A Local’s Guide to Doing Las Vegas the Right Way

From hidden gems in strip malls to the desert wilderness just a short drive from the Strip, there’s so much more to Sin City than debauchery.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Photo by Mikayla Whitemore for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Photo by Mikayla Whitemore for Thrillist
With a year of unparalleled activity and worldwide attention ahead, Las Vegas is in the midst of a major transformation. This week, all bets are off as we head to the desert to explore this exciting moment and what it means for the future of Sin City.

I’ve lived in Las Vegas for nearly a decade. Sometimes when I say this to people, I see their eyes light up with the memory of a horrible mistake they made here: an all-night bender, a relationship-ending indiscretion, a financially devastating bet. If you, too, associate Vegas with an experience you regret or an outstanding warrant for your arrest, you might not think Vegas is for you. But there’s so much more to Las Vegas than lawless debauchery.

As a proud Vegas resident, I implore you to open your mind to what exists outside the realm of Buffalo Gold slot machines. It’s a city without hangovers, crowds, or even resort fees. From hidden gems in strip malls to the desert wilderness just a short drive from the Strip, below are some of the best perspective-shifting activities for experiencing Las Vegas anew.

Guardian Cathedral, Las Vegas
Guardian Cathedral | Photo by Mikayla Whitmore for Thrillist

Avoid the Crowds and Walk the Strip Early in the Morning

More than 40 million people visited the city in 2023. Not all simultaneously, of course, though it can feel like that. The best way to avoid the crowds? Go in the morning. In that elusive time between last call and breakfast, a kind of peace exists on Las Vegas Boulevard. The streets are still, the sky is pink, and even the glittering neon seems somehow softer. It’s a surprising time of solitude in one of the busiest places on Earth.

If you’d like to do something very non–Sin City on the Strip, attend mass at the Guardian Angel Cathedral. This distinct blue A-frame church designed by Paul R. Williams is a mid-century architectural gem in the shadow of the Wynn. The church’s founder, Reverend Richard Crowley, was known for offering 4:30 am mass to casino workers. Mass is a little later these days, giving you extra time to take in the sunrise.

Bow Out of Big Shows to Experience Off-Strip Theater

From Cirque du Soleil to the latest happenings inside the Sphere, there’s no shortage of incredible shows in Las Vegas. But given the ticket prices, the lack of free parking, and the $25 cocktail you will inevitably imbibe, the well-known shows can be a lot financially and emotionally. Instead, opt for a smaller, off-Strip theater experience. Specializing in immersive theater, everything at the Majestic Repertory Theatre in the Arts District is creative, heartfelt, and a little bit wild. The unauthorized musical parody Scream’d is back for a reason. May it run forever. Vegas Theatre Company, another Arts District gem, is an intimate venue surrounded by galleries. Over in Chinatown, you’ll find Las Vegas Little Theatre, the oldest operating small theater in the city, which produces both classic and innovative new plays.

Spend Less Money by Visiting a Lesser-Known Museum

While Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Luxor is a great way to see a full-scale re-creation of the Titanic’s grand staircase in a casino, we understand this is not for everybody. So if you’re looking for a museum that’s not inside a casino, consider visiting one of Las Vegas’s lesser-known museums, which are often more affordable, less crowded, and just as interesting as their better-known counterparts. The Pinball Hall of Fame, which recently relocated to a bigger space, houses an extensive restored pinball collection—and yes, you can play the machines. The Erotic Heritage Museum offers a sociological, historical, and artistic journey through human sexuality. It is also home to the world’s largest sex bike, which is a fun thing to post on your Instagram with zero context. The Office of Collecting & Design in Las Vegas’s burgeoning Commercial Center is a velvety, library-like space containing a whimsical collection of miniature objects curated by the filmmaker Jessica Oreck. The Lost City Museum, located near Valley of Fire State Park, was constructed on the prehistoric site of the Ancestral Puebloans and contains excavated Pueblo artifacts and reconstructed houses. It’s an important testament to the desert’s Indigenous people and well worth the hour-long drive.

Cancel Your Reservation and Head to Gilcrease Orchard for Harvest Season

On the far northwest side of Las Vegas, the city quiets, opening up to large horse properties and views of the mountains. It’s here where you’ll find Gilcrease Orchard, a wholesome farm where locals go pumpkin picking, eat apple cider donuts, and take home half-gallons of fresh pear juice. If you’re feeling bucolic, join them, and afterward, consider a steak dinner at the nearby Bob Taylor’s Original Ranch House & Supper Club. The “Place for Steaks Since 1955” is the oldest restaurant in the city. Its wood-paneled walls, mesquite-cooked steaks, and swinging doors feel like stepping into a country Western—a far cry from the sleek (and often pricey) steakhouses on the Strip.

Writer Block, Las Vegas
Writer Block | Photo by Mikayla Whitmore for Thrillist

Trade Sportsbooks for Actual Books by Shopping at Small Businesses 

If you prefer actual books to sportsbooks, find your way to the Writer’s Block, an independent bookstore, cafe, and self-described artificial-bird sanctuary on a quiet street in Downtown Las Vegas. In 2023, the Beverly Theater, the city’s first independent film house, opened next door to provide arthouse cinema and Nicholas Cage movies because, you know, balance. In addition to showing the kind of movies you’d typically have to drive to Sundance to see on the big screen, the Beverly Theater offers live music, literary events, and occasionally some truly unhinged programming—Leprechaun 3?!—that one has no choice but to respect.

Save Your Money and Take Advantage of Free Programming at the Library

The Clark County Library District has 25 locations and tons of excellent, free, and deeply underrated programs and amenities. Several branches have used bookstores and art galleries—the Sahara West location is especially great for this. Many locations also have theaters for lectures, readings, and performances. Last year, the Library District offered a one-person show, a reading series, and a lecture from a ghost expert who claimed Tupac Shakur haunts Flamingo Road, and none of it cost attendees a dime.

Instead of a Wine Pairing, Enjoy a Chocolate-and-Cacti Pairing

You’ve probably seen the Ethel M Chocolates store at Harry Reid International Airport—one of the nation’s most unique—while you were hungover, leaving Vegas, and swearing never to return. On your next visit, do things right and visit the factory in Henderson. Founded by famed candyman Forrest Mars, who named the company after his mother, Ethel M Chocolates is known for its gourmet truffles. It’s free to visit the factory, and in addition to learning how the chocolate gets made, you can wander the three-acre botanical cactus garden. During the holiday season, the cacti don Christmas lights. The desert holiday cheer is whimsical, but if you want to avoid the crowds, visit during the other months of the year.

Leave Your Hotel to Find Green Space in the Heart of the City at UNLV

Situated surprisingly close to the Strip, the UNLV campus is a green alternative to the concrete of the Strip. Sit on a bench and read a book within the xeriscape gardens, which feature drought-tolerant plants and occasional visits from cottontail rabbits and coyotes, then step inside the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, a free gallery with exhibitions featuring local and visiting artists as well as workshops, artist lectures, and an annual art walk.

Flee the Neon Lights and Drive (or Hike) to a Somewhat Obscure Piece of Art

In 2022, land artist Michael Heizer debuted City, a large-scale sculpture he’d worked on since 1970. The popular artwork—which requires a reservation to visit and is a long drive away from Vegas—isn’t the most accessible. But if you’re into land art, you can see Heizer’s Double Negative about 90 minutes from the city. Constructed in 1969 on Mormon Mesa near Overton, Double Negative consists of two trenches cut into the land, and the view beyond them is sweeping and impressive. You can easily make it to Double Negative if you have a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle with good tires. If you don’t, you’ll want to hike the last few miles on foot. This is a good thing to do if you like art and solitude.

Lee Canyon, Nevada
Lee Canyon | Photo by Mikayla Whitmore for Thrillist

Escape the Heat and Go Skiing Less Than an Hour from the Strip

This isn’t a euphemism for cocaine. I’m talking about literally going skiing at Lee Canyon. If you retrieved your car from the valet at Caesars Palace right now, you could be there in 57 minutes. Located in the very same mountains you’re likely looking at from your hotel room, this ski resort sits at an elevation of 8,660 feet and has 31 trails. It sees an average of 129 inches of snowfall a year. There’s a restaurant, a bar, and a coffee shop, plus other activities like snowshoeing and snowplay, which is just playing in the snow. Lee Canyon does not have lodging, but you can stay in a cabin at Mount Charleston Lodge in neighboring Kyle Canyon. All of the cabins have fireplaces and sundecks overlooking the snow-covered peaks. For those who aren’t a fan of winter, the Mount Charleston area becomes a paradise in the summer—perfect for hiking, camping, and eating charcuterie in a meadow alongside wild horses. And it’s a good 30 degrees cooler than on the Las Vegas Strip. Just remember to keep a respectful distance from the horses, and don’t bogart the cambozola.

Replace a Pool Party With a Dip in the Colorado River

Lake Mead is so much more than the body of water where we keep finding human remains. There’s also the Colorado River, which offers some of the best kayaking in the Southwest, just an hour outside Las Vegas. If you want something a little more natural than a lazy river at a casino, this is it. Willow Beach Marina & Campground, located just over the Arizona border, rents single kayaks, tandem kayaks, and canoes. Reserve the vessel of your choice and paddle to the Emerald Cave, where the water lights up bright green when the afternoon sun is above the canyon. If you’d rather spend your time on dry land, hike the five-mile Liberty Bell Arch trail and see—you guessed it—an arch that looks like the Liberty Bell, plus an excellent overlook of the Colorado River snaking through the Black Canyon. The five-mile Arizona Hot Springs trail, which leaves from the same parking lot, takes you to hot springs nestled inside a slot canyon.

Opt Out of Gambling With a Day Trip to Boulder City

With its Lake Mead views and quiet streets, Boulder City is a decidedly mellow alternative to Las Vegas. It’s just 30 minutes away and is one of only two towns in Nevada where gambling is prohibited. Stroll the peaceful, tree-lined downtown area, browse antique shops, get a latte and a novel at Dam Roast House & Browder Bookstore, try the truffles at Grandma Daisy’s, and order the brisket at Fox Smokehouse BBQ. Once a year, the Dam Short Film Festival takes over the town with a few days of documentaries, dramas, horror, and more. And no trip to Boulder City is complete without a visit to Hemenway Park, where you can often spot bighorn sheep grazing. Until you get there, you can watch the Ram Cam.

Ditch the Lazy River and Relax in a Date Palm Oasis

The word “oasis” gets thrown around a lot in the desert, but China Ranch Date Farm on the edge of Death Valley earns the descriptor. If you’re up for a 90-minute drive out into the wilderness of the great Mojave, you’ll find palm trees, a mysterious desert river, and the best date shake you’ve ever tasted. The road to China Ranch is winding and narrow as it drops down into a canyon, revealing a lush green wonderland. China Ranch is a working farm founded in the 1920s. Take a hike along the Amargosa River (stay on the trail to be respectful of the fragile desert ecosystem), and when you return, reward yourself with a date shake, a date cookie, some date bread, or just a pound of dates. If you’re looking for a good place to read a book in the shade of a palm tree, this is it. And if you don’t yet have a preference among Medjool dates, Halawi dates, and Khadrawy dates, you will soon.

Snub the Club to Meet Burros in Red Rock Canyon

Whenever I’m hosting a friend who doesn’t like the stereotypical Las Vegas itinerary, I take them for a hike in Red Rock Canyon, 30 minutes west of the Strip. My go-to trail is Pine Creek Canyon, toward the end of the Scenic Loop, which meanders alongside a creek surrounded by impressive Aztec sandstone cliffs. Approximately a mile from the trailhead, the ruins of a homestead appear in a meadow. Afterward, I take said Vegas skeptic to Cottonwood Station, the only restaurant within the charming village of Blue Diamond. The menu has freshly made pizzas, panini, salads, and baked goods, plus beer, wine, and cider. The spacious patio is often full of hikers, climbers, and mountain bikers, but if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch a herd of burros passing through. It’s not the kind of luck most people think of when planning a trip to Las Vegas, but for visitors who want something a little different, it’s exactly right.

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Krista Diamond is a freelance/fiction writer who lives in (and often writes about) Las Vegas. Her writing has been featured in The New York TimesHuffPostEaterBusiness InsiderFodor’s, and Desert Companion.