The Best Things You Can Still Do for Free in Las Vegas
The price you can't beat.
Finding free stuff to do in Las Vegas isn't as easy as it used to be. Old standbys like the Circus Circus acrobats or the Fall of Atlantis animatronic shows at the Forum Shops, are on hold while Vegas goes through a new era of social distancing. However, Sin City still has plenty of fun things to check out -- even during a pandemic -- that don't cost a dime. You just need to know where to look.
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 often 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 under-represented 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 are 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 see a wide array of colorful 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 with the world's largest LED screen. Dubbed Viva Vision, it underwent a $32-million upgrade last year, utilizing more than 16 million pixels for ultra high-def imagery and trippy 3D effects. Themed video shows take place throughout the night, usually on the hour. Fremont Street is also known for its live music, but stage performances are currently on hold to discourage lingering crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
Keep your eyes peeled for the small parking lot on Sunset Road that sits alongside the main runway at McCarran International Airport. It's a great spot for watching jets take off and land. Bring a camera.
As far as iconic Vegas images go, it's hard to beat the Fountains at 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.
As of August 27, the Mirage is back open on the Strip -- and its over-the-top volcano show will be operating as usual. 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 at 8pm and 9pm each night, with an extra 10pm performance on Fridays and Saturdays.
St. Mark's Square is easy to find 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: Canaletto, Sixth + Mill, and Mercato della Pescheria.)
Big Elvis is a live performer whose act is based on one concept: You can never have too much of the King in Las Vegas. While his free show at Harrah's is temporarily suspended to preserve social distancing, the plus-size impersonator has been offering live stream performances on his YouTube channel on a regular basis.
The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop is seen (almost nonstop) on the History Channel's Pawn Stars reality show. Check it out for yourself and browse the unusual -- and often historic -- artifacts for sale. Just know there's no guarantee you'll see anyone you recognize from TV.
There's plenty of art on display throughout the entire CityCenter complex on the Strip. Wander in and out of galleries by Richard MacDonald and Elena Bulatova and then head over to the Aria where fine art installations are found throughout the resort.
The Conservatory & 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, so wear a mask, avoid lingering too long, and try not to photobomb someone else's selfie.
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.
Want to see what a million bucks in cash looks like in person? Head to Binions on Fremont Street. A million dollars in a variety of denominations is stored and secured in a pyramid-shaped display case. Pose for a free pic and receive a 6-by-8 glossy photo in a souvenir frame.
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-storey waterfall, the word "LOVE" spelled in 12-foot 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 where contemporary art galleries can be explored 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.
Spirits and Spice is a cool little spot in the Grand Canal Shoppes that sells its own in-house selection of wine and spirits from around the world. Try samples at any time while learning about the production methods behind the kegs of bourbon, Irish whiskey, Scotch, tequila, or anything else in the store. Spice sampling is currently on pause as a social distancing measure.
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.
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 (although the latter has been inactive during the Mirage's temporary shutdown). No charge. Just hop on board. Don't confuse any of these with the Las Vegas Monorail on the other side of the street, 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 found 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
If there's one good thing about the current economic downturn, it's the return of free parking on the Strip. At the moment, every Strip hotel is suspending parking charges (if they ever had 'em in the first place). Enjoy it while it lasts. 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" 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 asking to pose with you -- or take the shot on your behalf. But that means handing out a tip -- and suddenly, it's not free anymore, is it?
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