Does the real Las Vegas still exist?
Sinatra's Vegas. Elvis's Vegas. Long before Britney Spears notoriously married her high school sweetheart at five in the morning, and long before George Clooney and Brad Pitt strutted through the Bellagio in Ocean's Eleven. The era when Bugsy Siegel - not Steve Wynn - ran the show at the most fabulous hotels in town. When nattily dressed mobsters held court among supper clubs and casinos and showgirls sunbathed poolside just off the Strip in a neighborhood nicknamed "Naked City".
While the spirit of vintage Las Vegas lives on in countless unexpected places all over town, the following places are ideal spots from which to kick off your adventure into Sin City's dramatic past.
Decades before garish LED screens presided over the Strip, handcrafted neon signs reigned as Vegas' original iconic art form. While much of this neon art has been dismantled (and, unfortunately, trashed) you can view over 150 lovingly restored artifacts at the Neon Museum. A tour of the museum's "Boneyard", full of retro signs dating back as far as 1930, is one of Vegas' most fascinating strolls.
While you are delving into Vegas' storied history, you might want to get gussied up in a few vintage duds. How about a hot pair of cat-eye glasses, a Rat Pack-inspired suit, or a cocktail dress worthy of a femme fatale? Our retro shopping pick: The Attic.
Once it is time to test your luck -- and possibly make your fortune -- follow the locals downtown to the original "Glitter Gulch", where the magic all began. We love Binion's for its famous "zero-limit poker" with beginner-friendly $2 minimum hands. (You cannot get more classic - itis where the World Series of Poker kicked off in 1970.) If you are in the mood for blackjack, head to the deliciously retro El Cortez. Not only is it Vegas' oldest continuously operating casino (going strong since 1941), it is one of the only joints in town where the slots are the real thing. If you hit the jackpot, you will enjoy the clatter of actual coins - none of that newfangled paper ticket nonsense.
More than one Strip establishment has made a halfhearted attempt to recreate a vintage diner experience. Yet locals know that that the most authentic lunch counter in town is hidden inside an unassuming drugstore. For cheeseburgers and malts at old-fashioned prices, head to Tiffany's Café (inside White Cross Drugs, 1700 Las Vegas Boulevard S, 702-444-4459). Vegas' original 24-hour restaurant does not pretend to be a 1950s soda fountain, because it is a 1950s soda fountain.
Long before the Bellagio's soaring water show drew legions of onlookers, the most awe-inspiring view in Vegas was something decidedly more provocative: mushroom clouds. Recalling an era when the word "atomic" conjured modernity and mystery, the Smithsonian-run Atomic Testing Museum remains an intriguing testament to the period when the fantastical - and destructive - power of nuclear energy was tested just outside of Las Vegas.
Pay homage to Ol' Blue Eyes at Sinatra in the spanking-new Encore, Steve Wynn's newest showpiece casino-hotel. While home-style Italian classics in an upscale atmosphere impress, do not miss the restaurant's most wow-inducing feature. Check out Frank Sinatra's gleaming Grammy and Oscar awards in a display case near the hostess stand.
There is plenty of steak to be had in Vegas, with celebrity chefs and high-end chains all competing for diner accolades. So why not skip the competition and keep it old school? Serving steaks -- along with tableside-prepared Caesar salads and Bananas Foster -- since the 1950s, The Golden Steer has remained in a class of its own. Illustrious regulars of have included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and plenty of mobsters. For a scandalous story or two, head to the bar -- bartender Johnny has been pouring martinis since the Rat Pack ruled town. Salty-tongued waiters charm you silly, but with no solicitous pretense.
Nevada has long welcomed starry-eyed couples - drunk, sober, or freshly divorced - into its wedding chapels. Witness a wedding at the historic Little White Wedding Chapel, once home to the 1950s nuptials that kicked off Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow's doomed romance, as well and Paul Newman's and Joanne Woodward's famously lasting one. If you are lucky, you will hear "Elvis" serenade the bride and groom.
After a night of 21st Century clubbing on the Strip, the most bewitching Vegas nightcap can be found inside the Fireside Lounge. Imagine a neon den of Swinging Sixties-era cool, where couples cozy next to the bubbling fire pit and strangers trade sultry glances over their Mai Tais. Groups should head to a booth and order a Scorpion, a giant fishbowl of a cocktail served with multiple straws. If you find it is 5 am and your craving for waffles has just hit, you are in luck: the Fireside just happens to be inside the strip's most outrageously fun 24-hour diner, The Peppermill.
Before you say farewell to Sin City, pick up a piece of Vegas history to bring home -- say, an ashtray from the legendary Sands Hotel -- from downtown's Main Street Antiques. Pssst... you might want to nab a shot glass or a matchbook from the 1950s-era, Moroccan-themed Sahara Hotel and Casino. To the dismay of vintage lovers everywhere, it closed May 2011.
The article 'Vintage Las Vegas' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.