Truth be told, many vacationers come to Las Vegas and have a perfectly fine vacation gambling, shopping, eating in restaurants, going to shows ... without ever leaving their hotels. Are they missing out? Absolutely. Are they having the time of their lives, anyway? Probably.
Which brings us to the paradox of Vegas: In all other cities, you leave your hotel to go out and see the attractions. In Vegas, the hotels are the major attractions ... so why go out at all?
Here's my pitch for going outside: within the last decade, Las Vegas has developed two cutting edge museums that span the disciplines of science, history and anthropology, offering visitors a deeply intellectual but fun look at two of the most important issues of our day. If you need a break from the mindless entertainments of the city -- and many do -- I urge you to patronize the following two museums:
The Big Boom
No thrill ride on the Strip will scare the wits out of you as effectively as the Atomic Testing Museum (755 E. Flamingo Rd.; tel. 702/794-5161; www.atomictestingmuseum.org). That's not its purpose, of course. This is a science and history museum (an affiliate museum of the mighty Smithsonian Institution) covering the 50 years of atomic testing, from 1951 to 1992 (928 nuclear tests in all), that occurred in the desert outside Vegas. But there comes a moment in the exhibit when your heart will race, your stomach will drop down to your knees, and all at once the reality of the power of the nuclear bomb will hit you with the force of a nightmare. The moment comes early in the exhibit. After an effective and dramatic retelling of the history that led up to the invention of the bomb, you'll be ushered into a small room resembling a concrete bunker for a video about the testing, with shots of actual explosions. As the mushroom cloud rises in front of you, the lights flash a blinding white, subwoofers send vibrations to the center of your sternum, your bench shakes, and air cannons blast you with wind. It's intense.
After that wrenching start the rest of the exhibit helps visitors put into context what they've seen. You'll learn about the physics behind the bomb; the myriad of innovations, from high-speed photography to bigger drills, that emerged from the scientific work going on at the testing site; and the cultural "fallout," if you will, of the Cold War and more. Pull your attention from these, however, if a docent happens by. Many of these volunteers are former employees of the Testing Site; no they don't glow, but get one talking and they'll regale you with insider's tales of what it was like to wrestle with the bomb, live in its shadow, and work for the government.
Water World, Vegas Style
News flash: Vegas' raison d'etre was not, despite all appearances to the contrary, gambling. The city became a city because it had at its heart a spring that could support life and, eventually, the railroads that needed a stopping off point in their trek through the desert. Springs Preserve (333 S. Valley View Blvd; tel. 702/822-7700; www.springspreserve.org) is the museum and nature park that now stands on the very spot where this important spring was, and celebrates its story.
But this is no snoozy history museum. While the stories surrounding Vegas' founding are told over the course of several galleries, the museum's strength is the way it explores the topic of water and other scarce resources. Here it pulls out all the stops, creating playable video games around the topic of conservation; planting exquisite desert gardens (at the heart of which is a shed where a local gardening celeb -- he's on a local NPR affiliate -- will answer the gardening questions of anyone who shows up) ; and creating imaginative and often interactive exhibits around a whole host of green themes. My personal favorite was the building which introduced energy conscious and recyclable home goods, such as insulation made from old blue jeans, rugs created from soda bottles and old cork turned into fabric. The building housing it was insulated with straw, which is five times more efficient than current more standard methods. A powerful film called Miracle in the Mojave is the first thing most visitors will encounter and shouldn't be missed.
And boy oh boy do kids love this museum! They get to experience (safely) a flash flood, meet desert animals, play in a fabulous outdoor play area or hike with their parents along the trails that encompass the museum.
Along with the permanent exhibitions are weekly farmer's market, cooking classes, concerts, lecture and all sorts of other public programs so be sure to check the museum's website before scheduling your visit.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Nevada Forum today.
This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Las Vegas, 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts at Pauline's page on Frommers.com.
This article is featured as a Travel Gem on Uptake.com.