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Forget Everything You Thought You Knew about Las Vegas

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I know what you’re thinking: slot machines, cheap booze, Cirque du Soleil and neon lights. And you’d be right – Las Vegas is renowned as an adult Disneyland for all intents and purposes, but as someone who prides herself on seeking out off-kilter eateries, under- the-radar boltholes and doing things my own way, my Vegas adventure was born out of a desire to uncover a different side to the city. And with my travel partner of equal curiosity, we took off for a week, amidst plenty of sideways glances and questions (“Cool? Las Vegas? Really?”). Here’s what we discovered – welcome to a different Viva Las Vegas…

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HERITAGE HOTEL

The SLS hotel (slslasvegas.com) location at the end of The Strip guarantees a little peace and quiet away from the main hub, and the hotel’s heritage is fascinating. Formerly the Sahara, a Rat Pack and Hollywood A-list hangout in the 1960s and 70s, the SLS has taken its debaucherous past and embraced it – from the chandelier made from the Sahara’s door handles to the in-house photo gallery.

We stayed in the Lux Tower with a city-facing view, overlooking The Strip’s landmarks, from the New York New York Hotel’s rollercoaster to Paris Las Vegas’ Eiffel Tower. Epicurean-ly speaking, it’s a hot destination for dining and socialising, with Bazaar Meat by renowned chef José Andrés, Katsuya  by Starck, and Mediterranean hub Cleo all homed in the resort, not to mention the infamous LiFE nightclub, adored by the nearby LA A-list.

One of our favourite hobbies while here was the people-watching – perch yourself at the Monkey Bar with a Vesper martini in hand and you’ll witness brides-to-be, party-seekers and colourful characters come and go.

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DOWNTOWN COOL

Downtown Vegas is where it’s at. The Fremont area’s strip of neon signage is as famous a tableau as you’ll get, and from the minute you step outside, expect to be confronted with singing cowboys, magic shows, buskers and bands as well as an overhead zip-line (vegasexperience.com).

Our pre- holiday Googling and Instagram trawling had led us to South Fremont Street, where we took our pick of dive bars and tongue- in-cheek watering holes like Insert Coin(s), a quirky video game bar, complete with Pac-Man consoles and slot machines, and Beauty Bar, a one-time beauty salon, which is now a retro drinking spot complete with old-school mirrors and hair salon fixtures. For slick clientele and high-end cocktails,The Griffin and Commonwealth rule the roost.

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We luckily stumbled upon La Comida (lacomidalv.com), an authentic Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, and amidst an assortment of sugar skulls and Our Lady of Guadalupe statues, we feasted on warm tortilla crisps, freshly made guacamole, fish tacos and premium tequila margaritas – the best on offer north of the border, we were assured. From there, we discovered Downtown Container Park, a collection of BBQ eateries, vintage stores and tiny independent boutiques all homed in former shipping containers (downtowncontainerpark.com).

One of the highlights of our trip was the Neon Museum or Neon Boneyard (neonmuseum.org). We booked an incredibly reasonable ticket online for a guided night tour of forgotten and discarded neon signage of the city’s most famous and infamous landmarks. It changed how we looked and thought about the city skyline from there on in.

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BEST OF THE STRIP

Even for us, there were some Vegas clichés too good to miss. The Graceland Wedding Chapel (www.gracelandchapel.com)  is owned by American Irishman Brendan Duffy (who is also the chapel’s resident Elvis impersonator) and a must- see. En route to the airport, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign by the late, great Betty Willis, a designer responsible for much of the city’s best neon signage, is the perfect place to get a holiday selfie, while the hourly fountain show outside the Bellagio, the Gladiator guards at Caesar’s Palace, and the gondolas complete with singing gondoliers at The Venetian are all surreal experiences.

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At the south end of The Strip, we took a stroll through the Friends- esque ode to Manhattan in the New York New York, and made time to eat at Michelin- starred restaurant and nightclub Hakkasan in the MGM Grand, where über-DJ Calvin Harris currently has a residency – definitely one of the best restaurants on The Strip.

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GRAND ADVENTURE

With a rockstar mentality as our cue, we blew the budget and opted for a luxurious helicopter tour into the Grand Canyon. Papillon tours picked us up from our hotel and drove us through Breaking Bad landscapes and the desert heartland to our helipad. From there, our helicopter, complete with enthusiastic and informative pilot, whisked us up and away, flying over the Hoover Dam and into the Grand Canyon for a light snack and champagne toast, plus plenty of photo time. The four-to-five-hour round trip is a breathtaking experience of the Navajo-owned district. It’s an expensive outing, for sure, but worth every single dollar. Grand Celebration Tour at Papillon, from €342, papillon.com.

This article was originally published in the june issue of IMAGE magazine.

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