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Las Vegas: Bright Lights, Big Secrets

See two sides to Las Vegas—both of which are sure to wow.

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  • a waterway cuts through the Clark County Wetlands Park, image
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    The Las Vegas Wash cuts through the Clark County Wetlands Park.
  • an acrobat performs in Mystère, image
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    An acrobat performs in Mystère.
  • an actor performs on stage at the Onyx Theatre in Las Vegas, image
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    Humor unites all the programming at the Onyx.
  • interior of Lago by Julian Serrano in Las Vegas, image
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    Julian Serrano's Lago, at the edge of the Bellagio Fountains, has a mirror-tiled pizza oven.
  • North America's biggest video screen at Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, image
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    Fremont Street Experience's tunnel of light and sound pulsates with energy.
  • people watch the Fountains of Bellagio, image
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    The jets at the Fountains of Bellagio shoot water 460 feet high.
  • Sesame noodles at Fat Choy, image
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    Fat Choy serves Chinese comfort food such as sesame noodles.
  • the top of Black Canyon as seen from the water, image
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    Rugged volcanic rock walls flank the Colorado River in Black Canyon.
  • view from inside Akhob, image
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    James Turrell's Akhob is one of the city's most remarkable experiences.
  • visitors peer over the Hoover Dam, image
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    Take in sweeping views from the Hoover Dam Visitor Center.

When it comes to landmarks, Las Vegas cranks the dial to 11, creating attractions that win international renown. But beyond the marquee destinations there’s a Vegas that’s toned down, nuanced, and equally memorable. Put the two sides together and you’ve got the city’s ultimate package deal.

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Fremont Street Experience If your daily life involves standing cheek by jowl with thousands of fellow humans, some sober, under a canopy of 12.5 million LED lights, you may skip the Fremont Street Experience. Otherwise this boisterous pedestrian zone is required viewing, at the very least to see just what civilization is capable of these days: North America’s biggest video screen, a quarter mile of pulsating pixels that, every hour starting at dusk, organize into captivating free shows set to thundering music. As thrill seekers fly overhead on zip lines, onlookers taking in the newest show hear hits by homegrown stars Imagine Dragons and watch as a city explodes in flames and the sky melts like a heavenly lava lamp.

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James Turrell’s Akhob Any art requiring viewers to sign a waiver is off to a good start. Hidden amidst the $50,000 bags at Louis Vuitton Maison at CityCenter, James Turrell’s free Akhob installation offers one of the most remarkable experiences in Vegas—a two-chamber perceptual deprivation room that lacks edges or any sense of depth. In groups of no more than six, guests enter a rounded, featureless white room. Slowly, subtly, the lights start to change, as though the quality of the universe were gently shifting. One minute you’re within a snowstorm, then inside a cloud, then undersea. The mind’s focus turns inward, creating an internal experience as much as an external one—soothingly trippy, if such a thing is possible.

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Hoover Dam The pictures don’t do it justice, partly because the dam thing won’t fit in the frame. To visit this concrete behemoth is to behold not just an engineering marvel, but a historical one. The surprisingly elegant construction conjures a different era in the United States, when massive public works projects happened regularly and deco flourishes made them downright pretty. Park your car and do the walk, one side to the other. Once you stop picturing yourself sailing over the edge, you’ll confront the scale of the structure and the reservoir it created: Lake Mead is so heavy that, as it filled during the late 1930s, it moved the crust of the earth, setting off thousands of small earthquakes.

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Black Canyon A short drive south of the dam, the throngs vanish and it’s just you and the tremendous Colorado River. Make arrangements with one of a handful of outfitters and soon you’ll be cruising solo or on a tour in a kayak, canoe, or motor boat deep in Black Canyon, designated the Southwest’s first National Water Trail in 2014. The 30-mile stretch carves its way from the foot of the dam to Eldorado Canyon, cutting through rugged volcanic rock walls set with rings once used to winch steamboats upstream. With luck, you’ll spy desert bighorn sheep grazing and bald eagles alighting on their riverside nests. Anglers regularly hoist monstrous striped bass from the Colorado here, and occasionally swimmers dive in. (Then they commence cursing: The water is breathtakingly cold.) And all along the way, you’ll see sublime views of the surrounding Mojave Desert.

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Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère It debuted more than 20 years ago, and the show remains a genre all its own. Ensconced in a specially made theater at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, the operatic, acrobatic, taiko-pounding extravaganza features Cirque’s trademark blend of gravity-defying athleticism and whimsy. Only nominally a circus show, Mystère features more than 70 performers, some of whom climb down walls like lizards, sail through the air as if by magic, and make what is surely history’s most creative deployment of sexy aliens trampolining in leotards.

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Onyx Theatre The makeup for a single Cirque performer probably costs more than an entire Onyx show, but no matter. At this small, casual performance space south of downtown, the charm lies in the intimate and decidedly shoestring vibe. Humor unites all the programming, which includes everything from stand-up comedy to serious drama such as She Kills Monsters, the story of a young woman’s adventure into the world of Dungeons & Dragons on a quest to understand her sister’s secret life. One inventive weekly production, Don’t Quit Your Day Job, brings ordinary civilians onstage to be interviewed about their careers while an improv troupe spins wacky scenarios from the material. Operatic and acrobatic? Nope, and that’s the appeal. Far from the glitz, something quirky and human and thoroughly enjoyable happens here.

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Fountains of Bellagio Leave it to Vegas to make Old Faithful look staid and unambitious. As many as 26 times a day, the 8 1/2-acre artificial lake in front of the Bellagio explodes into a mesmerizing ballet of dancing water. Synchronized with tunes ranging from Sinatra’s crooning to Tiësto’s high-energy electronic dance music, more than 1,000 pressurized shooters send water geysering hundreds of feet into the air, while 4,792 lights illuminate the sight and nearly as many smartphones dutifully capture it.

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Wetlands Nature Preserve Vegas might sit in the middle of North America’s driest desert, but 20 minutes to the east an oasis appears. On 210 acres of willows, cottonwoods, and meandering waterways, the Wetlands Nature Preserve at the northern tip of 2,900-acre Clark County Wetlands Park boasts 20 crisscrossing miles of flat, lush trails. From the nature center at the main entrance, one path heads east to a gentle stream murmuring through cattails and bulrushes; another leads west to a small pond with banks begging for a picnic. The hiking here is scarcely more strenuous than a stroll through the Venetian, which leaves you with plenty of energy to look for beaver, fox, and coyote. Every drop flowing through the preserve is clean, reclaimed municipal wastewater, a touch of restoration in a city more famous for its consumption.

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The Strip The Strip’s embrace of celebrity chefs turned a steak-and-potatoes town into a destination for big-name restaurateurs: Joël Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, and so on. Perched right at the edge of the Bellagio fountains is Lago by Julian Serrano, a new Italian restaurant from the two-time James Beard Award–winning chef. Sleek and colorful, with a mirror-tiled pizza oven for a centerpiece, the place is playfully futuristic, and its sprawling menu features small plates both traditional and contemporary. The boneless quail wrapped in prosciutto and the fusilli coated with lamb ragu are favorites, as is the small, chewy pizza topped with creamy buffalo ricotta and a layer of salty speck.

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The Strip Malls Culinary miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and sprinkled around town are countless strip malls whose plainness belies some lovely gastronomy inside. Take Commercial Center, home to the Cornish Pasty Co., whose savory turnovers come with hearty fillings such as pork with potato, apple, and sage; they pair nicely with the extensive beer selection. Two low-rise blocks to the west is Fat Choy, within the emphatically unswanky Eureka Casino. What began in a room off a hair salon evolved into this brick-and-mortar joint that blends diner fare with Chinese comfort food. Try the short-rib grilled cheese, a melt-in-yourmouth, drip-on-your-hand bit of decadence. Meanwhile, in the Decatur Twain Plaza on the west side of town, Japanese Cuisine by Omae serves an elaborate multicourse omakase—the sake-steamed oyster with sautéed foie gras and black truffle sauce is one of its highlights—in an intimate setting. The chef may have two Michelin stars, but Omae is unostentatious and friendly, and yes, the shop next door replaces watch batteries.

Photography by Yaacov Dagan/Alamy (Fremont Street); Florian Holzherr, © James Turrell ( Akhob); Mason Vranish/Alamy (Hoover Dam); Sabin Orr (Black Canyon); Richard Termine, Costumes Dominque Lemieux, © Cirque du Soleil (acrobat); Richard Brusky (Onyx); Matthew Kuhns/Tandem Stock (Bellagio); Junior R. Manuel (Wetlands) Stuart Isett (Lago); Sabin Orr (Fat Choy)

This article was first published in November 2015. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.