In Martin Scorsese’s epic 1995 crime drama Casino, based on Nicolas Pileggi’s book, Joe Pesci’s character is exiled to downtown Las Vegas, a neighborhood in deep decay during the ‘70s. The main drag on Fremont Street was rough-and-tumble, dubbed “Glitter Gulch” because of the neon signs adorning scandal-plagued casinos like Binion’s Horseshoe.   

Today, downtown and its funky arts district have been resurrected into the hippest place in Las Vegas.

Long before the towering mega-resorts and entertainment of the Strip came to define Las Vegas forever, there was Fremont Street, the first paved street in Las Vegas in 1925. Downtown was the city’s actual birthplace, famous for block after block of the most iconic neon signs and marquees on some of Las Vegas’ first casinos, like Binion’s Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget, and the Pioneer Club. 

The once busy main drag has been turned into a six-block covered, pedestrian-only thoroughfare lined with retro and revived casinos, open-air bars, cheap eats, oddball street performers, a zip line, and the world’s largest light and sound shows, now dubbed the Fremont Experience.

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Atomic Liquor (Michele Stueven)

If you mosey further down Fremont, the old haunts are still there, like Atomic Liquor, the storied 1950s dive bar where parts of the movie Casino were filmed. Inside the bar, as well as inside the adjacent garage, it served as a production studio for Martin Scorsese and crew for more than a month. It was the first free standing bar in Vegas and most recently, Atomic was featured in the famous car crash scene in The  Hangover.

For the full mob experience, nothing is more satisfying than the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement with three floors of gangster history, an underground speakeasy, and a distillery that produces some tasty moonshine for purchase. Take a journey through prohibition with a distillery tour that includes sampling a variety of distilled spirits. The Mob Museum is housed in the beautifully restored  1933 U.S. Post Office and Courthouse that played home to the 1950s Kefauver hearings on organized crime.

The charm of downtown is blending the old with the new at better prices. The oldest hotel downtown is the El Cortez Hotel and Casino, built in 1941. In 1945, mobsters Bugsy Siegel, Moe Sedway, Gus Greenbaum and Meyer Lansky bought El Cortez and used it to train the original employees who opened the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946. The Siegel’s 1941 steakhouse is an homage to the hotel’s past.

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The distillery downstairs at the Mob Museum (Michele Stueven)

Known as the jewel of downtown Las Vegas, the Main Street Station Casino and Brewery Hotel is like walking into the Victorian era, with dozens of rare antiques and curiosities collected from around the world by entrepreneur Bob Snow in 1986, which eventually led to bankruptcy. There’s an original Pullman car inside the hotel near the site of the first Las Vegas train station.

As for the newest addition to the burgeoning area, the Circa Resort and Casino is touted as “the conduit of the Las Vegas of yesterday and the Las Vegas of tomorrow.”  Inspired by the city’s founding fathers like Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian, the glamorous indoor/outdoor Legacy Club Rooftop cocktail lounge overlooks the city on Circa’s 60th floor with a panoramic view of the downtown skyline. Try a Midnight Show at the outdoor firepits at sunset.

While Circa is a haven for sports fans and betting enthusiasts, Stadium Swim offers plenty for civilians as well. There are boxing viewing parties on the massive 40-foot tall screen that towers over six large pools, jacuzzis, numerous daybeds, and no less than 20 cabanas on three levels. Service is prompt and friendly, something else that sets downtown apart from the stress of the strip.

Barry’s Downtown Prime chophouse in the Circa basement is an elegant old-school style restaurant, perfect for indulging in classics like Steak Tartare and tableside flaming Baked Alaska.

Off the beaten path and a friendly spot to get neighborhood tips from the locals is 7th & Carson,   a laid-back place for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner. The eclectic menu includes chicken and waffles with spicy chicken tenders on a kimchi waffle with gochujang syrup and pickles, and mini vegetable curry pasties with the chef’s signature whiskey jam.  The Downtown Tanqueray Buzz at the full bar comes in at a reasonable $11.

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The Midnight Show cocktail at Legacy Club (Michele Stueven)

The funkiest and most exciting evolution of downtown is the buzzy arts district with its main street lined with restaurants, art galleries,  and vintage shops that actually have cool stuff.  

If there’s a ground zero to the arts district, it’s Vegas native James Trees’ Esther’s Kitchen, who was chef de cuisine at FIG in Santa Monica and also worked for legendary chefs Eric Ripert and Michael Mina. He opened Esthers in 2018 in a tiny spot on what was then the other side of the tracks. Known for its seasonal Italian cuisine, the restaurant exploded in popularity and became impossible to get a table. Trees expanded into a newer more accessible space next door with a roomy bar and wood-fired ovens for his signature sourdough pizzas and breads with a variety of spreads.  The Mortadella Pizza has become legendary, with shaved red onion, garlic crust and pistachio pesto. Serious about seasonality and sustainability, Trees and the team sources his abundance of produce on the menu from local vendors including Coleman Family Farms in Carpinteria. 

A fun outdoor stroll down Main Street is a cross between Melrose Avenue in its heyday and old-town Americana, complete with the Strat Hotel and Casino Tower in the distance, the unofficial border of the glitzy strip and downtown.

The intoxicating aroma that beckons from Bruce Kalman’s SoulBelly BBQ in the Sundry Food Hall on Main Street will stop you in your tracks. Regional barbecue with a strong emphasis on central Texas includes melt-in-your-mouth brisket and bourbon-glazed pork belly from the pit and smoked portobellos with chimichurri sauce.  Get a combo for a crowd or the chef’s choice, which comes with bread and butter pickles, Texas-style white bread, and sides like ranch beans, coleslaw, and mac and cheese with parmesan and chicharrón crumbs. In addition to cocktails and hyper-local beer, there’s also live entertainment. You never know when you might catch the Top Chef jamming on stage in the back of the restaurant.

Around the corner and closer to the arts of the district, Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina is a colorful, fast casual, traditional and authentic Mexican eatery with charming energy.  Letty’s serves fresh home-cooked small eats, Mexican tortas, taqueria of street tacos, breakfast all day and house-made margaritas. 

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Mortadella Pizza at Esther’s Kitchen (Michele Stueven)

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Main Street in the Arts District (Michele Stueven)

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Vintage shopping downtown (Michele Stueven)














































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