Neon-lit nights and days under a hazy desert sun give this city an unreal quality. Or perhaps it’s the volcano erupting near the Eiffel Tower on the Strip, the four-mile road that’s home to the major resorts? Either way, Las Vegas demands a suspension of disbelief.

Downtown (and Fremont Street in particular) is the original Vegas - flashing neon and smoky casinos. The Golden Nugget is a landmark, a long-standing casino named after the world's largest lump of gold, on display inside (129 E Fremont Street).

The walk-through Shark Reef aquarium at Mandalay Bay houses 2,000 creatures including stingrays and 15 species of shark. It's also home to Komodo dragons and rare golden crocodiles (+1 702 632 4555; 3950 Las Vegas Bld S; daily; £11.50).

Mixing science, technology and social history, the Atomic Testing Museum offers a look at the time when mushroom clouds from nearby nuclear tests were Vegas tourist spectacles (+1 702 794 5151; 755 E Flamingo Road; closed Sun am; £8).

On the fringes of Downtown, the Arts Factory is the focus of the city's emerging arts district. Inside you'll find hit-and-miss but intriguing local artists' galleries and workshops (+1 702 383 3133; 101-109 E Charleston Boulevard; 12pm-5pm Tue-Sat; free entry).

A 30-minute drive from Vegas, the Red Rock Canyon shows off the southwest's rugged beauty. A 13-mile scenic drive highlights the Mojave Desert's unique plants and animals, plus there are hiking and mountain bike trails (daily; car day pass £5).

Eat and drink
Fill up on "twisted farm food" at Hash House A Go Go - pancakes as big as tractor tyres and huge egg scrambles and hashes that could knock over a cow (+1 702 254 4646; 3535 Las Vegas Blvd S; 7am-11pm Sun-Thu, 7am-2am Fri-Sat; from £5).

In the Italianesque Palazzo, Dos Caminos is ideal for lounging, with low-slung tables and sofas. Linger over a cocktail and Mexican dishes such as spicy seafood ceviche. Weekend brunch brings tacos (+1 702 577 9600; 3325 Las Vegas Blvd S; 11am-11pm; mains £10-£23).

Arrive at sunset for a glass elevator ride up to the sky-high Mix Lounge in Mandalay Bay. The views from the cocktail bar and outdoor patio are some of Vegas's best (+1 702 632 9500; 3950 Las Vegas Blvd S; 5pm-late; cover £17 weekends, £14 weekdays).

It may be in a strip mall, but Rosemary's is a quality choice with cuisine such as Texas BBQ shrimp with Maytag blue-cheese slaw. Reservations essential (+1 702 869 2251; 8125 W Sahara Avenue; lunch Fri, dinner daily; two courses £37).

The centrepiece restaurant of the extravagant Venetian resort, B&B Ristorante has eccentric dishes including beef cheek ravioli and red-oak leaf salad with blood-orange dressing (+1 702 266 9977; 3355 Las Vegas Blvd S; 5pm- 11pm; mains £21-£37).

If you want to stay in Downtown, Main Street Station is a good bet. This casino hotel has a turn-of-the-19th-century look, with Victorian antiques, ornate mahogany woodwork and art-nouveau chandeliers in the public areas. The rooms are more contemporary (+1 702 387 1896; 200 North Main Street; from £30).

The Mirage
is moving on from its original faux-Polynesian theme, with newly remodelled and ultra modern rooms decked out in bold colour patterns. Still, the volcano by the lagoon "erupts" nightly, and scents of jasmine and vanilla often waft through the hotel lobby (+1 702 791 7111; 3400 Las Vegas Blvd S; from £80).

Capture the spirit of kitschy Vegas at Caesars Palace as you sit by the Garden of the Gods pool oasis, surrounded by Greco-Roman statuary, while being offered frozen grapes by a goddess in a skimpy toga. Aim for the grander Augustus Tower rooms, rather than the classic ones (+1 702 731 7110; 3570 Las Vegas Blvd S; from £100).

Part of the MGM Grand, the world's largest hotel, the suites in Signature at MGM Grand offer Jacuzzi tubs and, if you are lucky, balconies with Strip views (+1 702 797 6000; 3799 Las Vegas Blvd S; suites from £110).

The Bellagio is Vegas' original pleasure villa, at the edge of an artificial lake with more than 1,000 dancing fountains. The casino-resort, which starred in the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven, contrives the feel of having been plucked from the Italian Lakes (+1 702 693 7111; 3600 Las Vegas Blvd S; from £120).

When to go
Las Vegas is geared to be a year-round destination, although things slow down a bit in the mildly chilly winter and the dog days of summer. Mega resorts can keep room prices lower than most hotels, but major conventions and sports events jack up rates - see for details.

How to go
BA and Virgin fly direct from London (10 hours; from £580). Virgin Atlantic will fly from Manchester from April 2011, while Thomas Cook has flights from Manchester March to December.

Find your way
Taxis from the Strip average £7-£10 for the airport, or £15 for Downtown. It's illegal to hail one on the street but there are stands at casinos. A monorail links many Strip resorts (£3.50 one-way). Car rental starts at around £25 per day.

The article 'Mini guide to Las Vegas' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.