I’ve been to Las Vegas a handful of times for conferences and weekend trips. I don’t gamble, but I’d do some other Vegas-y things — graze the buffets, go to shows and nightclubs, and lounge around the pool. With the exception of the pools (I love the city’s extravagant pools), I was never a big fan of the touristy Las Vegas Strip.
On my recent campaign volunteer trip, I got to see a whole different side of the city–staying first at an Airbnb in a student-filled apartment complex near the airport, and later with a friend in a Spanish-style planned community in the suburbs. I spent my meal times scarfing down tacos at Eastside taquerias and working 12-hour days, knocking on doors to meet and talk to locals. I didn’t set foot on The Strip and I have a whole new appreciation for the sprawling and diverse city.
I was reluctant to take time away from the campaign to explore, but I did squeeze in two very different, but exciting adventures for anyone who wants to explore beyond the Las Vegas Strip.
And scroll down for the link to my Airbnb and my favorite East Las Vegas taco stand!
Hiking in Red Rock Canyon
My friend, Shannon, lives in Summerlin, ten miles west of Las Vegas. Shannon’s a runner, triathlete, and avid outdoors enthusiast always training for races, and planning hiking and camping trips. At first, I thought Las Vegas, famous for manufactured landscapes and 24/7 air-conditioned casinos, was an odd place for that kind of outdoorsy lifestyle, but little did I know.
When I told her about my visit, she emailed me a list of things I should do and said, “We’ll have to go hiking one morning before work.”
We got up early one morning and drove out to her favorite local hiking spot Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Driving into the park I was in awe of the bright red outcrops and strange rock formations in this rocky stretch of the Mojave Desert.
There are several hiking trails in Red Rock Canyon, but Shannon said one of the most scenic ones is the 2.5 mile Calico Tanks trail. For about an hour, we scrambled up the rocks, past a seasonal (dry when I visited) water pool, and up to a peak with a stunning view over Las Vegas. I could see the towering casinos on The Strip way off in the distance. They looked so small.
The Neon Museum and “Boneyard Park”
Las Vegas is a city that is constantly reinventing itself. With the construction, comes destruction. Buildings get knocked down so frequently to make way for the next big thing, the dynamite-fueled demolitions draw tourists from around the world. (Have you ever heard the phrase, “implosion tourism”? I hadn’t, but in Vegas, it’s a thing).
Luckily, local historians, activists, and design lovers have intervened to save some of the city’s historic structures and design elements from the wrecking ball.
The Neon Museum works to protect and preserve Las Vegas architecture and design. The “Neon Boneyard” is an outdoor display area where you can walk around some of Las Vegas’s most spectacular and outlandish neon signs all built to attract attention from passing cars and draw you into their motel, casino, or resort.
I took a guided tour of the Boneyard, led by Manny, a local artist and historian. He walked us through Las Vegas’s history pointing out design elements and local history like the first handpainted neon signs, first racially integrated casino, and work of architectural pioneers like Betty Willis (designer of the iconic sign “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas”) and architect Paul Revere Williams in 1961 (the first African-American architect admitted to the American Institute of Architects and designer of the Museum’s visitors center, the restored shell-shaped, Mid-century modern La Concha Motel lobby). It was a very interesting tour and a way to appreciate the quirky and colorful beauty of old Las Vegas.
You can only visit the Neon Boneyard on a guided tour and tours fill up fast. Book your ticket in advance on the museum’s website. They offer night tours where you can see a selection of the museum’s restored neon signs lit up.
Where to Eat Off the Las Vegas Strip
I spent most of my time in the diverse community of East Las Vegas. On the first day, I discovered a great taco shop that I went to again and again. Taco y Taco (3430 E Tropicana Ave) is in a non-descript strip mall. The taqueria offers handmade tortillas and some of the best tacos you’ll find in Las Vegas. The place was super authentic with separate lines for different cuts of meat. It reminded me of taco stands I’ve visited in Mexico.
As a bonus, the place offered several traditional (nopal cactus, mushrooms, queso fresco) and creative (soyrizo!) options for vegetarians.
Where to Stay Off the Las Vegas Strip
For my first few nights in Vegas, I rented a room using Airbnb in an apartment near the airport in East Las Vegas. It was a very nice place to stay — the room was large, the bed was very comfortable, and I had one bathroom to myself. My hosts, Joao Paulo and Dayane (two university students from Brazil), were kind and helpful when I first arrived but gave me privacy throughout the stay. I was worried about noise from the airport–right across the street–but the windows were well insulated and I barely heard a thing. They will let you borrow the key to go down to use the complex’s pool and jacuzzi area.
I was issued a media pass for admission to the Neon Museum. All photos and opinions are my own.
What are your favorite things to do off the Las Vegas Strip?