Some time ago a family from Florida convened in Las Vegas and asked for a private nighttime walking tour of Downtown Bars, spiced with Vegas lore and neon signs. With a list of some of my favorite local drinking establishments, we created an itinerary that also included some historic neon signs and several cool nighttime photo ops.
We met up just after sunset at the fabled Atomic Liquors on East Fremont, the oldest free-standing bar in town. Seated in a dark brooding interior steeped in history, we ordered up, made introductions, and offered a toast to the spirits of the past and to the future. The bar’s name comes from the fact that during the 1950s when the Federal Government was detonating atom bombs at the Atomic Test Site north of town, customers would gather on the roof top to watch and drink to the mushroom clouds that tumbled into the sky. We weren’t drinking alone, historically speaking, as the bar had been a local haunt for noted luminaries like Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand. Stepping outside, we paid our respects to one of Downtown’s oldest roadside signs, still ablaze in searing neon accented with a classic 1950s arrow.
We walked across the street to check out the revolving Golden Goose, a sign from the 1970s that was once perched above a small casino Fremont and First Street, now the site of Circa Resort. The Golden Goose is a charming reminder of old-school signage that often included thematic characters and statues, mascots of sorts, like the Sultan of the Dunes. The Golden Goose with her cherished eggs, repurposed through the Downtown Project, is also a fabled reminder to cherish the things that make a place unique and authentic. “Are you listening Las Vegas,” my tour friends asked?
Curbside, we paused, and looked down lower Fremont to a string of flickering roadside neon motel signs, many restored in living color, on a street that was once a 1950s motel row and the road into Las Vegas Downtown.
We trekked up the street to Container Park where our group stopped to see the Praying Mantis sculpture of Burning Man fame shooting fiery bursts of flame into the night sky.
Near the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard, we turned into Park on Fremont, a favorite bar with locals, and we took a table in a lovely patio with fireplace a blazing, ordering from a creative drink menu on a chilly night.
Across the street, we checked out the Downtown Cocktail Room, one of the first bars to open when Fremont East was established over a decade ago. Sipping custom-made drinks from the maestro at the bar, we sat for a time in an understated chick cocktail room with a window out to Las Vegas Boulevard as we watched incoming customers try to figure out the well-known camouflaged front door of the bar.
At Las Vegas Boulevard we saluted the Hacienda Horse and Rider, the flagship sign of the Neon Museum installed in 1996, and we headed across the street for a favorite photo op that towers above Fremont East.
After a block, we’d arrived in the historic casino district that began in 1931 when gambling was legalized. Nine historic casino hotels cluster along Fremont painted with magnificent neon facades dominated by the electronic canopy known as the Fremont Street Experience. Further up the street, the intersection is sometimes called Glitter Gulch which now seems rather historically quaint for the expansive electric splendor of the times.
We turned at Third Street and stopped by a favorite biker bar, Hogs and Heifers, said to have been the inspiration for the movie Coyote Ugly. We toasted the exuberance of the place that’s famous for women dancing and clogging on the bar tops, often with sassy women bar tenders speaking through bullhorn megaphones. It’s often one of our favorite places to stop on our afternoon tour.
Finally, we arrived at our last stop, the Underground Speakeasy in the basement of the Mob Museum. We indulged in Prohibition era cocktails with names like Moonshine Smash, Giggle Water, and Bee’s Knees, and we called it a night with toasts all around and a good night kiss from the hosts.