It's known as 'Sin City' and 'the adult Disney World' – but what if you don't gamble? From gondola rides, shopping malls and ornamental gardens to a round of golf, Las Vegas has plenty to offer
Las Vegas was once a stop-off on the railroad lines west: a one-saloon town with a reputation for bawdiness, thanks to its lax view on prostitution. In the 1950s, it became the playground of the rich and famous. The Rat Pack performed nightly, Elvis was in residence and Howard Hughes wasted away overlooking the city.
By the 1980s, Vegas was run-down and dilapidated – but the 1990s saw a clean-up (both morally and physically) of what was once called "Sin City", resulting in a tourist boom. No longer was it the home of outlaws, gamblers and gangsters. It became family-friendly, with themed supercasinos promising to wow the kids while their parents played away their fortunes at the slots. It is one of the few places in the world where you can take a gondola ride on the second floor of a building, courtesy of the Venetian Hotel & Casino.
The Venetian is one of a series of luxury hotels that show off Vegas's decadence to the full. If you can afford to stay at this suites-only establishment, you really should, simply for its relaxed atmosphere compared to many other places in the city. A scaled-down replica of St Mark's Square, the Rialto Bridge and other Venice landmarks are available to mosey around inside and outside the hotel complex, alongside some affordable – and some not-so-affordable – shops.
If you're looking for Jimmy Choos, then the parade of shops on the second floor of the Venetian is for you; buy a pair and hop into a gondola, to be serenaded as you are paddled along the Grand Canal. If your budget is slightly tighter, take the gondola ride anyway just for the surreal feel of it all.
Make sure you also head downstairs, avoiding the slot machines and craps tables (if you're stoical and canny, you can enjoy Las Vegas without losing a penny to gambling) and grab a quick lunch at one of the shops in the mini-food court on the gambling floor. Cheap, tasty and freshly prepared, it will fill your boots before you head out to The Strip. On your way, take a look at some priceless works of international art at the Guggenheim's permanent residence just off the hotel lobby.
Staying at the Venetian gives you the advantage of being placed squarely in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip: across from you is Treasure Island, where you can go twice-daily with the children to take in a pyrotechnic pirate show that will be sure to have them agog. From there, you can travel across by cable car to the neighbouring Mirage – a pleasantly cool way to travel, especially important in the height of summer when the mercury hovers at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. At the Mirage, you can wander through the hotel – without placing any bets – and take in the ornamental garden which could equally be described as an Amazonian rainforest in the middle of a hotel.
Heading north out of The Mirage will take you to the Fashion Show Mall, one of the few buildings not associated with a hotel that are allowed precious ground space on The Strip itself. Home to hundreds of shops, this is a fully-functioning shopping environment with department stores, designer boutiques and budget shops all collected under one roof. It's pleasant enough, if you want to spend an hour or two wandering round to escape the heat. Nike, Foot Locker and Sears are among the shops inside the mall, and the food court provides a strangely tranquil escape from the rat-a-tat of the clinking slot machines and whoops of victorious gamblers.
One thing you will notice is that Las Vegas is an incredibly loud place: the second you walk into one of these hotel-casino resorts, you are bombarded with sounds and flashing lights in a bid to make you gamble. Every hotel is carefully climate-controlled, to keep you inside for longer and persuade you to part with your money. Most of the interiors are dark and windowless, so you can't be sure whether it is day or night; and clocks are conspicuously absent, so you never think it is time to leave. However, if you go in with the mindset that the casinos are out to get your money, you can enjoy Las Vegas purely for the weirdly exotic place that it is.
Across from the Fashion Show Mall is Wynn Las Vegas, which departs from the dimmed, windowless norm of casinos in the city. You will need a large bank balance to stay a single night at this haute-couture hotel, let alone play a round on the resort's own golf course (one of few in the middle of the arid Nevada desert). However, as with all these places, you are free to look around and wonder at the sheer gaudiness of the hotel, which looks like a proud bronze sail standing tall in the middle of The Strip.
The Wynn really marks the boundary of acceptable Las Vegas: from that point on, heading towards the old Downtown district (home to most of the iconic landmarks seen in 1950s movies), many of the buildings are now half-collapsed and losing crumbling paint by the minute. It's a long walk to the next themed hotel, the Stratosphere, which is one of the last modern developments at the north end of The Strip. Stretching high into the sky, it has a thrill ride at the top which involves leaning over the edge of its giant tower. Inside, the Stratosphere is dingy – and it has a rather downtrodden shopping centre where you can buy alpaca coats and not much else.
Further north, the last hotel you will want to visit before heading back south is Circus Circus. It has a massive theme park and carnival play area for children, but is in dire need of repainting. It looks as if it hasn't been renovated since the late 1970s.
One of the best things about Circus Circus is the affordable buffet. At this Las Vegas institution, you can eat a single meal for about $15 and not feel hungry again all day. The fare is simple and the choice limited, hence the low price, but it still stands a couple of notches above the most regal buffet imaginable in Britain. However, Circus Circus has something of a canteen feel compared to the other buffets on The Strip. The Mirage (above) is one of the best for food, offering a wide selection of world cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A top tip for Las Vegas penny-pinchers is to fill up with a late breakfast at about 11am. It's usually a couple of dollars cheaper than the lunch buffet, which often starts at 11.30am. Take your time and eat your fill – then, at 11.30am, you can still take advantage of the expanded lunch buffet at the breakfast buffet price.
Some people will be put off by the term buffet, thinking of sloppy food kept warm for hours and unhygenic queues of people. In Vegas, though, nothing is done by halves – so this is a practical and affordable way for a family to fill up. In Sin City, there are plenty of fine dining establishments, too – but the buffet is a sensible choice.
Luxury resorts at the north end of The Strip are aimed at the more discerning tourist who is seeking a more sedate experience. Burnished with gold, they have an air of elegance about them – or the closest you can get to it, in a town founded and still running on its profits from the seedier side of life. Las Vegas can leave you wide-eyed and open-mouthed – and gagging to come back year on year.