it is a great general interest museum, with enough details to fulfill the curiosity of even the most ardent student of organized crime and law enforcement. Despite filling our days with some amazing experiences, Las Vegas still has plenty to offer, and we will definitely come back to eat great food, see amazing sites, and have fun.
And the neon. Definitely to check out more neon.
Thanks for coming along on this lengthy journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.