Las Vegas isn't the first place you'd think of to go on vacation alone. But earlier this year after a conference at one of the giant hotels on the Strip, I was curious to see Sin City through fresh eyes and decided to stay five more days — by myself.
Being alone in an adults' playground was a strange experience, but it made me see it from an entirely different perspective.
Traveling as a solo, British woman made me an anomaly in Vegas, where most tourists are Americans visiting in pairs or more — in 2018, the average group size was 2.2, and 80% were from the U.S., according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
And among the crowds, it can be lonely — but it's not all bad. Vegas drivers didn't seem to think it was strange that I was traveling alone, but I found some workers regarded me with slight hostility. At my downtown hotel, staff asked me to "scooch off" a pool lounge chair and pushed me to order cocktails.
I didn't feel comfortable eating at hotel buffets or sitting at a bar alone — but being alone made me seek out off-the-wall activities, the kind of undiscovered things I might not find if I was part of a regular tourist couple.
After a few days holed up in a convention center, I was keen to get outdoors. I went for a run along Tropicana Avenue, the highway that goes to the airport from the southern part of the Strip. Getting to Tropicana Avenue from my hotel proved tricky, because I had to run up and down several escalators and along pedestrian bridges, past slow-moving tourists and people taking photos.
I know — running along the sidewalk next to an eight-lane highway is an odd thing to do, but it was a good way to see the Strip from another angle, and I wasn't the only person running that day.
Vegas looked strangely small and insignificant, even from only a mile down the highway, and the landscape quickly turned from high-rise buildings to vast areas of derelict land scattered with parking lots and the odd motel, a big contrast to the glitz of the Strip. I found a branch of Einstein Bros. Bagels, a chain we don't have in the U.K., and it turned out to be a great place to sit outside in the sunshine and watch planes take off from McCarran International Airport.
Walking back along Tropicana, I spoke to a pilot who was walking to his hotel from the airport's private jet terminal. Traveling on foot from the airport must be unheard of in Vegas, but it turns out the private terminal is only a 15-minute walk to the Strip.
I wanted to check out downtown Vegas, the original gambling district north of the Strip, which people had described to me with adjectives ranging from "alternative" to "dangerous." Jumping in an Uber Pool, I briefly shared the ride with two women who went about a half mile to a taco place, and the driver asked where I was from.
"London," I said.
"How's the weather in the U.K.?"
"Rainy," was my obvious answer.
Our chat turned into one of several similar conversations I had with drivers, many of whom had moved to Vegas from other parts of the U.S. in search of a better life for their young families. Surprisingly, no one asked me about Brexit, and they rarely mentioned U.S. politics (in contrast to several Californians I met while hiking in Utah a week later, who were fascinated by Brexit and divided over Trump).
Downtown is famous for the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian area lined with neon-lit hotels and casinos, a much more laid back and traditional version of Vegas. I wandered along, marveling at sights such as the Heart Attack Grill, where people over 350 pounds eat free — there's a scale outside the restaurant — and diners wear hospital-style gowns.
Further down the street, I saw a guy holding a piece of cardboard that said, "I just need a joint." I admired giant slushy cocktails served in foot-long plastic glasses (everything in Vegas seems huge when you're from Britain). It was edgier than the Strip, but it didn't feel dangerous.
Fremont Street was entertaining for a while, but it still felt pretty mainstream. If I'd been in a group, I might have checked out one of the steak, taco or shrimp places, but being alone made me curious to explore further afield.
Walking away from the frenzy, I found coffeehouse PublicUs about six blocks east. It was so quiet on the street I could stand in the middle of the highway and take a selfie, but inside it was packed. Compared to the fancy, carpeted restaurants elsewhere in Vegas where eating solo might attract looks, PublicUs was the kind of place I could blend into over coffee.
Other places I found close to downtown included Vesta Coffee Roasters and Sin City Yoga, a friendly studio where one of the class participants brought his dog, and people chatted easily to each other — a rarity in the U.K., where people are more shy.
There's also a free bus that goes past most of the sights and ends up at Las Vegas North Premium Outlets, a mall where stores like Coach, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors sell goods at major discounts. It's a place to get away from Vegas crowds; at 7 p.m. on a Friday night it was almost empty, as people headed to dinner or a show.
Vegas hosts more than 5 million people a year at conventions like the International Pizza Expo and World of Concrete 2020, which are obviously not aimed at tourists. But scouring an events website, I found a listing for the Cannabis Wedding Expo, held in a building across the street from Bank of America's downtown office.
I'm not a smoker, nor am I planning a wedding, but where else in the world could I educate myself on combining both? Inside, I found stands advertising "budtenders," a cannabis sommelier and chocolates that could be infused with THC, the psychoactive part of the plant.
Expo founder and CEO Philip Wolf has held wedding fairs in other U.S. cities, but he told me that Vegas was the most difficult place for him to secure a venue, even though Nevada legalized recreational cannabis use in 2017 (no marijuana was permitted on site at Wolf's event).
Back on the Strip for my last night in Vegas, I noticed how the #MeToo movement hasn't even touched the city. Ads promoted "girls to your room," while women in bikinis strode down the sidewalk and the female pool and bar servers wore very little. I never felt unsafe in Vegas, and staying at an upscale hotel like the Venetian helps to avoid in-your-face sexism, but there is room for improvement to make this an attractive holiday destination for solo female travelers — and women in general.
Some might say that's just Vegas, but aside from potentially alienating half its visitors, Nevada is seeking to tighten regulations to help protect employees from harassment that is "well overdue," according to Nevada's Gaming Control Board Chair Sandra Morgan. The state is also seeking to ban Steve Wynn from the casino industry after a string of harassment allegations, which he has denied.
And with that, it was time for me to go.