If you’ve visited Las Vegas before, I’m willing to bet you spent the bulk of your trip staying on Sin City’s iconic Strip. The dazzling array of mega-resort casinos lining Las Vegas Boulevard is certainly this town’s main draw, but it wasn’t always that way. Up until the ‘60s – when a building boom saw sites like Caesars Palace and Circus Circus spring up on The Strip – the beating heart of Las Vegas could be found Downtown.
There, on a short stretch of Fremont Street, entertainers like Frank Sinatra and his “Rat Pack” called casinos like the Golden Nugget, California, and Four Queens home. If you’re planning to visit Las Vegas, here’s four great reasons to ditch The Strip for Downtown.
The Fremont Street Experience Completed a Stunning $32 Million Renovation Project
One of the main reasons visitors shy away from the Downtown district and Fremont Street is the area’s age.
At one point in the ‘80s, with The Strip booming thanks to corporate expansion, Downtown Las Vegas was struggling mightily. The casinos were smaller, the hotel rooms were cramped, and the overall ambience was decidedly “old-school” in all the worst ways.
That all changed in 1994, when civic leaders completed an ambitious renovation project known as the Fremont Street Experience. By blocking off thru traffic along Fremont, and enclosing the five city blocks with a brightly lit “Viva Vision” canopy, the Fremont Street Experience sought to emulate the bright lights, glitz, and glamour of The Strip.
The gamble worked too, and Downtown experienced a renaissance during the 90s which injected new blood into the ailing district.
Fast forward to 2019, however, and Downtown was faced with a similar dilemma. The allure of the original Fremont Street Experience had worn off by then, and Downtown was largely defined by its eclectic mix of local street-side entertainers and buskers.
Fortunately, chief executive officer Patrick Hughes had a bold vision for second revitalization project.
Here’s how Hughes described his plans for the new and improved Viva Vision canopy:
“Sixty-seven percent of our visitors come downtown because of the canopy. It needed a floor-to-ceiling renovation.
The display is seven times brighter, with the resolution quadrupled from what it once was.
The brightness allows us to have the shows run during the day.”
Day and night, visitors are treated to sensory wonders unlike any other in Las Vegas. The canopy’s screens swirl with neon hues, light shows with themes that match the holiday season, and music to suit all tastes.
Open-air pedestrian walkways, easy access to several beautiful casinos, and attractions like the SlotZilla zipline combine to make the revived Fremont Street Experience a must-see event.
Modern Marvels Meet Historical Landmarks
Whenever I’m gambling Downtown, I find myself struck by the dichotomy between Fremont Street’s technological marvels and its deeply rooted history.
Golden Gate Hotel & Casino first opened its doors way back in 1906, and after surviving both Prohibition and Nevada’s brief experiment with gambling criminalization, the old gal still stands to this day. The place isn’t some dusty old museum though, it’s a thriving casino and hotel that still welcomes guests to gamble, drink, and have a blast.
A multimillion-dollar renovation project in 2017 doubled the Golden Gate’s gaming floor, and five years before that, new owner Derek Stevens added a five-story hotel tower. These renovations were carefully designed to update the facility, without sacrificing the Golden Gate’s signature antique look and feel.
Here’s what Stevens told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the most recent renovation:
“As the Golden Gate opens, this old-meets-new design creates a thrilling nostalgic feel evoking the spirit of the Rat Pack era with the excitement of our modern world.”
To get a sense of the Golden Gate’s longstanding status as the oldest gambling hall in Las Vegas, get this. When work crews knocked down a wall near the old bar, they discovered old whisky bottles bundled up and hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition-era police.
If you share my appreciation for gambling history, touring the most venerable casinos in America is a great way to spend your next weekend in Sin City.
Stevens’ New Circa Casino Brings a Slice of The Strip to Fremont Street
Speaking of Stevens, the emerging casino impresario has certainly put his stamp on the Downtown district.
Along with his renovation of Golden Gate, Stevens and his brother Greg turned the old Fitzgerald’s casino into The D Casino & Hotel – a hip and happening hotspot that brings in the 20-something crowd.
But the crown jewel of Stevens’ casino empire is the Circa Resort & Casino, a brand new venue in downtown Las Vegas.
Circa boasts a 777-room hotel tower that climbs high above the Downtown skyline, not to mention all the modern amenities Las Vegas visitors have come to expect. Circa is home to the world’s largest sportsbook facility, supplanting the Westgate SuperBook, along with a massive six-tiered swimming pool that puts The Strip’s aquatic attractions to shame.
An avid sports bettor in his own right – he’s known to place $1 million wagers on his hometown Detroit teams from time to time – Stevens designed the Circa Sportsbook to be the world’s best. In a press release hyping Las Vegas’ latest cutting-edge bet shop, Stevens promised fellow sports fans a world-class experience on every level (and I do mean that literally):
“It’ll be the first three-story sportsbook – it’ll have the largest video screens. It will have a television studio for VSiN and audio studios for radio remotes and podcasters and it’ll have the most amount of seating of any sportsbook ever.
It will accommodate around a thousand people with the standing room element. I expect on a great night with – say a World Series game or an NFL Sunday – the roar of the crowd in the sportsbook is going to be unparalleled. It should be a lot of fun for everybody.”
If you want to have it both ways, savoring Downtown’s history while staying in an elite modern casino resort, Circa will be right up your alley.
The Bargains and Value Found Downtown Simply Can’t Be Beat
Before the Fremont Street Experience and Circa brought Downtown into the 21st century, gamblers in the know flocked to Fremont Street for one simple reason – value.
You’ll still find 3-to-2 blackjack tables in all of the Downtown table game pits, the video poker machines here use the premium pay tables, and the penny slots actually spin when you slide an Abe Lincoln down the chute.
The savings extend to the dining options as well, as my father and Las Vegas native can attest to. He used to love nothing more than heading down to the Golden Gate to sample the casino’s world famous 99-cent shrimp cocktail.
Paying less than a buck for a glass of prawns might seem like a real gamble, but trust me, this Las Vegas staple is well worth it. The 99-cent shrimp cocktail was phased out for a while, but it recently returned to rave reviews from locals and tourists alike.
If you’re visiting Las Vegas on a budget and the sticker shock of The Strip gets you down, head Downtown to see how it treats its valued guests.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia and the “way things used to be,” so perhaps my love for Fremont Street isn’t for everyone. With that said, if you’ve never been to Downtown Las Vegas before, what are you waiting for?
After all, The Strip will always be waiting a few miles south, so you’re not risking anything by giving Fremont Street a fair shake. Bring a few good buddies, or even the kids – they’ll love Golden Nugget’s “Swim With the Sharks” waterslide attraction – and hit the town like Sinatra and the boys used to. And hey, if you don’t enjoy yourself, send me an email and your next 99-cent shrimp cocktail is on me.