When you think of Las Vegas, what springs to mind?
Glitz and glamor on the Las Vegas Strip?
Being rufied by a bearded man, beaten by a naked Asian, and losing your best friend ala The Hangover?
Having a wealthy older man offer to buy your beautiful young wife for the evening?
High stakes roulette? Strippers? Big name boxing bouts and Penn & Teller?
Heaven forbid… Carrot Top?
Las Vegas has attained near mythic status as the place to go for a good time, and it’s true that most of these travel daydreams and epic weekends take place on the Strip. And why shouldn’t it? From the Bellagio to New York New York, Mandalay Bay to Caesar’s Palace. The hotels and casinos of the Strip have transcended their original purpose and become palaces of hedonism.
And with this multitude of pleasures comes a high price tag.
But a weekend in Vegas doesn’t have to bankrupt you. And that’s where Fremont Street, aka Old Vegas, comes into the equation.
Why Fremont Street?
Fremont Street was Vegas before places like Stratosphere and Mandalay Bay took decadence to dizzying new heights. You’ve probably seen it before without even being aware of it. For as long as Vegas has been a den of iniquity, there’s been movies glorifying or mourning the city and its inhabitants. And while these days Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio are the face of Vegas, it used to be that places like La Bayou, Mermaids, the Golden Nugget, and the Plaza that Hollywood focused on.
In 2009 I was in Vegas for a few days of drinking, gambling, and sight-seeing to celebrate my then girlfriend’s birthday – and while we obviously checked out the Strip and even saw a show at the Mandalay Bay – the majority of our time in Vegas was spent exploring (and loving) iconic Fremont Street.
Whether we were wolfing down 99 cent shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate, sucking down $2 Coronas while the legendary Fremont Street Experience exploded overhead, or playing cheap casino games at the Golden Nugget in exchange for free beers: we were having an absolute blast.
A weekend or even a week in Vegas doesn’t have to break the bank. And here’s five Fremont Street gems I found and loved.
Five of the best on Fremont Street
Fremont Street is home to a lot of unique characters. People watchers are going to have a field day in the place. It’s the kind of place where families walk the same street as 70 something women in mini skirts and tube tops. Where a morbidly obese man in a gopher will keep pace with a trio of gorgeous girls dolled up to the nines.
Various stalls along the street sell $2 Coronas and $5 bottles of water. You can tell where priorities lie in Vegas.
Outside of Mermaids beautiful girls will pose with you for a price. Graffiti artists, souvenir shops, and street performers vie for the attention of customers scuttling from casino to casino. Whether you’re here to gamble, hook up, drink, or just have a crazy good time – Fremont Street offers it all at a reduced rate.
I won’t say that Fremont Street is seedy, because it’s in no way disgusting, but it’s definitely different. A far cry from the plastic fantastic of The Strip. But that’s a big part of its charm.
Hurricanes at La Bayou
This New Orleans themed casino isn’t one for the gamblers. Where most of Vegas boasts table games such as Blackjack, Craps, and Roulette – you’re limited to video poker or slot machines in the very old school La Bayou. Me? I wouldn’t be going in to La Bayou in search of striking it rich. I’d be going there to get hit by a Hurricane.
I’m not talking about a storm system caused by low pressure (thanks Wikipedia). I’m talking about a large, potent, and delicious ice drink that La Bayou is famed for. Sweet drinks might not be for manly men, but when it comes in a glass that is one third your size – I think it’s ok to indulge in Sex on the Beach, a Pina Colada, or a Mudslide.
But that’s just me. I’m pretty confident on my masculinity.
The price tag ($25 when I was there) might seem a bit exorbitant, but compare that to a $14 cocktail here in Sydney. A cocktail that would be lucky to be 500 mls. But if the Hurricane doesn’t kill you with brain freeze, it’ll knock you for six with its potency. It might be hidden beneath the ice and the sweeter flavors, but a Hurricane is a top way to start a night. And the price of the drink goes down if you bring your glass back for a refill.
Heart Attack Inducing Food at Mermaids
Americans do bad food so very, very well. While Scotland can proudly boast the invention of the deep-fried Mars Bar – America has deep-fried pretty much everything else. I tried a lot of these deep-fried delights when I hit the Arizona State Fair later in my trip, but the best of them remains the wickedly disgusting deep-fried Twinkie I had at Mermaids.
Crunchy on the outside – a gooey mess on the inside.
Mermaids doesn’t just boast the infamous deep-fried Twinkie either. There’s pretty amazing fries and a variety of amazing hot dogs so laden with extras that they’re a disaster to eat. And it all weighs in at anywhere between $1 and $5*. Bargain!
*= Price does not include cost of unclogging arteries.
The other perk of Mermaids, in which I don’t recall even glancing at the gambling options, is the pair of gorgeous girls in showgirl attire that stand out front throughout the night. While there’s no up front charge to pose for a photo with these beauties, bear in mind that they’re not earning a lot and a tip will go a long way towards getting them through college.
The Fremont Street Experience
Perhaps the most well-known feature of a night on Fremont Street is the Fremont Street Experience. The entire street is sheltered beneath the world’s largest LCD screen and every hour during the evening the lights of the casinos are turned off so that the screen can work its magic.
Goliath images dance across the screen as each hour sees a different artist tribute. From Queen to a lengthy American Pie medley, every hour sees the crowds below grind to a standstill almost as if they were zombies transfixed by sky flowers.
That’s a Land of the Dead reference. Points if you got it.
But the Fremont Street Experience isn’t just limited to the hourly light and sound shows. Throughout the year there are live performances scattered along the street. When we were in town it was leading up to Halloween, so we got to see the pretty damn awesome ‘Frankie and the Steins’ rocking some old school horror tunes; a washed up magician from America’s Got Talent juggling chain saws; and some kind of illusionist whose act had the power to make me completely forget what it was he did. Take that, Houdini!
Fremont Street in itself is an experience, but the Fremont Street Experience is something that The Strip really can’t offer.
Karaoke at The Plaza
Taking people watching to a whole new level – karaoke at the plaza is hilarious, fun, and sometimes just a tad depressing. The place clearly has its regulars. Cougars prowl while old couples serenade one another in voices at odds with their tiny frames. Groups of rowdy women on their Hen’s Nights perform horrendously choreographed renditions of Lady Marmalade and, periodically the slightly overweight Elvis impersonator acting as DJ will wrestle the mike off of the customers and sing a few songs of his own.
It’s a scene straight out of Billy Joel’s The Piano Man and it’s dreadfully fascinating.
The crowd on hand (at least when we were there) were wonderfully supportive no matter how bad the singing or how terrible the choice of song. Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart. Really? Get out of town.
Grab a few beers, pick out your favorite tunes, and belt out a few classics in between feeding coins into the slots.
Swim with Sharks at the Golden Nugget
Ok, so you don’t technically swim with the sharks. But you do shoot past them at high speeds through a see through water slide tube. And where else in the world can you do that?
Dubai, probably. You can do everything there.
The Golden Nugget is probably as close to a Strip casino as Fremont Street has. With a full selection of table games and slot machines; its own in-house entertainment booked; and pretty lavish accommodations – it’s definitely the upmarket option if you’re on a budget but don’t want to feel like it.
The Nugget acted as our base of operations while we were on Vegas but the only facet of the casino we really checked out was the pool. And what a pool!
The big circular pool is big enough to accommodate dozens, but we preferred to alternate between screaming our way down the slide or lounging in the hot Nevada sun and reading books on our Kindles. The sharks, obviously having long ago come to terms with the fact they’ll never be able to eat the delicious fleshy morsels flying by every few seconds, seem content instead to turn lazy circles of the aquarium.
Hitting Fremont Street
It’s not hard to find a flight to Vegas. It’s easier still to find a flight that’s bundled with accommodation either on The Strip (for you high rollers) or on Fremont Street (for those on a tighter budget). We put together our whole three nights + flights for around $250 a head. Not a bad way to see one of the world’s most iconic cities, eat and drink far too much, and celebrate somebody’s birthday.