Las Vegas attracts over 40 million annual visitors, and the vast majority head straight for the Strip, all set to soak in the sights and sounds of the world’s undisputed gambling capital.
But while the ultra-modern designs and cutting-edge casinos that define Las Vegas are certainly nice, many visitors leave town feeling a vague sense of dissatisfaction thinking the best casinos are only located on the Strip. They come expecting gritty gambling adventures and good old-fashioned drunken debauchery, only to find sterile gaming floors bitten by the corporate bug.
Those dreaded “resort fees” that double your advertised room rate would’ve never made it past the desk of true casino industry originals like Benny Binion and Bugsy Seigel. Nor would 6 to 5 payouts on blackjack, double-zero roulette wheels, watered down drinks, parking fees, and all the other money traps that define the Strip today.
When casino owners like them held court in Downtown Las Vegas, the Fremont Street area provided an early template for the Strip—glittering gambling halls with neon lights, free drinks, and all the action a high-roller would ever want.
Throw in entertainers like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his “Rat Pack,” and Wayne Newton wowing audiences on a nightly basis, and Fremont Street in its glory days was a breathtaking sight to behold.
If you haven’t ventured away from the Strip to see what Fremont Street is all about, you’re doing your Las Vegas visits a disservice. Exploring the five things everybody must do when they get to Downtown Las Vegas.
1 – Zoom Through the Fremont Street Experience on the SlotZilla Zip Line
Imagine flying through Fremont Street in a flash, catching every attraction and casino within a minute’s time while onlookers down below gasp at your high-flying tour.
Well, you don’t have to imagine any longer, just buy yourself a ticket to the SlotZilla Zip Line attraction as soon as you arrive on Fremont Street!
Beginner zip liners should get their feet wet with the basic seated ride, which takes you the length of two city blocks in a standard sitting up position.
For experienced zip line enthusiasts, you can double the ticket price to try the “Superman” harness. This enhanced version lets you zoom by in the classic arms forward, horizontal position made famous by everybody’s favorite alien superhero. Even better, you’ll fly the length of five city blocks while going even higher at 11 stories above Fremont Street.
2 – Learn Why They Call It “Sin City” by Taking a Tour of the Mob Museum
Seigel wasn’t the only infamous criminal to see Las Vegas’ legal gambling and lack of regulation in the early days as the goldmine for mobsters.
His partner in crime, Meyer Lansky, helped Seigel finance construction of the Flamingo, the first casino built on the Strip. Fellow member of the Genovese crime family, Moe Sedway, has had hands in the till at the El Cortez, which still stands and serves gamblers on Fremont Street today.
I don’t know all of this because I’m obsessed with Mafia culture and history. It’s all thanks to the fine folks at the Mob Museum: National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.
It’s designed in every way to replicate an art or natural history museum. Complete with dioramas, interactive exhibits, and highly informed tour guides, the Mob Museum is devoted to the dark underbelly of Las Vegas’ founding fathers.
The organizers of the Mob Museum have expressed their mission statement as follows:
“The Mob Museum offers a bold and authentic view of organized crime from vintage Las Vegas to the back alleys of American cities and – increasingly – across the borders and networks of the entire world.
Explore the real stories and actual events of Mob history through interactive exhibits and one-of-a-kind Mob and law enforcement artifacts found inside our restored 1933 former courthouse and post office building located just minutes from Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.”
The Mob Museum was envisioned and funded by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who had ties to the underworld himself as a former lawyer for reputed mobsters.
3 – Gamble at the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino
Earlier on, I mentioned that the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino is the oldest in Las Vegas, having been operated continuously for 113 years and counting.
When it originally opened as the Hotel Nevada in 1906, an in-house casino offered no-frills card games, craps, and roulette. The casino closed in 1909 when Nevada banned gambling, but reopened in 1931 when lawmakers wisely reversed course.
You can spin some of the oldest original three-reel mechanical slot machines in Sin City or wolf down the world-famous $0.99 shrimp cocktail ($3.99 today thanks to inflation).
Back in 2012, new owner Derek Stevens invested $12 million in a massive renovation project, updating the décor for the first time in more than 50 years. Those enhancements surely show, as the modern Golden Gate is actually quite luxurious in an antique sort of way.
But as previous owner Mark Brandenburg told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after selling the Golden Gate to Stevens, who also owns The D Casino in Las Vegas and the under construction Circa, this old gal’s charms lie in its deeply rooted history:
“I have a fondess for the Golden Gate because it is so unique. It’s an authentic, original Las Vegas property. In terms of the building, we’ve preserved a lot of its history even as it’s grown over the years.”
Some of my best trips anywhere in Las Vegas, both in terms of experience and bottom line, as the Golden Gate offers the loosest slots around, have taken place under the Golden Gate’s roof. If you find yourself on Fremont Street at any point down the road, be sure to stop in and see the city’s most venerable casino venue firsthand.
4 – Swim With the Sharks at Golden Nugget’s World-Class Swimming Pool
The Strip is famous for its massive, multi-acre swimming pools where hundreds of patrons enjoy tanning and Tanqueray from sunup to sundown.
But one of Las Vegas’ most renowned pools can be found on Fremont Street inside the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.
Dubbed “The Tank,” the Golden Nugget’s dual indoor/outdoor swimming pool is surrounded by three stories of decking and cabana space. The real treat is a 200,000-gallon shark tank aquarium that has somehow been intertwined with the pool itself.
You can slide down a specially-designed clear glass tube, coming nose to nose with tiger sharks that look eerily like the Great White from “Jaws.” If swimming with the sharks gets your blood pumping, relax by floating over to the H20 Bar for a cold refreshment to cool off.
5 – Wander Through the Neon Museum’s Famous Sign Boneyard at Night
Another amazing institution that celebrates Las Vegas history in style is the Neon Museum, which is dedicated to preserving those vintage signs that once lined Fremont Street and the Strip.
Here’s what the Neon Museum is all about, straight from the horse’s mouth:
“Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment.
The Neon Museum campus includes the outdoor exhibition space known as the Neon Boneyard.”
You’ll find everything in this outdoor area from Aladdin’s lamp from the old Aladdin, the twinkling Stardust sign, and the original Sahara sign with its pair of camels strutting underneath.
Do yourself a favor and pay for the guided tour, too, because the staff here have a way of bringing these antique aspects of Las Vegas lore to life.
You can’t go wrong visiting any of the five experiences on this list. If you have time, try to enjoy as many of them as possible. You won’t be sorry if you do.