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.

Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas

Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas is in a league of its own. Most of the other luxury accommodations on the strip are ostentatious and classless, preferring to concentrate on their in-house casinos and the business it brings in. Staying true to the brand, Mandarin Oriental is a conventional hotel, focusing on beautiful design, ultimate luxury and the highest level of service.

It was blissful to walk inside the sophisticated lobby of the Mandarin Oriental… the air scented with exotic flowers and all our luggage and car instantly taken care of. We zoomed up to the 23rd floor where the formal reception is found, after a swift check-in (complete with herbal tea and cold flannels) we found ourselves in room 1703 on the 17th floor of the hotel. Though the style and details are similar to other MO hotels, the floor to ceiling bedroom window offers a birds-eye view of the Strip, a constant reminder of the Vegas hysteria.

There are 392 rooms and suites at the hotel. Our King room was decorated in warm beiges and golden creams, fresh orange tulips arranged on the table, and striped cushions on the bed. The space felt spacious but cosy. The open plan bathroom had a freestanding bath (complete with bath salts), his and her marble sinks, a power rain shower and Shanghai Tang toiletries.
I woke up late after a replenishing sleep in the luxurious bed. Wanting to make the most of the facilities I made my way to the outdoor pool on the 8th floor. After a brief swim I went to try the complimentary yoga class with Amanda. The hotel offer two free yoga or pilates classes a day, the perfect way to unwind and relax. Yoga was both good exercise and a refreshing way to clear my mind after a busy few days. With a spa, sauna/steam rooms, gym and fitness centre, there is everything a guest could need after an extravagant night on the town.

Mandarin Oriental are proud to have the fine dining restaurant ‘Twist’ by three star chef Pierre Gagnaire in the hotel. If you are after a more casual meal Mozen Bistro caters for every occasion. Offering an eclectic mix of Asian-American dishes it is the perfect spot for breakfast or lunch. On Sundays between noon and 2.30pm a special Brunch is served, including the $39 Bento brunch, which includes a main course and a trio of Asian tastes. The bacon waffle, fried chicken, peach and bourbon bbq sauce was a particularly indulgent and creative dish. For a tasty oriental option try the Korean Bulgogi – marinated stir-fry beef, jasmine rice, bibb lettuce and house made Kimchi, it was flavoursome and healthy.

The Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas feels almost boutique in comparison to the other five star hotels in this crazy city. After visiting most of the establishments on the strip I can honestly say this is the place I would hope to stay in if I returned to Las Vegas.

More information and book a room at Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas here.

Things to do in San Francisco

I have always dreamt of visiting San Francisco… and when I did finally get the chance last month it excited but disappointed me simultaneously. The huge metropolis is difficult and frustrating to navigate as a traveller, and many areas are gritty and unkept. As the start up and tech capital of the world; I expected the home of Google, Apple and Uber to be more stylish. However the food scene exceeded all my expectations, delicious and affordable eateries on every corner – there weren’t enough meals in the day to try it all. In between meal times there are some great shops, sights and attractions, if you know where to look.

To Stay

San Remo Hotel – San Francisco is an extremely expensive city to stay in so we were lucky to discover the affordable and characterful San Remo Hotel in the North Beach district of town. This historic hotel is small but welcoming, decorated in a quirky style, with thoughtful details everywhere you look.

To Eat

State Bird Provisions – There is no sign to alert you of this restaurant’s whereabouts, but the constant queue outside is a clue. This modern Michelin-starred venue offers a menu of small plates of rustic American fare, but most come for the dim sum style “provisions”. My highlights included the speciality CA state bird and the pork belly pluot salad.

La Taqueria – This Mexican institution has been awarded the best burrito in America. There are only a few options of tacos and burritos so the queue moves fast as the delicious food is freshly prepared at staggering speed. I tried the flavoursome and tender super pork burrito, washed down with an ice-cold corona.

Rich Table – Don’t miss this informal foodie destination. Set up by chef couple, Evan and Sarah Rich the daily changing menu is always filled with tasty, innovative dishes. The porcini doughnuts with raclette has become a favourite and is always on the menu, a salty cheesy delight. I also enjoyed an expertly mixed ‘Newton’s Law’ Bourbon cocktail and a bowl of wonderfully comforting homemade spaghetti with braised duck, tomato gravy and candied almonds.

Spruce – This smart Michelin starred restaurant is usually unaffordable but on Sundays they offer a reasonable brunch menu. The Spruce burger is absolutely delicious or if you want something more breakfast based opt for the Challah French Toast with apricot jam, almond butter and warm maple syrup. For a naughty addition try the addictively light Beignets with crème anglaise.

To Snack

Mr Holmes Bakehouse – Recognisable on social media from its neon ‘I got baked in San Francisco’ sign, this trendy bakery sells a small selection of fine cookies, cakes and savoury baked delicacies.

Smitten – When it gets hot in San Francisco there is one place the locals flock to get their ice-cream fix. Smitten started as a street wagon and now has numerous locations around the city. The made-to-offer nitrogen ice-cream is blissfully silky and creamy and the flavours are vibrant and rich. My favourite was the TCHO 60.5% chocolate.

Craftsmen and Wolves – A contemporary patisserie in the hip Mission district run by chef William Werner. After staring at the awe-inspiring baked creations in the glass cabinets, I eventually decided on a smoked cheddar, hot pepper gougère, a light cheesy puff with a kick of peppery spice.

To Drink

Sightglass Coffee – There are now three locations though I recommend visiting the flagship café in SoMA. The chic industrial space also houses their roastery and the coffee is smooth and delicious.

Four Barrel Coffee – Well known in San Francisco for their drip coffee, at Four Barrel they source, roast and brew beans ensuring top quality and taste. They don’t offer free wifi or power so guests are forced to relax and concentrate on enjoying the superior cup of coffee in their hand.

Saint Frank – Before visiting this neighbourhood coffee shop I had noticed their brand of beans in a number of other cafes. On a Saturday morning the minimalist venue was jam-packed with fitness fanatics and dog-walkers getting their morning fix. The coffee here is delicious and the croissants were flaky and buttery.

ABV – This walk-in bar in the Mission district serves top cocktails and award-winning food. Sit at the bar and chat to one of the expert mixologists about your preferred spirit or choose from the detailed menu of exciting concoctions.

Trou Normand – A swish bar in the centre of town with craft cocktails and an impressive range of charcuterie. The perfect Friday night spot for a date or to catch up with friends. Behind the bar a giant nude by Ebecho Muslimova adds a striking creative allure.

To Do

Alcatraz – I loved experiencing Alcatraz, a mesmerising piece of American history. Just 10 minutes from the San Francisco port this once maximum security federal penitentiary closed in 1963 and housed many famous criminals including Al Capone. The 45-minute audio tour is a must, detailing the lives of the inmates and officers while walking you round the eerie prison building. Book well ahead, preferably for the first ferry of the day to avoid the crowds. You can also see the retro ‘View Alcatraz’ sign at Pier 41.

Pier 39 – weave your way through the tourist crowds to Pier 39 where a group of seals sunbathe. Watch them as they swim, fight and play with each other, just a few metres out to sea.

Bay City Bike Rentals – rent a tandem from one of their four accessible locations and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to Battery Spencer for unrivalled views of the towering red bridge.

Exploratorium – a playful learning laboratory for kids and adults alike, their mission is to change the way the world learns. This interactive museum has an unrivalled range and variety of hands-on experiments and experiences. Entry is free with the San Francisco CityPASS.

Pop Physique – If you’ve got a burst of energy whilst visiting San Fran, push yourself with a high intensity Pop Physique class. The artistic approach to exercise was launched in 2008 in LA by ex-ballet dancer Jennifer Williams. There are now 15 locations in America several of which are found in SF. We visited the Russian Hill studio for a fun but challenging hour long work-out.

To Shop

March – A beautiful store of aesthetic high-quality homeware for the kitchen and pantry and a range of vital cooking ingredients. They also host family style supperclubs.

Levi’s Store – This mega brand was started in San Francisco in 1873. The new Market Street flagship store features their more exclusive lines, including Made & Crafted and Levi’s Vintage. You can also have your favourite jeans or garment personalised with the in house tailor.

City Lights Bookstore – Open since 1953 this iconic independent bookshop made a name for itself publishing the nation’s most daring literature. It is most famous for its large collection of Beat poetry and prose. As many before me have, I purchased a copy of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, a very suitable travelling companion.

To Escape

Oakland – This area used to be a dangerous suburb of San Francisco, but is now celebrated as a popular destination with a burgeoning scene of restaurants and creative outlets. Visit Kronnerburger for one of their amazing burgers or enjoy a bowl of warming noodles at Ramen Shop. Coffee lovers will want to visit the first official Blue Bottle Coffee here. For book browsing head to Book/Shop a lovely store that opened in 2013 dedicated to all things literary.

The city is best explored with a CityPASS which offers over 40 % off top attractions plus a 7-day Muni & Cable Car Pass.

Many thanks to the San Francisco Tourist Board for their help with this trip.