Actually Cool Things to Do in Reno Right Now
14 ways to experience Northern Nevada's largest city.
Reno was "having a moment"—until the pandemic put that moment on pause a couple years ago. Now the "Biggest Little City in the World" is picking up where it left off, resuming a comeback story that's built on art, food, booze, cowboy culture, the great outdoors, and a little bit of good old fashioned gambling too. It doesn't hurt that tech companies like Tesla, Google, Panasonic, and Amazon have come to town, injecting the local economy with jobs and the general spirit of "cha-ching" that hasn't been felt since the gold and silver rush. Despite the challenges of the past couple years, 2022 is shaping up to be a promising year for Reno and its surrounding areas. Even Burning Man is back. So brush up on all the cool things to do around town.
Spend a day by the water in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is worth a visit just to capture sandy beaches and snow-capped mountains in the same photograph. The alpine lake straddles the California state line and is surrounded by ski resorts, shopping, and outdoor activities that include hiking, biking, and jet skiing. Most of the action for tourists is in South Lake Tahoe (and the casinos on the Nevada side of the border). Even if the snowfall is light, you can still ride the cable car between Heavenly Village (a collection of shops and restaurants) and the Heavenly Ski Resort. By comparison, the north side of Lake Tahoe is a little more quiet and residential, especially the upscale enclave known as Incline Village. However, you can still grab a beer at Alibi Ale Works, enjoy a steak dinner at Lone Eagle Grille, and rent a bike for a ride along Billionaire's Row, home to some of the best real estate in the country. Just find time to snap a photo in front of Bonsai Rock, one of the most beautiful spots in Nevada.
Attend one of Reno's big annual events
The biggest events in Reno usually happen between spring and fall. The Reno River Festival takes over Wingfield Park May 7-8 with live music, craft beer, and a competition between whitewater athletes on the Truckee River. Hot August Nights brings together hundreds of vintage automobiles with free concerts by oldie music acts, first in Virginia City (July 29-30) and then the larger, five-day celebration in Reno/Sparks (August 2-7). Burning Man—an eclectic art festival, campground, and pop-up city 120 miles north in the Black Rock Desert—returns this August 28–September 5. The 70,000 attendees tend to hit Reno hard, clearing out Walmarts before the nine-day event and returning in a literal haze of dust afterwards. Of course, everybody wants to eat, and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off is serving more than 250,000 pounds of ribs between August 31 and September 5. The Great Reno Balloon Race (September 9-11) in San Rafael Regional Park is the largest free hot air balloon gathering in the world, with about a hundred colorful aircraft invited to take flight. It's something of an unofficial companion event to the Reno Air Races (or more formally, the STIHL National Championship Air Races) at Reno-Stead Airport, with flights and demonstrations attracting 100,000 spectators a day September 14-18. If you prefer cars to planes, Street Vibrations is kinda the same thing, but with motorcycles and heavy metal tribute acts September 22-25.
If you love animals, but are uncomfortable with the restrictions associated with traditional zoos, you'll appreciate Animal Ark. The wildlife sanctuary allows bears, cheetahs, tigers, foxes, and other creatures to roam free in large enclosures. You can even take a walk with a hawk or falcon with Raptor Adventures. Overall, Animal Ark covers nearly 40 acres, so be ready to do some walking, much of it on hillside terrain. There are designated picnic areas, where visitors are encouraged to bring their own food. You'll also learn about the core mission of the nonprofit facility, which doesn't view animals as entertainment, but rehabilitates and cares for those who aren't able to fend for themselves in the wild. Animal Ark closes for the winter, but will be back open for the 2022 season in March.
There are a couple hundred street murals around Reno, and Erik Burke is responsible for at least 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, a volunteer nonprofit that offers free interactive maps for exploring murals on your own time. The influence of Burning Man is felt in public art installations like the 50-foot Space Whale in City Plaza and the imposing Desert Guard warrior looming nearly 50 feet above Reno's Neon Line district.
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 pm 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.
Sip and sample the craft brewery scene
Reno loves beer. And it's got enough local producers to help put a boozy spin on the character of the city. Revision Brewing Co. in Sparks seems to be getting the most attention these days, with a heavy IPA selection and whimsical labels designed by local artists. Great Basin Brewing Company, with locations in South Reno and Sparks, is credited for putting Reno's craft brew scene on the map with its best-selling Great Basin Icky IPA. The Depot, Reno's oldest combined brewery and distillery, is inside a historic brick building that used to be a 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.
The Truckee River separates Midtown from Downtown, providing a welcome splash of nature in the heart of the city. The parks and walkways around it are known collectively as the Riverwalk, with restaurants like the Wild River Grille overlooking the water. If you don't know where to begin, a popular monthly Wine Walk 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 enjoy a game of cornhole and order drinks from bars built from cargo shipping containers. 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.
Explore Reno's casino culture
Gambling is legal in Nevada and while Reno doesn't quite have the mega-casinos you'd see in Vegas, a few of 'em are attractive gaming destinations for visitors and locals alike. Downtown has The Row, home to Circus Circus, Silver Legacy, and Eldorado—all connected by a convenient pedestrian overpass, allowing guests to carry booze between casinos. Try the martinis at Roxy's, bottomless whiskey deals at Novi, and tropical cocktails at Rum Bullions Island Bar, which has giant mining equipment out front. Further south, you'll find Reno's largest casino resort, the Peppermill as well as the Atlantis, which boasts an overachieving restaurant lineup. East of downtown, the Grand Sierra Resort offers a great package overall: clean, modern, and fully renovated with a lakeside driving range, nightclub, and the Ultimate Rush slingshot that propels riders 180 feet in the air.
Take a bite out of Reno's best restaurants
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 (fine dining with fresh seasonal ingredients), Süp (homemade soups), Von Bismarck (eclectic German), and the Noble Pie Parlor (pizza) lead the restaurants in up-and-coming 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. 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.
It takes about an hour to drive from Reno to Tahoe City on the Californian side of North 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 varying degrees of difficulty. Use an appropriate mountain bike if you know you'll be traveling through sections that are basically dirt. The whole concept was created by Janet Phillips, a retired Reno-Sparks city official, who spent nearly two decades promoting and implementing the 114-mile trail. The stretch between Reno and Tahoe City should take a biker about six hours. Plan ahead. You may lose cellphone service for a while—and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Disconnect and enjoy the scenery.
Wake up to Reno's coffee shops and bakeries
Reno packs a hard caffeine punch with high-quality roasters and cafes throughout the city. Hub Coffee Roasters has a few different locations, but the one you want is off the Reno Riverwalk in a charming, renovated home built in 1932. Hub Coffee's Tea Bar serves tea from around the world in the same structure. Old World Coffee Lab near downtown specializes in precision-roasted, small-batch, hand-brewed coffees. Midtown's Pangolin Café is a beautiful confectionery with Turkish teas and sweets, house-made toffees, and liege waffles as well as an espresso bar for Americanos and lattes. And don't leave Reno without a visit to Perenn Bakery, which makes the most gorgeous artisan breads and golden flakey croissants.
Add this to the list of things Reno has that Las Vegas doesn't. The Nevada Museum of Art is the only accredited art museum in Nevada, a status that allows it to coordinate with the Smithsonian, National Archives, and others to bring world-class exhibits to town. Check out Judy Chicago's Dry Ice, Smoke, and Fireworks Archive (through July) and Picasso in Clay (through August). The museum's dark shoebox-shaped exterior is a piece of art itself—inspired by the Black Rock Desert—with two gallery levels, a sculpture garden, and rooftop event space with killer city views. Grab lunch at Chez Louie, a French bistro by Mark Estee that dramatically outperforms the cafeteria-style food common at other museums.
Take a quick day trip out of town
Reno is just a short drive from a few quirky, but compelling destinations. Virginia City is an old mining community, where little has changed since its late-1800s heyday with wooden sidewalks, shops, restaurants, saloons, and museums preserved in Old West Victorian architecture. Hop on board a vintage locomotive and tour the mines that once made Nevada rich with gold and silver. Want to leave the country without actually leaving the country? Pay a visit to the Republic of Molossia, a self-declared sovereign nation of more than 40 years. It's just six acres, but you can visit the oddball village of wooden structures while learning about its goofy laws, customs, ongoing "war" with East Germany, and a currency tied to the value of cookie dough. After all that, you might need a stiff drink. Fallon is home to Frey Ranch, a farm that makes fantastic rye and whiskey from its own crops in an on-site distillery. Tours are every Saturday 12-4 pm, with a tasting and up-close look at the still and production facility.
Dive deep into the biggest little cocktail scene
Midtown's cup runneth over with quality cocktail bars. Death & Taxes is a dark, dramatic speakeasy with a multi-page menu full of classics and their own specialties (many with a mention of "death," "devil," or "demon" in the name), as well as a premium "Baller List." The Emerson is the aesthetic opposite: a bright, bubbly cocktail bar that puts a mid-century modern twist on its creative cocktail program and hosts drag brunch, drag bingo, and open-mic comedy nights. Rum Sugar Lime brings a bit of Caribbean flair to Midtown with island vibes and a rum-based menu. Chapel Tavern is a stylish-but-casual neighborhood bar that takes its cocktails seriously, yet none are over $12. Then there are specialty spots like Amari, a small but gorgeous space where amaro takes center stage, and Whisky Lounge, with an extensive selection of dark spirits from around the world.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.