Letters taken from the Moulin Rouge Casino, reordered to spell "In Love" at The Neon Boneyard Neon Museum Las Vegas

Vintage Lovers Guide to Las Vegas (part 2: Downtown)

As I mentioned in part 1 of this mini guide, my husband and I split our time in Las Vegas across two different hotels one on the Strip and one Downtown.    I’m so glad we did as it allowed us to really experience both sides of the city.   Although this is not entirely necessary  as it is fairly easy to travel between to the two districts.  The Deuce bus runs 24 hours a day, taking passengers from Fremont Street (the original hub of Las Vegas) all the way along the Strip stopping at most of the casinos/hotels along the way.   We actually spent quite a lot of time Downtown, while we were still staying on the strip.  And If I returned to Vegas I would probably just base myself in the Downtown area.

Downtown Las Vegas fell on hard times a few years ago,  but a program of regeneration has lead to lots of interesting independent businesses opening up and there is a great (dare I say Hipster) vibe to the area.  It’s still a little rough around the edges  in some parts…. but that’s how I like my neighbourhoods!

We stayed at the Oasis at Gold Spike, a classic American motel, recently refurbished with lots of cool retro details (including a record player & a few records to play in every room). We got such a good deal on the room (we were there midweek) that I was a little worried that there would be something wrong with the place. But my fears were unfounded,  The Oasis at Goldspike was everything we could want from an old school motel experience and we had great stay.   Conveniently located one block North of Fremont Street the motel is   attached to Gold Spike , a former casino restyled as a “hangout” space,   with a bar, diner and live music venue.

Fremont Street/Fremont Street East

120 years ago this whole area was just a dry valley that around 30 people called home, but the arrival of the railway in 1905 fueled rapid growth and development.    Fremont street was the original main street of Las Vegas and following the state legalisation of gambling in 1931  it became home to many of it’s casinos.  In it’s heyday there was so much neon displayed on Fremont Street, that the locals nicknamed it Glitter Gulch.

But the arrival of flashier new resort style hotels and casinos on the outskirts of town (what we now call the Strip) drew more and more people away from the Downtown area and by the 1990s Fremont Street was just a shadow of it’s former self.

In an attempt to lure back some of the visitors, the westernmost part of Fremont Street was pedestrianised and covered with a barrel vaulted canopy in 1995 to create the Fremont Street Experience.  This, arguably, destroyed much of Fremont Street’s vintage character, but it was a valiant attempt at saving what was left of Downtown Las Vegas.  With light shows, Live Music, street entertainers and even a zip line to entertain you, The Fremont Street Experience is a fun place to visit, but you must also go beyond these 5 blocks to discover the real delights of Downtown.

Head east along Fremont to explore the growing selection of popular bars and restaurants.  There are too many to mention here but these were some of our favourites:

  • Atomic Liquors –  The oldest freestanding bar in Vegas, where customers used to gather in the 1950s to view the nearby atomic bomb blasts.
  • Griffin – cosy candle lit venue, with a vaulted brick ceiling
  • Beat Coffeehouse– great place for breakfast, coffee and juice in a shared arts space.

Container Park

Also on Fremont Street you will find Container Park, it’s hard to miss in the evenings when they have a giant fire breathing praying mantis at the gate!

Shipping container shops and restaurants have been popping up around the globe  for a number of years now,  and they are a great idea for giving smaller independent/local  businesses a platform.  The range of shops was not huge at Container Park, but it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they host frequent events and activities (they were showing The Goonies on a big screen one of the nights we were there).   We tried a few of the different restaurants and they were all good, but our favourite was definitely The Perch.     A light and airy space on the 2nd floor of The complex, serving a delicious selection of salads, Sandwiches/burgers and other tasty nibbles, with an extensive range of craft beers, wine & cocktails.

The Mob Museum

Housed in the original Las Vegas courthouse (built 1933) The Mob Museum tells the story of organised crime and Law enforcement in the United States and in particular how mob money (and the laundering of it) helped to build the Vegas that we know today.

The Art Deco building has loads great original features and the museum has made good use of the space, filling it with interesting, engaging displays and some very impressive artifacts in their collection, they even have the the actual wall from the 1929 Valentine’s day massacre, complete with real bullet holes and projected blood splatters!!   With it’s fun, interactive atmosphere the museum could be in danger of glamourising crime, but there is clearly a public appetite for true crime stories and the curators have done a good job balancing the more sensational elements with the cold hard facts.  And if you work in law enforcement you can get a discount on your ticket!

The Neon Museum

As a lover of neon signs, typography and mid century design the Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum has been on my wish list of places to visit for a long time, and was actually the main reason I wanted to visit Las Vegas.

Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum is a not for profit organization dedicated to dedicated to preserving the city’s most iconic art form: The Neon sign.   Access to their, outdoor exhibition space (the Neon Boneyard) is only available to the public through hour long guided tours,  which should definitly be booked in advance,  as you are likely to be disappointed if you turn up without a ticket.

We chose to take an evening tour (as there is no shelter from the sun and it can get unbearably hot during the day) and booked for a 7.30 pm start (having checked that the sun would be setting at 8pm), which meant we got the best of both worlds, starting the tour in daylight and then getting to see some of the signs lit up at night.

The Neon museum is only a few blocks north of Fremont street, but there are no other bars, shops or cafes in the immediate area, so it’s best not to arrive too early for your tour.

Entrance is through the visitors centre and shop, which is housed in the former La Concha Motel lobby (a striking example of Googie Architecture designed by Paul Revere Williams in 1961)

The Boneyard itself was actually much smaller than I expected, but has over two hundred historic signs on display.  The museum is primarily staffed by  enthusiastic and informative volunteers, happy to share their knowledge and passion for all things Neon.

For safety reasons  we had to remain with our guide at all times, and weren’t permitted to go off exploring on our own, this can be a little frustrating when you are trying to take pictures (without someone walking into shot), but serious photographers can book in for  phototography tour, and the boneyard is also a popular backdrop for wedding photos.

The cost of rescuing, restoring and looking after  these signs is astronomically expensive and subsequently  very few the signs within the Boneyard are in full working order. However, the park is atmospherically lit to show off the signs at the their best.  And there are plenty of great vintage Neon signs that can be viewed for free around the downtown area,  including a trail of 9 historic signs that line the route along Las Vegas Boulevard from the museum back to Fremont Street.   A guide to these signs (which were restored by the museum) can be picked up from the visitors centre/shop or downloaded from the website.


Eating, Drinking & Sleeping

Beat Coffeehouse 520 Fremont Street (corner of 6th)

The Perch– The Downtown Container Park, 7th & Fremont, Las Vegas, NV

Atomic Liquors  917 Fremont St (between 9th & 10th), Las Vegas, NV 89101

Oasis at Gold Spike 217 Las Vegas Blvd (corner of E. Ogden Street) Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.

Further Reading

Lost Las Vegas  by Jeff Burbank, I found this  great book in the gift shop of the Mob Museum and it has been a great help while researching the history of Vegas and putting this blog post together.    Full of vintage pics of bygone Las Vegas, it documents some of the many places that have come and gone over the years.   I particularly enjoyed seeing photographs  of some the Boneyard’s Neon Signs back in their original glory.


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