Museums probably aren’t among the first things that come to mind when you think of Las Vegas. So you may be surprised to learn there are actually dozens of museums scattered throughout Sin City.
Don’t get your hopes up of viewing masterpieces like the Mona Lisa or historical treasures such as the Rosetta Stone. Nope, this is Vegas baby. Think the mob, neon signs, pinball machines, and atomic bombs.
Tear yourself away from the casinos, shows, and celebrity chefs to take a walk on the wild side of wacky, one-of-a-kind, obscure museums that can only happen in Las Vegas.
1. Mob Museum
The Mafia turned Las Vegas from a sleepy railroad town into the gambling capital of the world. The Mob Museum — located downtown in an old courthouse where many infamous racketeers were prosecuted — showcases the seamy underworld of crime from the perspective of both the gangsters and the cops.
Interactive displays and artifacts galore give you an inside look at the history of crime not only in Vegas but throughout the country. Find out the backstory of famous bad guys like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. See a section of the bullet-riddled wall from Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Learn about wiretaps and money laundering.
Don’t miss visiting The Underground, a swanky basement speakeasy where you can order a Prohibition-era cocktail made with moonshine distilled right on the premises.
2. Neon Museum
Only in Las Vegas could a former storage site for retired neon signs morph into a full-fledged neon museum. More than 200 iconic relics are on display at the Neon Museum and its outdoor Neon Boneyard.
These old signs and marquees, some fully restored and operational, are a novel part of the city’s colorful history. Highlights are the colossal sign that once welcomed visitors to the Moulin Rouge and the giant skyward-facing pirate skull from Treasure Island, which can be seen by zooming in on Google Maps.
Self-guided tours are available in the afternoon, but opt for a guided tour in the evening to fully appreciate these unique works of art in all their glory. A new program, Brilliant!, blends a combination of high-tech, 3D photography and video — accompanied by a soundtrack from classic Vegas headliners like Dean Martin and Elton John — to “relight” defunct signs.
3. National Atomic Testing Museum
Between 1952 and 1991, Las Vegas residents and visitors could amazingly pull up a lawn chair and witness the mushroom clouds of almost a thousand atomic bomb blasts that were detonated during that period in the Nevada desert.
The Smithsonian-affiliated National Atomic Testing Museum examines the impact of the Atomic Age on everything from pop culture (“atomic” branded merchandise like children’s cereal and candy) to the frightening effects of nuclear radiation on the human body and the overall environment.
Don’t miss the interactive movie experience that simulates watching a nuclear bomb test from a few miles away, complete with a dramatic countdown, bright lights, deafening sound, wind, and shockwave rumbles. Yikes!
4. Pinball Hall Of Fame
In most museums, the objects on display are behind glass or ropes to prevent being touched by visitors. Expect just the opposite at the Pinball Hall of Fame, home of the world’s largest pinball machine collection. Here, the object is to channel your inner Tommy and put those “crazy flipper fingers” on as many of the games as possible.
This 10,000-square-foot arcade is filled with noise, nostalgia, and just plain fun. Admission is free, but bring a big pocketful of quarters because all of the 450-plus machines are playable if not being repaired or restored. The older models cost 25 cents and newer ones a bit more.
From the oldest machine dating back to 1933 to contemporary classics like Dance Dance Revolution, the museum presents recent history from an offbeat perspective. Learn about advances in graphic design and technology while journeying through the world of pop culture with pinball machines themed to everything from Superman to Super Mario Bros.
5. KISS World Museum
Did you come to Las Vegas to “rock and roll all night, and party every day?” Head(bang) over to the Gene Simmons KISS World Museum in Masquerade Village at the Rio Hotel and Casino. Gaze upon 50 years of memorabilia from the face-painted rock legends.
Bizarrely located adjacent to the KISS by Monster Mini Golf indoor course (hey, it’s Vegas…), this exhibit features a rotating display of Simmons’s private collection of guitars, gold records, leather pants, Zippo lighters, and personal items like his high school diploma.
Play miniature golf. Take a video of yourself on stage playing with the band. If you’re an official member of the KISS Army, get married in the KISS Chapel by a little person in full makeup and costume. “Repeat after me: I was made for lovin’ you, baby, and you were made for lovin’ me.”