I first saw the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada in a magazine in the 1980s. There was a beautiful model standing, surrounded by scrap metal in what looked like a junkyard – but looking closer I realised it wasn’t any ordinary metal, it was old faded signs.
I love signs. I don’t know if it’s the colours, the retro typefaces, the fact that if they could talk they could tell so many wondrous tales, but they draw my attention like nothing else.
When we do road trips in the US, I have my camera on my lap in case I catch an interesting one – the more faded the better – as we speed down the highway – they’re few and far between now unless you drive the smaller roads, but here, in what was then known as the Neon Boneyard, was an entire piece of land full of them.
And these weren’t just any old signs – these were Vegas signs. Brighter, flashier, studded with bulbs. I had to visit this place…butt took another 25+ years before it actually happened.
Which brings me to the first thing I love about the Neon Museum…That it’s there at all.
You see at one point, the Neon Museum wasn’t tourist-friendly It literally was where the signs of Vegas went to rest in peace (or pieces as the case may be) while they waited to be used for spare parts. As the space got more and more full, it got to the point that signs were simply being scrapped. Thankfully, someone realised these things were a part of history, saved them and put them all in one lot.
At this point, the Neon Boneyard was seriously on the outskirts of ‘tourist’ Las Vegas and, to visit it, you required a permit and permission. You couldn’t get this as a normal visitor, but it was rapidly becoming a must-shoot place for magazines. When someone from the mag I was working on at the time got to go, I was so jealous I could barely speak!
Over the years, low key tours of the boneyard began, and in October 2012, the Neon Museum officially opened to the public and anyone could visit on a tour.
It took me a couple of years but finally, I got there.
Reason 2 I love the Neon Museum. They don’t just keep complete signs
The random old letters scattered around the place are probably my favourite thing – I love searching out the H’s and have more than one selfie in front of one!
Reason I love the Neon Museum Number 3. They also don’t only have signs from the big casinos.
There’s old motel signs, signs for bars, car washes and dry cleaners and the mix makes for a fascinating look at history. Although, I admit the dry cleaners was Steiners whose claim to fame is that they cleaned the costumes for Liberace and Elvis so, it’s not just your average mom and pop laundrette!
Reason 4. The Stardust Sign
It’s just incredible, it’s also really hard to get a full picture of as it’s huge. It’s even harder to get one without the other people in your tour on it. But I managed it – the big silver lamp next to it came from the Aladdin Hotel.
Reason 5 that I love the Neon Museum. You can see some of it from space
The giant pirate skull in the middle of the Boneyard (that’s its teeth below) came from the Treasure Island Hotel where it used to be part of a huge sign on the Strip. It’s so large it can actually be seen on satellite images on Google Maps – and I particularly love the fact that they’ve left it facing up so it looks super spooky if you do happen to be looking via satellite!
Reason I love the Neon Museum number 6. The Sahara Sign
This was the first hotel I ever stayed in in Vegas – at the time they had this sign. Which I admit makes me feel a little bit more ancient than I might like!
One of the oldest hotels on the Strip, the Sahara was once famously frequented by the Rat Pack. When I went it had lost a little of its gloss and its main claim to fame was a rollercoaster called Speed which ran under the sign!.The hotel donated the sign to the museum in 2006.
Reason 7. It’s a photographer’s dream
I’m not the best photographer in the world, by any stretch of the imagination, but I came back from the Neon Museum with so many photos that I loved. And, even though you have to view the signs on a guided tour with other people, I found heaps of space and time to take photos that looked like I was the only person there simply by pointing my camera back the way we just came!.
If you do want to get a bit more serious with your snaps though, they do offer specialist photo walks which allow tripods and a bit more time to get that angle you really want.
Reason 8 why I love it. They’re still saving signs today
The Hard Rock Hotel opened in Vegas in 1990and outside it was a giant neon guitar. The hotel closed in 2016 and the Neon Museum is now trying to raise the funds to lift, move and restore the old sign as part of the museum/ It’s not a cheap process protecting a sign, the amount they need to do this is a whopping US$350,000.
And the last reason why I love the Neon Museum. They let you see some signs for free
The Neon Museum has also restored nine signs to their full glory and put them outside the museum on a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard for everyone to enjoy – something they call the Las Vegas Signs Project.
These signs include the fabulous Silver Slipper – which, I still remember the model in that original magazine feature standing by.
If you want to find them you’ll find a tour map here that shows you where the signs are located.
What you need to know if you want to visit the Neon Museum
You can’t just wander in there. You have to book a tour – and they do get booked up, particularly the nighttime tours when the 11 signs that have been restored are all lit up so definitely book online in advance.
Personally, I wanted to go on a day tour to see the less shiny, shiny signs. The ones that are still a bit dog-eared and faded like these below. Tours during the day start at $15, nighttime ones are slightly more expensive and start at $22. Note: There are some rules about what you can take to the Neon Museum so do check these in advance.
The address of the Neon Museum is 770 Las Vegas Blvd. It’s at the far north end of the strip. It’s easy to drive to and has free parking. As we didn’t yet have a car when we visited we got a taxi from one of the Strip Hotels. The closest you can reach it on the Deuce Bus is the Mob Museum. It’s about a 12-minute walk from there but I’m always a bit wary of walking away from well-trodden streets in Las Vegas.
Where to Stay in Las Vegas
I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in Vegas – some good, some bad, some now knocked down and with signs in the Neon Boneyard – but on my last trip we stayed in the Vdara. It’s toward the southern end of the strip, close to the Bellagio, the Aria and the Cosmopolitan. It doesn’t have its own casino, but it is smoke-free and dog-friendly which made for super cute fun every morning around the coffee shop. We mostly chose it though because the rooms looked enormous. Even the cheapest category of rooms, the Studio Suite, was huge at 54sq metres.
If you’re looking for other cool arty things to do in Vegas, check out my post here which talks about a new installation called Seven Magic Mountains and where else you’ll find art on the strip.
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