48 Hours In...Las Vegas

Black or red? Stick or twist? Las Vegas celebrates its centenary this year, so why not visit a gambler's paradise and leave feeling like a winner
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The Independent Travel

Why go now?

Why go now?

This dazzling city takes tourism to its gloriously ludicrous conclusion. In 2005, Las Vegas invites the world to a party as endless as the Nevada summer. The city whose name is spelt on airline departure boards as La$ Vega$ is celebrating its centenary. The community - then known as "Clark's Las Vegas Townsite" - was born on 15 May 1905, when 110 acres of land were auctioned by the railroad. This year, which began with a $1m (£550,000) fireworks display on New Year's Eve, will see many more celebrations in what is a hyperactive city.

Get your bearings

Las Vegas does not resemble any traditional city. What would pass for the city centre is around Main Street in the north of the conurbation. Almost all the hotels and casinos are located on the seven-mile Strip - officially Las Vegas Boulevard - that runs south from here towards McCarran airport. Most new arrivals take a shuttle for about $5 (£2.75) or a taxi for about $20 (£11) to one of the strip hotels, though if you are staying downtown the public bus, route 108, costs $2 (£1.10) a ride, including transfers to any other CAT city bus.

It's worth investing $5 (£2.75) in a day pass for the local CAT buses. These run frequently to and from Downtown up and down the Strip. Alternatively, you could rely on the city's four monorails. Three are short and of limited use; the longest is between the MGM Grand and the Sahara, taking in the Convention Center, with a flat fare of $3 (£1.60). For maps and information call 08705 238832 or visit www.lasvegastourism.com.

Check in

For top-of-the-range luxury, the Bellagio (001 702 693 7111; www.bellagio.com) is in the middle of the action on the Strip. Doubles are from $229 (£127). A good low-to-mid-range option is Circus Circus (001 877 224 7287; www.circuscircus-lasvegas.com. Winter-rate doubles from $41.95/£23.30), on the edge of the void between the heart of the Strip and Downtown. Off the Strip, the comfortable and well-located Somerset House Motel at 294 Convention Center Drive (001 702 735 4411; www.somerset-house.com) offers doubles from $44 (£25). For a cheap bed, aim for the USA Hostel Las Vegas at 1322 Fremont Street (001 702 385 1150; www.usahostels.com), where a dorm bed costs from $15 (£8.30).

Take a view

The Stratosphere Tower (001 800 998 6937; www.stratospherehotel.com, open daily 10am-1am; adults $9/£5) is a forlorn monument to over-optimism - a needle that rises a quarter-mile above the surrounding desert and seemed like a good idea to fill the gap between Downtown and the Strip. No other investors thought so, which leaves the tower stranded. But if you take the lift to the top, you will find a mini-theme park with a high-altitude rollercoaster and a rocket-like ride that will catapult you a further 100ft into the sky.

Lunch on the run

Gamblers subsidise almost every element of a visitor's life in Las Vegas, resulting in extremely cheap meals - but most of these take the form of hotel buffets with an uninspiring selection of dishes. The antidote is the wonderful Liberty Café at 1700 South Las Vegas Boulevard, an unreconstructed diner where you can get a T-bone steak for $10 (£5.50) at any time of the day or night.

Cultural afternoon

The Nevada State Museum (001 775 687 4810; www.nevadaculture.org) is away from the Strip, in a modest, low building in Lorenzi Park, but is easily accessible from downtown Las Vegas on bus 207. It provides an excellent background on the growth of the city and is open daily 8.30am-4.30pm; adults $5 (£2.75). Art lovers will want to see the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum (001 702 414 2440; www.guggenheimlasvegas.org) at the Venetian, open daily 9.30am-8.30pm; adults $15 (£8.40).

Window shopping

When they're not gambling or eating, most visitors to Vegas are shopping. You can barely move for malls; prices are low compared with the UK, but bear in mind the £145 duty-free limit. A "thrift shop" called Teresa's Trash to Treasures at 1007 South Main Street sums up Las Vegas - and offers "pre-owned" Americana at bargain prices.

Take a hike

Walking the length of the Strip is no fun. The place to do some sensible walking is Downtown, and the time to do it is around dusk; in the half-light you can admire the architecture of the early builders, and appreciate the neon signs rescued from demolition. These are scattered on and around Fremont Street, a covered arcade that is often the venue for events. While you are on Fremont Street, call in to Binion's Horseshoe Casino, and have your photograph taken while you look like a million dollars - beneath a giant horseshoe that contains 100 $10,000 bills.

An aperitif

The biggest Irish pub in the world is Nine Fine Irishmen (001 702 740 6463; www.ninefineirishmen.com), part of the New York New York complex.

Dining with the locals

Carnivores with no budget worries should head to Charlie Palmer Steak (001 702 632 5120; www.charliepalmersteaklv.com) in the Four Seasons Hotel. If you insist on eating all you can, try the Spice Market Buffet at the Aladdin Resort & Casino (001 702 785 5555; www.aladdincasino.com).

Sunday morning: go to church

... and get married, as two people do every four minutes on average. To do so, you will need a licence, costing $55 (£30) from the Clark County Court House at 200 South Third Street, which opens 9am-midnight from Sunday and Thursday and 24 hours at weekends. Any of Las Vegas's 50-plus chapels will run you there as part of their wedding packages.

Out to lunch

At all six of the Blueberry Hill restaurants, you can tuck into the piles of pancakes, mounds of whipped butter, jugs of maple syrup and cauldrons of coffee that make up the $5 (£2.75), 24-hour breakfasts. At the other end of the scale, brunch at Bally's Steakhouse (001 702 967 7999) includes caviar, lobster and sushi washed down with champagne. More raucous is the House of Blues Gospel Brunch at Mandalay Bay (001 702 632 7600; www.hob.com).

Take a ride

... in a helicopter. Through USA Helicopters (001 702 736 8787; www.heliusa.com) you can take a quick spin down the Strip, or go for one of the greatest natural sights on the planet: the Grand Canyon. Prices range from $314 to $354 (£175-£197).

A walk in the park

At Bellagio, you can wander for free around the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens: just beyond the hotel lobby you'll find rows of exotic plants and flowers.

Write a postcard

... while overlooking the world tourist site of your choice, whether it be the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Egypt or the New York skyline.

The icing on the cake

Explore Nevada's Red Rock Canyon. Less than 45 minutes from the heart of the city is a desert landscape of ancient red sandstone formations and shale. There's a 13-mile scenic drive and more than 30 miles of hiking trails. If you're lucky, you'll see wild horses and bighorn sheep.

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