Show-stopping spectacles. Over-the-top hotels. Splashy casinos. It's easy to spend your life savings in Sin City, but contributor Andrea Bennett has the scoop on how to win big without dipping into your wallet.
Free Entertainment on the Strip and Beyond
Sure, you’ll turn into a tourist cliché, but every Vegas visitor has to walk the Strip, yard-long margarita in hand. First stop: the Fountains of Bellagio, which in recent years added a three-song electronic medley by Tiesto to its lineup, joining the ranks of Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli and Tony Bennett. Across the street, you'll find the open-air Grand Bazaar Shops , with outdoor dining and retail concepts from Seattle to Marrakech. Don’t miss the massive new Swarovski Starburst, a 14-foot LED-lit crystal starburst that lights up the shops at night. On the south end of the Strip, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, a symbol of excess once perched on a perilous median, is now solar powered and provides a shameless selfie opp. There’s also the legendary erupting volcano in front of the Mirage, which in true Vegas fashion has added pizazz in the form of flame shooters, a soundtrack, and water and lighting effects. Downtown, check out the Downtown Container Park, a retail, dining and play park (complete with a tree house and 33-foot long slide) made entirely of shipping containers. Make sure to stay in the area until dark to do a self-guided tour of the Fremont East Entertainment District, with its awesome refurbished vintage neon lights.
Las Vegas is quickly becoming a top-tier destination for unexpected public artworks. Among the best is the 67-acre CityCenter campus, which includes 15 pieces by artists such as Nancy Rubin, Claes Oldernburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Within the CityCenter’s high-end mall, Crystals, artist James Turrell has installed Shards of Color, with four recessed geometric shapes lit in neon. There's also Turrell’s Akhob, an enormous permanent installation inside the Louis Vuitton Maison flagship (walk-ins aren’t permitted; make an appointment through Louis Vuitton). Nearby, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas contains some of the best free art around. Check out Wallworks, with murals by artists like Shinique Smith, Kenny Scharf and Shepard Fairey in the parking garage; the eight light columns at check-in with constantly changing videos; and an artist in residency space on the mezzanine level of the hotel. Downtown, swing by the Tim Bavington sculpture in Symphony Park – a dazzlingly colorful array of 128 steel pipes based on Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. At the Frank Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, you’ll find a contemporary gallery with works by the likes of James Rosenquist and surf culture chronicler Ken Price. Finally, don’t miss the art collection within Wynn Las Vegas. Our favorite piece? The 7-foot-tall, 2,000-pound Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons, purchased by Steve Wynn for $28 million.
Free Indoor Entertainment
Some of the best eye candy in Vegas is housed in the Bellagio’s 14,000-square-foot, sky-lit conservatory and botanical garden, where a team of 120 horticulturalists, engineers and designers create incredible displays for each season. Another can't miss is the eye-popping atrium at The Palazzo, with a two-floor waterfall and seasonal flowers. Want to see more? Head inside the Forum Shops at Caesars, where the revamped Fall of Atlantis' giant talking statues and pyrotechnics are fun for the little ones, and even more fun for grownups after a couple of drinks in the casino. For nighttime romps, roller disco fans can throw on a pair of hot pants and lace up a pair of free skates at the Gold Spike every third Wednesday – aka Down and Derby night. After a day of free sightseeing, boogie to remixed 70s hits and grab a discounted PBR or two.
Free Vegas Oddities
Want to see the biggest golden nugget in the world? Or learn about the zombie apocalypse? You’re in luck. Vegas has some of the best free oddities of any city. The Zombie Apocalypse Store carries everything from gas masks to original 1950s fallout shelter signs, and hosts Walking Dead-like zombie combat experiences led by real Special Ops agents on a Hollywood set. The Golden Nugget contains what you might expect – a giant gold nugget – found in Australia in 1980 and sold to the casino for more than a million dollars. Then there's the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, from the popular Pawn Stars TV show, which showcases a vast and varied assortment of valuables. Guarding the gates of the Downtown Container Park is a 40-foot long praying mantis which was salvaged from a bygone Burning Man Festival. Look out for intermittent flames - fireballs released from the insect's antennas can reach six stories in height. Another favorite: Serge's Wigs, where Sin City showgirls buy their glowing locks. You can look, but don't touch unless you're considering a purchase; the ladies behind the counter are deadly serious. At the end of the day, if slot machines and roulette tables left you with little more than two pennies to rub together, head to Binion's Gambling Hall to cozy up to a cool $1 million – concealed in a protective plexiglass pyramid – and commemorate what could have been with your own 6x8 glossy (free and in a souvenir frame, no less).
Free for Kids
Don’t feel like shelling out for one of Vegas’s eight Cirque shows? No worries. The world’s largest permanent circus can be found at Circus Circus. You may have to pay in spades for rides, but you can watch death-defying stunts by unicyclists and acrobats high above the casino floor at no charge during daily shows on the Carnival Midway. Over at the Silverton, a massive 117,000-gallon aquarium – that's enough water to fill more than a couple inground swimming pools – hosts mermaid swims Thursday-Sunday. Scuba-certified "mermaids" glide through reefs and among all sorts of exotic sea creatures like parrot fish, stingrays, and leopard sharks, and guides are on hand to answer audience questions. At the Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas, you can spot Chilean – you guessed it – flamingos. Along with the beloved pink showstoppers, koi fish, turtles and swans also coexist in the hotel's 15 verdant acres. After all that visual fun, head to M&M's World, a four-floor chocoholic's dream come to life with a free 3-D movie starring Red and Yellow. Right across the street, Hershey's Chocolate World resides in the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, a two-story flagship featuring an 800-pound chocolate Statue of Liberty. If that's somehow not enough cocoa, keep that sugar high buzzing with a visit to local chocolatier Ethel M's factory. Just 10 miles from the strip, tours of the factory (get pumped for free samples) are complimentary all day long, as are strolls through the botanical cactus garden.
Free casino drinks are both a tradition and a misnomer in Vegas. Most people know that the house provides complimentary cocktails as an, ahem, thank you for gambling and to aid your decision-making in favor of spending more money. That being said, there is some strategy involved. Unless you’re playing at a higher-limit table, you’ll generally be offered a well drink or a less expensive beer (tip your server well, and you’ll likely get better service). In video poker machines at the bar (such as at the Bourbon Room in the Venetian and Chandelier Bar in the Cosmopolitan), you can get top shelf spirits just for playing – but don’t expect much with nickel games. You’ll need to place max bets, and the bartender is almost certainly keeping track. The best way to drink for (nearly) free is to play the slots at older, downtown casinos, such as El Cortez, Golden Nugget and The D, where the play amounts are lower. (Still, make sure you tip or that first drink will also be your last.) Steer clear of Mirage’s lobby bar, the Bond Bar at Cosmopolitan and the Race and Sports Book Bar at Caesars Palace, all of which are implementing various degrees of voucher, ticketing and red light, green light systems to ensure only the highest betters are swigging free drinks.
Free Movie Set Tours
Whether or not you make the intentional decision to visit a set, it’s likely that you’ll stumble through at least a couple of the city's iconic movie locations. The Tropicana is best known for its cameo in Diamonds Are Forever, but the hotel also played a key role in The Godfather series, serving as the site of Michael Corleone's casino business. Once the Las Vegas Hilton, the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino was where Elvis used to play, and its famous marquee is still the same as when it appeared in Indecent Proposal and Over the Top. The Hangover was shot almost entirely on location at Caesars Palace, which ended up paying out big for the hotel. Caesar's saw a marked jump in business after the movie's box office success, and visitors now regularly hit staff with one-liners like "Did Caesar live here?" and "Do you know if the hotel is pager friendly?" – so go for something a little less quoted if you plan on making any funnies.
Free Music and Atmosphere
The Freemont Street Experience shuffles musicians of every genre between three stages spanning five-blocks for completely free live performances almost every day. Catch a show under the SlotZilla Zipline and take your pick of 80s hair metal tribute bands, Elvis impersonators, DJs, and cowboy rockers. May 28th kicks off Freemont's eighth Rock of Vegas free concert series; this year's opening band is Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, of major "Bad Reputation" and I Love Rock 'N' Roll" fame. Over at the Eyecandy Sound Lounge at Mandalay Bay, drinks will cost you but live music from DJs and VJs (remember those guys, from MTV?) is completely free. On Fridays and Saturdays, Masquerade Bar in Masquerade Village at the Rio also has free live music from 9 pm to midnight. Catch high-energy rock performances and 80s covers as you get in some prime people watching. There's also no cover for entry at the 107 SkyLounge where DJs spin 7 nights a week (11 pm - 4 am) and happy hour at the bar means 2 for 1 cocktails and deeply discounted apps, but the best part? The elevator ride to the 107th floor of the Las Vegas Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower. As the highest freestanding tower in the US, tickets to ride to the top observation deck will set you back $20, but SkyLounge patrons can catch a free ride and get just as gorgeous views.