This Desert Oasis will quench your thirst for art, cars ,and fun.
Unlike the mega-resorts of bigger, flashier Vegas, the gambling houses in Reno don't come with Wolfgang Puck eateries, art museums, shopping malls, or theme-park rides.
The cluster of downtown casinos do, however, lend Reno some big-city juice. Their outlandish neon marquees cast an eerie nighttime glow on the Truckee River, and from a distance their hotel towers punctuate the city's high-desert setting between the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and the arid Great Basin. In the casinos you can gamble, eat fairly well, and catch big-name musical acts.
But when you've had your fill of buffets and seen a show, when Lady Luck has taken a powder, the question presents itself: Is there life beyond the casino?
The answer, especially in the hot summer months, is an emphatic yes. Beginning with a huge rodeo toward the end of June, Reno rocks all summer. Artown, an annual festival of visual and performing arts, moves in for the entire month of July. This year's lineup offers 200 mostly free events—from Basque and Celtic festivals, and a concert by the Branford Marsalis Quartet to movies under the stars and a solo performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
In downtown Reno the new Nevada Museum of Art, which looks like a spectacular chunk of the Black Rock Desert, boasts seven galleries for fine art, a rooftop terrace, and two sculpture gardens. This summer it exhibits early paintings by Edward Hopper.
One of Reno's largest annual events is Hot August Nights, a 1950s- and '60s-themed tribute to those twin icons of American culture—cars and rock 'n' roll. Some 200,000 people turn out to enjoy 5,000 pre-'73 vehicles, sock hops and a prom, daily show 'n' shines, and free outdoor concerts. Nightly cruises along blocked-off streets are popular with participating car owners and spectators, who flock to Virginia Street, the Reno Hilton, and Victorian Square in Sparks for rolling parades that go on for hours. Reno fills up during Hot August Nights, so book lodging well in advance. In 1998, the event's reputation was marred by after-hours rioting among youth gang members, but increased security since then has prevented a repeat.
The fact that Reno's biggest annual happening centers on transportation is apt, given the city's origin in 1859 as the spot where a toll bridge spanned the Truckee River, linking the riches of the Comstock Lode with California. The transcontinental railroad arrived in 1868 and fortunes were made, as evidenced by the 19th- and early-20th-century mansions in the Newlands Heights neighborhood.
As an anything-goes frontier town, Reno early on had a reputation for sin. Brothels existed until World War II, and from 1931 to the 1960s—thanks to Nevada's easy residency requirement—Reno divorces were granted to thousands of out-of-staters, including the playwright Arthur Miller, who then wed Marilyn Monroe. As for cards and dice, Reno's flourishing backstreet gambling boomed when Nevada legalized gaming in 1931, long before modern Vegas was even a twinkle in Bugsy Siegel's eye.
Today's Reno may not be as sinful, but it certainly has a wider variety of things to do. At the National Automobile Museum, 200-plus restored cars—including the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won "The Great Race" from New York to Paris, a rare 1947 Tucker, and one of Elvis's Caddies—are displayed.
Just up the road, at the National Bowling Stadium, watch a professional tournament or simply gawk at this temple of tenpin, with 78 lanes on a single floor; the pro shop has everything for the bowler in your life. At the Wilbur D. May Museum, a true cabinet of curiosities, you'll find treasures that range from Tang dynasty pottery to a shrunken head. For an up close look at real live North American predators—bobcats, wolves, and bears—head north of town to Animal Ark, which provides permanent care to orphaned and infirm animals.
At some point, you'll need to eat. "Fortunately, the quality of restaurant food has improved 100 percent in the last 10 years," says Kathleen Stebbins, food editor at the Reno Gazette-Journal. On the high end, LuLou's offers Asian-influenced French-California food in a sleek setting with an open kitchen, while at 4th St. Bistro you'll dine on California cuisine in a cozy house. Or try the Santa Fe Hotel, where hearty and reasonably priced Basque meals are served at communal tables, or Dish, a breakfast and lunch spot where most everything is made from scratch.
Reno in the summer has no shortage of outdoor acti-vities, from golfing to trail rides in the Sierra foothills and hiking on nearby Mount Rose, Tahoe's third highest peak (10,776 feet). You can run, jog, bike, or simply stroll along the Riverwalk, a paved two-mile path flanking the Truckee. The downtown stretch, which passes grassy Wingfield Park, art galleries, and cafés, draws a crowd on warm summer evenings.
At Great Basin Adventure, next to the Wilbur D. May Museum, kids can splash down a log flume ride, frolic on dinosaur-themed playground equipment, or ride ponies. To cool you down on a hot day, Wild Island, in Sparks, has water slides, a "lazy river" for floating, and a wave pool for bodysurfing.
You won't exhaust all the options that a summer weekend in Reno has to offer outside the casinos. But should that happen, you can always head back to the gaming tables. Could be that Lady Luck has returned.
Photography by Sean Arbabi
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.