One of the city’s most appealing draws is its unlikely—and, let’s face it, pretty seamy—history. This is the irony-laden place that was first settled by Mormon pioneers; where mobsters built empires; and where people watched mushroom clouds billow up from the Nevada Testing Site in the early days of atomic testing (and even watched them from the roof of a downtown bar, where they could get the best view). No doubt, the epic wheeling and dealing that created this oasis in the desert is renowned worldwide, and has been immortalized in books, music and films. While Las Vegas’s free-wheeling ways are a thing of the past (in most cases)— casino hotels are more frequently owned by investor conglomerates and regulated by bean counters—the romance of old Vegas lives on in some of its coolest museums, restaurants and bars. Here are five spots where you can step back into time and tap into those anything-goes times:
This former federal courthouse—where such landmark hearings as the 1950 Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime were held—is now a museum dedicated to the history of organized crime. Among its showpieces: a piece of the bullet-ridden wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; interactive exhibits on wiretapping, and real weapons used by mob hit men.
Downtown Las Vegas was a tourist draw in the 1950s, not just for its nascent nightlife and gambling scene, but also for the spectacular mushroom clouds you could view from the rooftops, exploding from the Nevada Test Site 65 miles outside town. The Atomic Testing Museum chronicles Nevada’s atomic history from its beginnings, with artifacts, interactive modules and actual equipment from the site. Don’t miss the theater presentation that simulates watching an actual atomic explosion (complete with shaking seats to accompany the boom).
The oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas, Atomic Liquors was renamed in 1952 after its roof—then, Virginia’s Café—had served as a viewing platform for the nuclear blasts from the Atomic Test Site, about 65 miles away. Located on historic Fremont Street, the bar is a few minutes’ walk from El Cortez, the oldest family-run hotel in downtown Vegas. The Atomic Liquors neon sign has been shining since then, and its wraparound bar has hosted celebs (Barbra Streisand has her own seat and the Rat Pack were frequent customers) as well as movies (it was the backdrop for Joe Pesci’s infamous pen-stabbing scene in Casino).
After years of operating as the “Neon Boneyard” (and by appointment only), this collection of 150 neon signs dating from the 1930s is open to the public and the largest such collection the world. The rehabbed La Concha Motel lobby now stands as its visitors’ center, through which you’ll enter to see iconic signs like the Moulin Rouge, Desert Inn and the Stardust.
Golden Steer Steakhouse
One of the most famous throwback gems of the 1950s is the Golden Steer, where you can still get a great Caesar tossed at your table, a massive chateaubriand for two, and clams casino (of course) in the same red velvet-seated dining room that has hosted notables like Tony “The Ant” Spilatro, Nat King Cole, Joe DiMaggio, all of the Rat Pack and Mario Andretti. Even if the décor hasn’t changed in nearly 60 years (and why should it?), the room is still one of the best power-dining spots in town.