Considering so much of the town is built on fantasy, it's fitting that even the name "Las Vegas" is a bit of harmless fraud. When Spanish scout Rafael Rivera first set foot in the region, the valley’s vast grasslands compelled him to name it “The Meadows” in his native tongue. But the bulk of those meadows are long gone, their wild grasses giving way to the neon-lit stretch of roadway known as the Las Vegas Strip.
It’s difficult to imagine a Las Vegas without casinos and resorts, but such was the state of things when the Hotel El Rancho Vegas opened on Las Vegas Boulevard in 1941. The largest of its kind when it opened, the El Rancho set the stage for a boom that spawned iconic hotels such as The Flamingo and the late, great Desert Inn. Tourism and gambling took over as the city’s largest industries after the Second World War, bringing with them a chapter of organized crime retold in detail at the Mob Museum in the city’s former courthouse. With this flurry of activity—sometimes legal, sometimes less so—the Sin City that we know and love today was born.
There’s more to a body than its beating heart, and the same can be said for Las Vegas and its Strip. A retro scene awaits visitors on nearby Fremont Street, nicknamed Glitter Gulch for its abundance of neon signage. Flashing lights announce the entrance to Golden Nugget, one of the city’s oldest casinos and, appropriately enough, home to the world’s largest golden nugget. There are plenty of other ways to relive the glory days of Vegas, such as taking in a show that celebrates the city’s colorful history. A recent hit among critics, Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack relives the golden era with spot-on interpretations of Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and the rest of the rowdy gang.
Of course, one might argue that the city’s golden era never really ended. The good times still roll at mega-resorts such as The Mirage and Bellagio, and shows from Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion are as spectacular as any the town has seen. The surrounding area, however, is just as famous for being home to world-class universities, museums, and landmarks such as the Hoover Dam.
Despite the bright lights that blaze nearby, life maintains a degree of normalcy on the quiet campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You don’t have to be a student to marvel at the regional artifacts at the Marjorie Barrick Museum or take in a high-octane Runnin’ Rebels basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center. Though it has no professional teams, the city keeps one foot in the sporting world by annually hosting events such as the NBA Summer League.