How does a weekend in Reno compare to a weekend in Las Vegas?


Michael James compares a Reno stay to a Vegas stay…

Even though my wife and I went to Las Vegas for six days in April, we again jetted off to the left coast to Reno at the end of May for four days for my participation in the USBC Open Championships at the National Bowling Stadium. Many people say that there is no comparison between Las Vegas and Reno; so I’ll take the challenge of trying to compare the two cities.

History

Reno’s history actually predates Las Vegas, as Reno was in proximity to Virginia City and the famous discovery and mining of the Comstock Lode beginning in 1859. Railroads were built to pass through Reno, and even though mining activity eventually slowed, Reno continued to grow. As this was roughly 50 years before Las Vegas began to be parceled out, Reno gets an edge here. That edge gets sharper as Reno honors that mining history (from the former Comstock casino to the current Silver Legacy) whereas Las Vegas tries to pretend yesterday doesn’t exist (Stardust? What Stardust?)

Entrance to the Comstock from 1995. The property closed in 2000.

Entrance to the Comstock from 1995. The property closed in 2000.

One of the neatest features of the Comstock was the neon fireworks show on the exterior of the property.

One of the neatest features of the Comstock was the neon fireworks show on the exterior of the property.

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The dome on the Silver Legacy is a working silver mine.

Although other casinos preceded it, William Harrah opened his first casino on Virginia St in Reno in 1938, and that operation continues today.

Access

According to recent estimates, about 20 zillion planes fly into Las Vegas weekly, while flights into Reno are just a fraction. From California, driving to Las Vegas may be boring, but not difficult, while getting through the mountains from California to Reno is great… except for the sudden snowstorms that can occur late into May.

Personally, most of the options on Southwest Airlines take me into Las Vegas for a plane change to Reno. On my recent trip to Reno, my layover was almost four hours, which allowed me to Uber to Hooters Casino on the strip for some non-airport gaming. When it came time to leave, it took 20 minutes from the time I sent for Uber until I was through TSA. Of course, that never happens when you are racing the clock!

Hotels

Bellagio?

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Or Eldorado?

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Circus Circus?

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Or Circus Circus?

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OK, that wasn’t fair…

Wynn?

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Or Sands Regency?

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Next question?

Dining

This is another almost-unfair category. Las Vegas’ dining scene in 1989 (with $1.99 Steak and eggs at every property) was probably better than Reno back then, and the gulf has widened exponentially in the past generation. In fairness, Reno does have some good restaurants. The Steakhouse at Harrah’s is excellent, and The Brew Brothers in the Eldorado is many bowler’s favorite casual restaurant with a brew pub and a sports bar environment. Beaujolais Bistro is there with the best French food in town. And my personal favorite is the Sky Terrace Oyster Bar at the Atlantis. I crave their Lobster Pan Roast.

Most of Reno’s better dining, though, are not in casinos. Noble Pie Parlor is a pizzeria with two locations that makes a fabulous pie. Bertha Miranda’s makes killer Mexican food, and Men Wielding Fire makes a toe-curling barbecue (but alas, no Carolina Mustard sauce).

Entertainment

Again not really a contest. Big name acts roll into and out of Reno after a day or two like they do in Middle America, while headliners abound in Las Vegas. But once in a while you catch lightning in a bottle, as my wife and I did when Dana Carvey put on a show while we were in Reno.

Day trips

Here is where Reno really wins. In Las Vegas, you can spend time in Red Rock Canyon, its bigger brother the Valley of Fire, on Mount Charleston or at Hoover Dam. Other than that, once you leave the city limits, you’re in the desert (and hoping there are no holes with your name on them).

In Reno, you can head to Virginia City about 25 miles away. Along the way, you are transported back to the 1860s. It is intentional, but Virginia City oozes history. From the Suicide Table to the display of antique slot machines to the working gold mine and wooden sidewalks, it is easy to lose yourself in Virginia City.

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The Suicide Table is at the Delta Saloon in Virginia City. In use in the mid-to-late 19th Century, legend has it that three different men (two players and a table owner) killed themselves in separate incidents over losses at this table.

"C" Street in Virginia City, which is the main drag through town. It looks like a tourist trap because it is; though it is a fun one.

“C” Street in Virginia City, which is the main drag through town. It looks like a tourist trap because it is; though it is a fun one.

From there (or better yet, on a separate day) you can head towards the Lake Tahoe region, which is about 50 miles from Reno. The sights are breathtaking. My wife and I have been to Tahoe five times, and even though the pictures all look the same, I can’t stop taking them. We’ve taken both a sunset dinner cruise on a paddlewheel boat and a champagne sunset tour on a sailboat. We’ve also driven the 72-miles around the lake twice. Everything that you’d want to do at a lake can be done at Lake Tahoe, and when the gambling jones gets to you, there are casinos on both the north shore (in Incline Village) and on the south shore (in Stateline).

Breathtaking views all around Lake Tahoe.

Breathtaking views all around Lake Tahoe.

This one, too.

This one, too.

This is Emerald Bay, on the California side of the lake.

This is Emerald Bay, on the California side of the lake.

Gambling conditions

Ah, the great equalizer. 6:5 blackjack in Reno is hard to find, and full pay video poker and looser slots everywhere. There is even a midi baccarat table on the floor at Harrah’s that usually has a $15 minimum. Keno is also still alive at many places in Reno. Who doesn’t love filling out a Keno ticket while waiting for lunch to arrive? We stayed at the Sands Regency in May, and on Memorial Day with a full house, I played $5 single-deck blackjack for hours (I didn’t play for $5, but it was there and many people played at that level). Local casinos in Las Vegas have generally good gambling conditions, but in Reno they can be found at every casino in town.

Although nobody will dispute that Las Vegas is a superior tourist destination, Reno is not without its charms. I’ve been to Las Vegas 18 times and Reno 10 times, and all I need is a reason and I would go back to either.

To summarize my May trip to Reno, here is the highlights –

Saturday…
  • Upon arrival, I had an Awful Awful (a burger synonymous with Reno)
  • Nickel craps on a Saturday afternoon
  • A Lobster Pan Roast at the Atlantis for dinner
  • A Dana Carvey show at the Atlantis
  • $5 blackjack (in a full casino on a holiday weekend) on my way to bed
Sunday…
Monday…
  • We took a drive around Lake Tahoe
  • Gambling at the historic Tahoe Biltmore Casino
  • Nickel craps at the Hard Rock Casino on the south shore
  • Barbecue dinner at Fox and Hound, hidden in the mountains near Lake Tahoe

That’s three days in Reno that I will put against any three random days in Las Vegas. Not all of the time, mind, but Reno as an occasional destination can certainly hold its own.

[Images: Michael James, Bellagio Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas]

About the Author

Michael James
Michael James is a true Vegas Nerd. First falling in love after hearing details of an aunt's visit in the '70s, and nurtured when the gambling bug hit as casinos started opening on every street corner across the country in the '90s. When not reading Vegas blogs and message boards, he's a metals buyer by day and a competitive bowler by night in Milwaukee.

13 Comments on "How does a weekend in Reno compare to a weekend in Las Vegas?"

  1. Good Lord, Michael now I got to go to Reno. Never been and wondered if it would be a waste of my time. After reading the article my mind is made up now; I must go. We have charters going there all the time from NC and my host is always asking if I want to tag along. Now I will. Great article. Thx.

    • I admit that the only ten times I’ve been to Reno have been because of bowling touranments… I have never been there without it being attached to bowling. However, to shake things up a bit, Reno is a great alternate to Las Vegas. As long as you realize the dining and entertainment aren’t quite World Class, you would be very happy… and the gambling is FAR superior to Las Veas.

      Outlying resorts (Peppermill, Atlantis, Grand Sierra) are the best properties you will find in Reno, but none are located downtown. However, Reno is also very easy to navigate with a car or service like Uber/Lyft. If you go, let me know how you like it.

  2. Pete Salgev | August 9, 2016 at 8:24 am |

    Great comparison article. I have been to both several times (more so Vegas) and always have a good time. I have even thrown in a few trips to West Wendover aka Truck Stop Las Vegas and had a great time there too. Sometimes I just think your trip is what you make of it no matter where you go. ;)…or maybe I just enjoy anywhere that resembles Vegas. :P

    • I went to West Wendover once, in the mid-90s when I was bowling a tournament (natch) in Salt Lake City. On the drive through the Bonneville Salt Flats, a buddy “taught” me to count cards in a double-deck blackjack game.

      I had the counting down OK, but it never worked. When I felt the deck was in my favor, I changed my bet from $5 to $25 (which was a big bet for me at the time) and I lost every single one of them… usually with a 18 or 19 for me and a 20 for the dealer.

      The properties owned by Peppermill in West Wendover still send me E-mails about junkets… they fly their own planes from various airports (including Mitchell International in Milwaukee) to West Wendover that cost about $239 RT and includes three nights. However, there is NOTHING to do in West Wendover except to gamble (there might be a golf course, but I’d bet a dollar to a donut that the course is juiced into the casino). I even looked up car rental agencies, and it turns out that the nearest nationally known location is in, get this, Salt Lake City.

      In other words, a three-day junket to West Wendover will cost a LOT more than $239!

  3. John Murphy | August 9, 2016 at 11:08 am |

    Thanks for doing this article. Vegas is such a popular destination (rightly so), Reno is often forgotten on the national scene. Reno, especially downtown Reno, did get hit hard by the recession, and in my opinion the opening of Native American casinos in California. Prior to those events, there used to be about twice as many downtown casinos, Comstock, Virginian, Harolds Club, Flamingo, Fitzgeralds and Siena and probably some others. They were all within two or three blocks of each other, and downtown Reno was a great casino hopping option, much like downtown Las Vegas is now. Like you said the better casinos are outside of downtown and are just a short ride away.

    For sports fans, I love that the Reno Aces (AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks), are located in downtown. The stadium is just one block east of Harrah’s. There is also University of Nevada Reno for some college stuff.

    I love the restaurants you mentioned, and I will check out Bertha Miranda’s next time I’m there.

    • This always happens to me, regardless of what message board of forum I comment; I write a Cliff Notes version for brevity, and after a comment I feel compelled to expand.

      You are correct that the Native American casinos built in the early 00s between Sacramento and Reno decimated Reno’s downtown properties. But in a way, it was their own damn fault.

      Within a few weeks of each other in 1978, the MGM Grand (now Grand Sierra Reno), Money Tree (closed), Sahara Reno (closed) and Circus Circus (still there) all opened. And after that, almost nothing related to new construction happened downtown. The Silver Legacy opened in 1995, as did the Hampton Inn tower (which is now a Harrahs tower), but that’s about it.

      In other words, the properties in Reno pretty much said “That’s it, here we are. Love us”. By the time the Native American casinos started sprouting up, most of Reno contained aging properties that would demand in influx of capital that just wasn’t available. Many didn’t make it, including one of the first to fall which was the Flamingo Hilton (originally the Sahara Reno). My wife and I stayed at the Flamingo in 1998 and loved the place. There were flamingos everywhere, including in the carpeting. Such a neat theme.

      After it closed, another group tried to resurrect the property as the Golden Phoenix, but that didn’t last but a couple of years because all of the fixes were cosmetic.

      So if many of Reno’s properties had been more inviting, the Native American casinos wouldn’t have pirated so much of the business and many of them could have lived. But in reality the properties were probably dying anyway, and the California casinos put them out of their misery.

      But I miss the Flamingo Hilton in Reno at least as much as I miss the Stardust in Las Vegas.

  4. Reno has always been fun for a quick getaway. And the Top Deck Restaurant at Cal-Neva Casino is a beautiful, grungy throwback to the Vegas coffee shops that have faded away. $4.99 dinners, anyone? http://www.clubcalneva.com/dining

  5. I couldn’t help but note the ” friendly Canadian exchange rate'” sign on that picture of the Comeback. Us Canadians still need that today.

  6. I’ve been to Reno about twice as much as I have to Las Vegas, They’ve added a daily direct flight from JFK on JetBlue which makes it really easy for me to get to. It’s a completely different experience from Las Vegas. I like Vegas because of the glitz and the glam, and the chance to escape being an adult for a few days. Reno for me is, like you said, the day trips, My God, I can’t stop taking the same pictures of summertime Lake Tahoe each time I go. It’s a beautiful part of the country, even driving around Reno town you see mountains to the left and right of you and you can sit on the banks of the Truckee River a few steps away from the the casinos. And speaking of casinos, I’m not by any means a high roller, so $5 roulette and loose slots are maybe the biggest appeal Reno has for me. Plus the price of hotel rooms and meals, wow, it’s at a discount!

    Reno does need to step up it’s a game a little bit. If you stay downtown, Virginia Street can be way sketchier than parts of the Strip or downtown Las Vegas. They’ve made improvements and there’s some great little restaurants south of the river in Midtown; now, if they could keep that kind of development moving north, maybe entice CVS or Walgreens to one of those empty lots/empty motels across the street from the Silver Legacy

  7. Chris in Nashville | August 10, 2016 at 12:55 pm |

    Good article and fun comparison. I have only been to Reno once to see Matchbox Twenty and had a great time. I would not CHOOSE it over Las Vegas, but it is a great place to have a great time.

  8. Hey Michael…a great article, but no mention of the “shared” promenade downtown between Circus Circus, Silver Legacy and Eldorado. Now that Eldorado Resorts owns all 3 (used to be MGM had the Reno Circus Circus and 50% of Silver Legacy) that shopping/restaurant promenade is probably the nicest thing downtown…no need to go outside in middle of winter to visit 2 other casinos and makes for a lot of show/restaurant choices that much better. Now if they would just hurry up that Circus Circus remodel.

    The Atlantis and Peppermill (and soon to be Stations casino) are all on a main road that heads directly to downtown and you can see the urban issues that Reno has been going through there between those southern resorts and downtown. Grand Sierra is just north of the airport and Jerry’s Nugget in Sparks are both on freeways that allow easy access.

    As for wife and I, we love Lake Tahoe in the summer months….it gives us a really good break from the 110 – 120’s we have in the summer at home. Reno also has that cool night breeze since they are in a mountain valley.

    One add on…if you are a Costco customer search Peppermill Reno for vouchers for rooms at the Peppermill….they are usually a great deal but blackout dates apply. I think they are still offering them until end of 2016…hope they continue as it’s a great deal.

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