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The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Off-Strip Vegas

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Photograph by Shannon Switzer

Caesar’s Palace, MGM Grand, and Circus Circus are synonymous with the Vegas strip.

…which is exactly why I avoided them like a mobster avoids the IRS.

Instead I set out to hit some of Sin City’s less obvious spots — some were suggested to me by readers and friends who live in the area, and some I stumbled upon by happy accident.

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The Neon Museum's first refurbished sign.

Here’s my take on what to see and what to skip to maximize your off-strip experience.

>> Absolutely Awesome:

Some locals had told me about how the Fremont East District used to be a sketchy zone where people were held up at gunpoint and had their Chihuahuas stolen, but was now being revitalized. The “Fremont Street Experience,” with its trippy light show and zip-liners whizzing overhead (if you haven’t gotten your fill of neon, head a mile north to the Neon Museum), may have drawn me to this area, but it was the funky retro eateries and bars that kept me hanging around.

All of the places I visited — The Beauty Bar with its Punk Rock Prom band, the Emergency Arts collective and its independent coffeehouse/record shop (The Beat), and the Kabob Korner with its amazingly fresh Mediterranean food — had a style and vibe I dug.

Over the last few years, the city has put a lot of dough into cleaning up the old historic area and molding it into a bona fide cultural center, and I have a feeling this area will just get better.

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This is where the awesome starts.

The nondescript building had me feeling skeptical, but awesomeness smacked me in the face when I stepped inside.

This place is for the kid in all of us, so instead of blowing your cash at the blackjack tables, head here for some good old-fashioned 25-cent arcade action.

The guys who run the joint are all from the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club. It’s nonprofit, and most of the money they make goes to charity (last year they donated $400,000 to the Salvation Army), so you can feel even better about emptying your pockets here.

Before I left Vegas, I stopped in at this little hole-in-the-wall on Western Avenue. The food was delicious; it also happened to be vegan. I’m not a vegan, but I usually find this kind of cuisine to be more satisfying, creative, and tastier than your standard meat fare.

Lucky for me, this little gem did not disappoint. I paired a rooibos iced tea with the Jace, Pura Vida’s signature wrap stuffed full of flav0r-rich roasted tofu and veggies. The best part was Chef Mayra (who also owns and runs the place) visiting my table to make sure I was enjoying everything.

I’m pretty sure I’d be eating here everyday if I were a local, but one word of warning, you can’t be in a hurry!

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The inside of the infamous Double Down Saloon.

>> Pretty Cool:

This off-the-strip legend is the best known dive bar in Vegas, serving up things like Ass Juice and Bacon Martinis.

If you’re looking for food, your only option is what the bartender referred to as the “Dinner Machine,” which sits next to the punk rock juke box and offers things like Doritos and Skittles. But don’t worry: the bar offers “Puke Insurance” for $20 in case you can’t stomach what they have on their menu.

If you like dark, dingy, and smoky with a heaping portion of attitude and grunge, this place is for you.

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Ronald peeking out over his display cases. Fab donuts.

Ronald is friendly and his donuts are delicious. The top three rows are vegan if you’re into that — but if you’re not, there’s plenty of normal ooey-gooey options to choose from.

>> Meh, Skip:

This one’s probably more fun with kids. Had one of their signature iced chocolate drinks, and despite being a chocolate enthusiast, feel no need to come back.

I got excited when I heard that Vegas had a burgeoning Chinatown on Spring Mountain Road, only to find it was in a strip mall with zero character or charm. Maybe it just needs a few more years to grow up.

In keeping with my off-strip theme, I stayed at the hotel locals had voted their favorite casino. While the facilities were great and the view of the desert was striking, it was really far from all the action (about a half hour from downtown) — and even from most off-strip adventures. Next time I’ll stay closer to the heart of Vegas — unless I come back when it’s cool enough to explore the Red Rock Canyon area, which I hear is amazing (anytime between October 1 and Christmas, apparently).

I’ve never seen “Pawn Stars,” but apparently the show has many adoring fans…who were all waiting in a long line to get in. I’m not a fan of mob scenes, so didn’t bother to stick around. I’m sure it would’ve been fun to check out, but not worth the wait.

It’s your turn now…Tell me what I SHOULD have seen in the comments section below.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.


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