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Vegas is for nerds: The city is full of art, history, and high-tech fun

There’s a fantastically nerdy undercurrent hidden beneath Sin City’s sparkly exterior

Signs at the Neon Museum.Hillary Richard

I am not what most people would call “a Las Vegas person.” My interest in gambling begins and ends with the slot machines. The smell of cheap, oversize mixed drinks gives me PTSD from Comm. Ave. pub crawls during college. Spraying is not my preferred method of champagne consumption. I’ve gotten to that point in life where many things seem unnecessarily loud.

If you’re less “VEGAS!” and more “…Vegas?” fear not: There’s a fantastically nerdy undercurrent hidden beneath Sin City’s sparkly exterior. This is a Vegas for the rest of us, full of art, history, and high-tech fun.

Going to Las Vegas for the culture sounds like something cheaters say, but the city has some amazing museums. The best two are within walking distance of Fremont Street.

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For about 50 years, all roads in organized crime seemed to lead to Las Vegas in some way. You could easily spend half a day at the Mob Museum. This 41,000-square-foot former federal courthouse ushers guests through three floors of displays that catalog the rise of organized crime and the constant battle to thwart it. Everything here is authentic (even the gruesome crime scene photos that inspired movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino”).

The museum includes personal accounts of several famous undercover agents (like Joseph Pistone), as well as insight from former Las Vegas mayor Oscar B. Goodman, who represented mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Nicky Scarfo in this very building. Many of the artifacts were donated by people involved — on both sides of the law.

If you really want to geek out, add on an “experience.” I took a half-hour crime lab class, where a technician taught me how to compare fingerprints, bullets, and other items to help solve a mock crime. And of course, there’s an underground distillery as a nod to Prohibition.

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Signs at the Neon Museum.Hillary Richard

Have you ever wondered where Las Vegas’s iconic neon signs go when they flicker out and start to fade away? You’ll find some of them down the street in the Neon Museum’s “boneyard.” This 2-acre space condenses more than 250 of Las Vegas’s shining stars to one dusty loop, like a larger-than-life retirement home for these harbingers of glitz and glamour. There’s something delightfully dystopian about walking among these giants. The iconic Hard Rock guitar is 82 feet tall, with 4,110 feet of neon tubing and 1,530 light bulbs. The letters in the Stardust sign alone are 14 to 18 feet tall with over 1,000 light bulbs. Each sign makes up a little part of the city’s history. Visitors can walk the trail of restored signs (everything from the Moulin Rouge to the Sahara Hotel) and imagine the people they’ve beckoned over the years. At night, they light up like they did in their glory days.

If Las Vegas itself isn’t a big enough departure from reality for you, try some virtual reality. Arcadia Earth is a 15,000-square-foot “experience” that uses augmented reality, projection, virtual reality, sound, smells, and art installations to take visitors on a journey through nature. Downloading the smartphone app opens up a different world where whales float by in an undersea display in one room, then bees take over in another.

The Las Vegas Strip’s first permanent digital art museum, Perception, opened in June. The 17,000-square-foot space transforms into a 360-degree immersive gallery through LED displays and surround sound. Perception debuted with “Leonardo: The Universal Man,” a three-gallery journey through Leonardo da Vinci’s life, including digitally constructed cathedrals, a “flight” in his Flying Machine, a float through Tuscany on da Vinci-designed parachute, and six versions of the Mona Lisa.

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Introverts, rejoice: you won’t have to speak to a human the entire time at Tipsy Robot, a futuristic cocktail bar where two robots make and deliver cocktails in under 90 seconds. The atmosphere fell somewhere between a normal vending machine experience and that childhood feeling when the teacher leaves the classroom unattended. I walked up to an iPad menu of nerdily named cocktails and swiped my credit card. Then I watched a disembodied robotic arm shake up my drink and deliver it to me with a flourish via conveyer belt. No humans necessary. (But yes, there’s a prompt for a tip.)

Because this is Vegas, I took my robot booze on a walk across the boulevard. The Bellagio has an array of art hidden in plain sight, from the colorful “Fiori di Como” by Dale Chihuly in the lobby to its Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, featuring high-end pieces sourced from personal collections worldwide. There are 12 Picasso works hidden in the aptly named Picasso restaurant (mostly earthenware and lithographs).

Bauman Rare Books at the Grand Canal Shops in the Venetian is a 2,300-square-foot gallery with a private library. The shop sells autographed copies of rare books and collectible documents. They also hold events, including a weekly free introduction to book collecting.

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If you want a little less sin in your city experience, try inadvertently donating to charity while playing classic games. The 25,000-square-foot Pinball Hall of Fame boasts the world’s largest pinball collection. This not-for-profit museum is really one man’s impressive collection of retro games from the 1950s through the 1990s. Games cost 25 to 50 cents to play, with proceeds going to Goodwill.

On your next trip to Las Vegas, consider digging into the city’s nerdier side — even if you’re there for all of the usual reasons. There’s only so much drinking and gambling one person can do, after all.

Hillary Richard can be reached at hillary@hillaryrichard.com.

Vegas casinos.Hillary Richard