Things to do Las Vegas


It is easy to feel acquainted with Las Vegas; the neon city so often depicted in films and TV shows. But nothing could prepare me for the reality of this money-driven, party town in the middle of the desert. A dream world of lights, music, drink and gambling… It is easy to get caught up in the seedy glamour of it all, but once you examine the culture under the surface, there are some exciting places to discover.

To Stay

Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas – There are plenty of five star hotels in Vegas, but the Mandarin Oriental is in a league of its own. Focusing on beautiful design, ultimate luxury and the highest level of service, it is a temple of sophistication to return to after a night out on the town.

To Eat

Hakkasan – If you walk through the doors of a Hakkasan restaurant, anywhere in the world, you are guaranteed a great meal and this branch of the fine dining Cantonese chain is no different. Enjoy the glamorous venue, sip on a strong Buddha’s Palm cocktail and don’t miss the signature Crispy Duck Salad. Upstairs is one of the Strip’s most exclusive nightclubs.

In’n’Out Burger – This Californian burger chain is renowned for its super cheap, but delicious burgers. Customise your burger or pick from the not-so-secret menu, my favourite was the ‘animal style’ burger (additional thousand island spread, mustard grilled patty, grilled onions and extra pickles). Fresh, fast, food that is perfect at the end of a night (especially if you’ve lost all your money gambling!)

Luv-it Frozen Custard – If you didn’t know where to look you would miss this cute retro frozen custard vendor. A tiny hut in a car park, it is a favourite with locals who line up at the window for the delicious sundaes. I tried the pecan-flavoured custard with caramel sauce and pecan chunks.

To Drink

Commonwealth – An atmospheric prohibition style bar in downtown Las Vegas. Choose from the main bar with live music, the breezy rooftop or text a secret number and try to find your way inside the Laundry Room, a secret backroom speakeasy. Expert mixologist, Dan, will make you a classic or conjure up a unique recipe to suit your tastes. We tried immaculately made Clover Clubs and Old Fashioned cocktails before letting Dan loose to create original concoctions for us to enjoy.

To Do

High Roller at The Linq –As the tallest observatory in the world at 550 feet, this wheel offers the best panoramic views of Vegas. It takes 30 minutes to take one round trip, and many say dusk offers the best views of the illuminated strip.

Neon Museum – Neon lights have been the life and soul of Las Vegas since the birth of the city in 1905. The Neon Museum holds a remarkable collection of old disused signs from the last hundred years. Tours run every 30 minutess and cost $18 (or $25 for the nighttime tour) but make sure you book in advance, as it can get extremely popular. My tour guide was the hugely informative Mitch, who gave the group a thorough history lesson on Vegas, explaining the magical signs from downtown casinos, motels, restaurants, small businesses and the strip.

Mystère – Mystère was the first show to arrive in Las Vegas in 1993. 22 years and 10,000+ performances later this magical show is still considered by many to be the best show to see in Las Vegas. With a host of circus acrobats, comical clowns and group acts, the 90-minute show is awe-inspiring and entertaining from start to finish.

Eiffel Tower Experience at Paris – A half height replica of the original, travel up in the 90 second lift to the top and admire the 360 degree cityscape below.

Gamble at Casino Royale – You can’t leave Vegas without trying your luck at the tables. Avoid the expense of the prestigious hotel casinos and visit Casino Royale, the only place on the strip with a $5 minimum on blackjack and $1 chips on Roulette… I lost 3 times in a row on black!

To Shop

Vintage Vegas Antiques – Pick up a little piece of Vegas history at this retro memorabilia shop. I bought a pack of old casino cards for $3 from renowned strip hotel and casino, Imperial Palace. You can also buy old neon signs here.

To See

Fabulous Las Vegas Sign – Commissioned in 1952 and created by Betty Willis, this iconic welcome sign is your first glimpse of neon splendor as you drive into Vegas. There is a handy car park so you can grab a photo along with all the other tourists.

Graceland Chapel – For the ultimate rock’n’roll wedding head to Graceland Chapel where couples can pay for a marriage on the spot. For an extra special ceremony, an Elvis impersonator will escort the bride down the aisle and serenade you with some of his most famous hits.

Guardian Angel Cathedral – The perfect place to repent your gambling sins. This striking cathedral was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams, who also created homes for stars such as Frank Sinatra. I loved the unique and colourful fresco on the exterior of the building. When I visited the church it was completely empty and hauntingly beautiful.

Casino Displays – The top casinos on the strip offer elaborate shows to entice the visitors in to bet. Don’t miss the exploding volcano at The Mirage and the beautifully choreographed fountain display at The Bellagio.

Things to do Palm Springs

When I arrived in Palm Springs for a weekend I was ready for a few days lounging by the pool… but I soon discovered there was plenty to see and do in this hot desert town from adventure jeep tours to date farming.

To stay

Stay at the hip Ace Hotel and Swim Club where the rooms are decorated in a fitting rustic beach style with Rudy’s Barbershop toiletries and memorable design features (like the matchstick bedside lights!) When the sun goes down visit the Amigo Room bar for tasty pork shoulder tacos and a ‘Desert Facial’ cocktail. I was lucky to be there on a Tuesday evening when ‘Terry’s Karaoke’ was in full swing.

To eat

I wasn’t overly impressed by the food options in Palm Springs, but was delighted to discover Smoke Tree BBQ, thanks to a recommendation from a fellow foodie in London. Don’t let the unlikely location put you off, this friendly local eatery serves delicious BBQ meat. I tried the amazing slow cooked beef brisket and baby back ribs, super soft meat with a huge depth of flavour. The creamed corn was the perfect accompaniment.

To drink

Whether its morning or afternoon, Ernest Coffee is the best place to get your iced coffee fix, serving the popular Stumptown brand of roasted beans.

To do

Desert Adventures offer manageable tours of this areas top sights and attractions. I joined them for the popular sunset tour of San Andreas Fault Line. Six of us loaded into an open air red jeep with our lovely tour guide Dick and headed off into in the sandy horizon. We learnt a huge amount about the history of the Californian desert, the culture of the native Cahuilla Indians and the unique wildlife and geology of the area. We stopped at a natural palm oasis and spotted three wild rattlesnakes, before heading to famous fault line to stand between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

For a dose of culture, head to the Palm Springs Art Museum. We enjoyed the Killer Heels temporary exhibition, which showcases some of the most impressive designer shoes from through the ages. Upstairs there is a collection of contemporary works and outside a colourful sculpture garden is particularly striking against the palm tree backdrop.

Palm Springs is well known for its dates and the Shields Date Garden is a great place to learn about the fruit as well as tasting the sweet delicacy. The farm has been around since 1924, and now offers a contemporary cafe, garden walk and a short video about the sex life of a date! Don’t leave without trying the famous date milkshake.

When you need a city escape the dry and deserted Joshua Tree National Park is unique place to explore. Entry for a car costs $20 and you are then able to spend as long as you like enjoying the various natural wonders. Don’t miss the Cholla Cactus Garden and Keys View.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the number one attraction in Palm Springs offering unrivalled views of the valley and Mount San Jacinto. The world’s largest rotating tram will take you up 8516 feet above sea level, where the temperature is a staggering 20 degrees less than ground level. When at the top there are numerous trails and hikes to enjoy, or simply admire the amazing views.

The Best of Sonoma

I have the fondest memories of my time in Sonoma. Often forgotten in the shadow of its showbiz neighbour, Napa Valley, this idyllic area of Californian wine country does not get the praise and attention it deserves. I spent three days soaking up the golden sunshine, tasting the finest wines and feasting on the fantastic food. The people here are kind, genuine and welcoming and the setting is stunning.

To Stay

Farmhouse Inn – for me this hotel ticked every box… charmingly rustic yet luxurious rooms, Michelin-star dining, beautiful but unpretentious spa and thoughtful details everywhere you look. I checked in late afternoon and was greeted with a chilled glass of local Chardonnay then offered (as much as I liked) from the pick’n’mix station of homemade bath products. I was already in heaven, and then I entered my room. It was like a double page spread in a glossy interiors magazine with a fire blazing, huge four poster bed adorned with cosy countryside blankets, freshly baked treats, and a giant bathroom complete with private steam room waiting to be utilised. Dinner and breakfast were both unforgettable in the Farmhouse Inn restaurant, highlights included delicate and delicious Smoked Eggplant ravioli and a robust and flavoursome tenderloin of seasonal Durham Ranch Elk with butternut squash and pancetta. For breakfast the buttermilk waffles with strawberries and basil mascarpone was unforgettable. As I sat in the evening by the open fire pits toasting their homemade marshmallows, I could not think of a more perfect hotel.

Flamingo Hotel – for a lively and reasonably priced accommodation the iconic Flamingo Hotel is a fun option. The 60 guestrooms are relaxed and spacious and guests have access to the popular Montecito Heights health club and spa, complete with 25 metre lap pool. The Sunday champagne brunch here is renowned among locals.

To Eat

Bravas – Healdsburg is a lovely neighbourhood to explore in Sonoma. I enjoyed an al fresco feast of Spanish tapas at this authentic eatery from celebrated restaurateurs, Mark and Terry Stark. Don’t miss: Watermelon and Tomato Escabeche Salad with sherried currants and basil; Brussel Sprouts with Sobrasada sausage, tomato and manchego; and the Goat’s Cheese Toast with golden onions and white truffle honey.

While in Healdsburg pop into Moustache Cakes for baked goods and Noble Folk for award-winning ice-cream and pies. Barndiva is a trendy art gallery and bar, and Lulo Gallery sells whimsical jewellery from talented designers Luana Coonen and Sakura Haru and Julia Turner.

The Girl and the Fig – If you need a place to stop for lunch in Sonoma Plaza The Girl and the Fig is a good bet. This friendly casual restaurant serves seasonal ‘country food with a French passion’. I tried the summery and tasty Fig and Aragula salad.

Wine Tasting

Scribe – This boutique biodynamic winery requires a booking before you are able to go and try the wines. The hipster hang-out produces beautiful artisanal wine, I loved the minimalist bottles.

Paradise Ridge Winery – Romanically set at the top of a hill this beautiful winery has a lovely atmosphere and great wine. Many visit to see the striking sculpture park, including the signature LOVE sculpture by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg.

Francis Ford Coppola – Owned by the world-famous film director, this winery has been done up in true Hollywood style. Have a complimentary tasting of their Bianco and Rosso wines, and head upstairs to see memorabilia from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.

To Do

The Barlow in Sebastopol – this recently developed industrial space is home to a host of food, drink, shopping and art businesses. My favourites were Tamarind for clothes and accessories and Spirit Works Distillery for their refined sloe gin. Best to visit Thursday to Sunday when the majority of shops and cafes are open.

Buena Vista Winery – The prestigious Buena Vista holds the title of California’s first winery. The founder, self-proclaimed “count of Buena Vista” is the inspiration behind the unique Be The Count Blending Experience. After a masterclass with Spencer I created my own personalised bottle of red wine, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel. You will be dressed up appropriately and even get the chance to have your own tailor-made label printed for the bottle. After the experience you will be shown round the historic wine tour museum.

Vella Cheese Company – this family owned company has been making award-winning cheese since 1931. All the cheeses are delicious but they are known for their dry Monterey Jack.

To Escape

Napa Valley – in my opinion this famous region pales in comparison to Sonoma. For foodies though it is worth a visit either for a life-changing meal at The French Laundry or to try Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s 1-star French brasserie just down the road. Order their signature Steak Frites or the roasted chicken with mushrooms and leeks.

Many thanks to the Sonoma County Tourist Board for supporting this trip.