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One Flight Wonder: Find a dazzling dose of Las Vegas style at the edge of the Nevada desert

One Flight Wonder: Find a dazzling dose of Las Vegas style at the edge of the Nevada desert
May 2024

Travel editor Sandy Lang discovers arts, culture, Americana, and Mount Charleston in Sin City

Outside the jet’s windows on our flight west, the sky had been dark for a while—then suddenly, a sea of sparkle stretches out below. But it’s not the ocean: Set in Nevada desert lands, that’s Las Vegas aglow. The bedazzlement begins.

“Look, the Sphere!” I hear other passengers say, and before landing, I see it, too. After a five-hour nonstop flight from Charleston on Spirit Airlines, we approach Las Vegas, fully lit up, every towering hotel, stadium, and streetlamp beaming. The airport is within a few miles of the city’s famous Strip, and soon photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I are in a rented Hyundai EV, passing signs and billboards for casinos, tattoo parlors, 24-hour wedding chapels, and cabarets (one noting “hot 18-year-olds apply”), along with banner announcements of upcoming concerts with Bruno Mars, Sting, and Adele. The Sphere is coming into closer view—that otherworldly music and multimedia venue that opened in late 2023 with what’s said to be the largest LED screen on Earth (about 1.2 million lights alone on the exterior), so bright it’s visible from space. Resembling an iridescent moon rising from the skyline, the giant orb is at first glance a glowing, flowing blue and is constantly in visual motion, morphing colors and design motifs.

My jaw keeps falling open as I take in all of this larger-than-life scenery. In the city that a few weeks’ earlier had hosted the Super Bowl, hotel towers extend 40, 50, and 60 stories into the sky. Stretch limousines slide past in traffic, and it feels like everything is revolving around money, or the chance of it. Options for gambling had begun immediately—just after stepping off the plane, we passed buzzing casino rooms in the busy airport.

But gaming tables aren’t what we’re seeking on this weekend trip. Rather, we’re here for a dose of Vegas-style arts and culture at the edge of the desert—and it turns out, for the Edge, too. Shortly before boarding the flight from Charleston, Edwards and I made an impulse decision, splurging on a couple of tickets for one of the biggest shows of the year, a U2 concert at the Sphere (with Bono singing and the Edge on guitar). That’s tomorrow night. First though, we’re eager to explore this oversized, Western world.

(Left to right) Electric Avenue: Nostalgic “old Vegas” on Fremont Street, now domed and closed to cars; crowds gather here around street performers while signs glow overhead; Taco Time: Our first stop is for a tray full of tacos and fire-roasted vegetables at Tacos el Gordo, which originated about 500 miles southwest in Tijuana.


After a quick pass of the Strip and a couple miles farther into the Arts District, it’s about 8 p.m. Nevada time (with the time difference feels like 11 p.m.) when we make our way to Tacos Gordo on Charleston Boulevard. (In a quirk of history, Charleston has been a common place name in Vegas since the 1800s.) I’d read good reviews of the street tacos, and we’re hungry after the long flight.

Families and couples fill the brightly lit, no-frills taco shop that’s an offshoot of the original in Tijuana. The staff are wearing tidy red-and-white uniforms, and there are separate walk-up counters for different seasoned meats and toppings. It’s one of those situations where it takes a minute to understand the system. Once we do, we order suadero (brisket) and adobada (spiced pork) tacos on handmade corn tortillas, each drizzled in sauce, with sides of fire-grilled peppers and onions, and fresh whole radishes. Every couple of minutes another group walks up to figure out the ordering process, eventually grabs a tray, and orders, too. Word of great flavor obviously gets around.

Taco fix satisfied, we further ease into the bigness of Vegas by checking into our boutique-sized hotel about two miles away in the heart of the historic downtown Arts District. No skyscrapers here; instead, the narrower streets are lined with mid-century storefronts, with not-too-distant views of the towering Stratosphere and Strip in one direction and mountains in the other.

Opened in 2022 in the heart of the Arts District, the English Hotel is a four-story building of steel, concrete, and glass with an urban-cool feel. Pink-blooming crape myrtles and an arch of flowers over the entrance add greenery and softer textures. Strands of patio lights lead to the Pepper Club, the adjoining Asian-fusion restaurant founded by the hotel’s namesake, four-time James Beard Award-winning chef Todd English. The rooms are more Euro-sized at about 235 square feet, but the hotel’s known for comfy bedding (it is), and I’m excited about the walkability of the neighborhood.

By morning, we’re out exploring the nearby blocks of the Arts District—passing fresh murals on many buildings–and you can feel the hand of local makers, artists, chefs, and entrepreneurs. A mural that mixes graffiti with Renaissance-style art on an English Hotel wall is by French urban artist Pwoz. Coffee’s being poured at busy Vesta Coffee Roasters, fresh pasta and sourdough bread are in the works for the Italian home-cooking menu at Esther’s Kitchen, and there’s a plant-based Mexican menu in the aqua-blue and white-tiled dining room at Tacoterian. “Bet on art” is emblazoned on one side of the Arts Factory, a collective of dozens of artist studios, where we stop to look at paintings and photo prints of Las Vegas scenes and a repurposed vending machine filled with items created by local makers. For just a few dollars each, visitors can buy the creations, including iron-on patches, tiny paintings, earrings, and magnets. Meanwhile, a deejay has just started spinning music for the brunch crowd on the patio of the 18bin restaurant at the Arts Factory.

(Left) Murals, flowers, and modern architecture at The English Hotel and adjoining Pepper Club restaurant; (Right) A closeup view of the 366-foot-tall Sphere’s planet-like curves before the concert; the exterior features 580,000 square feet of programmable LED lights, and the designs continually move and change.


Warmed up for arts and culture, we head to the Strip for more sights and sounds. First on my list is to see a work by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija on South Las Vegas Boulevard. As if time stood still at the split-second before a watery crash, a mid-1960s Ford Galaxie is suspended nose down just above the water of a cactus-encircled pool. The waterline isn’t broken (yet) in this endlessly tense moment, that’s somehow beautiful, too.

Lebrija’s piece is just one of the impressive contemporary art works collected at the gleaming Fontainebleau resort that opened in December. Inside, guests amble past four vibrantly colored panels by American painter Richard Prince—a compilation of people and faces that’s particularly interesting to see in a city that draws crowds of visitors from around the world. And in an atrium flanked by a tall white staircase and glass-fronted balconies, a 46-foot-tall metal sculpture that’s part aluminum, part stainless steel, and part gold leaf looks as light and fluid as a cloud or wisp of smoke. The flowing work, by Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer, is inspired by two lovers in motion and is dizzyingly large and seductive.

Next, we visit the floating gondolas and wall-spanning frescoes, elaborately painted ceilings and trompe l’oeil designs on the marble floors of the enormous Venetian Resort—that day, there’s also a pop-up show by the photographer Anton Corbjin featuring decades of images he captured of the members of U2. The multimedia exhibit includes four screens, each dedicated to a member of the famous rock band. As images fade in and out, U2 songs are playing from overhead speakers.

It’s a preview of our evening, and it’s about time to start making our way past the craps tables and blinking and buzzing gaming machines to the Sphere. During the walk of several minutes down long hallways and across a pedestrian connector, we muse about how these mega Vegas resorts are like extravagant, land-bound cruise ships—all-encompassing atmospheres of indoor lounge spaces and diversions, eateries, and directional signs to different floors and amusements.


Bono sings that night as the band plays from a stage built to look like a turntable. For more than two hours, a gushing waterfall of imagery dances behind, around, and above the musicians and the 18,000 or so of us in the audience. From the songs “Elevation” and “Desire” to “Beautiful Day,” the whole show is a fascinating blend of art and science. The ultra-clear, LED-glowing visuals, at one point, deconstruct the present-day Vegas Strip and city bit by bit, eventually returning the landscape behind the band to what it originally was, a remote desert on a dark night, below a sky lit only by stars. (The five-month U2 residency ended this spring, but new shows and artists are filling the Sphere lineup, including daytime multimedia experiences and performances by the rock band Dead & Company from May to July.)


Music inevitably inspires road trips, and the next morning Edwards and I drive out with cups of coffee in hand. In less than 20 miles, we’ve left artificially bright Vegas behind and see only ocher-red landscapes that look carved by wind and water. Online, I’d booked a timed entry for us to take the 13-mile, looping scenic drive into the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The art here is unbridled nature, sculpted by millennia. I see the Calico Hills mountain range and brightly colored geological formations in every direction. The spiky Joshua trees remind me of the black-and-white images and desert setting of some of the 1980s Anton Corbijn photographs we’d just seen. Signage at Red Rock Canyon cautions drivers to watch out for wild burros, horses, and tortoises, so we’re eagerly on the lookout—no luck. But we do see chipmunk-sized animals darting across gravel side roads that I later learn are antelope ground squirrels. A woodpecker flies over the sagebrush and lands on a Joshua tree. Rock climbers and hikers head out on winding trails. It would be easy to spend a full day here, maybe bring a picnic.

We also see snowcapped mountains wrapped in clouds in the distance and know that somewhere out there the tallest is Mount Charleston (elevation 11,916 feet), said to be named by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1869 “to honor the town of Charleston, South Carolina.” I’m curious about this connection and had hoped to get closer to the peak, but snowy weather has closed some routes around the mountain during our stay.

Instead, we cap this fast trip by dining on poke bowls and clinking icy margaritas at the Pepper Club that night—a delicious toast to the past few Vegas days. With all of its flamboyance, flash, and sometimes seedy Americana, Las Vegas is an art show in and of itself, after all. It’s decidedly not like home, and I believe that experiencing the unfamiliar is the point of a Vegas trip, and of travel generally.

The music of U2 is still swimming in my head when we fly out, especially a lyric from a song they didn’t play, “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It isn’t at all about Las Vegas, but there’s a sentiment that feels apropos to where we’ve just been—a declaration in the song’s closing lines, “Into the arms / Of America.”

Destination Las Vegas, Nevada

FLIGHT: From Charleston International Airport (CHS), Spirit Airlines offers nonstop flights to Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) spanning about five hours traveling west, and 4.5 hours on the return. There are additional fees for carry-ons, checked luggage, and snacks and drinks on board. (Pro tip: payment for a carry-on includes early boarding.)

LOCAL TRANSPORT: It’s possible to get to many destinations via ride-share or monorail ( The airport is within five to 10 miles of the Strip and nearby attractions. A rental car is ideal for venturing to desert sights and trails. (Pro tip: we found free parking on the Strip in the Treasure Island garage.)

Margaritas and a poke bowl in the glow of the Pepper Club.

Around Las Vegas, Nevada

Arts District Kitchen: Pair the fried chicken sandwiches, burgers, and bahn mi with craft ales, pilsners, and IPAs at Able Baker Brewing; 1510 S. Main St.,

Bleau Bar: Fontainebleau’s plush cocktail lounge, perfect for people-watching under soaring ceilings and a room-spanning crystal chandelier; 2777 S. Las Vegas Blvd.,

Esther’s Kitchen: Reservations go fast for hometown chef James Trees’s cozy Italian fare, such as homemade radiatore, poached tuna salad, and hot sourdough bread. 1130 S. Casino Center Blvd., 

Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina: $5 tamales with roasted habanero salsa, homemade horchata, and huge burritos, plus a Frida Kalo mural in the tiny dining room; 807 S. Main St.,

The Pepper Club: Sit at curved banquettes, a glowing long bar, or in the patio garden for bright poke bowls, steaks, and black sea salt margaritas. 931 S. Main St., 

Tacos el Gordo: Tijuana-style street tacos on fresh corn tortillas with choice of meats, fire-roasted peppers, and sauces; 1724 E. Charleston Blvd.,

A pool-facing room at The English Hotel.

The English Hotel: Off-Strip, this 74-room boutique hotel in the Arts District boasts murals, a pool, free guest parking, and the Pepper Club restaurant by chef Todd English. 921 S. Main St.,

Fontainebleau: Find luxury boutiques and massive contemporary art installations in this new, 67-story resort on the Strip and sister property to the mid-century Fontainebleau in Miami. 2777 S. Las Vegas Blvd.,

Red Rock Casino, Resort, & Spa: Just minutes from Red Rock Canyon, the resort offers beautiful mountain views, as well as pools and gaming rooms (note: smoking is permitted in some areas). 11011 W. Charleston Blvd.,

The Venetian Resort: Experience Venice on the Strip with an indoor-outdoor Grand Canal, columned entrances, marble floors, 7,100 guest rooms, and the newly opened Sphere. 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.,

The Arts Factory is a colorful hub in the Las Vegas Arts District.

The Arts Factory: Paintings, sculpture, and photography in dozens of galleries and studios of local artists and the 18bin restaurant; 1025 S. 1st St.,

Bonanza Gift Shop: Hit up this retro plaza landmark on the Strip for Vegas souvenirs, cheap T-shirts, and alien- and Elvis-themed novelties. 2400 Las Vegas Blvd., (702) 385-7359

Clay Arts Vegas: A store and gallery for locally crafted pottery (the plates and bowls at Esther’s Kitchen were made here); 1353 Arville St.,

Giuseppe Zanotti: This boutique inside the Fontainebleau, one of only four stores in the US, sells stiletto heels, luxe sneakers, and other made-in-Italy shoes and is a favorite of Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. 2777 S. Las Vegas Blvd.,

Murals abound in the Arts District, home to shops, artist studios, craft breweries, and cafes. (Right) The crowd dances in the Sphere to music spun by Pauli “the PSM” Lovejoy during a U2 pre-show.

Arts District: Explore the walkable, 18-square-block neighborhood of eclectic galleries and artists’ studios, shops, breweries, and cafes.

Neon Museum: Tour the glowing “boneyard” collection of vintage neon signs from Las Vegas’s past. 770 Las Vegas Blvd N.;

Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive: Thirty minutes west of the Strip, take a 13-mile loop for wild vistas and trailheads. (Pro tip: stunning Calico Hills is a must-stop for photos.) 1000 Scenic Loop Dr.;

Sphere: Don’t miss the new, 17,500-seat futuristic dome of continually changing LED screens inside and out, whether for a concert or the Sphere Experience. (Pro tip: enter via the pedestrian bridge from The Venetian.) 255 Sands Ave.;