Before the shiny, themed megaresorts of today, Vegas went through many iterations as it grew from a small outpost town to become the “Entertainment Capital of the World”.
Much of old Vegas has disappeared, to be replaced by what came after, but you can still find remnants of old Las Vegas if you dig a little beneath the surface, and here’s our guide to where to start looking.
A Bit of History
Let’s start with a bit of history.
Although two forts were built in the area of what is now Las Vegas in the 19th century, first in 1844 by American soldiers and then in 1855 by Mormon missionaries, it was not definitively settled until the start of the 20th century.
After its official founding as a city in 1905 and its incorporation as part of Clark County in 1911, Las Vegas first prospered but then suffered financial hardship due to the wider economic situation and the onset of World War I.
However, the situation changed at the start of 1931. This was the year construction began on the nearby Hoover Dam, and this brought an influx of workers to the city, causing its population to swell.
The Beginnings of the Entertainment Industry
Since most of the workers were males who came without their families, it’s unsurprising that entertainment venues such as strip clubs and illegal casinos popped up to cater to this type of clientele.
It is also hardly surprising the Mob saw the opportunities inherent in such an atmosphere and was involved in the development of the Las Vegas entertainment industry right from the start.
However, realizing the potential for revenue, the Nevada authorities quickly moved to legalize gambling, and several legal casinos began to appear around Fremont Street.
At the beginning, Fremont Street was where all the action was and can be considered Las Vegas’ original strip. Notable early casinos included El Cortez (1941) and Golden Nugget (1946), both of which are still in operation.
Back then, Fremont Street was known as “Glitter Gulch” thanks to the profusion of bright lights and neon signs, all powered by the electricity from the newly finished Hoover Dam.
Signs of Change and Increasing Mob Control
The first sign of change came in 1941 with the opening of El Rancho in what would eventually become Vegas’ infamous Strip.
This was followed in 1942 by Hotel Last Frontier, and the growing shift away from Fremont Street to The Strip became even more pronounced with the opening of the Mob-owned Flamingo.
In the following years, bank loans were granted to developers opening casinos in Las Vegas, despite the fact many of them were known to be connected to organized crime.
This meant much of Las Vegas’ incredibly lucrative gambling industry was controlled by the Mafia, allowing the gangs to accumulate huge power and wealth through their activities.
At around this time, despite the importance of gambling, other entertainment began to diversify, giving rise to the era of classic Vegas performers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack.
The Decline of the Mob and the Rise of the Megaresorts
There was no single event that saw the end of the Mob years and the transition to modern Vegas. Rather, Mafia control of the casinos gradually waned and the city slowly transformed itself into the Vegas of today.
A significant development was the opening of the opulent Caesars Palace in 1966, the first true themed resort in Las Vegas.
However, if there was one thing that hinted at the city’s new direction, it was the opening of Mirage in 1989. This was Las Vegas’ first megaresort, and since then, similar developments have come to dominate.
While once, Las Vegas was a gritty, even seedy town mostly known for gambling and an undertone of illicit activity, now, it has become a corporate, luxury destination.
It’s a place where the majority of the resorts are owned either by Caesars Entertainment or MGM Resorts, and despite some superficial differences, all the upmarket hotels all feel very similar.
Before, everything was about gambling. There was entertainment, luxury buffets, cheap or free drinks, inexpensive accommodation and more – but these were all loss leaders intended only to entice you onto the casino floors to spend your money.
Now, although the casinos are still important, it’s quite possible to go to Vegas and have a great time without stepping foot inside a casino.
So while Las Vegas probably still deserves the moniker of “Sin City”, it’s become a lot more sanitized, packaged and expensive than it once was.
What is “old Las Vegas”?
So what does it mean when we talk about “old Las Vegas”? Does it mean Vegas before the megaresorts?
Does it mean the Vegas of the Mob and the classic performers like Sinatra and Cosby?
Well, in a way, it means all of these different eras, and you can still find echoes of all these versions of old Vegas if you know where to look. So let’s think about that now.
Some “Old Vegas” Highlights to Look Out For
- Fremont Street
Many of the old Vegas attractions are found along Fremont Street, but just wandering along the street itself gives you a sense of what it used to be.
Nowadays, it’s dominated by the Fremont Street Experience, but you can still stroll down the original Vegas strip and imagine how it was in the past.
- Old Mormon Fort
To see what remains of Vegas before it was Vegas, head to the remains of the original Mormon fort from 1855, the oldest building in Nevada.
- Golden Gate Hotel
The first hotel in Vegas was Hotel Nevada, which opened in 1906 and is still in business today. In 1955, it changed its name to Golden Gate Hotel, but it’s still a building that’s been there from the start and is imbued with all the history of Vegas.
- Top of Binion’s Steakhouse
Dine at the Top of Binion’s Steak House for some of the original panoramic views of Vegas as well as some true old Vegas atmosphere. The food doesn’t come at old-school prices, but it’s still a good deal compared with some of the other places you’ll find in town.
- The Neon Museum
Vegas’ neon graveyard, this is where all those bright lights go when they are retired – so this is a place where you can literally see some of old Vegas preserved for posterity.
- The Golden Nugget
One of the oldest casinos in town, the iconic Golden Nugget is worth a visit, even if you don’t plan to gamble. While there, don’t forget to check out the famous Vegas Vic neon cowboy that has been welcoming visitors to Vegas since 1947.
- Atomic Liquors
One of the oldest bars in town, this is a great place to sip on a cocktail or a cold beer as you soak in the history and old-school vibe.
- Battista’s Hole in the Wall
An old-style restaurant that has been open since 1970 and that hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, making it an essential stop for a taste of old Las Vegas.
- Chicago Joe’s
Another classic old Vegas eatery, this place serves up all your Italian favorites the same way they have been doing for years. In places like this, it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported back to the Vegas of Sinatra.
- The Mob Museum
To learn a bit more about the shady underworld characters that were so instrumental in building Vegas into what it became, the popular Mob Museum makes a fascinating stop.
Located in the courthouse where many mobsters were tried, it’s informative and packed with old Vegas memorabilia.
Plenty of Old Vegas Remains
Whether you’re looking for old Vegas attractions or just an old Vegas vibe, there’s still plenty to uncover if you know what you’re looking for – and with our suggestions, you now have an idea about what remains from the various stages of Las Vegas’ past.