The fun doesn't stop at the casino doors in Las Vegas

Tim Lott visits Nevada's gambling capital and finds that there is plenty of fun to be had away from the casino floor.

Las Vegas is filled with fun, one-of-a-kind attractions, from the famed casino-strewn Strip uptown to the quirky Atomic Testing Museum. Julie Jacobson / AP Photo
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I wore my MP40 Beretta machine gun slung low at my hip. In front of me a hooded Nazi zombie was approaching. I narrowed my eyes, squeezed the trigger and let rip. Bullets tore into the sinister figure, peppering it with ragged holes.

I'd never even so much as touched a machine gun before. I held no licence and I'd had no practice. But my instructor, a young female ex-marine called Nena, clad in a figure-hugging outfit and knee length leather boots just loaded up another magazine after she reeled in the target and handed me back the gun. "Don't you ever get crazies coming in here?" I asked, as I prepared to fire another salvo.

"Sometimes," she said. "Not for a few months, though."

I was in the Gun Shop in Las Vegas, which they claim is the most popular retail outlet in America. Outside, there was a 100-metre queue of people waiting to get into the public ranges and unleash their frustrations on one of the targets (apart from Zombie Nazi, you could have Angry Woman, Terrorist, Annoying Boss, etc).

In the souvenir shop you could buy T-shirts, mugs, jackets and, of course, guns - big, dangerous-looking ones. I even saw a bazooka. This place was an affront to the civilised values of peace and cooperation everywhere, but it was also some of the greatest fun I'd ever had.

Fun, of course, is what Las Vegas is all about. Mainly, this fun is sold in the form of gambling, but I don't gamble, since I possess the unwavering and statistically correct conviction that I'm almost certain to lose. Instead, I was going to spend three days having a good time away from the tables.

A good place to start was my hotel, the brand new Cosmopolitan. Like most of the hotels uptown on the Strip, it was built around gambling, but also, like many of the modern hotels, it had a strong cultural element. You could not turn a corner without stumbling across a striking installation or sculpture. In the lobby, multiple giant pillars glowed with endlessly changing displays of vibrant digital installations. Even the parking space is more like a gallery than a garage, with giant frescoes on the walls by contemporary artists.

This trend of culture over trash started at Bellagio Las Vegas hotel, almost opposite the Cosmopolitan. Suspended over the lobby there is one of my favourite pieces ever: Dale Chihuly's Fiori di Como, 2,000 dazzlingly coloured blown-glass blossoms. I ate in sight of the sculpture at Michelin-starred Michael Mina's. I just had a starter - caviar parfait. It slid down easily, but the price stuck in my throat - US$450 (Dh1,652) for what was essentially three mouthfuls.

I moved on for my main course to the hotel's Picasso restaurant. I couldn't remember the food, only my view through the window of the spectacular dance of the famous giant multicoloured fountains accompanied by Con Te Partiro by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. There were also a multitude of original Picassos hanging blithely over the tables. People think Vegas is tacky, but you're unlikely to get that kind of decoration on the walls of your local branch of McDonald's.

By the next day I'd had enough of indulging myself with food and art. It was time for a bit of educational roughage in my rich diet, so I decided to visit a museum. But the museums here are slightly more quirky than other major cities. Or, at least, this was true of the Atomic Testing Museum.

The most amazing sight here was a photo of the Golden Nugget Casino pictured with a giant, billowing mushroom cloud in the background. The idea that you could be enjoying your holiday while a few miles off the military were exploding nuclear weapons seems bizarre beyond belief.

I enjoyed the exhibition of the atom in popular culture, featuring atomic pudding, atomic hairdos and children's atom bomb chemistry sets. The mannequins that were used for the original blast testing are on display, as are some darkly hilarious civil defence films that show you how to survive a nuclear attack. Apparently, all you have to do is hide under a table and cover your head with your hands - "duck and cover", a friendly cartoon tortoise informs you. Then you'll be fine, once the million-degree fireball has rolled over you.

I headed down to downtown Las Vegas, the original site of old-school casinos like Harrah's and the Golden Nugget (where, like in Abu Dhabi, you can buy real gold nuggets from an automatic dispensing machine). This is a cheesier but somewhat charming version of the uptown experience. The Bellagio might lure you in with appetisers for $450 (Dh1,650), but outside Mermaid's, the bait is Twinkies (a sort of sponge cake) or Oreo Cookies, both deep-fried, for 99 cents (Dh3.6). Outside, a man dressed as Mickey Mouse pulls off his foam rubber head, slumps on the ground and lights a cigarette while his partner, Minnie, continues hustling for change.

In the distance, I can see a couple having their wedding photographs taken outside a disused warehouse. Vegas is marriage central: there can be more than 4,000 of them taking place in a single day. Women dressed like meringues and overweight men stuffed into dinner jackets are as ubiquitous as neon signs.

Half a mile east of Fremont Street, the scene is very different. In 2008, the property prices in Vegas tanked worse than nearly anywhere else in the US. Apartments that were selling for $600,000 (Dh2.2m) now go for $150,000 (Dh551,000). As a result of the oversupply of cheap housing, a new wave of hipsters is moving in.

I visited the Beat Coffee house in the Emergency Arts building, a cheap and funky cafe a few hundred metres from Fremont Street, but a world away in style. Here, artists and musicians sip coffee and make use of the community resources - a fanzine library, studios, exhibition spaces, even a tiny museum of burlesque that is more arty kitsch than an authentic attraction.

The changes to the area are widespread and ongoing. Next month, a "Museum of the Mob" to "honour" the law enforcement agencies that bought the Mafia to justice, built around the original courtroom where the key Mafia trials took place in the 1930s, will open. There is also a substantial new performing arts centre, The Smith Centre that opens this year, and a Neon Museum in the lobby of the renovated, iconic La Concha motel.

Downtown Las Vegas is becoming unrecognisable but there is still an atmosphere of seediness. I passed one bar which was empty except for a lone showgirl stripping dejectedly under harsh neon light for two hefty bikers nursing a beer.

Vegas central, for all its pleasures, can be wearing. Fortunately, you can take a day trip away from the madness. Some explore the natural beauties of Red Rock Canyon or Zion National Park, but I chose to take a helicopter to the Grand Canyon to visit a cowboy ranch.

This takes you over the statuesque Hoover Dam and into the Canyon, one of the biggest land fissures on earth. It is hard to get a sense of the scale as you fly, until you see another helicopter outlined like a tiny dot against the canyon walls. Then the immensity of what you are in the heart of makes your stomach lurch.

A 45-minute flight after a 6am start took me to the ranch, where I was greeted by a singing cowboy and an exhibition of herding skills by "authentic" cowboys. A few "yippee hi ays" later, you are sitting down to a hearty breakfast of eggs and biscuits, followed by a horse trek through a forest of Joshua Trees in the shadow of a gigantic mesa.

Here, you'll find the original house on the settlement where the ranch was set up in the 19th century, supposedly by a member of the James gang on the run from the law. You can spend the night in a tent or a log cabin, but I hightailed it back to Vegas central again for a last look.

One of the best things about the Cosmopolitan is that it is one of the very few hotels in Vegas with balconies. I sat and looked out over the city on the 30th floor as the sunlight faded, watching the neon come up against a purple sky. Newly constructed wonders greeted my eyes - the Veer Towers leaning precipitously towards one another, and the glittering, swanky CityCentre complex and shopping centre.

Meanwhile, the old familiar wonders stayed in my mind - the fountains at the Bellagio, the biggest TV screen in the world suspended over three blocks of Fremont street, the spouting volcano at the Mirage, the pirate show at Treasure Island.

You don't need to gamble to enjoy Vegas, you just need to be sensible enough to hold on to your money long enough to spend it on the real attractions. Then, whether or not Lady Luck is on your side, you'll have a great time.

If You Go

The flight Direct flights with Etihad Airways ( from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles cost from Dh4,760 return. Return flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with American Airlines ( cost from US$134 (Dh492). Prices include taxes

The hotels Double rooms at the Cosmopolitan (; 00 1 702 698 7000) cost from $184 (Dh676) per night. At Bellagio (; 00 1 702 693 7111), double rooms cost from $214 (Dh786) per night. Prices include taxes