If you want to see the Declaration of Independence or the Mona Lisa, look elsewhere. Las Vegas museums are all about cool stuff like the mob, casinos, atomic bombs, and sex. We sorted out the ones that rank among the strangest, weirdest, and just plain awesome.
This Chinese Festival Is Like 'Frozen' Come to Life
Downtown Everyone says Vegas was better "when the mob ran the town." Is that really the case? See for yourself at the Mob Museum (more formally known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement). It occupies the former Downtown courthouse where notorious crime figures were prosecuted, and the exhibits focus on the best (or worst, depending how you view it) crime figures in history, from Vegas favorites like Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro to mafia kingpins like Al Capone and "Lucky" Luciano. Learn about FBI wiretaps, weapons of choice, and how to skim money like the pros, and see a hunk of wall riddled with bullets from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and a vintage electric chair and gas chamber -- proving that crime (usually) doesn't pay. The Mob Museum will dramatically expand in 2018 with a basement-level attraction devoted to the Prohibition era with a working distillery and speakeasy.
Off the Strip It may seem strange that watching atomic bomb explosions used to be a spectator sport in Las Vegas, with mushroom clouds visible from within city limits. However, much like the Hoover Dam, the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons developed an industry that helped build modern Las Vegas, a message that’s clear with a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum. Between 1951 and 1992, nearly 1,000 atomic bombs were detonated in the Nevada desert (but don't worry -- most of the fallout drifted to the folks in Utah). In addition to historical nuggets about the Manhattan Project, World War II, and the Cold War, you'll learn about the presence of nuclear weapons in popular culture, especially in Vegas where the Atomic Age promoted tourism. Highlights include a piece of the underground tunnel from the test site and an interactive movie theater that simulates what it would be like to watch a nuclear bomb test in person from a few miles away, complete with an ominous countdown, bright lights, wind, and shockwave rumbles.
Downtown Las Vegas is defined by the iconic imagery found in the colorful neon signs and marquees seen at hotels, casinos, and other business over the years. Many of them are preserved (and in some cases, restored with fully functioning lights) at the Neon Museum and its outdoor Neon Boneyard. It's divided into four sections: the Strip, Downtown, motels, and businesses. Tours generally take place in the morning or night, and umbrellas are offered for shade during the hot daylight hours, so take advantage of them. Guides spend about an hour diving into the history behind the signs, like how the Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino and Binion's Horseshoe changed the game (literally) by adding carpets to the floor and seats in front of slot machines. The most fun object? The giant pirate skull from Treasure Island that looks up to the sky. Look for it on Google Maps, where it smiles at you in satellite mode. Another fun fact: The welcome center for the museum is actually the old check-in lobby from the La Concha motel.
Off the Strip This mammoth warehouse collection features nearly 100 vehicles from film, television, and pop culture. Most are the authentic originals but a few well-crafted replicas put together by an in-house auto shop are included. You'll see beat up stunt cars from the Fast and the Furious movies, the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard, and the only known remaining drivable Batmobile from Batman Returns. Cars from classic action shows like Knight Rider, Starsky and Hutch, The A Team, and Hardcastle and McCormick (remember that one?) are featured in all their macho glory. Everything was curated by real estate mogul Michael Dezer, a James Bond fan who made sure 007 was well represented in the collection, with the flying car from The Spy Who Loved Me and a micro-jet from Octopussy. The museum recently expanded to include an entire wing dedicated to the cars and memorabilia of Liberace, and it's hard to find anything more Vegas than that. (Except for the car from The Hangover, which is also on display.)
Off the Strip Definitely an X-rated attraction, the Erotic Heritage Museum takes a raunchy approach to education. Exhibits range from semi-serious topics like the evolution of the peep show to a playful look at the potential for sex on other planets. You can actually hop on a device billed as the world's largest sex bike, in which multiple people pedal at the same time while seats vibrate. For a museum hyper-focused on graphic imagery, from international artwork to flat-out pornography playing on video screens, there's a surprising amount of text on the walls, with topics that include Darwin, the G-Spot, and presidential sex scandals. There's also a theater that hosts the Las Vegas residency of Puppetry of the Penis.
East Valley One of the few Las Vegas attractions left with both free parking and free admission, the Pinball Hall of Fame features more than 150 machines covering 10,000 square feet of space. The games span from 1947 to 2009, each fully restored, maintained, and playable. The older models are 25 cents to play while the newer ones are 50 cents, with a few vintage arcade games thrown into the mix as well. Operating as a nonprofit, any revenue leftover from gameplay or restoration services is donated to charity.
Off the Strip Just 3 miles west of the Strip lies the Springs Preserve, where 5,000 years of Nevada history is stuffed inside one incredible campus that over-delivers with exhibits and interactive attractions. Hike or bike on 3 miles of trails or ride a train to Boomtown 1905, an authentic recreation of a Vegas streetscape from the city's initial growth period. Two traditional museums are also on site: The Nevada State Museum features showgirl exhibits alongside towering fossil displays while the Origen Museum has cool astronaut stuff, live animal exhibits, and a simulated flash flood. There's also a botanical garden, butterfly habitat, and a solar powered home that was designed by UNLV students for a competition a few years ago.
The Luxor Although promoted as a casino attraction, "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" certainly qualifies as a museum with its deep collection of relics recovered from the doomed ocean liner. Some of the materials stored in leather luggage are in pristine condition, but what really sets this exhibit apart from similar collections is "the big piece" -- a chunk of the ship's wall that is the largest ever recovered. Along the way, you'll also experience recreations of the outdoor deck and the elegant staircase made famous in, you know, that movie. The exhibit also scores points for having an exceptionally dedicated staff that clearly cares about the people involved in the Titanic's tragic story.
Boulder City The Nevada State Railroad Museum preserves the former Union Pacific branch that supplied the government workers who built the Hoover Dam. The outdoor museum features a small fleet of vintage locomotives and is the only place in Southern Nevada where people can actually take a ride on a full-size passenger train. Trips are only offered on weekends, although guests are welcome to come by and explore the equipment for free during the week. You can also play engineer and actually drive a locomotive (complete with the most powerful diesel engine ever designed by General Motors) for a mere $250. The track is 5 miles long and a round-trip journey usually takes about 40 minutes. Make sure to check out the Vanderbilt family's personal passenger car from 1894 -- considered among the world's most luxurious travel accommodations at the time -- and still probably a step-up from the average Vegas motel today.
Downtown It's kind of an unexpected sight. Right in the middle of Downtown sits the remnants of an adobe fort from 1855. (Look for it across the street from a Sinclair gas station.) The site is actually the first settlement in the Las Vegas Valley by non-native Americans and was built by Mormon missionaries, then used by the US Army. The fort is now an official state park with wooden gates straddling brick walls and gravel walkways, old wagons, the first flag ever flown over Las Vegas, and the running stream that made the location so attractive in the first place. Even better -- admission is just a dollar. Try to find a better deal than that anywhere in Vegas.
Sign up here for our daily Vegas email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas for Thrillist for nearly four years. His work has also recently appeared in Travel + Leisure, Vegas Seven, David Magazine, Vegas Magazine, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He is teaching himself how to play pinball. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.