Las Vegas, USA travel tips and things to do: 20 highlights

1 CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

The Canadian group that revolutionised the public perception of what a circus is has eight productions in Las Vegas. Of these, O offers arguably the most impressive acrobatic feats – many of which are performed in water. Mystere is the classic production, Zumanity ramps up the raunch factor, while Love and One breathe new life into the music of the Beatles and Michael Jackson respectively. The key is that staying in one place allows for more lavish permanent sets than touring productions. See cirquedusoleil.com.

2 BIG NAME PERFORMERS

Cirque doesn't have a monopoly on Vegas shows, though. The sheer numbers of people staying in the city mean that top-rank stars can earn as much from a Vegas residency as a far more exhausting world tour. That means the likes of Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Elton John and Mariah Carey can regularly be found doing multi-night stints, while one of the newest shows on the block (or, rather, from the block) is Jennifer Lopez's All I Have at Planet Hollywood. Even if the songs aren't your cup of tea, the production and dancing is top drawer. See caesars.com.

3 THE AUSSIE INVASION

They may not be on the top tier, but plenty of Australian acts have established themselves as hot tickets in Vegas. Human Nature have carved out a niche singing classic retro hits with tight vocal harmonies at the Venetian, while the Australian Bee Gees make it Saturday Night Fever every night at the Excalibur. The Camelot-esque resort is also home to the rather less musical and considerably less clothed Thunder Down Under. See humannaturelive.com, Excalibur.com.

4 FREE ENTERTAINMENT

You don't have to shell out big bucks to be entertained, however. Las Vegas entertains for free – with the dancing fountains show at the Bellagio, the volcano eruption at the Mirage and acrobatic performances at Circus Circus among the freebie spectacles on offer. Free also extends to the drinks when you're around the gaming tables and machines. Generally, waitresses (and it's almost always waitresses rather than waiters) will happily keep bringing you beer, wine and spirits as long as you tip them a dollar or so each time.

5 THE LUXOR

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Aside from looking like a giant novelty pyramid, the Luxor's point of difference is having two rather good museum-style exhibitions inside. The Bodies exhibition delves into how the human body works, while Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is piled high with things salvaged from the Titanic and items donated by survivors. See luxor.com.

6 SUPERSIZED TACK

The Luxor is a remnant of 90s Vegas, when the city tried to appeal more to a family market and novelty-themed resorts became the in thing. The more recent trend is for slick, modern, glassy structures without the gimmickry, but for those who prefer the silly side of things there are still plenty of options. New York New York apes the NYC skyline, Empire State, Chrysler Building and all; Paris has a gigantic replica Eiffel Tower outside; the Excalibur has an absurd Arthurian castle theme and hosts jousting tournaments; the Venetian has a mock-up of the Rialto Bridge, and gondoliers plying their trade around fake canals.

7 BLOW-OUT DINING

Many of the world's top chefs – Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck among them – have a Las Vegas outpost, meaning it's possible to eat very, very well every night. If picking just one, then arguably Alain Ducasse's Rivea on the 64th floor of the Delano is arguably the star. This is partially because the French-Italian food – especially the vegetable dishes – is stellar, but the spectacular views out over the strip from high up on the very southern end kinda help. See delanolasvegas.com.

8 TOPGOLF

Flying over Vegas, you may be tempted to ask: "What is that golf course?" It's safe to say that being in a desert hasn't stopped developers catering for those who fancy playing 18 holes. But this is Vegas, so golf is taken to another level with the most absurd driving range in the world. Topgolf has more than 100 driving bays, spread over four levels with a cavalcade of flashing, multi-coloured targets below. See mgmgrand.com.

9 POOL PARTIES

Resort pools in Las Vegas aren't necessarily for relaxing by. Some get overtaken by booming beats, party animals in cabanas ordering bottle service and beautiful people eager to be seen. Of the pool party places, the Encore pulls in big name DJs such Avicii​ and Skrillex​, while Wet Republic at the MGM Grand impresses through sheer size of the pool complex. See wynnlasvegas.commgmgrand.com.

10 CLUBBING

The serious party action, of course, goes on at night. There are some huge clubs in the city and they attract the biggest DJs in the business. Calvin Harris, for example, can regularly be found at Omnia in Caesar's Palace, while David Guetta is the resident at XS inside the Encore. See omnianightclub.com, xslasvegas.com.

11 SERIOUS SHOPPING

For those wanting to give the credit card a workout, Vegas has turned into one of the world's top shopping destinations. The Crystals complex in the centre of the Strip is home to the higher end designer labels, such as Gucci and Jimmy Choo, while the Fashion Show Mall leans to more affordable department store and hip but high street fashion. The Premium Outlets malls in the north and south of the city tend to have the best bargains, though.

12 E-SPORTS

Recognising the rise of competitive video gaming, the Downtown Grand has opened up an ESports Lounge. Every Friday, gamers pay to take each other on at games such as Fifa '16 and Street Fighter V, with the less adept welcome to watch. See downtowngrand.com.

13 HOTEL BARGAINS

The size of the Vegas hotels (and the fact many of them make their real money from either gambling or entertainment) means that accommodation in the city can be surprisingly cheap. Solid four- to five-star options can cost way less than they do elsewhere in the States. For example, a quick check on random dates at the Downtown Grand brought up rooms for just $60 a night, while on the Strip it is possible to stay at the likes of the Linq for from $82 a night. See caesars.com/linq.

14 LOCAL BREWS

The days of only finding awful mass-produced swill like Bud Lite and Heineken on the Strip are coming to an end, with small Las Vegas and Nevada microbreweries making their presence felt. Joseph James – with its American pale ale citra rye – Sin City Brewing and Bad Beat are names to look out for. The Beerhaus at the new Park complex is a good place to sample some. See theparkvegas.com.

15 DIG THIS!

Anyone who enjoyed playing with toy bulldozers and diggers is likely to be in heaven at this giant playground for big yellow machinery. Dig This! allows complete amateurs to get behind the controls of diggers and wreak havoc in the earth and rubble. The staff have override switches to stop anyone going too far, but you don't even need a driving licence to have a go. See digthisvegas.com.

16 WEDDING CHAPELS

The whole going to Vegas to get married by someone dressed as Elvis thing isn't a myth – even though initially Vegas had a reputation as the place to get divorced. When the rest of the country had much tighter divorce rules, Nevada allowed couples who had been resident for six weeks to legally split. So ranches catering to would-be divorcees set up, where they'd wait six weeks. Of course, ranches full of single people led to hook-ups, and the wedding chapels sprang up to cater for new love. The Chapel of the Flowers is one of several chapels – and broadcasts footage of weddings over a webcam. See littlechapel.com

17 THE NATIONAL ATOMIC TESTING MUSEUM

Another unlikely driver of Las Vegas' early tourism boom was the testing of atomic bombs in the nearby Nevada desert. In the 1950s, people would come to see the mushroom clouds – which were clearly visible from Downtown. The National Atomic Testing Museum tells the story of this somewhat unlikely tourist drawcard, and how the A-bomb programme developed. See nationalatomictestingmuseum.org.

18 THE PIONEER SALOON

It takes a drive out into the desert, but the Pioneer Saloon's cowboy-esque feasts are worth it. Operating for more than a century in a mining ghost town, the saloon is supposedly haunted, offers nighttime stargazing tours and the cigar marks in the bar were supposedly made by Clark Gable while he mourned his wife after her plane crashed into the neighbouring mountain. See pioneersaloon.info.

19 THE HOOVER DAM

One of the planet's greatest engineering achievements, the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s as part of a massive hydro-electric scheme. The 221-metre-high concrete behemoth is wedged between canyon walls, and makes for a rather impressive sight on the Nevada-Arizona border. The visitor centre has oddly fascinating information on the dam's construction, while tours take visitors inside to see how it works. See usbr.gov.

20 ZION NATIONAL PARK

Just over the border in Utah, and just over two hours' drive away, the Zion National Park is one of the most spectacular in the American West. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is seen from the bottom of the valley, with huge red rock walls and richly rewarding hiking trails all around. For those wanting to go further, the Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks can be tagged into a loop with Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon to make an excellent week or so's road trip, using Vegas as a launch pad. See nps.gov/zion.

David Whitley was a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (lasvegas.com/au) and Travel Nevada (travelnevada.com).

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