Las Vegas: The Best Of Sin City, From Gritty To Glitzy

SARA BENSON, The Daily Telegraph, February 11, 2013

Las Vegas has always been America’s dirty little secret. Long before the LED screens of today, mobsters descended on this Wild West frontier outpost after Nevada legalised gambling. During the post-Second World War boom, everyday Americans’ new-found wealth seemed like easy pickings.

It all started in 1946 when the mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel opened the fabulous Flamingo casino-hotel, so glamorous that even the staff wore tuxedos. The Flamingo’s neon plumage electrified a dusty section of desert highway destined shortly to become the world-famous Strip.

At first, Bugsy’s business was a flop. The gangster himself paid the ultimate price for his failure when he was gunned down by a mob hitman at his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills bungalow. But the criminal enterprises Bugsy started rolled on like a roulette wheel.

During the Fifties and Sixties, when the new US drama series Vegas, starring Dennis Quaid is set, the mob remade Sin City in its own image. It bankrolled ever more lavish casinos and booked famous faces to entertain the gambling crowds. The Rat Pack took over the Sands’ Copa Room, while the jazz legends Louis Prima and Keely Smith headlined the Congo Room at the Sahara, where Elvis and Elizabeth Taylor lazed poolside.

The mob’s stranglehold on behind-the-scenes power in Las Vegas, especially on the Strip, continued into the Seventies. Despite federal investigations that aimed to crush “The Syndicate”, only the driving forces of capitalism – including Howard Hughes’ real-estate spree and the rise of Wall Street – finally separated the mob from its money here.

Nowadays visitors can experience both sides of the Strip – from modern animated sideshows to museums on mobster history. Downtown is the place to go for vintage casinos. Here are my recommendations for both old and new Vegas.

Old Vegas

Mob Attraction Las Vegas

3801 Las Vegas Boulevard South
001 702 739 2662;

Scuttle down dark alleyways alongside actors posing as gangsters, meet with “The Boss” at a sidewalk café and avoid the cops at this interactive experience. Once you’ve finished your criminal duties, peruse the back rooms filled with authentic memorabilia donated by the descendants of some of Sin City’s most famous mobsters.

Mob Museum

300 Stewart Avenue
229 2734;

Officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, this downtown spot opened its doors on the anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, 1929, when the mobster Al Capone faced off against his rivals in Chicago. Inside are three floors of documentary evidence, artefacts and photographs that tell both sides of the cat-and-mouse game played between mobsters and the US legal system during the mid-20th century.

Neon Museum

770 Las Vegas Boulevard North
387 6366;

A guided walking tour of downtown’s vintage “boneyard” of neon signs reveals gems such as the Stardust casino’s magnificent marquee and Binion’s lucky horseshoe sign.

Atomic Testing Museum

755 East Flamingo Road
794 5151;

In the fabulous Fifties, Las Vegas casino tourists watched as atom bombs exploded on the desert horizon. Learn about the city’s Cold War days and the state of nuclear non-proliferation today at this Smithsonian Institution affiliate.

Circus Circus

2880 Las Vegas Boulevard South
734 0410;

Kitsch Sixties Vegas stays alive at this clownish hotel where trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers and more dangle above the casino floor. For children, the Adventuredome indoor theme park has carnival rides and clowns performing throughout the day.

Where to stay - Tropicana Hotel

3801 Las Vegas Boulevard South
001 702 739 2222;

The Fifties-era Tropicana on the Strip is where the Mob Attraction Las Vegas is based. Renovations have breathed new life into this vintage Vegas swinger, once ranked among the Strip’s most run-down older hotels. Overall, it’s more terrific than tacky these days. More than 1,350 rooms and suites come with soothing, tasteful design touches such as wooden plantation shutters and sunset-coloured chaises longues.

New Vegas

Eiffel Tower Experience

3655 Las Vegas Boulevard South
946 7000;

Much of the Strip’s eye-candy architecture mimics world icons such as Egypt’s pyramids. At Paris Las Vegas casino, crowds zip up this half-size replica of Gustave Eiffel’s French creation just for the views. Go during the daytime, when it’s cheaper and the queues are shorter.

Fremont Street Experience

Fremont Street, between Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard
678 5777;

Streaking down the middle of downtown’s old-fashioned casino row, this 1,500ft-long canopy flashes with 12.5 million synchronised LED lights and booms with 555,000 watts of sound as zany six-minute-long animated movies play overhead.

Sirens of TI & Mirage Volcano

3300-3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South
894 7111, 791 7111;,

Las Vegas casino shows don’t get cheesier than the barely clad pirates’ battle of the sexes happening in the artificial bay outside TI (Treasure Island) casino nightly, complete with booty-shaking dancing and fiery pyrotechnics. At the next-door Mirage casino, a faux-Polynesian volcano erupts after dark.

Springs Preserve

333 South Valley View Boulevard

822 7700;

This multimillion-dollar natural history museum complex, also home to the Nevada State Museum, is surrounded by a nature preserve with walking trails, an eco-living educational centre, a green-themed gift shop and café by the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

Stratosphere Tower

2000 Las Vegas Boulevard South

380 7777;

Get a thrill more than 100 storeys above the Strip atop this tripod-legged skyscraper’s observation deck, reached by America’s fastest elevators. Mechanical rides will put your heart in your stomach, while daredevils can freefall 800 feet into thin air on the SkyJump.

Where to stay - Wynn

3131 Las Vegas Boulevard South

001 702 770 7000;

This swanky resort offers classic Vegas style with a modern twist. Its copper-toned, 45-storey tower rises from the ashes of the vintage Dunes casino, where mobsters and their molls once canoodled. Spacious, soothing rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, high-thread-count linens and soaking tubs. The Tower Suite comes with perks such as a private hotel entrance and check-in lounge.

'Vegas’ starts on Sky Atlantic HD and Sky Atlantic +1 on February 14.

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