How to Actually Have Fun in Las Vegas (Hint: Avoid the Strip)

"If The Strip thrives on its overtly nihilistic ideation, the new Old Las Vegas feels like it was made for real people who actually live here."

I know I’m painting things with an overly broad brush, but I’m just going to say it: Vacations are lies, and all travellers are liars. Consider what happens on vacation. We visit an alternate universe, like the fortunate frauds we are. This hotel is our home. This lifestyle? Ours. These complicated meals and breathtaking activities? We do this all the time. The more trips we take, the better we get at deception.

I’m reminded of this theory while in Las Vegas for the Life Is Beautiful festival: three days of music, art installations and roundtables that feature important people presumably hip enough to keep millennials engaged. On day one, I meet a fellow festivalgoer named Chris. He is covering Life Is Beautiful, too, and by my observation is friendly but not boisterous, with the general demeanour of a cool high-school teacher (and the wardrobe to match).

On day two, we find our way to the Indian restaurant-turned-media centre, and Chris disappears into the bathroom. When he comes out, he’s wearing shiny red tights, a silver lamé vest (unbuttoned, naturally) and an Electric Circus-approved amount of glitter on his face. This crowd doesn’t frighten him. It isn’t oppressive. It’s an opportunity, and he came prepared to be who he really is—or at least who he wants to be at a concert festival in Las Vegas.

It’s easy to associate Las Vegas with the adults-only dubious debauchery you see in movies and on television. But that reputation is getting a bit played out, isn’t it? And like the customer-satisfaction city it is, Las Vegas is wise enough to move with the zeitgeist. In this era of curation and gentrification—when millennial consumers are (so we’re told) interested in experiences and stories—rejuvenating parts of the city that were previously left to wilt in the shadow of The Strip has come about. The Downtown Project (helmed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who relocated the company’s HQ to Vegas’s old City Hall building in 2013) is the investment enterprise behind a lot of the urban renewal I’m here to see.

Photography Courtesy of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

On The Strip, it’s almost impossible to think (with all that’s being sold to you), but on Fremont Street—ground zero for this born-again downtown and home to Life Is Beautiful—things are disarmingly, well, beautiful. Here, the festival has splashed massive murals done by such giants in the urban-art movement as Shepard Fairey and Faile. There is a steampunk-y robot cuddling up to his human companion, a dizzy Linus van Pelt quoting hip-hop lyrics, and so much more. It’s as if Vegas got sleeved. Aside from a very flashy zip line attraction that lets you fly over Fremont Street amid blinding lights, what draws people to Old Las Vegas are the same things that bring people to any city: the bars, the restaurants, the character. Old Las Vegas feels real.

There are two aesthetic vibes competing for supremacy in Las Vegas—not counting The Strip (or the murals). It’s western (you’ll recall the giant neon cowgirl that used to kick her leg over Fremont Street before so many of the neon signs were retired) versus a kind of mid-century chic. The Triple George Grill in the Downtown Grand definitely falls into the latter category. It was one of the first restaurants to open in the early days of revitalization, but it feels like a dinner club out of Mad Men—or any other cultural product set in the early ’60s. (Think dim lighting, classic cocktails and simple American cuisine done perfectly.)

On the other side of that aesthetic divide is the Gold Spike. It offers co-working spaces by day in the “Living Room” and house-party vibes at night; there’s an extensive vinyl library, and the “Backyard” has oversized games while the bar offers boozy milkshakes in a homey environment. It doesn’t have cowboy boots and lassos on the walls, but it feels a little like a friend’s romper room, back when people called such spaces “romper rooms.”

If The Strip thrives on its overtly nihilistic ideation, the new Old Las Vegas feels like it was made for real people who actually live here. There’s this notion that I remember from my religious upbringing about how believers should be in the world but not of the world. Proximity to sin is unavoidable, but participation in it isn’t. Downtown Vegas feels like that. It’s Vegas but not. That’s probably why I like it.

Although maybe that’s the lie I’m living on this trip…. Yes, I’m attending an outdoor festival (Did I mention that I hate music festivals? No? That’s another story) in Vegas, but I am not of Vegas. Not the gambling, blinged-out, clichéd Grecian Vegas. I’m at this concert—in a field surrounded by looming hotels—watching Muse, Chance the Rapper and Gorillaz. None have earned a residency yet. And there’s no kitsch—only thousands of people swaying outside in the dry desert heat.

Photography by FilmMagic/Contributor/Getty

But unlike most of the other attendees, I won’t return to my parents’ bungalow or even to one of these downtown hotels. No, after each concert, I’ll head for The Strip. I’ll walk through a lobby that beeps and plinks and is dying to make me a winner. I’ll pass girls dressed like Halloween cops who pose with you for photos and then ask for money afterwards. And the next morning, I’ll eat more food than should be legal at a long, winding brunch buffet at Caesars Palace. I say I’m not of Vegas, but there is certainly enough evidence to the contrary. I can practically hear The Strip calling to me, reminding me that I watched LOVE, the Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil show. “Were you not entertained?” it asks.

But that lie, along with every other lie I tell myself, fades away every night at Life Is Beautiful. I am one of many who are bobbing their heads, trying to see around the giant in front of them. It’s a music festival, and it could be anywhere, in any open field. There is only love while I’m watching Lorde make the crowds ripple and bounce, as unaware as everyone that in 10 days, at a different outdoor concert, the tragedy of America’s deadliest mass shooting would tear so many lives apart. But on this day, the love feels real. And I realize I’m enjoying every minute of it.

No word of a lie.

(Life Is Beautiful runs from September 21 to 23 with performances by The Weeknd, Florence + The Machine, Arcade Fire, Miguel and more. You can buy tickets here.)