Far from being a kitsch stage-set city, Las Vegas is an attempt to perfect the planet's greatest hits

As the glass elevator slides up into the sunshine, a disembodied voice makes an announcement: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Gustav Eiffel. "And this is my greatest achievement... It took two years, and 300 steel workers used two-and-a-half million rivets in its construction, turning my dream into reality.''

His voice is soon replaced by another, this time female: "Everything is sexier in Paris," she purrs. "And that includes the view you're about to see".

They are both right: it is a spectacular view; a dream turned into reality. Down below, the gilded balloon of the Montgolfier brothers floats above the Arc de Triomphe. Over there is a wing of the Louvre, and there lies the Second Empire splendour of Charles Garnier's Paris Opera.

And that's just the start of it. The bell tower of San Mark's rises above the pink parapet of the Doge's Palace, and in the middle distance a Japanese pagoda has been built right next to the Trevi Fountain. To the south bristle the spires of the Chrysler and the Empire State; and the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty points towards a gigantic medieval castle, behind which lurks a pyramid and a Sphinx.

Everything is sexier here, for all the great architecture of the world is gathered in one place: there's Venice, Caesars Palace, Luxor, New York and Camelot. Directly below the Eiffel Tower, cicadas buzz in branches of the Roman pines that overlook the waters of an Italian lake. Suddenly, the waters burst into song: the voices of Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion rise into the warm night air and spectacular fountains sway in time to the music. Fifteen minutes later, the fountains are dancing to Elvis.

Beyond the lake, the lights of the Strip stretch away into a desert of awesome desolation. This is Las Vegas and – perhaps controversially – I think it's an architectural jewel.

Thirty years ago, Robert Venturi (regarded as one of the most influential building designers of the 20th century) took a group of students to Vegas. They studied the place for a week, at the end of which Venturi got them invited to a champagne reception at the Circus Circus Casino. The book he wrote afterwards – Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form – was tongue-in-cheek, comparing the neon signs, parking lots and casino sheds of Glitter Gulch to the piazze and palazzi of Italian cities. They represented an American way of building, he said, as authentic to the strangeness of the freeway and the Wild West as Venice is to her lagoon and Florence to the Tuscan hills.

Thirty years on, and I'm following in Venturi's footsteps. I lecture in interior design at Edinburgh College of Art, I write about architecture (the ancient stuff usually), and I think my students could learn a lot from Las Vegas.

Vegas is no longer Venturi's strip of glorified motels. The Las Vegas of the Rat Pack and the mob, of Howard Hughes and Liberace – and Elvis of course – is long gone. Instead the city has come to resemble nothing so much as the sort of place I usually visit with my Baedeker travel guide: Rome, or Venice or Paris. In fact, from my eyrie at the top of the Eiffel tower, I can see them all.

The revolution took place in the 1990s, when casino owners such as Steve Wynn and Sheldon G Adelson realised that Vegas didn't have to be just about gambling. If they could turn Vegas into a holiday destination in its own right, they figured, then they could attract all sorts of people – folks from Out East, families, and so on, who would never have dreamed have coming before. And if they could attract those regular respectable folks, then they could attract regular money, too.

Wynn started his revolution in 1989 with the Mirage. In its layout it corresponded to the casinos of old: a brash sign, a gigantic darkened casino floor, a tower of bedrooms, and a secluded garden. But the Mirage took those Vegas commonplaces and transformed them. Dolphins swam in a ruined Atlantis, while Siegfried and Roy performed with the white lions of Timbavati. The panoramic windows of the bedrooms – all 3,000 of them – were tinted with gold leaf, and, instead of an outmoded neon sign by the Strip, there was a volcano that spewed pina colada-scented lava every evening at six. It still does.

The Mirage inspired a rash of ever-more outlandish fantasies. Monte Carlo, a baroque confection of white Corinthian columns, opened in 1996; and the gnomic black pyramid of Luxor in 1993. New York New York, whose tower of rooms was disguised as a cluster of Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers, was completed in 1997, while the Bellagio, an Italian villa artlessly arranged around a Lake Como with dancing fountains, opened in 1998. The Venetian and Paris set the seal on the themed hotel revolution in 1999 with facsimiles of those cities so real that even I was convinced.

These places were built in imitation of the great sights of Europe; but they have outdone their progenitors, in scale, if in nothing else. They are cities unto themselves, housing thousands of guests, and employing just as many bellhops, cocktail waitresses and invisible maids.

The MGM Grand, a green tower forged in the image of the Wizard of Oz's Emerald City, covers some 22 acres, has a reception desk larger than most airport check-in areas, and contains 6,852 rooms. It took me what felt like about half an hour to walk from the front door to the pool, and on the way I passed a betting screen on the scale of the control room at Cape Canaveral, a pride of lions imprisoned in a glass cage, some 30 restaurants, two theatres, and rank after rank of one-armed bandits. If, like me, you've dreamed of spending a holiday in an airport, where modern architecture is at its biggest, then the MGM Grand is for you.

But it's not just scale that impresses. All too often the casinos of Las Vegas are dismissed as kitschy stage sets; but in actual fact the Italian gardens of the Venetian or the Bellagio are as elegant as any Tuscan original – with the added benefit of guests being able to swim in the fountains clutching a margarita. WATG, the architects of the Venetian, the Hilton, and Caesars Palace, state that "authenticity is the basis for fantasy" – and they mean it. The casinos of Vegas are indeed sets, in which every detail has been considered. The candy-striped poles that dot the canals of the Venetian are made to lean, as if they have spent centuries sinking into the Adriatic mud, while the canals have been repainted again and again, to give them just the right shade of blue.

What's more, the places that Vegas set out to imitate: the Parises and Romes and Venices of Europe, have become more like their imitator every day. Venice is dying on its feet as a functioning city; but it is booming as a floating resort, whose prosperity is based on charming dollar bills out of its visitors' pockets. Vegas is the ultimate visitor heritage experience: there is Venice without the smell, Rome without the traffic, Paris without the Parisians.

Vegas is the world transformed into what it should be: just as it looks in the brochure. You won't find that in Europe.

But the themed hotels, like the neon motels that went before them, are passing into the past. Steve Wynn's latest hotel has no theme at all. The Wynn is a cool blade of gold leaf and concrete rising out of a jungle waterfall. The vaguely deco interiors of the THEhotel, embedded in the Mandalay Bay complex, comprise a worthy rival to the boutique hotels of Barcelona or Berlin. CityCenter, a new residential development on the strip, has been designed by stalwarts of the high architecture scene: Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, and Rafael Viñoly.

The art gallery at the Bellagio is hosting Artists and Architects of Citycenter, showing work by Oldenburg, Jenny Holzer, and Frank Stella; and in La Rêve restaurant, you eat in the presence of a Picasso painting of the same name. When the Guggenheim extended its US franchise in 2000, it commissioned Rem Koolhaas, the celebrated Dutch architect; but the austere steel box he designed sits incongruously amid the baroque splendours of the Venetian. It closed last year.

Koolhaas' 1978 manifesto, Delirious New York, said the prototype of the contemporary city was not the functional grid, but the pleasure grounds of Coney Island; and in Las Vegas, his argument is coming true. Vegas was until recently the fastest-growing city in the US, and it's no longer just kitsch – if ever it was. Like Venice, or Benidorm, it's one of those places that has been almost entirely shaped by, and has shaped, the nature of that most modern of industries: tourism. To be a tourist in Vegas is to sample contemporary culture and architecture – both high and low – in extremis. That's why I'll be taking my students there, and that's what I hope they'll learn.

What's more, the splendours of Vegas are cheaper than ever. Hotel rooms are bought and sold on digital trading floors like shares, and now – as domestic visitors stay home during the recession – the price of a visit is falling. It might be time for your first cultural excursion. Why not, when in Vegas, everything is sexier?

'The Secret Lives of Buildings' by Edward Hollis is published by Portobello (£25)

Caesars Palace

Like the real thing on the Palatine Hill in Rome, Caesars Palace is a mish-mash of a buildings of different ages. The kitsch entrance dates back to the Sixties, while Cleopatra's Barge now serves as a dance floor. A new Forum, built during the theming craze of the 1990s and early 2000s puts the original to shame, with fountains, piazze, restaurants, and a temple to Gucci. The last hall is modelled on the baths of Diocletian.

The Venetian

Built in 1999 and designed by WATG, the world leader in resort design, the Venetian is Venice recreated – and then enhanced. Ride down the Grand Canal to the air-conditioned Piazza San Marco, where performers in 18th-century costume sing opera. The conference centre is about as big as the real Venice. The corridors are floored with some the largest carpets in existence, and the ceilings hung with endless crystal chandeliers – think the hotel in The Shining, on the scale of the Vatican.

Liberace Museum

Shaped like a miniature Bilbao Guggenheim made of piano notes, the museum, which lies a mile off the strip, is run by kindly old ladies who clearly worshipped the great man. In a bargain-basement baroque interior, guides point to the hotpants, the rings, and the chandeliers. After the Strip, this is oddly authentic – a relic of Vegas before it got high culture.

Neon Museum

Las Vegas may be barely a century old, but its dazzling past is already celebrated in the Neon Museum. Fremont Street in Downtown is the hub of the outdoor collection, and at any time of the day or night you can take a self-guided tour of the neon masterpieces rescued from the wrecker's ball. The Museum's main site is being created from the shell of La Concha motel lounge. At present there are tours at noon and 2pm daily except Sunday and Monday, but you must book ahead: call 001 702 387 NEON (6366) or fill in the application at neonmuseum.org/tours .

Travel essentials: Las Vegas

Getting there

*Las Vegas is served by Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com ) from Gatwick.

*British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) is launching a new route from Heathrow on 25 October.

Staying and visiting there

*The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 414 1000; venetian.com ).

*Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 866 227 5938; caesarspalace.com ).

*Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 791 7111; mirage.com ).

*Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 693 7111; bellagio.com ).

*MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 891 7777; mgmgrand.com ).

*The Wynn, 3131 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 770 7000; wynnlasvegas.com ).

*THE hotel, Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 877 632 7800; mandalaybay.com ).

*Liberace Museum, 1775 East Tropicana Avenue (001 702 798 5595; liberace.org ). Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday noon-4pm; $10 (£6.70).

*Fremont Street Experience, 425 Fremont Street (00 1 702 678 5777; vegasexperience.com ).

More information

*Visit Las Vegas: 020-7367 0979; visitlasvegas.co.uk