On Site: The Revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas

While the Strip has been the hub of Las Vegas growth for decades, the Downtown area—the original Las Vegas, where those first casinos opened soon after gambling was legalized in the 1930s—has seen dramatic improvements in recent years, courtesy of the Downtown Project, a public/private organization dedicated to revitalizing the area. While on location courtesy of the LVCVA, we met up with Maria Phelan of the Downtown Project to see how the area has changed, and how it can offer visitors a decidedly urban experience in contrast to the resorts on the Strip.

The Downtown Project has helped finance independent businesses throughout the neighborhood, giving local entrepreneurs an opportunity to show off their skills. With that in mind, we started our tour at O-Face Doughnuts, a bakery and coffeehouse helmed by Crystal Whitford, who previously created pastries for Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller. At O-Face, she creates a wide range of traditional and innovative doughnuts (and other pastries)--top picks included an orange Boston cream doughnut, a vegan vanilla and chocolate glazed and several filled options (think bacon maple, lemon rosemary meringue and an apple bacon fritter). For afternoon snacking, the bakery also offers savory options like pizza or Monte Cristo. All ingredients are organic and as much as possible is made in-house—including the flavored syrups for the coffees.

O-Face Doughnuts

Another recent development is Container Park, a shopping neighborhood made of repurposed shipping crates and Extreme Cubes—stackable blocks that FEMA sometimes uses for emergency housing after disasters. The park is home to a range of independent businesses—restaurants, clothiers, jewelers, etc.--all housed in these distinct structures. In the middle, a massive “tree house” provides a safe space for kids to play while parents shop, and a theater is set up towards the rear for outdoor movies.

Container Park

The Gold Spike is a funky new bar on Las Vegas Boulevard that looks like a college fraternity rec room: Beds and bean bags serve as chairs, games are available (free of charge) throughout the space and the outdoor patio has what may well be the country's longest hopscotch grid. (If not the country's, at least Nevada's.) An Airstream and a micro-house offer privacy and can be bought out for intimate private functions, and large-scale versions of games like Jenga, chess and checkers are set up. The bar, we heard, is frequently packed every evening with local business professionals looking to blow off steam with the free games and the hip atmosphere, and the bar is already being bought out for private functions. (Good to know: While the bar has hotel-like rooms upstairs, they are owned by the nearby Zappos headquarters. A modest hotel owned by the Downtown Project, however, has just opened next door to the bar, and is a good pick for a quiet spot within walking distance to all the action.)

The Courtyard of the Gold Spike, with a Jenga game on the left.

One of the bigger developments in recent years is the Fremont Street Experience, which saw a major Downtown street closed off to vehicular traffic and recreated as a shopping district with a digital canopy. Three stages host concerts throughout the week, and the five-block stretch now sees an estimated 15 million visitors each year. 

Courtesy of the Fremont Street Experience

And then there's Slotzilla, an urban zipline that has generated plenty of buzz since it launched as (at least initially) a temporary installation several years back. Thrillseekers have two options here: They can sit in a harness and zip halfway down Fremont Street on the lower lines, or go all the way up to the top of the canopy and fly like Superman all the way from one end of Fremont Street to the other on a “zoom line.” It's a great way to see the street and to have a bit of adventure. The Slotzilla zipline is 77 feet high and 850 feet long, while the zoom line is 114 feet high and runs 1,700 feet at speeds faster than 35 miles per hour.

Good to know: Bags are provided for keeping small bags with flyers (great for ladies carrying purses) and photos are taken along the route by high-speed cameras. (The pictures are, of course, available for purchase later.)

On the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard from the Fremont Street Experience, La Comida is a popular Mexican restaurant that uses very fresh (and locally sourced) ingredients. The food here is classic Tex-Mex, and is a great stop for very tasty, filling fare in a decidedly casual ambiance. (The margaritas are especially good, and they come in several varieties.) Be sure to ask for a variety of salsas and guacamole for appetizers--they come in a range of heat and flavors, and are all very tasty.

Pictured: One travel writer after facing her fear of heights and sailing over Fremont Street on Slotzilla.

Good to know: For those who need help finding their way back home after an afternoon or evening in the area, the Downtown Project has several Rangers available 24/7 to escort visitors and locals back to their hotel or to a car that will take them home. Call 702-900-3274 to let them know where to be when.

While the Strip may generate much of the Vegas buzz, the Downtown area is a great option for a more urban experience, and is definitely worth a daytrip. Or perhaps longer: The four-star Golden Nugget hotel has seen recent renovations, and serves as a good hub for a multi-day visit to the area.