What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but there's more to this city than what you've seen in the movies. Pick up a rental car after your next weekend getaway and venture a few miles off the Las Vegas Strip to discover where the locals eat, drink, and play.
A few blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard, a nondescript shopping center houses the worst-kept secret off the Strip: Lotus of Siam, the restaurant Gourmet magazine once called the best Thai restaurant in the U.S. Head chef Saipin Chutima – the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in the Southwest in 2011 – cooks Northern Thai food, from classics to dishes you don't often see outside of Chiang Mai. Spicy? Sure, but burning off the roof of your mouth never felt so good.
Head down Spring Mountain Road to explore Las Vegas's version of Chinatown, where restaurants like Raku and Ichiza stay open late to serve customers with high standards: the Strip's chefs. "Chinatown" is a loose term for this Restaurant Row, where award-winning chefs are redefining Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisine.
Last, don't forget to pay tribute to the city's Southwestern heritage by hitting some of the valley's fantastic Tex-Mex joints. Off the Southwestern edge of the 215 freeway, Frank and Fina's Cocina (so authentic, they don't even have a website!) serves some of the city's best guacamole. In Howard Hughes's master-planned community of Summerlin, named for his grandmother, is Dona Maria Tamales. Try the famous signature dish, and don't miss the margaritas.
It's almost as glossy as the Strip – but just a few years ago, it wasn't much to look at. "A terrier chasing after a semi," wrote Sunset Magazine recently of the Downtown Las Vegas of the past. But today, with dozens of restaurants and bars – and significant financial support from Zappo's founder Tony Hsieh –downtown Las Vegas is experiencing a Renaissance.
Start at The Griffin, a downtown stalwart where you can curl up by the fire in the cozy lounge or head to the back room to drink and dance to local bands and DJs. For craft beer, try Banger Brewing, where you can sample beers made on site – and play the selection of board games stocked in the comfortable seating area. Not out to see and be seen? Try the Downtown Cocktail Room, where a speakeasy vibe makes close conversation easy.
Further off Las Vegas Boulevard, don't miss some of Las Vegas's most notorious dive bars. The bartenders at Frankie's Tiki Room are serving up classic tiki drinks – think Mai Tais and Scorpions – in kitschy glassware. At Dino's, the bartenders honor their "Drunk of the Month" with a T-shirt and a portrait of honor on their wall. Looking for something a little classier? Try the timeless Peppermill Lounge, an old-school joint with a cozy lounge (and massive plates of food to soak up the $5 martinis during happy hour).
Sure, nightclubs can be fun. But they're no match for the natural beauty of the Southwest. Some of our nation's most majestic mountain ranges are within a short drive of the Strip.
Local legend Branch Whitney wrote the book on hiking around Southern Nevada – literally. His guide (now online, too) will take you everywhere worth going around Red Rock, Mount Charleston, and Lake Mead. Not sure which destination to choose? The weather is another useful guide. Mount Charleston has been known to pack snow until well into the spring, so unless you're packing trekking poles, save Charleston for the summer. Try the classic Mary Jane Falls trail or, for the ambitious (and fit), summit Griffith Peak.
In winter, explore the vibrant colors and textures of Red Rock Canyon. For a good workout without the altitude, try the White Rock Hills Loop. The Ice Box Canyon trail takes you past seasonal waterfalls, a rare and beautiful sight that contrasts with the harshness of the desert landscape.
A little farther out, the Valley of Fire is a great bet for spring or fall – but avoid it in the summer, when highs can reach 120 degrees. There aren't many options to hike at elevation, but locals go to the Valley of Fire for the scenery: towering, alien sandstone formations, desert cacti and flowers, and even the rare (and protected!) desert tortoise.
Nevada is beautiful, but don't forget that you're in a desert. Bring sunscreen, snacks, Chapstick, and more water than you think you'll need, especially in the summer.
You can stay in luxury in one of Station Casinos' upmarket properties, like Green Valley Ranch in Henderson or Red Rock Station in Summerlin, often for less than you'd pay for a similar property on the Strip. With great shopping, day spas, and several restaurants on site, a stay at one of these resorts is a vacation in itself.
On a budget? There are many neighborhood hotel/casinos throughout the city, from the Suncoast in the Northwest to the South Point at the Southwestern edge of town. Neighborhood casinos are as clean and safe as the hotels on the Strip at a fraction of the price, and they're often a great choice for families, with movie theaters, shopping, and pools on site.
There's so much to explore in a city known for just one street. Next time you're out West, spend a few extra days getting to know the real Sin City!