Think Reno is merely a smaller, tamer stepchild of Las Vegas? Think again. Spend three days here, and you'll get a taste of a modern Western city that's still both quirky and affordable. It's a great base for side trips, too: within easy reach of a classic Western tourist trap, a historic state capital, two of the West's best -- and very different --lakes, a chance to see wild horses, and a surreal Indian reservation.
Start by booking a night in one of downtown Reno's large old casino hotels. Get your neon fix by strolling the sidewalks below the retro skyscrapers, and check out the gambling scene. The casinos must have seemed grand when they were built decades ago, but now they feel somewhat down-on-their luck, like poor relations of their ritzy Las Vegas kin. Reno's unpretentious gamblers look at ease in well-worn jeans, cowboy boots and tattoos. And the casino hotels offer cheap rooms to lure gamblers: Harrah's, for instance, has rates as low as $34 for a summer weekday, and its two towers with their 26 floors offer great views of the city. There are also some pretty nice non-casino hotels, though they tend to have higher rates.
All the downtown hotels are close to Reno's Riverwalk District, with its six blocks of paved trails along both banks of the Truckee River. The riverbanks have been landscaped with grass, artfully sculpted concrete and "7,000 tons of smooth flat-top rocks and boulders." The Riverwalk offers a few trendy bars, cafes and shops, a multiplex cinema, a regular theater, a comedy-show saloon, a hookah bar, a gay bar, and the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts -- with ballet, orchestra and opera, if you time it right. For kayakers, there's a small whitewater park with 11 "drop-pools" in one half-mile of the river. Like the rest of downtown, the whole District seems to be struggling, but it's still a pleasant place, not overrun or overdone the way fancy pedestrian areas in cities like Boulder, Colo., tend to be. And from here, you can hook up with extended hiking and biking trails that range for a total of 12 miles along the river.
Five blocks south of the Riverwalk, the Nevada Museum of Art specializes in the kind of art our cover story explores -- "landscape" or "environmental art." The museum was founded in 1931 by "a small group of plein-air landscape painters" and its "Center for Art + Environment," begun in 2009, explores how people interact with the landscape in both creative and destructive ways. Don't miss Edward Burtynsky's photo collection "Oil," which is on display from June 9 to Sept. 23. "From 1997 through 2009, Burtynsky traveled internationally to chronicle the production, distribution, and use of this critical fuel," the museum says. "In addition to revealing the rarely seen mechanics of its manufacture, he photographs the effects of oil on our lives, depicting landscapes altered by its extraction from the Earth and by the sprawl generated around its use."
If your art tastes run to objects with more horsepower, though, and you'd rather not spend all of your vacation worrying about climate-change-causing emissions, Harrah's operates the National Automobile Museum, just off the Riverwalk trail. It displays more than 200 "antique, vintage, classic and special-interest vehicles" including "many rare, experimental and one-of-a-kind automobiles" and "four period street scenes ... with facades, autos and artifacts reflecting each era's styles and moods."