Old casinos never die in Vegas. They may get knocked down, rebuilt and remodelled like the Aladdin (once the Tally Ho, eventually Planet Hollywood), but one bit of them lasts forever: their neon signs. Travel north along the Las Vegas strip, past downtown, and you eventually see a large silver slipper on the central reservation. It's the first sign that you're close to the Neon Museum, collector and preserver of old neon signs and artefacts from Vegas history. At the moment the museum is fashioning itself a visitors' centre from the parabolic concrete shells that once formed the lobby of the historic Vegas La Concha motel.
The La Concha lobby, one of the best examples of Googie architecture, was designed in 1961 by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, and, like most of the museum's collection, was saved from destruction. Fine examples of neon signage in the museum include the Aladdin's original lamp, and the Moulin Rouge sign created by graphic designer and Vegas native Betty Willis, who also made the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign at the southern end of the Strip. More than 150 of the signs will sit in the grounds of the centre when it's finished in September. At present most are in an empty car park next to the development, though 10 signs form part of a self-guided walking tour around Fremont Street.
Pinball Hall of Fame
There may not be any neon, but there are plenty of flashing lights and ringing bells in the nondescript building in its own little pocket of mid-20th century Americana, across the street from the Liberace Museum. The squat one-storey structure houses an arcade where row upon row of pinball machines sit waiting to tease quarters from you for a few minutes of rapid-fire ringing chimes and ker-chunks of steel balls bouncing off bumpers.
The machines all belong to one man, Tim Arnold, who used to be a pinball machine dealer in Michigan. Arnold would buy the machines to put in bars and restaurants then, when they were no longer wanted, rather than scrap them for a few dollars, he would keep them. Eventually, he had a couple of hundred machines.
"It was time for me to retire so I opened the world's first pinball museum," he says. "So here I am in Las Vegas with 400 pinball machines and a big building." He has around 600 more in a "shed" at home.
In the hall of fame, machines range from 1930s and 1940s models up to modern ones. "I prefer the ones I grew up playing, from the 1960s and 1970s. The new stuff is too complicated for me. I like bing, bing, bing. That's what I like."
One of the joys of the hall of fame is that every machine is there to be played – this is not a museum. It is a shrine to Bally, Gottlieb, Williams, Stern – the makers of the machines. There is no entrance fee, games cost 25c or 50c – and there are even a few early 1980s video games should your flipper fingers fail. All proceeds go to charity.
• 1610 East Tropicana. Open 11am-11pmSunday-Thursday (until midnight Friday and Saturday). pinballmuseum.org
Atomic Testing Museum
Just over an hour's drive north-west of the city is the Nevada Test Site, established in 1951 for the testing of nuclear devices. The ground there is a pockmarked, almost lunar landscape after 928 nuclear tests above and below ground between its opening and the final test in 1992. But you don't need to head out into the desert: the Atomic Testing Museum just off the Strip looks at the impact of the nuclear age on Vegas, and the world. From the early atomic tourists who came to view test blasts from rooftops in the city, to the benefits and consequences of nuclear energy, visitors get to see weapons, warheads and even experience a simulated explosion from inside a bunker. As they like to say in the museum, it's a blast.
• 755 East Flamingo Road. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-5pmadults $12, under-17s $9. atomictestingmuseum.org
Valley of Fire
Around an hour's drive from the strip is some of the most spectacular desert scenery in south-west America. The vivid red rock formations (made from sandstone that lay beneath millions of years ago) have been shaped by tides, wind and water to create an otherworldly vista, which has doubled for alien worlds in films such as Total Recall and Star Trek: Generations.
The Valley of Fire state park is open year-round for camping and hiking, though summer temperatures can reach 40C, and sometimes hit 50C during the day, then plummet at night. But it can be a relaxed day trip in an air-conditioned car or tour company bus.
There are also petrified logs and ancient petroglyphs dotted around the park. Some of the most accessible and outstanding rock carvings can be found at Atlatl Rock. A visitors' centre provides information on the area's geology, history and wildlife.
Black Canyon rafting
One of the main tourist attractions on offer in Las Vegas is a trip to Hoover Dam, but to get a little closer to the water, try a trip along the Colorado river through the Black Canyon nearby.
We are not talking white-water rafting here. The dam controls the flow of the river, and this is a very calm and clear stretch, suitable for all ages and abilities, as there is little more to do than sit back and enjoy the scenery and wildlife. The trip begins at the foot of the dam, granting you a spectacular and rarely seen view of the historic landmark, then it's 12 miles to your destination at Willow beach. Along the way there are opportunities to take a dip in the river, or some of the hot springs that feed into natural pools, or keep an eye out for osprey, great blue herons and desert bighorn sheep.
• Black Canyon River Adventures charges $88pp ($54 under-12s) for a Hoover Dam to Willow Beach rafting trip (including lunch)
Where else could you shop next to the canals of Venice one minute and stroll down a French boulevard the next? Or how about a wander around an "exotic-themed" market bazaar? Vegas has them all.
Many of the themed shopping malls hark back to Vegas's tacky past. Yes, they're homogenised and a little sterile, but it's fun to take a gondola ride among the shops under fluffy white clouds in a blue sky. And if you get fed up with constantly sunny skies, the Miracle Mile has an indoor thunderstorm, complete with rain. Or a laser show. And this is the thing about shopping in Vegas: there is always something to see aside from the shops, be it moving statues, a singing gondolier or a fashion show. CityCenter has a high-end mall called Crystals, designed by Daniel Libeskind, full of designer brands and surrounded with sculptures and installations from the likes of Antony Gormley and Henry Moore.
Slightly further away from the strip are outlet malls and the Town Square mall, situated about a mile from the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. They are all easy to get to from the Strip using the double-decker Deuce bus service that runs along the Strip to downtown.
Sushi and sake
Tucked away among the (indoor) canals and gondoliers of the Palazzo casino on the Strip sits Sushisamba, which serves a fusion of Peruvian, Brazilian and Japanese food. It runs an intriguing course combining a beginners' guide to sake with a hands-on course in sushi-making.
Sake sommelier Yuno Hayashi's family ran a sake brewing business, so she has a depth of knowledge accumulated since she was a young girl. She explains the different types of sake – you'll know your ginjo from your junmai – its history and how it is produced. You also taste a series of appetisers and complimentary rice wines to show you what can be done with the various tastes and flavours.
After the sake, one of the restaurant's sushi chefs gives a step-by-step guide to making sushi. You'll learn what to look for, how to choose the right fish, and what tools to use. From balling the rice, to spreading it on the nori seaweed sheets to rolling it, it's a lot of fun, if somewhat messy. Then it's just a case of sitting back with another glass of sake and enjoying the fruits of your labour.
• 3327 Las Vegas Boulevard ( sushisamba.com)
It might seem unlikely that you'd find pieces of the Titanic in the middle of the desert, but they're there in Vegas, and all under the pyramid of the Luxor hotel. The exhibition takes you through the history of the ship from construction to its fateful first Atlantic crossing and displays many artefacts recovered from two-and-a-half miles beneath the Atlantic – personal belongings of crew and passengers and assorted ephemera from the ship. There's a full-scale recreation of the Grand Staircase, a huge indoor iceberg you can touch, and a piece of the hull, recovered from the sea bed.
Also in the Luxor is Bodies, the Gunther von Hagens exhibition of preserved human bodies in various stages of dissection. Whether you regard it as informational, voyeuristic or science, the Luxor has become one of the final resting places (as it were) for a show which has toured – at times controversially – all over the world.
Sticking with the nautical theme a trip to Shark Reef Aquarium at the Mandalay Bay hotel offers a glimpse of predatory aquatic life. See sharks of all kinds, along with sawfish, giant rays, endangered green sea turtles, piranhas, moon jellyfish and rare golden crocodiles. In all, there are over 2,000 animals in 1.6 million gallons of seawater.
Las Vegas has tried art before. After all, if you're going to have high-end hotels, restaurants and boutiques why not have some highbrow culture? The Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio hotel includes works from Picasso, Renoir and Degas, and there is a burgeoning underground art scene.
The CityCenter development, opened last year, has a collection of 25 modern art installations on display around the 67-acre site of hotels, casino, and shops. Works by Gormley and Henry Moore, join pieces from Nancy Rubins, Isa Genzken and Richard Long.
For a more folksy scene, there is First Friday (firstfriday-lasvegas.org), a downtown gathering of artists and open galleries on the first Friday in every month. Alongside the more craft-orientated stalls there are artists trying to establish a more avant garde scene in the city.
• Gallery of Fine Art: adults $15, under-12s fre. bellagio.com/amenities/gallery-of-fine-art.aspx
Las Vegas for free
It will come as no surprise that casinos want your money. So they offer whatever distractions they can to entice you in – cheap rooms, cheap buffets, free shows or free drinks. Take a walk along the Strip and you will pass the fountains of Bellagio, choregraphed to dance along with classic Vegas songs such as Hey, Big Spender and Luck Be a Lady. Performances run every 30 minutes from 3pm-8pm and every 15 minutes from 8pm until midnight.
Further along the Strip, Treasure Island's TI: Sirens show is billed as a pop-opera where pirates swashbuckle, high-dive and dodge pyrotechnics, while singing and dancing. It's more Carry On than a musical version of Pirates of the Caribbean, but there are enough explosions and acrobatics to make it worth catching one of the daily performances, at 5:30 pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, 10pm and 11:30pm.
Elsewhere there is the Volcano at the Mirage, or a visit to the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand where lions from a pride of 31 take turns in an exhibit in the heart of the hotel. The lions live off site at their own ranch, but a few are transported in each day, and you can watch them feed, play and groom themselves behind the glass. Mostly they sleep.
Way to go
Virgin Atlantic flies London-Las Vegas from £565 return including taxes.
Double rooms at Planet Hollywood from $129 per night. Double rooms at the MGM Grand West Wing from $99 per night. Double rooms at the Aria Resort & Casino from $139 per night. All hotel rates exclusive of tax.
Further information: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (+44 20 7367 0979)
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