It’s 6 a.m. in Las Vegas and Lil’ Jon is blaring through the speakers. The casino floor is sparse, but not as empty as you may expect given the time. The smell is distinct, a mix of faint cigarette smoke and depression.
“A 16 oz. Americano,” I attempt to yell to the barista over one of ATL’s finest rappers.
The drink is of course hot, because I have standards.
“Have a good night,” the barista says, handing me my coffee.
Vegas is a different animal, and I was attempting the rarely accomplished feat of working in Sin City. The brief trip to the hotel lobby to secure coffee reinforced that many people’s night was still ongoing while I was starting a new day.
I have come to realize that people have strong opinions when you mention Las Vegas, and it does take getting past the caricature of the city for many to truly enjoy it. My guess is there is something for you in this city whether it is the amazing food options, shopping, luxury hotels and maybe even a little gambling.
My week started with the NFL Draft and finished with a primetime fight night. This is in no way an exhaustive list of things to do in Vegas, but it can be a starting point for your next trip. I’m sure you have your own list, but here are the places, sites and food I enjoyed the most while in Nevada.
Circa Stadium Swim: The World’s Greatest Pool Sports Bar & a Top Vegas Hotel for Fans
Most will recommend staying on the Las Vegas strip, but downtown offers plenty of great hotel options if you want to experience the city a bit differently. Most locals enjoy hanging out on Fremont Street, and I opted to stay at nearby Circa which has become legendary in sports circles for its massive outdoor viewing area for games.
I was already off to a great start as Circa upgraded my room while offering a few warnings. My new room overlooked the pool but this also included a DJ that spun until about 11 p.m. After getting my blessing, the host handed me some ear plugs and off I went.
It could have been because I stayed during the week, but I never found the noise to be a nuisance. My room had a spectacular view not only of the unique pool sports bar, but the Las Vegas skyline featuring the mountains in the background.
Circa turned out to be both the nicest hotel I stayed at in Vegas for this particular trip and also my favorite spot. After finishing a few NFL draft related interviews, I headed down to the pool to catch the Hawks-Heat afternoon NBA playoff game while losing money.
It was time to experience Stadium Swim with a screen that you can see from Reno. Circa does a great job of rotating the games on the screen to whatever the popular matchups are at the time. This particular evening included the NBA playoffs, NHL and MLB games.
There was a $20 cover to get into the pool, but it is free for hotel guests. Be advised there is a bit of a process to get into the pool which includes a security checkpoint. Be sure to check the current list of forbidden items which includes coolers with outside drinks. After passing through security, you will go down a long escalator to get to the pool area.
Reserving one of the pool chairs or cabanas cost a premium, but I found it easy to find a spot in the first come-first serve areas. During a football weekend in the fall, I imagine it would be challenging to land a chair or pool spot without a reservation. There are plenty of areas to stand, so even on a packed Sunday you should be able to find a spot.
Circa’s Stadium Swim has one of the most unique setups for a sports bar with a DJ booth underneath the massive projection screen. The DJ spins the latest music while you can watch all the games from the comfort of a lounge chair or by cooling off in one of the pools.
It is Vegas so the latest lines for all the day’s sporting events are updated on the side of the screen. There are plenty of food and drink options but be prepared to pay Vegas prices, as is the case with most hotel bars in the city.
After a few hours at the pool, the combination of the sun and loud music had me opting for a cooler spot to grab dinner. There is also a theater style sports bar inside if you get tired of the heat. Circa offers a massive sportsbook area inside where you can either place bets at the self-service kiosks or handle your business with an actual person at one of the booths.
As the Hawks fail to cover the spread, I head to dinner at 8 East which describes itself as having a “cutting-edge take on Pan-Asian cuisine.” On my flight into Las Vegas, I was seated next to someone who worked at Circa, and he recommended the Asian spot as one of the best restaurants at the hotel.
The brisket fried rice did not disappoint and the sizzling shrimp appetizer was also solid. There are plenty of other dining options and next on the list for me will be Saginaw’s Delicatessen. This is a restaurant started by the same folks who created Zingerman’s Deli, a great sandwich spot my friend and I ate at in Ann Arbor after a Michigan football game.
How to Attend the NFL Draft
The NFL has made the draft into a destination event best described as the league’s version of an annual Rolling Stones tour. I have now covered the NFL draft in Philadelphia, Nashville and Las Vegas, and I’m often asked about the appeal of watching someone read names off a card.
For football fans, the draft happens in what is a quiet time on the calendar. The NFL season ended months ago and preseason games are still more than three months from kicking off.
It is a great excuse for a weekend getaway, and the NFL does a great job of making the three days entertaining. There are typically marquee concerts every night with Ice Cube and Weezer headlining the Vegas experience. Nashville had its own feel with Tim McGraw as one of the major draws.
If you are looking to attend the 2023 NFL draft in Kansas City, it is free for all three days (April 27-29), but fans need to download the NFL OnePass to attend. You can also click this link to register now to reserve your free ticket to attend the draft.
During the draft, the league makes it entertaining with musical performances, interviews with past NFL players and what overall feels like a football version of Woodstock. Just days before the draft, I found plenty of available hotel deals from some of the nicest casinos and resorts in the area.
Vegas does have more hotel inventory than most cities, but the sweet spot if you are planning a draft trip may be booking something early with free cancellation. You might be able to find a great deal on a nicer hotel the week of the draft, but there are obviously no guarantees.
The NFL draft itself is absolutely free to attend but be sure to check the specific guidelines for the current year. There are typically multiple viewing areas all over the host city, but a spot at the main stage area could require you to register online. The main stage is where the picks will be announced and will be in high demand (i.e. most crowded) area to watch the draft.
If you want to be closest to the stage, be sure to get to the draft early. Similar to a concert with standing room only, the closer you are to the stage, the more difficult it is to get out. If you want more breathing room, I recommend hanging out in the back but you also will be further from the stage.
There is typically some sort of security area you will pass through to get into the viewing area just as if you were attending a sporting event. Vegas had food and drink options to buy but expect concession prices as if you are inside a stadium. There is also the NFL Experience which is particularly great for kids which includes interactive games, exhibits and memorabilia on display.
Fight Night in Las Vegas
I had always heard that if you have a chance to attend a major fight in Las Vegas it is worth the experience. There was a bit of a predicament as I was taking a red-eye flight the same night of the fight. Timelines in boxing are a bit of a moving target, and it is challenging to project when the main event will actually start. I decided to take the chance and knew I could always leave early if I needed to catch my flight.
Tupac Shakur fans may remember that the legendary rapper attended a Mike Tyson fight at MGM Grand Hotel hours before his death. MGM Grand had been on my bucket list both as one of the most historic boxing venues in the world and also its significance in the final hours of Tupac’s life.
Shakur “Tank” Stevenson was taking on Oscar Valdez, and the event did not disappoint. The actual MGM sportsbook was a bit underwhelming compared to the other options around Vegas, but I was able to place some bets for the upcoming fight at one of the kiosks. I did not see any betting kiosk inside the actual venue, so you likely need to put all your bets in at the sportsbook before attending the fight.
I wanted to try out International Smoke, a unique barbecue spot co-founded by Ayesha Curry, the wife of NBA superstar Steph Curry. Unfortunately, it did not open until 5 p.m., so I opted to hang out at TAP Sports Bar which is adjacent to the sportsbook. There are a plethora of beers on tap and upscale bar food options.
The energy in the arena is palpable with Valdez supporters and Mexican flags all over the dimly lit venue. Boxing is the one sport that feels most like a concert. There are the opening acts where fans gradually file into the arena as the night progresses which in boxing is the undercard fights. By the time the marquee boxers’ intro music is playing, the place is packed for the main event.
I make it through all 12 rounds of fight and bolt before they officially announce what everyone knows already: Stevenson is the winner. Despite not staying at the hotel, I was able to leave my bags with the bellman, who tells me on the way out that the fastest way to the airport is via a cab. Skipping the Uber app, waiting in line for a cab after attending a boxing match has me feeling all sorts of 1990’s vibes.
Las Vegas Is Becoming a Major Sports Town
Major sports dodged Vegas for years, paranoid that having a team in a city full of casinos would somehow put the integrity of the league at risk. Leagues are now in bed with sports gambling, realizing what most fans have known for years, legalizing betting will only add value to franchises.
It started with the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights as the city’s first pro team. One year later, the WNBA’s Aces moved from San Antonio. The game changer was when the Raiders packed up for Vegas in 2020 as the team opened their brand new Death Star stadium.
There is a growing buzz that the NBA is looking to add expansion franchises in Seattle and Las Vegas. For years, Vegas served as a place owners used as a threat to move to if they did not get their new palaces built (largely paid for by the city) in their current homes. Now, LeBron James is campaigning to own a team in Sin City.
Las Vegas plays host to the NBA Summer League annually, an excuse for league executives, current players, agents and media to all mingle as shaky basketball takes place for two weeks. Soon, the city will likely have another permanent hoops team to call their own.
I was able to get an inside view of Allegiant Stadium ahead of the 2022 NFL draft, but the offseason meant no games were on the schedule. A return trip is in order but this place is built for a weekend getaway with friends to see your favorite team play on the road.
As leagues become more comfortable with sports betting, it will be worth watching to see how they integrate this enticing side dish into the gameday experience. You can expect Vegas to be a bit of a test kitchen as states all over the country continue to legalize sports gambling.
Best Places to See in Las Vegas
There are plenty of things on my list that I was unable to get to despite multiple trips to Las Vegas over the last year, but here is a quick rundown of some places worth checking out. The Cosmopolitan is a must-visit and the nicest hotel I saw while in Vegas. We attended an event headlined by Matthew Stafford and Aidan Hutchinson at The Library at Marquee, which had a cool speakeasy vibe to it.
Caesar’s Palace has a massive shopping mall (The Forum Shops) attached to it full of animated figures and masterfully painted ceilings. Carmine’s Italian Restaurant specializes in family-sized portions and has a great vibe inside full of old pictures on the wall with a couple televisions. Since I was riding solo that day, opting for the meatball hoagie was the move, which proved to be full of their homemade specialty.
For those who live in an area without an In-N-Out, Vegas has several different locations for you to get your animal style burger fix. Las Vegas is also a city full of elaborate buffets which is worth its own article. After years of hearing about famed chef (and friend of Bill Simmons) David Chang, my friends and I finally got to eat at Momofuku and it did not disappoint. Everything we tasted was good, but splurging for the Chili Butter Lobster and Shrimp was worth it.
You can find whatever you are looking for in Las Vegas, a city more diverse than the dimly lit casinos may indicate. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but giving you a few of these secrets will help you build a trip of your own.
is a sports and news contributor based in Atlanta, Georgia. Jonathan has had exclusive interviews with a number of the top athletes in the world. He graduated from UCF with a Master of Sport Business Management degree and has worked inside the industry in a variety of capacities in the sports world. Follow him on Twitter @JonDAdams.