Video: Las Vegas city guide

updated 6/13/2011 9:43:49 AM ET 2011-06-13T13:43:49

Sinatra’s Vegas. Elvis’s Vegas. Long before Britney Spears notoriously married her high school sweetheart at 5 in the morning, and long before George Clooney and Brad Pitt strutted through the Bellagio in "Ocean’s Eleven." The era when Bugsy Siegel — not Steve Wynn — ran the show at the most fabulous hotels in town. When nattily-dressed mobsters held court among supper clubs and casinos, and showgirls sunbathed poolside just off the Strip in a neighborhood nicknamed "Naked City."

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Slideshow: Vintage Las Vegas

While the spirit of vintage Las Vegas lives on in countless unexpected places all over town, the following places are ideal spots from which to kick off your adventure into Sin City’s dramatic past.

Decades before garish LED screens presided over the Strip, handcrafted neon signs reigned as Vegas’ original iconic art form. While much of this neon art has been dismantled (and, unfortunately, trashed) you can view more than 150 lovingly restored artifacts at the Neon Museum. A tour of the museum’s Boneyard, full of retro signs dating back as far as 1930, is one of Vegas’ most fascinating strolls.

While you’re delving into the city’s storied history, you might want to get gussied up in a few vintage duds. How about a hot pair of cat-eye glasses, a Rat Pack-inspired suit or a cocktail dress worthy of a femme fatale? Our retro shopping pick: The Attic.

Video: City of dirty little secrets

It’s time to test your luck and possibly make your fortune. Follow the locals downtown to the original Glitter Gulch where the magic all began. We love Binion’s for its famous zero-limit poker with beginner-friendly $2 minimum hands. Home to the World Series of Poker kickoff in 1970, you can’t get more classic than this. If you’re in the mood for blackjack, head to the deliciously retro El Cortez. Not only is it the oldest continuously operating casino (going strong since 1941), it is one of the only joints in town where the slots are the real thing. If you hit the jackpot, you’ll enjoy the clatter of actual coins — none of that newfangled paper ticket nonsense.

While more than one Strip establishment has made a halfhearted attempt to recreate a vintage diner experience, locals know that the most authentic lunch counter is hidden inside an unassuming drugstore. For cheeseburgers and malts at old-fashioned prices, head to Tiffany’s Café (inside White Cross Drugs, 1700 Las Vegas Boulevard S.). This original 24-hour restaurant does not pretend to be a 1950s soda fountain, because it is a 1950s soda fountain.

Long before the Bellagio’s soaring water show drew legions of onlookers, the most awe-inspiring view in Vegas was something decidedly more provocative: mushroom clouds. Recalling an era when the word "atomic" conjured modernity and mystery, the Smithsonian-run Atomic Testing Museum remains an intriguing testament to the period when the fantastical — and destructive — power of nuclear energy was tested just outside of Las Vegas.

See Sinatra's awards
Pay homage to Ol’ Blue Eyes at Sinatra in the spanking-new Encore, Steve Wynn’s newest showpiece casino-hotel. While home-style Italian classics in an upscale atmosphere impress, don’t miss the restaurant’s most wow-inducing feature. Check out Frank Sinatra’s gleaming Grammy and Oscar awards in a display case near the hostess stand.

There’s plenty of steak to be had in Vegas, with celebrity chefs and high-end chains all competing for diner accolades. So why not skip the competition and keep it old school? Serving steaks — along with tableside-prepared Caesar salads and Bananas Foster — since the 1950s, The Golden Steer has remained in a class of its own. Illustrious regulars of have included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and plenty of mobsters. For a scandalous story or two, head to the bar — bartender Johnny has been pouring martinis since the Rat Pack ruled town. Salty-tongued waiters charm you silly, but with no solicitous pretense.

Nevada has long welcomed starry-eyed couples — drunk, sober or freshly divorced — into its wedding chapels. Witness a wedding at the historic Little White Wedding Chapel, once home to the 1950s nuptials that kicked off Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow’s doomed romance, as well and Paul Newman’s and Joanne Woodward’s famously lasting one. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear Elvis serenade the bride and groom.

After a night of 21st century clubbing on the Strip, the most bewitching Vegas nightcap can be found inside the Fireside Lounge. Imagine a neon den of Swinging Sixties-era cool, where couples cozy next to the bubbling fire pit and strangers trade sultry glances over their Mai Tais. Groups should head to a booth and order a Scorpion, a giant fishbowl of a cocktail served with multiple straws. If you find it’s 5 a.m. and your craving for waffles has just hit, you’re in luck: the Fireside just happens to be inside the strip’s most outrageously fun 24-hour diner, The Peppermill.

Before you say farewell to Sin City, pick up a piece of Vegas history to bring home — say, an ashtray from the legendary Sands Hotel — from downtown’s Main Street Antiques. Pssst…you might want to nab a shot glass or a matchbook from the 1950s-era, Moroccan-themed Sahara Hotel and Casino. To the dismay of vintage lovers everywhere, it closed May 2011.

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Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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