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Even the taxi driver from the airport was impressed. “Damn,” he said, as a dancing, 23-story Katy Perry beckoned us up the driveway of Resorts World, a new Las Vegas hotel complex with a 100,000-square-foot LED video screen on one of its glass flanks. So distracted was the driver by Katy’s sci-fi sashaying that he dropped me at the wrong entrance. I was booked in at Crockfords, an ultra-luxury hotel-within-a-hotel that joins Hilton and Conrad properties to make up this 3,506-room, $4.3 billion mega-resort. But instead I found myself on the casino floor — and promptly got lost in a space as cavernous as an airplane hangar.
Happily succumbing to the sensory overload, I drifted from the chiming poker machines and roulette tables to an Asian street-food arcade, where I used a digital kiosk to order Singapore noodles and a plate of South Indian roti from an array of spice-scented hawker stalls. Along the way, I stopped to admire displays of sacred Vegas relics: an oil painting by Liberace and one of his limousines — a white Rolls-Royce covered with mirror tiles. When I did eventually find Crockfords, I was whisked to my room on the 65th floor, where floor-to-ceiling windows maximized my view of the mountains of the Nevada desert. Below me the electric Katy danced away in silence, like something between “Blade Runner” and “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.”
Nobody goes to Las Vegas in search of subtlety or moderation. When it comes to over-the-top glitz, the city has been outdoing itself ever since Brooklyn mobster Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel & Casino rose like a mirage from the desert in 1946. So it’s not surprising that the city used the closures brought on by the pandemic to up the ante yet again. Large-scale resorts opened (Resorts World, Circa, Virgin), while landmarks like the Bellagio took the opportunity to refurbish or create new venues. And visitors — some 32.2 million in 2021 — have been flocking back, pandemic be damned. At times during my stay in Vegas, it almost felt as if COVID had never happened — not, at least, in the same way it did in the rest of the U.S.
If I was surprised to find the city booming, I shouldn’t have been. Vegas has always been a place to live large, whether it was the Rat Pack partying at the Sands and the Dunes in the 1960s or the lurid 21st-century Sin City of “The Hangover.” Today, travelers are looking for a break from reality more than ever, and the high-tech razzmatazz of the new mega-resorts is just the latest take on the escapist tradition. At Resorts World, I could kick back in the spanking-new 5,000-capacity theater, which has the largest and tallest stage in the city and 200 giant speakers powered by something called “L-ISA Hyperreal Sound technology.” I could also loll at one of nine fifth-floor pools or visit the state-of-the-art Awana Spa, with its six “age-reversing” pools and its team of Sauna-Meisters, whose job it is to fan guests with reviving aromatherapy oils.
I could, if I so desired, even step back in time. As the neon lights began to blaze out on the Strip, I made my way to the Wynn to catch a show at a new supper club called Delilah, which is styled with all the sensual intimacy of a 1930s Hollywood nightclub. As I settled back into an Art Deco armchair with a flute of champagne, a tuxedoed jazz trio performed beneath two enormous gilded palm trees.
Every generation, it seems, gets the Vegas it needs. The current rebound is a testament to the city’s adaptability. “It’s been not so much an overnight recovery as a slow and dignified trek back up the hill,” explained Teller, of Penn & Teller. The magician is a seasoned observer of the Vegas entertainment scene, and when I met him at his favorite vegan café, Squally’s, eight miles southwest of the Strip, he explained the movement over golden almond lattes spiced with turmeric and coconut oil. Penn & Teller have been going strong at the Rio since 2001, making them the longest-running headline act in the city’s history. The silent partner of the magical duo, Teller surprises people offstage by being both taller than expected (he’s five foot nine, but his partner, Penn Jillette, is six foot six) and quite talkative.
“The shutdown in Vegas was disastrous for entertainers,” he told me. The pair made the best of the hiatus by refining their act and recording TV specials at home. And now this city that exists to amuse is hosting full houses once again. “It’s crazy when you think about it,” Teller said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. We depend on an entirely manufactured industry. But the model works. This is one of the few places in the U.S. where you can run a live theater show under conditions that are not extortionate. On Broadway, you either have a massive hit or it’s a flop. There is no middle ground. In Las Vegas, the economics are favorable, thanks to tourism. We don’t bring the carnival to your hometown. We bring you to the carnival.”
From Resorts World, I jumped to the Cosmopolitan, another 24-hour mega-resort in the throbbing heart of the Strip. Like many properties, the Cosmopolitan was recently renovated, completing theirs in 2019, just before the pandemic. In a city where fresh air can be hard to come by, I was pleased to find my room had a balcony overlooking the Bellagio’s dancing fountain. Downstairs, the casino-resort’s maze of interconnected lobbies, lined with branches of hip restaurants like Momofuku, was surging with crowds.
“Every weekend night has been as busy as New Year’s Eve 2019,” said Bill McBeath, the Cosmopolitan’s Nevada-born and -bred CEO, as he stood in the middle of the human flow. It wasn’t just the gambling. “People come here because they know they are going to have an amazing time.” As we passed a photograph of a scantily-clad siren, he said: “We’re bringing some pre-COVID energy. It’s luxury with a twist, with a little decadence in there, too.”
After dark, the decadence reaches fever pitch. “Opium,” the Cosmopolitan’s adults-only cabaret show, recently upped its game by pairing with a wild, immersive restaurant called Superfrico, which bills itself as “a clusterflourish of art and amusements.” I took in the eye-popping neon and candy-colored décor, then was handed a menu offering “Italian-American Psychedelic” cuisine — in other words, hallucinogenic takes on traditional Italian dishes. While near-naked jugglers performed in the aisles and a contortionist swiveled above my head, I tried to focus on my futuristic chicken Parm, which was marinated in yuzu-based ponzu sauce and doused with Japanese panko and sourdough breadcrumbs. It all made the perfect aperitif for “Opium” — a raunchy, satirical interpretation of sci-fi movie classics, which I watched while savoring cocktails named Kiss My Asteroid and Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.
In the city’s hunger to entertain, the Strip’s outrageous theatricality is spilling out across Las Vegas. The most tantalizing example of this is Area 15 (the name is a play on Area 51, the U.S. Air Force’s alien-research site north of the city). It’s the home of Lost Spirits Distillery, where whiskey and rum are made in a warehouse-size, high-tech “immersive playground” a mile east of the Strip.
Everything about the place is overwhelming. At the main entrance, two portals opened onto a giant skull glowing with hypnotic patterns and a massive electric tree with fluorescent leaves. Music boomed; neon walls pulsed; overhead, riders ziplined through the darkness.
For a guide, I contacted Bryan Davis, cofounder of the distillery — a “Disneyland for Liquor” — where technology, literature, and expensive alcohol intersect with a flair often compared to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Its style was obvious when Davis ran up to me outside the sideshow-style ticket booth. “Sorry I’m late. I had to find a snake dancer!” he panted.
Davis started the experimental whiskey and rum distillery in California with cofounder Joanne Haruta. He developed an organic chemistry process using intense light to “age” spirits 20 years in just six days. During the pandemic, they transferred their inventive distillery tour to this Vegas location. “You have to realize the scale of Las Vegas,” Davis said. “The potential audience numbers are mind-boggling.”
Davis ushered me through the laboratory where raw alcohol is rapid-aged in sleek metal pods, then into a delirious series of sideshow-like tasting rooms, including a faux-Victorian parlor where the replacement snake dancer gyrated with a python; a faux-Havana nightclub where a hologram salsa band performed; and a faux-medieval chapel presided over by a priestess. The trippiest of all was a “submarine” inspired by Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Surely the world’s most surreal literary bar, the steampunk homage to Captain Nemo’s Nautilus included a dozen chandeliers, which swayed to evoke the underwater currents. I sank into one of the sumptuous leather loungers and watched through the portholes as cutouts of fish with human faces floated by.
After a few days, even I wanted more than hedonistic glitz. One of the more unexpected changes wrought by the pandemic was the boost it brought to the city’s lesser-known neighborhoods. Many residents regard its neon-saturated Strip much the way New Yorkers like me view Times Square — as a bright but exhausting place to be visited only on special occasions. In other corners, they say, lie intimate restaurants, hipster cafés, art galleries and museums that delve into Vegas’s quirky history, even lovely slices of nature.
“I have to be honest, COVID was great for off-Strip Vegas,” said James Trees, the chef-owner at Esther’s Kitchen, an Italian restaurant in the Arts District. “The casinos and big resorts were closed, but southern Californian tourists kept coming. It gave the rest of the city a huge boost.” Esther’s Kitchen was packed when I settled into a booth with plates of hand-rolled tortellini and cauliflower alla romana. Google Maps and Uber have also helped drive the change, Trees added, allowing adventurous visitors to easily leave the casinos and explore the rest of the city. “If people hear about an interesting place off-Strip, they can just hop in a car and go.”
Trees started Esther’s Kitchen four years ago, when Las Vegas’s Arts District was little more than a name. He took a risk converting an abandoned 1920s structure in a forgotten part of town. “Nobody wanted this place! Everyone said we were crazy to be opening up down here,” he said. But like Bugsy’s reverie, the dream took concrete shape, and Esther’s Kitchen is today an institution, luring a crowd of fashionable locals, many of them performers.
The chill, L.A.-style vibe shouldn’t be surprising: Trees spent years living in Venice Beach and working with chefs like Michael Mina and Akasha Richmond. But the more irreverent Vegas spirit is never far away: in the restaurant’s back area, the “Walken Refrigerator,” plastered with photos of the actor Christopher Walken, has become a beloved local attraction.
Vegas showbiz traditions have their place here, too: Trees told me that the restaurants’ forks came from the Dunes Hotel, the once-beloved casino that opened in the 1950s and housed the Sultan’s Table — at the time named “America’s finest and most beautiful restaurant” by Diner’s Club — where guests were entertained by Arturo Romero and His Magic Violins.
“Las Vegas has a small-town feeling away from the Strip,” explained another fan of the Arts District, New York transplant Hazel Honeysuckle, a burlesque dancer who moved to the city in 2018. At Caesar’s Palace, she plays the Green Fairy in “Absinthe,” an adult circus. “There is a community of performers — you get to know everyone.” After a stop at the hip Vesta Coffee Roasters, Honeysuckle and I strolled down Main Street — “about the only street in Las Vegas that residents actually walk down,” she laughed. Over the past few years, the Arts District has grown into its name, with boutiques, antiques stores, and hip hangouts like ReBar. There are several contemporary galleries, including the warehouse-like Arts Factory, with its Gallery to Go vending machines that sell works by local painters.
As we walked, Honeysuckle explained why the city inspires devotion among performers, many of whom stayed on through the pandemic. Although she had worked in classic Manhattan venues like the Slipper Room, she never looked back after moving to Vegas. “Spiegelworld called me for an audition and said: Do you want a full-time job as a burlesque dancer? I didn’t realize that was even possible.” Today, her sequined image, surrounded by a penumbra of emerald feathers, is on billboards and the sides of taxis and buses all over town. “It’s cushy! I have a permanent changing room. I don’t have to lug my outfits up and down stairs. Someone does my makeup.” Low real estate costs have also helped the performing arts thrive: Honeysuckle was able to buy a house with a yard and a swimming pool for what a studio would cost in Brooklyn.
On my last night, I made a pilgrimage to the site that perhaps best captures the versatility of the city. The Neon Museum — also known as the Neon Boneyard — is where the city’s iconic electric signs are taken after casinos and hotels are knocked down. I joined an after-dark tour of a space that felt a little like a Dadaist art gallery, illuminated by electric cowboys, an “Indian chief,” and cacti from long-forgotten pleasure domes where millions of Americans went to forget their troubles in decades past.
The most striking attraction is the sign of the once-cherished Stardust Resort & Casino, which stood on the site Resorts World now occupies until it was leveled in 2007. In its time, the 180-foot-high behemoth was a Vegas marvel that evoked the goofy, futuristic optimism of “The Jetsons” and catered to one of American travel’s most peculiar trends. The Stardust opened in 1958, at the height of “atomic tourism,” when curiosity-seekers flocked to Vegas to watch mushroom clouds appear over the testing site at Frenchman Flat, 65 miles away. The hotel would publish schedules of the explosions and hand out protective goggles so guests could watch while partying at the rooftop bar.
Later that night, I went back to the lobby of Resorts World and tracked down a scaled-down replica of the Stardust sign in a gift shop — a subtle nod to history, but a nod nonetheless. Then, I dashed back to Lost Spirits for a final glass of scientifically aged rum. I watched the snake dancer writhe away next to the mock-medieval chapel as I drank. I can’t imagine what future generations will make of it, but in 2022, it was a perfect escape.
The Very Best of Vegas
Where to Stay
Bellagio Hotel: The dancing fountains outside this recently renovated icon continue to impress guests and passersby.
Resorts World: This complex opened last summer. It combines a Hilton, a Conrad, and the über-luxurious Crockfords hotel.
Wynn Las Vegas: This hotel offers great experiences, like the adjacent Wynn Golf Club, and dining options like the vintage-inspired Delilah Lounge supper club.
Where to Eat and Drink
Bazaar Meat: At this restaurant by star chef José Andrés, guests can devour steak while sitting under a row of giant crocodile heads.
Esther’s Kitchen: A delightful antidote to: the over-the-top style of the Strip, this ArtsDistrict Italian spot serves cocktails and superb pasta.
Lotus of Siam: A Thai restaurant off Strip with a reputation for fiery, inventive dishes.
Public US Café: A Chinese-themed downtown café where you can savor avocado toast while gazing at a candy-pink 1950s motel.
Superfrico: An immersive dining experience in the Cosmopolitan that mixes bold entertainment and fantastical décor.
What to See
Absinthe: A hilarious, adults-only cabaret show in Caesar’s Palace. (Its equally jaw dropping counterpart in the Cosmopolitan is the sci-fi parody Opium.)
Area 15: A large entertainment hub, home to Lost Spirits Distillery and Omega Mart.
Mob Museum: A look at Vegas’s origin story, with exhibits like Bugsy Siegel’s yellow sunglasses and clips from gangster movies.
Neon Museum: Popularly known as the Neon Boneyard, it has an impressive collection of the city’s iconic electric signs.
Penn & Teller: After 21 years at the Rio Casino, this show is still a must-see, and features new illusions perfected during the pandemic.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Vegas, Baby!