Did you put all your savings into GameStop and AMC stock? Buy Bitcoin at the wrong time? There are plenty of reasons to be short on cash right now, but here’s the good news: there’s a lot of stuff to do in Las Vegas that won’t cost you a dime. A few familiar free attractions (like the million-dollar cash exhibit at Binions and the Fall of Atlantis animatronic show at the Forum Shops) remain on hiatus after closing during the pandemic. Others are back in full swing. Just remember-while social-distancing restrictions are dropping by the day, you may still be asked to wear a mask on occasion. So bring one along just in case. Ultimately, the best plan is to be vaccinated when out and about. Be prepared and be safe while saving a few bucks on all the free stuff to do around town.
Take on a new sense of optimism with a visit to the Wishing Tree inside the Grand Canal Shoppes (on the second floor of the Venetian’s Palazzo tower). Modeled after an Italian olive tree, the 20-foot-tall art installation is decorated with gold leaves and glass birds nesting within the branches. Scan a posted QR code to unlock an Instagram filter, allowing you to record a personalized wish, hit a button, and watch it swoosh into the branches on screen.
There are perks to visiting the Downtown Container Park after sundown. After going into hibernation during the pandemic, the outdoor shopping plaza’s oversized praying mantis mascot is back in action near the front entrance. The 40-foot-long motorized insect likes to shoot fireballs from its antennae, often in sync to music.
If you don’t have the money for a Cirque ticket, here’s the next best thing. Free circus performances are back with a full schedule at Circus Circus. Shows at the Midway happen every hour Saturday and Sunday starting at 12:30 pm, Mondays starting at 1:30 pm, and Tuesday–Friday starting at 3:30 pm. Come by and see clowns, jugglers, aerialists, and more. The Flying Poemas, a trapeze act from Argentina, provide the biggest thrills.
The artsy block party known as First Friday takes place, as the name suggests, on the first Friday of every month. After going digital during much of the pandemic, the event is welcoming visitors back in person with limited capacity. It helps to RSVP in advance. First Friday is the perfect opportunity to get familiar with the Downtown Arts District while enjoying a beer garden, art exhibits, music, and food.
It’s a few miles east of the Strip, but locals love Mystic Falls, an indoor park at the Sam’s Town casino with a wild west mountain theme. Walk among the trees and you’ll hear the sounds of birds chirping, wolves howling, and a rolling waterfall underneath a towering atrium. After going quiet for most of last year, laser and light shows resume on June 1, taking place every-other-hour between 2 pm and 10 pm.
Light up your Instagram feed with casino-themed art
It seems only natural for art and commerce to collide in Las Vegas, where Playstudios is recruiting local artists to design installations inspired by its MyVegas Bingo mobile game. The commissioned works, collectively known as Lucky Numbers, are oversized 200-pound bingo balls that make for convenient selfie stations. See for yourself at the front entrance of Mandalay Bay, near the volcano at the Mirage, under the Brooklyn Bridge at New York-New York, in the lobby of the Excalibur, and next to the check-in desks at the MGM Grand.
The 541-foot tall Eiffel Tower replica at the Paris casino is more than just 5,000 tons of twisted steel. The exterior hosts a colorful show of twinkling lights every 30 minutes between dusk and midnight. The timing unofficially coordinates with the Bellagio fountain shows across the street, creating a lively and vibrant visual in the mid-Strip skyline.
So much Las Vegas history is overlooked, but hiding in plain sight. The Pioneer Trail is a self-guided driving tour of 16 historic sites northwest of the Strip, beginning with the Springs Preserve and ending with Biltmore Village. The experience also provides a rare look into the often underrepresented history of Black culture in Las Vegas, including the Harrison Boarding House (where entertainers of color stayed when segregated from Strip hotel rooms) and the site of the short-lived Moulin Rouge, which became the first integrated casino in 1955.
The largest gold nugget currently in existence was once an exhibit at (appropriately enough) the Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas. However, if you want to see the Hand of Faith these days, take a quick road trip to the Golden Nugget in Laughlin, where all 61 pounds of it are on display in the lobby.
Watch fish swim at one of three aquariums
The free mermaid shows remain on hiatus at the Silverton casino, but you can still check out the 40,000-gallon aquarium at the adjacent Bass Pro Shops, along with a waterfall, trout stream, and fun outdoorsy design. On the Strip, the Forum Shops at Caesars have their own 50,000-gallon aquarium near the Cheesecake Factory and Nike shop. Not to be outdone, the Mirage has a 20,000-gallon tank that’s a little smaller, but makes an even bolder impression as part of the decor in the hotel lobby. No matter which one you visit, expect to be greeted with a wide array of tropical fish.
The Hoover Dam may not be open for tours at the moment, but you can still visit the Boulder Dam Museum. (And yes, Boulder Dam was the official name before it was changed to honor the president who brought us the Great Depression.) The free attraction is on the first floor of the Boulder Dam Hotel, a historic structure built in 1933 while the dam was under construction. The museum not only documents the engineering behind the modern marvel, but also the danger and struggles faced by the workers who built it under the hot Nevada sun.
After opening in 1906, the Golden Gate still stands as the oldest operating casino resort in Las Vegas. Check out some of the history with an artifact display in the lobby that includes 113-year-old gaming ledgers, an authentic model of the first telephone in Vegas, and Prohibition-era whiskey bottles discovered in the walls during construction.
The main attraction of Downtown Las Vegas is the Fremont Street Experience, a five-block pedestrian mall surrounded by neon lights and marquees. Most of it sits underneath a 1,400-foot-long canopy outfitted with the world’s largest LED screen. Dubbed Viva Vision, it recently underwent a $32-million upgrade, utilizing more than 16 million pixels for ultra high-def imagery and trippy 3D-like effects. Themed video shows take place throughout the night, usually on the hour. Fremont Street is also welcoming back live music on June 1.
The stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Russell and Sahara is commonly known as the Strip. It’s more than four miles of hotels, casinos, overpriced gift shops, and everything else you expect Las Vegas to be. From the giant sphinx in front of the Luxor to the half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower at Paris, you’ve got plenty of selfie ops to round out a Vegas vacation.
As far as iconic Vegas images go, it’s hard to beat the Fountains of Bellagio. Gather around the massive lake in front of the resort and watch as more than 1,200 nozzles shoot water straight into the air with the help of 4,500 lights. Each show is set to music with songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion providing the soundtrack. Shows are usually every half hour in the afternoon and every 15 minutes at night, but could be cancelled at any time due to high winds.
Before you even step foot inside the Mirage, check out the explosive volcano show out front. The elaborate display produces a lava simulation (with fireballs for good measure) set to music created by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Indian musician Zakir Hussain. The finale includes an eruption 60 feet into the air that’s so intense, you’ll feel the heat from inside your taxi on Las Vegas Boulevard. Shows are on the hour between 8 pm and 11 pm nightly.
St. Mark’s Square is a centralized social hub in the heart of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. It’s modeled after the Renaissance era of Venice, complete with street performers, passing gondola rides, and as much historic architecture as you can manage in a shopping mall. If you actually want to spend a few bucks and grab a bite to eat, you’ve got a choice of three Italian restaurants: Brera Osteria, Canaletto, and Mercato della Pescheria.
The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop is the setting for the Pawn Stars reality show, which runs (virtually nonstop) on the History Channel. Check it out for yourself and browse the unusual and often historic artifacts for sale. Just know there’s often a line to enter and no guarantee you’ll see anyone you recognize from TV.
The Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has free floral exhibits that change with the season (and Chinese New Year), covering nearly 14,000 square feet underneath a 50-foot-high atrium. The intricate designs, featuring tens of thousands of flowers, are planned a full year in advance. It’s also one of the most photographed places on the Strip. Admission has been staggered since the onset of the pandemic to limit crowds. You may have a short wait before being allowed to enter.
The Ethel M Chocolate Factory in Henderson has free self-guided tours, where you watch candy being made from a long viewing window. Stick around and explore the four-acre Botanical Cactus Garden outside. It has more than 300 species of plants and is especially colorful when decorated for the winter holidays.
Legal weed is a thing in Nevada now, and it feels like Vegas is overloaded with dispensaries. Acres stands out from the crowd with its own museum dedicated to the history of cannabis, including a terpene station, vintage High times magazine covers, and a World War II-era parachute made from hemp.
Check out the vehicle affectionately known as the “Bonnie and Clyde Death Car” at Whiskey Pete’s just outside Vegas in Primm. The bullet-riddled 1934 Ford Deluxe in which the gangster duo met their demise is proudly on display in the casino. As the signs around it are eager to point out, yes this is the real thing. Whiskey Pete’s also happens to be a welcome bathroom break while driving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Take a break from the action with a photo op at the Waterfall Atrium. You’ll find it in the blurred lines of where the main Venetian hotel tower connects with the Palazzo tower. Between a two-story waterfall, the word “LOVE” spelled in 12-foot-tall ruby red steel letters, and more than a few seasonal decorations hanging around, it’s one of the best places on the Strip to snap a selfie.
The lobby of the Wynn Hotel is loaded with trees, plants, and elaborate colorful floral installations that include a 20-foot-tall hot air balloon and a 16-foot-wide carousel. It’s not a destination as much as something to enjoy while on your way to somewhere else.
Even if you don’t buy anything, browsing the shops in Antique Alley provides plenty of entertainment. Wander around the Downtown Arts District and you’ll come across a few kitschy, Vegas-related knick knacks, and maybe even an authentic piece of history (like old coffee mugs from long-gone casino diners). Detour to the Arts Factory and explore contemporary art galleries with no admission charge.
The four-acre outdoor Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo is a tranquil escape from the chaos of the Strip. The collection of ponds and waterfalls is home to all sorts of exotic creatures, including birds, turtles, koi fish, and at least eight Chilean flamingos.
Surf the web without losing your connection
All MGM Resorts properties have free Wi-Fi access throughout public indoor and outdoor spaces. And that’s for everyone, not just hotel guests. If you walk directly from one of the company’s hotels to another (from the Excalibur to the Luxor, for example), you won’t even lose your connection. That means you’re free to post selfies to Instagram all day long without interruption.
From the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sands Avenue, you’ll quickly spot a fountain show with lights and music in front of the Wynn. It’s a whole lot smaller than what you’ll see at the Bellagio, but it’s a nice break from trekking down the Strip and the performances run nonstop. The scenery also includes two waterfalls and large pine trees. The Lake of Dreams inside the Wynn is technically free too, but it’s really a bucket-list dining experience best enjoyed with a dinner reservation.
Watch (or avoid) the street performers
Just like Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square, Las Vegas is overrun by street performers, either on the Strip or Fremont Street. Some have talent (like a handful of musicians, dancers, and magicians) while others just stand around in cheap-looking costumes. The entertainment is free to watch, but if you pose for a photo with one of them, a tip is expected.
Rest your feet with a tram ride on the Strip
If that long walk down the Strip gets to be too much, there are three free pedestrian trains to make the journey go by a little easier. One operates between Mandalay Bay and Excalibur, another travels between the Bellagio and Aria, and a third shuttles between Treasure Island and the Mirage. No charge. Just hop on board. Don’t confuse any of these with the Las Vegas Monorail on the east side of the Strip, which begins at $5 per ride.
One of the great things about the CityCenter complex is all the art on display. Wander in and out of galleries by Richard MacDonald and Elena Bulatova before heading over to the Aria where fine art installations are scattered throughout the resort. The neighboring Cosmopolitan has a self-guided art tour of its own, led by Rose, the hotel’s own chatbot concierge. Between oversize shoe sculptures in the lobby, digital pillars in the lobby, and murals in the parking garage, the art often mixes tech and pop culture with an exceptional degree of ingenuity.
CBS Television City at the MGM Grand is a full research facility where you can watch an unaired pilot that’s being considered by the network for an upcoming season. Give your feedback with the fate of future programming in your hands. You can also take part in surveys and focus groups about television, internet, and music streaming habits. You’ll be handed some vouchers and a bag of free stuff at the end. Sometimes you’ll even get paid cash.
You could say it’s a . . . miracle. The sprawling Miracle Mile Shops, which wrap around the Planet Hollywood resort, have an indoor rainstorm with shows every hour during the week and every half hour on weekends. The combination of water, lights, music, and fog is an unexpectedly fun way to break up the monotony of a shopping trip. Try not to get wet.
Park for free on the Strip
The only good thing about last year’s economic downturn was the return of free parking on the Strip. However, rates are slowly beginning to creep back into place at casino garages. Here’s the latest rundown: MGM Resort properties are charging, but give locals the first three hours for free. Caesars Entertainment properties give locals unlimited free parking and charge everybody else. The Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, Encore, Cosmopolitan, Tropicana, Strat, Sahara, and Treasure Island have free parking garages for all. Period. Most Downtown garages are continuing to charge, but rates are pretty low and most casinos validate anyway.
If you’re speeding down Interstate 15 south of Vegas and you see some giant rainbow-colored rocks out in the middle of the desert, you’re not hallucinating. That’s a 25-foot-tall art installation known as Seven Magic Mountains. So take the next exit and doubleback for a color-filled photo session.
The Flamingo pays tribute to the mobster who built the resort, Bugsy Siegel, with an outdoor memorial. Although he was shot dead in Beverly Hills, some swear Siegel’s ghost still haunts the property. The hotel recently honored their old boss in another way, by naming the new Bugsy & Meyer’s steakhouse after him and cohort Meyer Lansky.
Snap a photo at you-know-where
You may be out of cash, but you still have a phone. So head just beyond the south end of the Strip to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign and have your photo snapped in front of the iconic landmark. There may be an Elvis impersonator or some dude in a Big Bird costume offering to take the shot on your behalf or even pose with you. But that means handing out a tip and suddenly, it’s not free anymore, is it? Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than seven years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, Leafly, Las Vegas Magazine, and other publications. He’s covering the tip. Follow him on Twitter@rkachelriess.
You can’t be all things to all people. Yet a new Italian restaurant strikes an intriguing balance between authenticity and inventive touches while helping to shape the identity of a new community in the booming Southwest Valley of Las Vegas.
Basilico Ristorante Italiano is now open at Evora, a master-planned apartment development still under construction that won’t be finished for at least five years. The 160-seat restaurant follows the vision of chef Francesco Di Caudo, a Sicily native who draws on his heritage and experience throughout Italy to build a compelling menu based on traditional techniques and modern ingenuity.
“I come from a country where farm-to-table is nothing new,” says Di Caudio, while emphasizing the importance of ingredient sourcing and simple, straightforward flavor combinations.
Just look at the appetizers. Americans are used to eggplant parmesan that’s breaded and fried without restraint. Di Caudo sticks to a traditional Sicilian recipe with the vegetable sliced thin, sizzled in a pan, and layered with tomato and basil. No mozzarella. On the other hand, the Smoked Cigar is destined to be a signature showstopper. Duck, foie gras, and porcini mushrooms are packed inside a thin, cracker-like shell, presented in a box, and dipped into a glass ashtray. The “ash” in the centre is a black sesame and truffle mix. Don’t be shy about double dipping.
The risotto is bound to be another conversation piece. The recipe uses Carnaroli rice, a starchy grain from North Italy that produces a creamy texture, balancing the saltiness of a parmesan broth with a sweet splash of chestnut honey. The real surprise is the inclusion of Lavazza espresso, manipulated to crackle in your mouth like Pop Rocks candy.
All pastas are made in-house, from a parsnip cavatelli to a lamb and thyme tortellini in a broth filtered from braised prosciutto. Some dishes have a subtle Asian influence, including a hamachi crudo with pomelo (similar to yuzu), Hokkaido scallops with oxtail, and a planned octopus braised in dashi. The flavours come to life inside a sharp, contemporary dining room with deep red chairs and stone, wood, and marble touches. The wine collection is dominated by Italian labels, with a few California and Oregon picks thrown in to round out the list. Bottles are on display near the front entrance and inside illuminated square shelves. “It looks like a fancy restaurant, but when you sit down, I want you to have fun,” adds Di Caudio.
The bar is the heart of the restaurant, ready to serve up to 16 people inside and dozens more via accordion-style windows that open wide to a covered patio. The outdoor space, temperature-controlled with overhead fans and heaters, effectively extends Evora’s open-air plaza with dramatic water and fire features. It’s a natural spot for tastings and special events with a covered stage for live music. Evora is rolling out in four phases, with the first 342 apartments ready by fall. There could be as many as 1,400 when it’s all said and done. Rent begins at around $1,800 for studios and one-bedroom units and goes up to $4,000 for two-story top-floor residences with a loft and Strip views. The community will include swimming pools, pickleball courts, a putting green, a dog park, firepits, EV charging stations, and pavilions equipped with audio and video features.
“Basilico matches the demographic for our apartments,” says Danny Sorge of Digital Desert Development, the company behind the community. “The term ‘youthful sophistication’ has been thrown around about the restaurant and Evora as a whole. It brings something new to the area.”
The development follows a deliberate strategy to have the commercial tenants in place before the first residents move in, occupying a stand-alone building that strikes a commanding presence on the corner of Patrick Lane and Buffalo Drive. Lemon Tree Cafe & Market is already open as a European-style grocery store with plenty of room to sit down with a sandwich and glass of wine. Keep your eyes peeled for Taps & Barrels (a self-service beer hall), Tachi Ramen, and EVOQ hair salon in the months ahead, with more businesses to come. The timing couldn’t be better. The Southwest Valley is on fire right now, with the Durango hotel and casino and UnCommons mixed-use development taking shape as new attractions in 2023. The Bend, a long-promised shopping and dining district, has been in a holding pattern for years but holds promise in an area where everything is getting bigger and better.
Meanwhile, the team behind Evora is staking a claim with Di Caudio running the kitchen at Basilico. The chef’s recent collaboration with Chef Oscar Amador helped Anima by EDO score a recent James Beard Award nomination and reputation as one of the best new restaurants in Las Vegas. Di Caudio first came to Las Vegas to work at Zeffirino at the Grand Canal Shoppes-a gig he expected to last about six months before returning home. Instead, he stuck around and continued to build his reputation at culinary destinations like Sinatra at the Wynn and Ferraro’s off the Strip.
Ultimately, Basilico will be a restaurant to keep an eye on as it develops under Di Caudio’s guidance. The menu will shift and evolve based on the chef’s preferences and the availability of seasonal ingredients. Di Caudio is also planning a smaller menu and social hour for the bar area and a reasonably priced tasting menu with around 10 dishes served family style.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than nine years. In addition, his work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.