A visit to Las Vegas is incomplete without a trip to Downtown Las Vegas. Just a few miles from the strip, this historic neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying and is well worth a visit now.
Downtown Las Vegas is a neighborhood where trendy juice shops sell $10 smoothies and shabby pawn shops buy gold and other assorted treasures from down-on-their-luck gamblers. Well dressed businessmen, smartphones in hand, walk past homeless people finding respite in the shade from the scorching desert heat. Old neon signs illuminate walls that are freshly decorated with new street art. In other words, Downtown Las Vegas is a neighborhood in transition.
During our recent trip to Las Vegas, visiting downtown was on the top of our list of things to do. We wanted to check out the changing urban center before it becomes completely gentrified like so many cities around the world.
The city of Las Vegas can trace it’s origins to downtown, with Fremont Street at its center, to 1905. Casinos thrived here before Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo four miles away on what is now the Strip, and it’s where cowboy Vegas Vic has been smiling, shining and swinging his iconic neon boot since 1951.
Despite having operating casinos and restaurants through the years, Downtown Las Vegas was a run-down afterthought for decades. This situation changed in 1995 when the Fremont Street Experience began lighting up the downtown epicenter each night. More recently, Zappos, the popular online shoe company, moved from the suburbs making Downtown Las Vegas a destination for both locals and tourists. Renovated hotels, new restaurants and cultural sites like The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum are now transforming the area at lightning speed.
Downtown Las Vegas Food Tour
Not surprisingly, our personal exploration of downtown Las Vegas focused more on the food than on culture. To get our feet wet, we started with a Downtown Las Vegas Food Tour. This tour provided us with an informative introduction to Downtown Las Vegas starting by the Fremont Street Experience and ending at the Downtown Container Park. Our local guide made Las Vegas history come alive as she walked us around the downtown grid, alternating our time between historical stories and food stops at several local eateries. We tasted foods ranging from beef jerky to hummus to artisan chocolates. During the two-hour tour, we learned that there’s a heck of a lot more to the Downtown Las Vegas food scene than the infamous Heart Attack Grill.
Lunch at Carson Kitchen
Dubbed the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef” by Rolling Stone Magazine, Chef Kerry Simon honed his skills on the Las Vegas Strip where he ran successful restaurants like Simon at the Palms Casino. (We enjoyed his festive pajama brunch at Simon several years ago.) For his downtown spot, Simon and his team created a fun menu of burgers, sandwiches and chef-driven snacks like lamb gyro tacos – a Mediterranean Mexican mash-up made with grilled flatbread and seasoned lamb. Our favorite dish was the crispy chicken skins. Brined overnight and fried to order, the skins may not be particularly healthy but they truly are a taste sensation, especially when dipped in the smoked honey that comes on the side.
To us, Carson Kitchen represents all that we look for in a restaurant. The condensed space has a sleek look with its open kitchen, wide bar and outside patio. It’s crowded enough that we had to return for a Friday lunch after finding the restaurant too busy to accommodate us on a Thursday evening. We’re glad that the crowds didn’t deter a second trip.
Tasting Tip: Lunch is a good option for Carson Kitchen since the restaurant has a limited reservation policy. Reservations are only accepted for parties of six or more.
Carson Kitchen is located at 124 S 6th St, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Downtown Container Park
We have never before seen anything like the Downtown Container Park. The park is made entirely of new and repurposed shipping containers of varying sizes that are attached and stacked together with shops, restaurants and even a water slide. At night, the park adds music entertainment to the mix. The mall concept is familiar, but the container construction makes the space fun and unique.
We especially liked JinJu Chocolates, an artisan chocolate shop helmed by Master Chocolatier Jin Caldwell. (We’re suckers for delectable truffles with ingredients like red wine and sea salt caramel.) Since it was over 100 degrees in the shade, we also enjoyed the refreshing blackberry lemonade popsicles at ChillSpot by SasaSweets.
Downtown Container Park is located at 707 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
18b Arts District
To our surprise, just south of the Fremont district, Las Vegas has a vibrant art scene spanning 18 city blocks. The epicenter is The Arts Factory, a funky warehouse with a myriad of art galleries and shops. The art ranges from affordable pop culture to experimental photography with so much to see we could have easily spent a day wandering and chatting with the local art dealers. For us, the only bummer was that we were there on the fourth Friday of the month. We need to schedule our next Las Vegas trip to coincide with the monthly First Friday celebration put on by the artistic community. We hear that it’s quite a party.
The Arts Factory is located at 107 E Charleston Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89104, United States.
Drinks at Atomic Liquors
From the early 1950’s until 1962. the military conducted nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, just a 100 mile drive from Las Vegas. Try to imagine a day gambling, catching a show and then, as a night cap, observing a momentous nuclear explosion from the roof of a local bar. One such bar is Atomic Liquors, the oldest free-standing bar in all of Las Vegas.
At first glance, Atomic Liquors is strictly old-school with a retro jukebox and art featuring mid-century stars. But the decor is just part of the story. Most of the barstools are occupied in the afternoon, and the tattooed bartenders serve up a full selection of craft beer and cocktails. This is clearly a bar that celebrates Sin City’s quirky history while embracing current trends. Atomic Liquors provides a piece of Americana, like most of Downtown Las Vegas, that we should never forget and continue to celebrate.
Atomic Liquors is located at 917 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
The Downtown Las Vegas Food Tour can be booked here. We thank Viator for hosting us on the tour for the facilitation of this article.