Sin City's downtown stays original (and cool)

by: ANN TERRY HILL - Visitors get into the spirit of Las Vegas.

Fun City, Sin City, the Neon Experience, a Babylon — whatever you call it, downtown Las Vegas has been and is being revitalized. Walk the five blocks of Fremont Street, featuring 12.5 million LED lights and 550,000 watts of sound, and you’ll see what I mean. Energy seems to flow out of each LED light, and you can’t wait to “rock” right along.

Downtown Las Vegas offers everything, but you aren’t overwhelmed. You can enjoy at your leisure and won’t be exhausted by your efforts. It’s easy. Maybe along the way at a casino stop, you’ll hit a jackpot or two. It does happen.

Best of all, enjoy the bargains: The Plaza Hotel has rooms as low as $15 per night Sunday through Thursday and $35 per night Friday and Saturday, with one free cocktail at the casino bar. The offer is good through Jan. 31. Call for reservations: 1-800-634-6575.

“The Year of Downtown,” 2012, saw $789 million worth of new projects that have helped revitalize the area: The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum, The Mob Museum, the Neon Museum and the new City Hall have all contributed to the new life the downtown is experiencing.

The area is most walkable. There’s always a spot to stop to sit and rest and drop a nickel into a slot, have a drink of your choice or a snack (perhaps one of those famous shrimp cocktails — Du-Par’s in the Golden Gate Hotel has been offering at a bargain price since 1959 when it first introduced this treat to Vegas).

For historians, downtown Las Vegas area is a gold mine. The Spanish named it Las Vegas in the 1800s for its green valley and desert spring waters. The name stuck, and by 1904 it had become a construction camp for railroad workers. In 1905, 110 acres of land adjacent to the railroad were auctioned off, and that land became the downtown area. Development soon followed, and in 1906 the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino opened at 1 Fremont St. — room and board cost $1 per day. The hotel has had several name changes and several owners, but today it is restored and is the downtown’s only boutique hotel with state-of-the art rooms and suites. It is living history. And what a location — step right out your door to explore The Fremont Street Experience.

There are other good places to stay depending on your wishes. The Plaza Hotel & Casino, right across the street and voted the best hotel in downtown Las Vegas in 2012, with 467 rooms, offers anything you might desire with all the amenities of a big-time hotel. The rooms are nice, the beds are good, and fast elevators run to the top floors. If you don’t get lost in the casino area, there are plenty of restaurants and snack stops to satisfy you. The Plaza is the only downtown hotel with a bingo room.

The new D Hotel, still a work in progress, at 301 Fremont St., promises to be a smash hit. It offers one of my favorite things in Las Vegas: a casino for old timers on its second floor. You’ve got it — the machines pay with real money, and you can actually hear the jingle of coins.

The Fremont Street Experience is awesome. Be wowed by the world’s largest video screen and the hourly light and sound shows beginning at dusk. Or experience the thrill of Flightlinez, a zip line that travels under the video screen at 20-35 mph. Every night is a party — let the restored and re-lit neon signs throughout illuminate your experience.

One of the newer attractions is The Mob Museum (The National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement). Three floors of history, both of the mob and the law enforcers are portrayed here in a true-to-life view with their impact on the history of Las Vegas. The museum tells both sides, giving an inside look at this particular part of the city’s heritage.

The state-of-the-art Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a 5-acre, multi-venue campus, offers events ranging from Broadway shows to a blend of other events at affordable prices and is a cultural focal point for the city.

Anyone who watches the History Channel on TV will be familiar with The Silver & Gold Pawn Shop, where Rick, the Old Man and Chumlee have become national stars. This is one of the most popular stops in Las Vegas. Be prepared to stand in line. Before the TV exposure, the shop averaged approximately 300 visitors a day. Now it is nothing to have at least 3,000. It isn’t a very big shop, but it’s fun to visit. If you are lucky, and the stars are there, maybe you will score a photo.

Downtown Las Vegas has many museums and attractions — for instance, the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the Children’s Museum with its hands-on experiences, the Las Vegas Arts District and the Neon Museum. I suggest getting a downtown Las Vegas Visitors’ Guide before you arrive so you don’t miss anything the would be of particular interest to you.

City officials burst with enthusiasm. “Downtown Las Vegas is undergoing an incredible renaissance, from our cool and eclectic arts district, to the world-class Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and the vintage Vegas vibe in the Fremont East Entertainment District, downtown is the place to be,” said Mayor Carolyn G. Goodman. “I invite everyone to visit downtown Las Vegas and experience everything that we have to offer.”

Of course I can’t mention Las Vegas with out a word about The Strip. A short cab ride away takes you to all those famous hotels and casinos.

During my recent trip to Las Vegas, I was delighted to return to Caesar’s Palace. The North American Travel Journalists’ Association, of which I am a member, was treated to drinks and hors d’ oeuvres at Serendipity, one of Caesar’s fabulous restaurants. I can’t say enough about Chef Michael Wolf’s creations: The crab cakes, bruscetta and seafood tacos were wonderful, as was the ambiance of the café. The $17 million Bacchanal Buffet, also on the first floor, featured nine kitchens and more than 500 items to select from. A gourmet delight, and worth the long lines.

Las Vegans have imagined almost everything possible to show you a good time. You can never feel too old to enjoy this city.