We're all familiar with that famous Las Vegas Strip skyline, but long before the Strip came to embody the city as a whole, the first hotel-casinos began rising from the Nevada desert two and a half miles north. Today, Downtown thoroughfare Fremont Street bustles with brand-new bars, restaurants, shops, venues, and hotels offering budget-friendly, intimate, and down-to-earth accommodations that sometimes outdo their Strip counterparts.
Bonus: All six of the hip hot spots and historic mainstays below provide free parking, easy access to the North Premium Outlets mall, and a firsthand view of a side of the city that's making a comeback in a big way.
How much: From $29 per night plus $20 resort fee, thed.com
What it's like: Completed in fall 2012, a remodel of the former Irish-themed Fitzgerald casino retained the ground-floor pool, added Michigan-based eateries American Coney Island hot dogs and the upscale Andiamo Italian Steakhouse, and redecorated 34 hotel floors in sleek black and retro red, an update shared with recently expanded sister property the Golden Gate (from $9 plus $20 resort fee). On the ground level, bask in a lively, uninhibited vibe that includes LED lighting, dancing card dealers, and flair bartenders.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Check out the music, food, and arts programming at the outdoor Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, which opened in September.
How much: From $29 per night plus $11 resort fee, downtowngrand.com
What it's like: Across Stewart Avenue from the popular Mob Museum, the year-old Ascend Collection boutique (formerly the Lady Luck Hotel & Casino) offers a well-stocked fitness center, a roomy and welcoming rooftop pool deck overlooking Third Street, and an upscale reimagining of defunct Arts District dive the Art Bar.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dual room towers connect via skybridge, which also provides easy access to one full block of happy hour heaven: Richard Sandoval's The Commissary Latin Kitchen (select beers, margaritas, mojitos, and wines are $4 from 4 to 7 p.m. daily), Triple George Grill (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, half-price appetizers including $8 bruschetta, $9 calamari, $11 crab cakes, and $13 seared ahi), and Pizza Rock ($3 drafts, well drinks, meatballs, and Italian fries, plus $5 calamari, garlic bread, and one-topping personal pizzas from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. to close nightly).
How much: From $17 per night plus $9 resort fee, elcortezhotelcasino.com
What it's like: Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, the longest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas maintains a free airport return shuttle and six categories of rooms. Since 2009 the 64-unit, free-standing Cabana Suites sport classy black, white, and green decor, and fresh fruit in a high-tech fitness center.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: It's all steps away from the brand-new Market grocery store and innovative Container Park, an open-air mall built from shipping containers and featuring a treehouse playground, live events, and a massive sculpture of a fire-shooting praying mantis.
How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, goldennugget.com
What it's like: A waterslide, shark tank, and third-story infinity pool are but a few of the outdoor amenities; inside, a whopping 2,419 rooms, 10 restaurants, a two-suite fitness center, and an adjacent spa provide options for every taste and appetite.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Continuous upgrades since 2005 play on the gold (naturally) and rust theme and emphasize uncompromised sightlines, all the better for exploring the sprawling, always surprising Downtown landmark.
How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, oasisatgoldspike.com
What it's like: Owned by business incubator the Downtown Project (originally founded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh), the retro blue and orange boutique opened in September with a tiny fitness center, year-round pool, and fire pits. Sleek lighting, accent pieces, and art vary throughout each of the 44 unique rooms, which don't waste outlet space with phones and alarm clocks.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Instead of traditional Vegas gaming, an expansive patio and lawn area houses foursquare, hopscotch, cornhole, and oversized beer pong, plus the occasional DJ and live band. Rental bikes and vinyl library available at the front desk.
How much: From $29 per night plus $15 resort fee, plazahotelcasino.com
What it's like: The Western anchor of Fremont Street boasts a rooftop swimming pool, roomy fitness center, and coupon book offering deals on gaming, two-for-one drinks, and even free tickets to resident comedian Louie Anderson's family-friendly show.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dining highlights include Man v. Food favorite Hash House A Go Go, indoor/outdoor Beer Garden offering gourmet bratwursts plus side (fries, onion strings, or coleslaw) and a craft beer for under $8, $4 vegan and vegetarian options at Pop Up Pizza, and former three-term mayor Oscar Goodman's eponymous Oscar's, a gorgeous, glass-domed steakhouse where drinks and appetizers (normally $15 to $17) are half-off weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m.