We see the billboards all around Sacramento for Reno’s casinos—big winnings, bargain buffets, glitzy shows, and those deep discounts on room rates. Take a two-hour drive east on Interstate 80 through the foothills, cross the soaring and rugged Sierra, buzz through the high desert, and you’ll roll into Reno. The city, just over the California-Nevada border, draws visitors for gaming, its RiverWalk District, a burgeoning restaurant scene and some almost surreal and beautiful scenery on its outskirts. It’s a city that combines railroad history with desert dust, high hopes with neon, all in the shadow of the great Sierra Nevada.
How you do Reno depends on why you’re there. Gambling and nightlife? No question: Stay downtown, guzzle the drinks, yank levers and belly up to the tables. Dance under the disco ball and take a room at one of the biggies— Harrah’s, Nugget, the Eldorado, Silver Legacy, Circus Circus. Room rates are dirt cheap—yes, you can get a basic one for $29 a night—just be sure to ask for nonsmoking. Remember, this is Nevada. The rules are different here. Grand Sierra and the Peppermill, luxurious and still a steal, are a little farther afield. The Peppermill, huge and lavish, pours on the plush with two pools, a spa and fitness room, and restaurants and bars galore. Check out the saltwater aquarium in the Oceano Bar or sit flameside in the Fireside Lounge, reminiscent of the Peppermill bar that used to be on Arden Way. The Atlantis attaches to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center by a skybridge and, like the Peppermill, this resort is decked out with it all: numerous restaurants, nightclubs, pools, spa, weight room and of course the massive casino.
Let’s say you want to gamble a little, but maintain a nearby escape, too. Whitney Peak Hotel, which replaced the old Fitzgerald’s casino (bringing with it a complete hosing down, airing out and a full remodel) right beside the Biggest Little City in the World arch, is an oasis in downtown Reno. Nonsmoking, nongaming. So when you walk in, there’s no clang-clang, ding-ding-ding-ding of slot machines, no dizzying carpet pattern, no nicotine cloud. Reserve a room with concierge privileges for happy hour treats, full breakfast and all-day soft drinks. While you’re at Whitney Peak, scramble around BaseCamp, the climbing facility that occupies the property’s second floor. Indoor rock walls of varying steepness and pitch will challenge the fittest participant, and the outdoor climbing wall goes higher than any other in the world—164 feet. Walk a slackline, dip and drop on the gymnastic rings, or work out in the adjacent gym. Dine in at restaurant, one of Reno’s farm-to-fork dining establishments, founded by Mark Estee of Campo (a Reno riverfront hotspot) fame and the guy at the helm of Reno’s upmarket food scene. Order the Big Ass Pork Chop.
To see the cool side of Reno, head for the river—the Truckee, to be exact, which cuts through the city and draws locals to wade (we’re not sure they’re supposed to do this here, but they do), walk their dogs, rock out when a festival’s set up on the banks, and—most of all—eat. Campo, parked riverfront, is another of Estee’s endeavors, and a popular one. The menu is packed with fun: Crispy Pig Parts, Bee Sting pizza, Prosciutto Pillows, plus all the main entrees that change daily depending on what’s in season, at the market, in mind. The Chef’s Tasting is the best way to go, if it’s available. For 50 bucks a person, live a little and let the kitchen decide your dinner. Across the water, the Wild River Grille serves steak-and-seafood fare—and some mean cocktails made with house-infused liquors—on its lively Riverside brick patio. Every Monday, bring your dog, and a portion of your check goes to the local Shakespeare Animal Fund. Not right on the river but nearby, Blue Moon Pizza runs the biggest menu of pizzas we’ve ever seen, in every size. Every individual at your table can order their personal best, either from a list of house favorites or build-your-own. Dress down—it gets hot in there by that wood-fired oven.
Back to Mark Estee for a moment: In addition to Campo and Heritage, he’s behind several other Reno eateries, including (which has locations in Reno and Truckee, plus a food truck, and sources its ingredients from local farms and ranches) and Reno Provisions, a food hall with a market that carries housemade pastas, local meats and produce, and specialty items such as white anchovies, Italian cheeses and fancy olives; a bakery onsite produces breads and pastries. Reno Provisions also has a cafeteria (have a Power Greens salad and a bowl of New England Clam Chowda) and a bar with a decent-length cocktail list and a BOGO policy for bloody marys and mimosas on Saturday and Sunday.
For the history lover, several museums beckon. The Nevada Museum of Art, with some 2,000 works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, assembles its collections in themes relating to land use and the changing Nevada landscape. Hurry to catch the butterfly exhibit, Erika Harrsch’s “The Monarch Paradigm: Migration as Metaphor,” which ends July 26. Spend a long morning in the galleries, then grab lunch at Chez Louie, another of Estee’s restaurants, this one French-inspired (try the Croque Monsieur). At the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, kids will have a ball climbing clouds (and learning about water and weather) and playing in an 80-foot-long replica of the Truckee River. Another soon-to-open gallery promises to engage the human in all of us: Inside Out: An Anatomy Experience. A place for the auto buff, the 100,000-square-foot National Automobile Museum fits Burma Shave signs and old gas pumps in among classic cars that include a gold DeLorean, Elvis Presley’s Cadillac and a copper Rolls Royce.
You won’t find a lot of natural beauty in downtown Reno, where the neon signs glow and flash at night and the sidewalks the next morning often hang over with remnants of the hard-party experience. The morning after is a great time to head for Reno’s gems. The University of Nevada, Reno campus on the outskirts of town provides a grassy shady walk among pretty brick buildings and bookworms, and the Fleischmann Planetarium & Science Center puts on some impressive full-dome shows. Not far from campus, Rancho San Rafael Park makes for a peaceful outing. The Wilbur Day Museum & Arboretum puts native foliage on display. The museum’s indoor garden of ponds and waterfalls moistens desert-parched skin, and the labyrinth of trails and bridges that winds down the hillside in the arboretum provides shady respite on a hot summer day. Let the kids play on the dinosaur climbing equipment in the park.
Rancho San Rafael Park also hosts the Great Reno Balloon Race, a gorgeous display of hot air balloons beneath the open sky. Free to spectators and held the weekend after Labor Day (Sept. 11–13), the event brings some 100 balloons to soar. Some highlights: the 5 a.m. Glow Show, stunning against the predawn sky, and Dawn Patrol, when some 20 balloons qualified to fly in the dark take to the air. (renoballoon.com)
Another famous Reno event, Hot August Nights, takes place throughout Reno, Sparks and other Washoe County towns Aug. 4–9. Classic cars, drag races, cruises, huge prizes and lots and lots of old-days musical entertainment mark this event. (hotaugustnights.net)
Finally, anyone who bowls must check out Reno’s National Bowling Stadium. This is not just any old bowling alley. A four-story lobby (complete with whimsical bronze sculpture of bowling family) greets visitors, and the tournament floor houses 78 lanes, a 440-foot video screen for scores and graphics, and a massive pro shop. Sports enthusiasts also will want to make the few-mile drive to Sparks to check out Scheels, the giantest sporting goods store this side of Cabela’s. Ogle at the aquariums arching the entryways, take a ride on the in-store Ferris wheel, and pose with plenty of weirdly lifelike taxidermy. Try your hand at the shooting range and enjoy a buffalo burger for lunch. The selection of sporting goods is staggering—every sport is represented, from cycling to hunting, running to rafting. Need anything in camo? It’s on the second floor, a massive selection of splotchy green and brown.