Viva Everything Else! A Non-Gambler’s Guide to Las Vegas

You wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, for assuming that Las Vegas is what all the movies, songs, cliches, and yes, even Vegas’s own marketing make it out to be. But to treat Vegas as merely the hangover (or The Hangover) capital of the world is to do a disservice to this exciting, electric city, where there’s a Cirque du Soleil show on every corner, fantastic dining options all around, and some of the coolest and most innovative entertainment options this side of Orlando.

So read on for our Toronto Guardian traveller’s guide to Las Vegas, a gambler’s paradise where, if you feel like it, you can have an incredible time without ever dropping a single quarter in a slot machine.

Viva Everything Else! A Non-Gambler's Guide to Las Vegas
Omega Mart by Meow Wolf.

Lesson one from our Vegas vacation is that you absolutely, one hundred per cent, do not need to commit yourself to the Vegas Strip in order to have a good time.

That starts with accommodations. Avoiding the bigger, bold-faced names on the Strip, we stayed at the lovely, historic EL CORTEZ, oldest hotel in town. Situated in downtown Vegas, the El Cortez has been in continuous operation since 1941, maintaining its original ranch-style facade. Unmissable with its bright red neon sign, the hotel (which, yes, is also a casino, because it’s more or less the case that all hotels are casinos here) is tucked just around the corner from the legendary Fremont Street, or as we came to call it, the living pinball machine. Fremont is a remarkable place, a neon-lit, pulse-pounding casino- and shop-lined thoroughfare with multiple semi-outdoor stages for live music, and a video-projection ceiling that can simulate being underwater or in outer space, all within the span of a few minutes.

Speaking of immersive simulations, our journey next took us to OMEGA MART, the immersive art installation created by the renowned multimedia collective Meow Wolf. At the risk of spoilers, Omega Mart is best described as a site-specific theatre piece/playground, one that begins as a trip down the aisles of a faux supermarket, but which quickly reveals itself to be so much more. Hidden entrances beget ever more hidden pathways, leading guests on a transcendently offbeat journey through a constructed mythology and dozens of secret rooms, many of which feature interactive sound/light apparatuses to play around with. The loud, psychedelic, Vegas’ified counterpart to Punchdrunk Entertainment’s more refined aesthetic, Omega Mart is a singular immersive art experience and an essential part of any Vegas vacation. We highly recommend purchasing the semi-optional “Employee Card” at the entrance; it unlocks some of the cooler aspects of the “Omega” story which you would miss otherwise.

Viva Everything Else! A Non-Gambler's Guide to Las Vegas
Cirque du Soleil: Beatles Love

Canada’s own Cirque du Soleil is probably the biggest non-casino draw in Vegas, and we were lucky enough to take in the highly acclaimed BEATLES LOVE show at The Mirage Hotel. While there are some dubious aspects to the show – an early, misguided allusion to Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” quote; later in the show, a female dancer bizarrely saddled with a fake pregnancy belly for the “Lady Madonna” number – on the whole it’s an incredible spectacle, combining the best of John/Paul/George/Ringo’s classic tunes with the stellar acrobatic choreography for which Cirque du Soleil is justly renowned. Highlights include the slow-mo aquatic ballet of the Ringo-sung “Octopus’s Garden” and the heavily Norm McClaren-inspired “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which sees a dancer in a pas de deux with a life-size animated figure.

A visit to Vegas also wouldn’t be the same without checking out its newest, latest, and greatest extravaganza at THE SPHERE. You may have seen photos of the slightly ominous looking globe dominating the Vegas skyline (particularly when it turns into a giant eyeball), but the experience inside is absolutely worth your time. Beginning with the dynamically interactive chatbot-powered robots who hang out in the lobby, through to the Darren Aronofsky-directed film on the sphere’s interior mega-screen, everything about The Sphere is amazing. (That said, Torontonians shouldn’t forget that we have our own Sphere of sorts, with the equally impressive OMNIMAX screen at the Ontario Science Centre. Current films include Turtle Odyssey, Dinosaurs of Antarctica, and Asteroid Hunters.)

Viva Everything Else! A Non-Gambler's Guide to Las Vegas

Finally, Vegas is a foodie’s paradise. A quick Google will find you various guides to the city’s top restaurants, including several that appeared on the Michelin Guide’s previous Vegas lists back in the 2000s. Probably our favourite meal was at Julian Serrano’s tapas restaurant (pictured above) inside The Aria Hotel/Casino. There are also plenty of great places for nice (read: not garish and oversized) drinks. In keeping with the spirit of our accommodations, our favourite place for a Vegas cocktail proved to be the city’s oldest bar, The Atomic, founded in 1952. The food and drinks were wonderful, as was the general, less touristy ambience.

If our time in Vegas taught us anything, it’s that, yes, casinos are ubiquitous, but no, you do not need to gamble in order to have a good time. From delicious meals to thrilling theatrical productions, there’s something for everyone in the place misleadingly known as “Sin City”. Our biggest regret from our time there? That the fabled Cirque du Soleil “O” water show was on hiatus. Guess we’ll just have to make our way back soon!

For more on Meow Wolf and Omega Mart, click here.

Cirque du Soleil’s multiple Vegas offerings are listed here.

For everything else Vegas, check out the Vegas Tourism Board here.