Best of Las Vegas: Our Favorite Experiences

Las Vegas key chain Steven Depolo / Flickr
In "Viva Las Vegas," Elvis Presley sings a wish for more than 24 hours in the day to spend in the city that set his soul on fire. If even the King himself couldn't cram all of the city's wonders into a single visit, what hope is there for the rest of us? While we can't imagine a way to experience every variety of Vegas excess—that kind of goes against what "excess" means—our top picks for a quintessential Sin City getaway should help you make some headway in this sprawling mass of fun.
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The Las Vegas Strip at night Pixabay
The heart of the city is of course this bedazzled 13-block stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South, otherwise known the world over as the Strip. It's lined with behemoth casino hotels, each of them a dictionary definition of over-the-top. Always seeking to outdo one another, these delightfully absurd pleasure palaces abound with gaudy architecture, attention-grabbing free attractions, and theming (ancient Egypt, the circus, Paris) carried to extremes. The Strip is less spectacular during the day, but the lights at night are so head-spinning you might be too distracted to take it all in.
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New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas Pixabay
It's Vegas, after all, and even if you don't want to drop a dime (though isn't that partly what you came here for?), you'll want to see what's behind those flashy facades. Lately, the trend in town has been toward resort spas on steroids and overgrown boutique hotels—the Vegas version of quiet good taste—but there is still plenty to keep you agog, from ancient Rome (Caesars Palace) to a scaled-down Manhattan (New York-New York) to a scaled-up medieval castle (Excalibur). In other cities, hotels are built near the attractions. In Vegas, they are the attractions.
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Enjoy light shows, concerts, and casinos on Fremont Street. Frommers.com Community
Found in the downtown area formerly known as Glitter Gulch, this five-block entertainment district is covered by a 90-foot-high “celestial vault” that at night becomes a high-tech video-and-sound show, thanks to more than 12.5 million lights embedded in the canopy. At ground level, visitors take in free concerts, shop for kitschy souvenirs at colorful stalls, and pop into classic casinos from the city's storied Rat Pack era.
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Selection of cheeses at the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas s-velasco / Flickr
All-you-can-eat, low-cost buffets have long been a symbol of the city's bargain vacation status. These days Vegas is no longer a bargain, but the buffets remain—although they've gotten more expensive, too. Still, seeing rows of prep stations offering varieties of international and American cuisine, not to mention mounds of shrimp and prime rib, remains a sybaritic treat. As prices have gone up, so has quality—and a buffet is still cheaper than a multicourse dinner at a costly restaurant.

Pictured above: a selection of cheeses at the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace
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XS Nightclub at Encore hotel in Las Vegas Nan Palmero / Flickr
Vegas rivals L.A. and New York in its nightlife scene, with every hotel offering multiple nightclubs, lounges, and bars that draw hordes of partiers vying for attention behind the velvet ropes. You have to endure long lines and high prices, but the wild abandon inside is why they came up with that "What happens in Vegas..." catchphrase. For the full club experience, try the indoor/outdoor XS (pictured) at Encore or Cosmopolitan's Marquee, a massive, multiroom axis of revelry with a little something for every taste.
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Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage in Las Vegas, Nevada Frommers.com Community
An unexpected oasis in the midst of the Strip's madness is Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. Visitors can watch these playful mammals swim and frolic in a meticulously designed environment overseen by spirited trainers with the best job in Vegas. Take as long as you like to enjoy the dolphins' company—if you're really lucky, they might even play ball with you.
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The Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas Tanya Hart / Flickr
Shoppers won't find a lot of original stores and independent boutiques in Vegas. Chains and other recognizable brands rule the roost in shopping centers that are every bit as extravagantly designed as the casino hotels they're attached to. From Versace to Old Navy, there is something for every budget—and in the case of the Forum Shops at Caesars, it's all set in an overblown Roman streetscape to add some fanciful (though not exactly tasteful) glamour. You know how gamblers shout "mama needs a new pair of shoes!" at the craps table? This is where you can buy them.
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Relive the Beatles' golden days with Cirque du Soleil's "The Beatles Love." courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
The tacky post-vaudevillian variety shows that were once the standard for Vegas entertainment have almost entirely vanished in favor of the great many offerings from the whimsical clowns and gravity-defying acrobats of Cirque du Soleil. Truth be told, there can be too much of a good thing, and with six different shows, Cirque is pushing it. But while not every production is worth the high ticket price, the good ones—such as at the MGM Grand and The Beatles Love (pictured) at the Mirage—combine artistry and athleticism in a way that fills us with wonder every time.
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Sexy dance moves and six-pack abs light up the stage at Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas courtesy of Magic Mike Live Las Vegas
Classic, over-the-top Vegas revues with rows upon rows of showgirls wearing elaborate headdresses may be a dying breed, but there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy some slightly more adult fun. Check out the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's live Magic Mike show, inspired by the Channing Tatum movies, for smooth moves and six-packs galore.
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Exhibit at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas jtstewart / Flickr
The Smithsonian-affiliated National Atomic Testing Museum delivers a sobering Cold War history lesson amid all the Sin City fun. For four decades, the Nevada desert north of Vegas was the country's primary testing ground for nuclear weapons. This admirable facility offers various perspectives, technical and personal, on the science and the implications of the work done there.
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The famous magical duo of Penn & Teller show off their skills and sense of humor at the Rio. Courtesy of Penn & Teller
All the big names in show business have done stands of varying lengths in Vegas. And though the decline of the Rat Pack left a longtime hole in the name-brand entertainment market, things have picked up considerably in recent years, with big deals such as Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Penn & Teller (pictured above), and ZZ Top taking up residency at various showrooms. Ticket availability varies, as do performance schedules; check your preferred headliner's website well in advance of your trip. 
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For masterful French cuisine in an equally inspired setting, look no further than Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas Courtesy of MGM Grand
A number of celebrity chefs have set up outposts in town, from culinary TV personalities like Gordon Ramsay and Giada De Laurentiis to Michelin star-studded gastronomic titans such as Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy. But the most celebrated of them all might be Joël Robuchon, who has two eponymous restaurants in the MGM Grand (Joël Robuchon, pictured above, and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon). Dinner at either one will cost you, make no mistake about it. But it's worth spending big bucks to taste some of the finest French food on the planet.
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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas Naomi Kraus
Less than 20 miles (32km) from the overstimulated artifice of Vegas you'll find a wonder of nature—a set of sandstone monoliths stretching across an unspoiled vista. Take a car along the 13-mile (21km) scenic drive, or hike around on your own and marvel at what Mother Nature can do with 300 million years or so.
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The pool at the Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa and Casino in Las Vegas. Courtesy Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa and Casino
There are so many Vegas hotel possibilities, but for a truly relaxing experience, you have to get off the Strip. For pampering luxury, consider the M Resort, an actual boutique property with a great pool and spa as well as attentive and friendly staff members. There's also the opulent Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa & Casino, notable for its Mediterranean decor, posh spa, and tranquil pool (pictured above). The action of the Strip is just a short drive away.

If only these and other Vegas hotels would lose their "resort fees"—the sort of money-grubbing trickery you'd never get away with in a poker game.
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