Travel

Actually Cool Things to Do in Reno Right Now

reno downtown
Courtesy of Matt Morning

Johnny Cash once sang he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Fortunately, you don't have to go to such extremes to have a good time in Northern Nevada. Known as The Biggest Little City in the World, Reno is in a good place these days. Tech giants like Tesla, Google, Panasonic, Amazon, and Microsoft have all set up shop in recent years, eager to take advantage of cheap land and Nevada tax breaks. Their presence and workforce are giving new energy to the local economy, which is good news for everyone from restaurants and homebuilders to street artists and whoever wants to sell you funky stuff for Burning Man.
 
The centralized Midtown district is benefiting the most from the upswing, with the multicultural Wells Avenue neighborhood and northeast Freight House District poised to follow suit. The momentum builds on a deep history and Old West attitude, dating back to when Reno emerged as a gold and silver mining town in the late 1800s. It would go on to develop a reputation for gambling and quickie divorce laws -- attractive to not only visitors from right across the state line in Northern California, but around the country.

Reno is often dismissed as a mini-Las Vegas, but that comparison carries little weight beyond the common casino culture. Reno is easy to navigate, the airport is super convenient, and the natural scenery -- which includes the imposing Mt. Rose and nearby Lake Tahoe -- counterbalances the grit of the Downtown casino district. In other words, Reno is more than a bathroom break between Sacramento and Salt Lake City. It's a city worth exploring, so get a jump-start on the action.

Go rock climbing above the Reno Arch

Downtown
Basecamp at the Whitney Peak Hotel has the world's tallest artificial rock-climbing wall -- and the Guiness Book of World Records is more than happy to back up that claim. The wall stretches 164 feet tall along the exterior of the hotel and actually looks down on the famous Reno Arch. It's suitable for beginners as well as experienced climbers who can scale the wall multi-pitch style -- switching places with a partner at different ledges. You can even climb after dark until 9 or 10 at night, illuminated by the glow of the Arch and nearby casino marquees. There's also a 15-meter certified speed wall and indoor harness-free bouldering on large artificial rocks. Single-day passes begin at $22 for adults ($12 for kids) and include gear. Hotel guests get a discount, but Basecamp estimates most customers are locals, including about 500 regulars members.

truckee river
Truckee River | Courtesy of Rob Kachelriess

Float the Truckee River

Truckee River
If you really want to live like a local, spend a few hours floating the Truckee River that runs through the center of Reno. To rent kayaks or tubes with guidance from the pros, give Sierra Adventures a call. For a more casual DIY approach, head to Walmart and pick up a tube, raft, inflatable mattress, or whatever feels right to you. Just remember, you may bump into a few rocks here and there, so whatever you buy needs to be sturdy and handle the current without too much trouble. It's tradition to bring along some booze -- usually beer or wine -- and keep it cold in between sips by dragging it in the water inside a mesh bag. Is this legal? Not entirely sure, so use your best judgment and be safe. The float usually begins west of town near Mayberry Park and the Patagonia warehouse facility. Hit the water and let the current carry you to Idlewild Park or Wingfield Park in the heart of Reno. Wear sunblock, leave your wedding ring at home, and don't bother bringing towels. They're just going to get wet anyway.

street art reno
Courtesy of Reno Tahoe

Tour the city’s magnificent street art

Multiple locations
There are a couple-hundred street murals around the city, and Erik Burke is responsible for about 60 of them. Initially dismissed as graffiti, his work was embraced over time and integrated into cafes, bars, boutiques, and other local businesses. Now, street art is thriving with much of it curated by Art Spot Reno, an online events’ calendar that evolved into an officially recognized nonprofit. The volunteer organization leads Art Walk Reno (a two-hour Downtown gallery tour on the first Thursday of every month) and offers a free interactive map for touring the city's murals on your own. Guided tours are available on the first Saturday of the month for just $10 and can also be booked privately for large groups. The art itself covers a lot of ground -- sometimes haunting, often colorful, and almost always captivating. Each one an authentic piece of the city.

South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe | Courtesy of Rob Kachelriess

Detour to South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe
It's at least an hour drive away, but South Lake Tahoe is worth it just to capture sandy beaches and snow-capped mountains in the same photograph. The upscale mountain community straddles the California state line and is loaded with resorts, shopping, and outdoor activities that include hiking, biking, and jet skiing. Or you can just say "screw that" and relax with a cruise around Emerald Bay. One of the largest ski resorts in North America, Heavenly Mountain is easy to reach via cable car from Heavenly Village, an outdoor mall on the main stretch of Highway 50. Out of the casinos on the Nevada side of the border, the Hard Rock is the most contemporary and stylish. It's also home to Park Prime Steakhouse, where prime cuts are dry-aged for 28 days from grass-fed, grain-finished Midwest cattle. Fun surprises include a swank tableside martini cart and bruschetta topped with hand-pulled short rib that's slow-roasted and braised for 10 hours.

brew brothers
Courtesy of The Brew Brothers

Take a sip out of the craft brewery scene

Multiple Locations
Reno loves beer. And it's got enough local producers to help put a boozy spin on the character of the city. Revision Brewing in Sparks seems to be getting the most attention these days with a heavy IPA selection and a whimsical attitude reflected in labels designed by local artists. Great Basin Brewing Company, with locations in South Reno and Sparks, is credited for putting the craft brew scene on the map here with its best-selling Great Basin Icky IPA. The Depot, Nevada's first combined brewery and distillery, is a historic three-story former train station. It's within blocks of Pigeon Head (known for its German-style lagers and pilsners), Lead Dog (with a diverse lineup of recipes), and IMBiB Custom Brews (try the barrel-aged sours), which together make up the Brewery District. Otherwise, Brew Brothers is gaining national recognition for its custom microbrews and high-energy nightlife scene at Eldorado casino while Brasserie Saint James in Midtown produces impressive Belgian-style beers with is own Sierra Mountain spring water.

riverwalk reno
Riverwalk | Courtesy of Rob Kachelriess

Check out the Riverwalk

Riverwalk 
The Truckee River separates Midtown from Downtown, providing a welcome splash of nature in the heart of the city. The parks and walkways that surround it are known collectively as the Riverwalk -- all close to plenty of restaurants, including Campo and Wild River Grille, whose large patios overlook the water. If you don't know where to begin, the popular Wine Walk on the third Saturday of each month is a great excuse to crawl between bars and businesses while drinking cheap vino. Otherwise, check out The Eddy, a dog-friendly urban playground where you can play cornhole and order drinks from a trio of bars built from cargo shipping containers. Head a couple blocks south to Pine Street for a couple of Portland businesses -- Sizzle Pie pizza and Pine State Biscuits -- within steps of each other. They're not far from The Basement, a market and workspace underneath a historic post office and home to several specialty retailers, including Global Coffee. If you don't want to think about things too hard, just stretch out on the grass at Wingfield Park and watch the kayakers paddle by.

Come during the fall for some pretty big events

Multiple locations
With its snow-capped winters and warm summers, there's never really a bad time to visit Reno. But for some reason, all the big stuff seems to happen in the fall. Most notably, the city is home base for Burning Man -- an eclectic art festival, campground, and pop-up city 120 miles north in the Black Rock Desert. Many of the 70,000 attendees hit Reno hard, clearing out Walmarts before the nine-day event and returning in a haze of dust afterwards -- this actually happens, no exaggeration. By comparison, the three-day Great Reno Balloon Race in San Rafael Regional Park is a more family-oriented and carefree experience. It's the largest free hot air balloon event in the world with about a hundred colorful aircraft invited to take flight. It's something of an unofficial companion event to the five-day Reno Air Races -- or more formally, the STIHL National Championship Air Races -- at Reno-Stead Airport. Hundreds of aircraft are on display, perform demonstrations, or compete in six classes of air races before close to 100,000 spectators each day. If you prefer cars to planes, Hot August Nights is more your speed. The five-day car show features hundreds of vintage automobiles throughout Reno, Sparks, and Virginia City, as well as free concerts by music acts from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Street Vibrations is kinda the same thing, but with motorcycles and heavy metal tribute acts. Of course, everybody wants to eat, and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off serves more than 250,000 pounds of ribs over a five-day stretch.

Explore Reno’s casino culture

Multiple locations
Gambling is legal in Nevada, but if you're expecting Reno to be full of Vegas-like mega-casinos, guess again. Most of the big ones are Downtown -- notably Circus Circus, Silver Legacy, and El Dorado, collectively known as The Row and connected by pedestrian overpass. This allows you to bring booze between casinos, which (very unlike Vegas) you can't do when walking around outside. The Row has its charm -- especially the martinis at Roxy's, bottomless whiskey deals at Novi, and the giant mining equipment by Rum Bullions Island Bar -- but overall, the properties could use a little polish and sparkle. Harrah's across the street isn't much better and the Sands Regency is a dump by any definition. Head south where things get dramatically better with the Peppermill, Reno's largest casino resort, and the Atlantis, which benefits from an overachieving restaurant lineup. West of downtown, the Grand Sierra Resort is Reno's best overall package -- clean, modern, and fully renovated from when it was known as the MGM Grand Reno in the late ’70s. Perks include a lakeside driving range, Lex nightclub, and the Ultimate Rush slingshot that propels riders 180 feet in the air.

Sonny Boys Tours
Courtesy of Sonny Boys Tours

Get up close with wild horses with Sonny Boy Tours

Virginia Mountain Range
Nevada's large population of wild horses is easiest to observe in the Virginia Mountain Range southeast of Reno. The descendants of mustangs brought to North America by the Spanish, aren't just a bunch of horses roaming around. They typically travel in packs of anywhere from two to 12, which can include a stallion, his mare, and any children. Once younger stallions reach two or three years old, they're sent off to join "bachelor" bands, who are full of energy and often fight in true frat house style. Sonny Boy Tours has expert guides who know the best places to spot horses in the mountains, often coming across anywhere from a dozen to a hundred in a day. They also have tours that visit the Pyramid Lake -- pretty much the size of Lake Tahoe, but with fewer signs of civilization -- and Wynema Ranch, a sanctuary that lets guests enjoy an up-close experience with dozens of horses on property. Tours run daily and range from $63 to $84. If you'd rather save that money, try walking your dog around Hidden Valley Regional Park, where it's not uncommon to spot horses in the distance.

Take a bite out of some of Reno’s best restaurants

Multiple locations
Much like the city itself, Reno's dining scene has some serious momentum at the moment, featuring a combination of old favorites and new inventive concepts. LuLou's and 4th Street Bistro proved years ago that Reno had an appetite for quality fine dining with fresh seasonal ingredients. Meanwhile, relative newcomers like Süp (which specializes in homemade soups) and Midtown Eats are drawing loyal crowds in Midtown. Mark Estee, the most well-known chef in town, earned national acclaim and a James Beard nomination after founding Campo by the river. He later moved on to Liberty Food & Wine Exchange a block north. Most casinos have their own restaurants -- including steakhouses like Charlie Palmer Steak at the Grand Sierra Resort and Harrah's Steak House at (you guessed it) Harrah's, but the New York-style Sports Deli at Peppermill is pretty addictive in its own right. Historic spots like the Gold n' Silver Inn (a diner where local business leaders and politicians talk policy) and Casale's Halfway Club (a family home converted to what is now the oldest restaurant in Reno) have shaped the history and culture of the city in ways that go far beyond the food on the menu.

biking lake tahoe
Courtesy of Reno Tahoe

Bike the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail between Reno and Lake Tahoe

North Lake Tahoe
It takes about an hour to drive from Reno to Tahoe City on the north Californian side of Lake Tahoe, but if that sounds a little too convenient, try biking your way there. Just follow the Truckee River, which is accompanied by an organized series of trails, bridges, and paved roads. The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail (which also connects to Pyramid Lake north of Reno) is a bikeway divided into five sections with ranging degrees of difficulty. The whole concept was founded by Janet Phillips, a retired Reno-Sparks city official, who spent nearly two decades promoting and implementing the idea. When complete, the full trail will cover 114 miles. The stretch between Reno and Tahoe City should take a biker about six hours. Plan ahead and bring the right clothing, supplies, and equipment. You may lose cellphone service for a while -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Disconnect, enjoy the scenery, and wait until your trip is over before posting about it on social media.

Grand Theatre
Courtesy of Grand Theatre

Take in some live music at the Grand Theater

Grand Sierra Resort
The Grand Theater is one of the most unique concert venues in the country -- relatively small at just 2,900 seats, but equipped with the stage, sound, and technology to host tours that might typically play full-scale arenas. At almost an acre in size, the stage is one of the largest in the world for an indoor venue. The Grand Sierra Resort invested about $10 million into modernizing the theater, removing old-school tables and booths, and replacing them with comfortable seats and VIP areas. Yet the theater's history has been carefully preserved. A full-size set piece of a jet airplane from an old stage production remains backstage behind the main curtain -- a true WTF reaction for those lucky enough to catch a glimpse -- and Frank Sinatra's personal warmup piano is roped off in a backstage lounge. While the Grand Theater generally doesn't provide behind-the-scenes tours, those who buy meet-and-greet packages for their favorite acts may get a rare look at these nuggets of entertainment history. Pitbull, J Balvin, Sammy Hagar, Sugarland, Young the Giant with Fitz and the Tantrums, Patti LaBelle, and Rob Thomas were among the venue’s headliners in 2019.

Reno Tahoe
Courtesy of Reno Tahoe

Feel the spirit of the Old West

Virginia City
Taking the half-hour drive from Reno to Virginia City is like traveling through a time portal. The former mining community of just 1,200 people provides a snapshot of the late 1800s with wooden sidewalks, shops, restaurants, saloons, and museums preserved in Old West architecture. This isn't Fronteirland. It's the real deal. Hop on board a vintage locomotive and tour the mines that once made Nevada rich with gold and silver. No visit is complete without a sip of Cemetary Gin or getting an up-close look at the cursed Suicide Table -- a retired gaming table that saw three of its owners take their own lives over the years. Is it cursed? You be the judge. Just a few months ago, there was an explosion inside it's longtime home, the Delta Saloon. The Suicide Table was barely damaged and has since been moved across the street to the Bonanza Saloon

Nevada Museum of Art
Courtesy of Nevada Museum of Art

Spend a day at the Nevada Museum of Art 

Midtown
The Nevada Museum of Art over-delivers as one of the most rewarding experiences in Reno. As the only accredited art museum in Nevada, the institution coordinates with the Smithsonian, National Archives, and others to bring world-class exhibits to town. This year's big one was the Living Modern tribute to Georgia O'Keeffe, which wasn’t presented anywhere else in the West. The museum returns the favor with its own projects, including City of Dust -- an exhibit dedicated to the 30-year history of Burning Man that's now touring the country. The museum is also responsible for the colorful Seven Magic Mountains art installation outside Las Vegas and even launched an art satellite (!) into space. Back on Earth, the museum's dark shoebox-shaped exterior is a piece of art itself -- inspired by the Black Rock Desert -- but once inside, the building is warm and welcoming with two gallery levels, a sculpture garden, and rooftop event space with killer city views. With exhibits and pieces changing frequently, the Nevada Museum of Art is constantly evolving, yet always manages to retains its identity. If that wasn't enough, the property is also home to Chez Louie, a French bistro by Mark Estee that dramatically outperforms the cafeteria-style food common at other museums.

Wake up to Reno's exploding coffee and cafe scene

The hallmark of any truly up-and-coming hipster hotspot is a glut of quality coffee shops, and for a city of barely a quarter million people, Reno packs a hard caffeine punch with multiple high-quality local roasters and cafes throughout the city. Hub Coffee Roasters has a few different locations, but the one you want is located just off the Reno riverwalk in a charmingly renovated old home built in 1932. This location is also home to Hub Coffee's Tea Bar, where they serve teas from around the world and small bites from their kitchen, and next door you'll also find hand-crafted artisan chocolates at Dorinda's Chocolates and made-to-order rolled ice cream at Rolled Mountain Creamery. If you're in Midtown, check out Old World Coffee Lab for precision-roasted, small-batch, hand-brewed coffees. JoStella Coffee Co. in Midtown serves excellent coffee, lattes, loose-leaf teas, and smoothies, and also has a menu full of tasty breakfast items like sweet and savory toasts, bagel sandwiches, fresh-baked pastries, and a variety of quiche. Pangolin Café is also in Midtown, a beautiful café and confectionary that specializes in Turkish teas and sweets, house-made toffees, and liege waffles. (They've also got an espresso bar for your Americanos and lattes.) And whatever you do, do not leave Reno without paying a visit to Perenn Bakery in Midtown. This artisan bakery makes the most gorgeous breads, croissants, and other pastries and baked goods, and SHOULD be raking in James Beard Awards but isn't because it's in Reno. The golden flake and airy crumb of their croissants is nothing short of art.

Dive deep into the biggest little cocktail scene

Another hallmark of a hip new urban locale is the presence of quality cocktail bars, and Midtown's cup runneth over. Death & Taxes is a dark, sexy, dramatic riff on the neo-classic cocktail bar, a gothic speakeasy with a multi-page cocktail menu full of classics and their own specialties (many with some version of "death," "devil," "demon," and "black" in the name), as well as a "Baller List" that, well, coming from Vegas seems to be regular-priced so let's hear it for Reno!! The Emerson is the aesthetic opposite: a bright, bubbly, cheeky cocktail bar that puts a mid-century modern twist on its creative cocktail program and makes the whole thing a gas with drag brunch, drag bingo, and open-mic comedy nights. Rum Sugar Lime brings a bit of Cuban flair to Midtown, a tropical rum bar that backs away from cheeky tiki but is still very much of its lineage. Chapel Tavern is a stylish-but-casual neighborhood bar that takes its cocktails VERY seriously, and none of them are over $12. For those of us still waiting for amaro to have its moment after White Claw snuck up and stole Aperol spritz's thunder, there are places like Amari that are blazing the trail: iit's a small but gorgeous space where amaro takes center stage. Whiskey fiends need to check out the extensive selection of brown spirits from around the world at the Whisky Lounge. And for those looking for a high-quality local distillery to pick up some rare, boutique bottles not in wide distribution, make the trip down to Minden (near South Lake Tahoe) to tour the sprawling grounds of the new grain-to-glass distillery, Bently Heritage. Once their whisky comes online, this place is poised to take top honors as best distillery in the state. 
 

Get out on the hiking trails

There are so many ways to enjoy the outdoors in Reno, but sometimes the best way to explore is with your own two feet. With the Toiyabe National Forest just minutes away, there are ample opportunities for hiking for all skill levels, but do try to get off the most popular trails to explore the less-frequented and more challenging routes. At 8.9 miles and with 2,900 feet of elevation gain, the Peavine Peak Trail loop isn’t for the casual walker, but it offers beautiful views for those up for the challenge and lots of wildflowers in the summer. A bit shorter but still strenuous enough, the Hunter Creek Trail is a 5.7-mile out-and-back trail with 1,200 feet of elevation gain; your reward is a beautiful waterfall at the top. For a less strenuous but not-too-short hike, check out the 5-mile Hole in the Wall out-and-back trail with only a 400-foot gain. This is a popular one, and of that people are awful, so watch out for all the dog crap.

Find treasures among other people's trash

Turns out, Reno is a bit of a vintage thrifter's paradise, probably made all the more so by being the last stop before leaving civilization for the annual Burner pilgrimage to "The Playa," as they call it. Midtown has a bunch of fun stores selling vintage (and also just plain used) clothing, furniture, jewelry, housewares, decorative items, art pieces, bric-a-brac, novelties, oddities, and more. Junkee Clothing Exchange is the largest and most popular, where you can find everything from costumes for the Playa to kitschy antiques. Bad Apple Vntg is a fun spot with a mix of vintage and new pieces where the target demographic is teens and twenty-somethings with quirky style and a love of '80s and '90s nostalgia. The Nest carries some clothing, but their focus is primarily on furniture and home décor with a particular fondness for all things mid-century modern. The Lucky Star Gallery at the Vassar House is a highly curated vintage store that specializes specifically in vintage Americana and contemporary Western items, and hooooo-WE it is fun! And while the Melting Pot World Emporium is not a vintage store, it is a must-visit when in Reno. It bills itself as "Reno's coolest counter-culture store" and is stuffed full of clothing, costumes, hats, bags, accessories, makeup and body paint, jewelry, home décor, gift items, candles, incense, tarot cards, player flags, instruments, flasks, hip belts, pipes, and pretty much everything a person needs for the Playa and beyond. But also the Playa, because know your customer -- this place was actually the Burning Man ticket outlet for 14 years. 

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Rob Kachelriess has been contributing to Thrillist for more than five years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, Leafly, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He thinks Reno has a better airport than Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.
Nicole Rupersburg lives in Las Vegas where you can find bottomless mimosa brunches every day of the week, A-list musicians in residency every night of the week, and snow still on the mountains in the middle of August when it's 115 degrees outside. Follow her on Twitter @ruperstarski.