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Fremont Street Experience (via Facebook)
Sin City's decrepit downtown, formerly the most depressing place in all of Las Vegas, is on the rise. For the last three years, the Downtown Project (largely funded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh) has been working to inject some fresh urban cool into seedy "old Vegas". The revitalization efforts are most noticeable in East Fremont and the Arts District, where indie coffeeshops share real estate with vintage casinos, and pedestrian-friendly public spaces abut pawnshops and payday loan windows.
Compared to the Strip, downtown feels low-key, affordable, even neighborhood-y—the kind of place where you'll find locals on both sides of the bar. Next time you're in town, skip the touristy circus of Las Vegas Boulevard and check out some of these downtown spots.
The El Cortez (Facebook)
Park yourself at the El Cortez, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and claims to be the longest continually-running hotel and casino in town. Although some of the rooms have been updated, the facade hasn't changed since the early 50s, and the old timers playing slots look like they've put down roots in the carpet.
The hotel is mere blocks from two major downtown attractions: the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall that's worth checking out at night for the light show and free live music; and the Downtown Container Park, an open-air shopping mall made out of colorful shipping containers. A giant fire-breathing praying mantis that once roamed the playa at Burning Man sits out front, making this the Downtown Project's most noticeable addition to the neighborhood.
The Downtown Container Park (via Yelp)
While you're in "historic downtown", set aside time to visit the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum, two awesome repositories of Las Vegas history. Here you can learn about the crooked characters who built Sin City, like Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the inspiration for Scorsese's Casino, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel who opened the town's first luxury hotel in 1946, and even owned the El Cortez for a hot minute. (Other exhibits focus on topics like Chicago's Valentine's Day Massacre, the FBI and—most recently—FIFA corruption.)
Be sure to make advanced reservations for a tour of the Neon Museum's Boneyard where you can walk among giants of the Las Vegas strip. It's the final resting place of more than 150 retired marquees, including the Moulin Rouge casino lights designed by Betty "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" Willis.
If you're more interested in contemporary design, explore the 18b Arts District which is dotted with galleries and shops. If you're there on the first weekend of the month you'll be able to check out the First Friday street festival, when many galleries unveil new shows and artists open up their studios to the public. (Pro tip: Visit the night before, on Preview Thursday, for a less hectic experience.)
Emergency Arts Las Vegas (via Facebook)
When it comes to food and drink, downtown is going through a bit of a boom. Therapy, Glutton and Itsy Bitsy Ramen and Whiskey are some of 2015's buzzy newcomers, joining solid standbys like Pizza Rock, Le Thai, Eat and Carson Kitchen. Make sure you have a coffee at PublicUs and a drink on the roof of the Commonwealth bar. And if a visit just doesn't feel complete without a shameful "what happens in Vegas" moment, there's always the Heart Attack Grill, where sexy nurse-waitresses will serve you the world's most calorific burger.
Sarah Theeboom writes about food, travel, lifestyle and culture. Follow her @sarahtheeboom.