A first-timer's guide to Las Vegas

If there is any destination where its reputation precedes itself, it is probably the raucous one of fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.

You likely already have an image in your head shaped by years of pop culture: flashing neon lights, dice rolling across a craps table, singing slot machines and the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” ad campaign from the early 2000s. 

But what I love about Las Vegas is that it constantly reinvents itself, meaning your experience will be unique to that moment in time, your interests and the people you’re traveling with. Yes, it is Sin City, boasting gambling and strip clubs, but it is also more than that, catering to a ton of different sins too. 

Is yours gluttony? Because there are plenty of high-end restaurants and epic buffets serving up memorable meals. Is it greed? Beyond gambling, there is tons of great shopping. Is it sloth? There is no shortage of amazing spas and pools to visit once you have grown tired of the clattering noise of the casino. 

You can still find poker high rollers, Elvis impersonators and drive-thru wedding chapels, but the Vegas of today also hosts megastar residencies like Adele and U2 in spectacular, intimate theaters. It also stays at the edge of technology with novelties like robot room service, champagne vending machines and robo puppies. 

Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your first visit.

A woman eats ice cream while walking down a Vegas Street
Summer in Vegas means lower accommodation prices, and there are still plenty of ways to beat the heat © Westend61 / Getty Images

When to go to Las Vegas

In most destinations you’re probably trying to avoid the crowds, but you just may want to schedule your Vegas trip to coincide with popular days when the city is buzzing with excitement. Any sporting event (Super Bowl weekend, NCAA college basketball tournament, NBA finals) will see droves of visitors, and federal holidays (Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day) will attract travelers from across the country looking for a fun four-day weekend.  You’ll see soaring prices for accommodations, but that may be worth it if you want to be in Vegas when the city is electric.

Another busy time to flag: the Consumer Electronics Show brings people from around the world, with the airport often adding international flights to accommodate the passenger traffic. 

Still, there’s no bad time to visit this dynamic city, and if you want to shoot for a period with fewer crowds, you will be rewarded. There’s still a party nearly every day of the week, all times of the day. If you head to Vegas mid-week in the summer months, the excruciating summer desert sun (upwards of 104°F/40°C) will drive down resort prices, but you’ll still be able to keep cool with air conditioning everywhere (you’ll likely need a sweater inside) and enjoy the day club/pool party season.

How long do I need in Vegas?

I have visited Vegas too many times to count over the last two decades, and as much as I adore this saucy city, I cannot remember a single time when I was not really ready to go home on day four. There is no quieter flight than the return flight home from Vegas. Build in a day for rest after – trust me. 

Getting around Las Vegas

The main thing to remember about getting around is that objects are farther away than they appear. The casino resorts are huge, and that makes distance really hard to judge visually. A resort that may look just three doors down may actually be more than a mile (1.6 km) away, so keep that in mind when you decide to walk between destinations. 

Still, there are a variety of options for travel between resorts other than on foot. Some resorts offer trams and shuttle services to get you between their properties. Uber and Lyft are common – but beware most resorts have designated pick-up and drop-off points. Read more about transportation around Vegas. 

People stand close to the fountains in Las Vegas, backlit by the show lights
When it comes to deciding where to stay in Vegas, think about the attractions you want to visit © Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

Where to stay

Keeping in mind what I said about distances, you may want to stay close to where most of your plans are taking you, especially if you’re attending a big event and don’t want to fight for an Uber after. Vegas caters to a lot of conventions and large events, so there is a variety of hotels and amenities available. 

You’ll always find a new resort in Vegas and this year the newest on the block is Fontainebleau, which recently opened its doors with a concert featuring Justin Timberlake. 

I personally love a location in the middle of the Strip near the Cosmopolitan and Aria as well as the iconic Caesars Palace. For those seeking an Oceans Eleven-themed trip, the Bellagio recently refreshed its fountain view rooms. (Pro tip: Turn on your room TV to the dedicated fountain channel so you hear the music while you watch the show from your window.) 

On the other end of the Strip, Resorts World has several hotels (Hilton, Conrad and Crockfords) in one. This is a new, sleek resort but you can often find great deals to stay here. At some there is a “boutique hotel” within the larger property that provides a more elevated experience. 

For a quieter visit, look for what’s called a “non-gaming” hotel. These hotels don’t have a casino on the property and tend to be a bit more tranquil – by Vegas standards. The Waldorf Astoria, Four Seasons and Vdara all fall in this category, and Marriott and Hilton both have some non-gaming properties just off the strip. 

When booking your stay, heads up: the price you see is not the price you pay. Nearly every resort charges what they call a “resort fee” which ranges from USD$35–50 a night plus tax. So it’s not uncommon for that $30/night bargain to be more like $100/night when the bill is settled. Make sure to check the resort fee on the hotel website and do the math before you book.

woman hiking at Red Rock Canyon during sunset with backpack
Vegas is more than just neon – don’t miss its red rock landscape © rez-art / Getty Images

Top things to do in Vegas

It’s worth walking through different resorts to see all their unique personalities, from replicating Paris and Venice, to wowing audiences with fountains and conservatories of fresh blooms. Part of the Vegas experience is to appreciate the eclectic decor and themes, often a reflection of Vegas’ personality in the year they were built. 

At night, grab a ticket to a show. The ticket price may seem expensive, but you’re usually seeing the artist in a more intimate venue than you would elsewhere, and since the production doesn’t move daily like on a tour, you’ll experience a pretty spectacular performance. 

If you need a break from the buzz of the Strip, don’t forget Vegas has a lot of great outdoor activities too. Red Rock Canyon Recreation Area and the newly opened Ice Age Fossils State Park are great places to get outside.

Don’t forget to check out Fremont Street as well. Along with giving you the feel of classic Rat Pack Vegas, this part of the city is in the middle of a renaissance with hot restaurants with less expensive prices than the Strip and new hotels like the Circa, which boasts Stadium Swim, a huge rooftop pool with a 40ft HD-screen TV. 

If the Vegas Golden Knights are playing, snag a ticket to experience hockey as only Vegas can do it. It’s almost like attending a show where a hockey game breaks out. The successful franchise is beloved by locals, so go early for a drink in the nearby Park MGM complex and enjoy the city’s spirited support of its team. 

My favorite thing to do in Las Vegas

I rarely gamble when I’m in Vegas these days. When I go, I’m there for the chance to experience its spectacular entertainment options and its ever-changing culinary scene, which draws chefs from around the world. 

Some restaurants, like supper clubs The Mayfair and Delilah, offer those two experiences together. 

There’s always a new restaurant to try here, so by all means, look up what the hot new thing is. But the one restaurant I cannot resist coming back to over and over is Roy Choi’s Best Friend. Based on the chef’s beloved LA food truck, you’ll walk through a faux bodega to get to the dining room where a DJ is spinning while you share Korean BBQ with your friends. Make a reservation in advance – this place books up. (A side note: Roy Choi and actor/director Jon Favreau just teamed up to bring a real-life version of the food truck from the 2014 movie Chef into the Park MGM!)

I’m also a big fan of checking out restaurants off the strip, like Esther’s Kitchen and Carson’s Kitchen in Downtown Las Vegas. The Neon Museum, a bit north of there, is also a great off-the-beaten-path thing to do that allows you to experience Vegas’ sparkle of previous decades. 

Finally, for a splash of nostalgia, I love to take friends for a cocktail at the Peppermill; with its sunken living room-esque booths and moody neon lighting, this place feels like a time warp into 1970s Las Vegas. It’s a vibe. 

Average costs in Las Vegas

Let me set some expectations: long gone are the days of the dollar buffet and the cheap Vegas stay. You’ll still find some bargains here and there – but expect a mid-range (to expensive) weekend depending on the sins you choose to indulge in.

Tipping in the US is the norm, and in Las Vegas you may see a service charge already included in a bill. Still, there are some instances, like for large parties, where the service charge may not be included so always double check. 

Even with service fees, there are still some instances where tipping is expected: when the door attendant brings your bags to the room, when a staff member has gone above and beyond (like snagging you a last-minute reservation), or when servers provide bottle service at the club. Also, when you’re gambling, drinks are often free but you’re expected to tip the waiting staff at some point. (Expect your drink to take some time to be delivered, as they hope you spend a little more money gambling.) 

  • Mid-range hotel off-peak, midweek summer: $60–100
  • Mid-range hotel on peak weekend: $200+ 
  • Daily resort fees: $30–50
  • Service fee: 20%  
  • Bottle service at a club: $1000–1200 (plus tax and tip)
  • Monorail day pass: $13.45 online
  • Coffee: $4
  • Sandwich: $12–20
  • Dinner for two: $100–200 (or more)
  • Beer/pint at the bar: $6–10
  • Cocktail: $15–20

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