Waking up in Vegas: Five Things to Do that Aren’t Clubbing or Gambling

I have friends who swear by visiting Vegas once a year (I’m from Chicago – who could blame us when winter descends?). When my family went for a second time during Christmas a few years ago, we did it the right way: we camped out at the Flamingo and everyone was over 21, a far cry from a Motel 6 overnight where we had to stay at least 10 feet away from the slot machines. On our way to Mammoth Lakes to ski, we missed our chance to see the attractions in Las Vegas.

Five Things to Do

Our Vegas sojourn was brief – just two nights sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and a trip to see my snowbird grandparents – and included a night of pure hedonism with my sister and our boyfriends. A hazy gambling session at the Imperial Palace. Hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and winning $640.50 (which I put towards purchasing Camarón).  A round of Jägerbombs. Feeling less than splendid the following day when we explored the non-gaming attractions.

Vegas may be an adult playground, but there is far more to do than you think – and these attractions won’t break the bank.

Visit the Hoover Dam

I was not feeling my best when we took an hour-long trip down Route 93 back towards Arizona to see the Hoover Dam. A feat of engineering that lead to Las Vegas’s incorporation, construction on the hydroelectric dam – then called the Boulder Dam – began in 1930. I was hungover and grumpy, and I didn’t feel much like looking at a bunch of stone for a morning.

Hoover Damn

But the Hoover Damn wowed me. From the Art Deco design to the sheer power of a structure built nearly a century ago, it was worth the trip. The Hoover Dam can be visited every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving from 9am. Parking is $10 and tours run $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, children under 17 and military.

You can also get a glimpse simply by driving the 93 over the Hoover Bypass between Nevada and Arizona (cue the Fools Rush In screens stills).

Check Out Old Vegas

As a History Channel follower, my dad has always been fascinated by the history of Vegas, from a small town on a major railway just a century ago to the building of the Hoover Dam and its subsequent boom – did you know that the casinos and nightclubs catered to the predominately male contraction workers? Or that the Nevada state government legalized gambling as a way to turn profits? 

Old Vegas

Old Vegas, located on Fremont Street just east of the Strip, boasts some of the city’s first casinos, announced by vintage neon signs, and a little less hedonism than the more famous Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also less seedy street performers and cheaper buffets. If you do gamble here, payouts are more frequent than the other big-name resorts.

Take in a Show

Entertainers have long set up shop in Vegas, from the Rat Pack to Celine Dion and Britney Spears. Casinos rake in big money by hosting Broadway shows, and while it’s not New York, Vegas is an awesome venue for catching a show.

New York New York Casino

Ever since working on my high school’s costume and makeup crew, coupled with a yearly tradition of seeing Broadway in Chicago with the women in my family, I’ve been fascinated with the Lion King Musical. I missed the opportunity to see it in Madrid, but my dad took us to see the smash musical at the famed Mandalay Bay Casino. And I cried (the Novio fell asleep).

Apart from the big money win, it was the highlight of our trip.

Chow Down at a Buffet

My one memory of a Vegas trip at age 15 (apart from my early-bird-gets-the-worm father arriving at 8am with a plastic cup full of quarters) was the dinner buffet we ate. My parents let us eat jelly beans out of ice cream dishes and as many chicken fingers as we could stomach before collapsing into a food coma at the Motel 6.

Vegas Buffets

Buffets have been around in Vegas for as long as its casinos. El Rancho Casino, the first resort built on the Strip, used its gourmet buffet as a way to defray costs, and because Las Vegas is home to a culinary revolution, and you can find everything from cutting-edge cuisine to fried chicken in buckets nowadays. We chose a hearty breakfast buffet at our resort before a long drive back to Arizona. It didn’t come cheap – we paid $45 per person – but as someone who misses weekly brunches, it was worth it.

Vegas.com lists Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan as its top pick (as does a college friend who calls Vegas home), with Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace) and Studio B (The M) as its other favorites. All three offer different types of cuisines, ample seating and unlimited helpings.

Pay Homage to the City Lights at the Neon Museum

In its short history, Vegas has shone brightly – and I don’t just mean the lights from its casinos. But many of the iconic resorts that lead to the city’s boom have since been bulldozed to make way for newer constructions, and nearly 150 signs have been restored and laid to rest in a Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum. 

Neon Graveyard Vegas

Housed in the former lobby of La Concha Casino, the mandatory tour takes visitors to the Neon Boneyard and North Gallery and past signs from haunts of Vegas past. A guide narrates the tour, painting a picture of Old Vegas and how its legacy shaped the City of Sin today. 

If possible, nab entrances for a night tour. Tickets run $18 for adults.

Have you ever been to Vegas? What are your favorite things to do?

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

Photo Post: the Chirigotas of the Carnavales de Cádiz

How to do the Carnavales de Cadiz

Pá qué quieren ir ha Chipiona shi aquí tenemoh Caí?

Two more beers and a plate of chicharrones were slammed down in front of us as the bar keep expressed exasperation. Why would anyone want to head to nearby Chipiona if the peninsula’s best Carnival celebration were right here in Cádiz?

We’d braved an overcast, misty day to head to San Fernando for the Novio’s wedding tuxedo the morning, and the fried fish and carnavales celebration were calling his name. 

A view of the bay of Cadiz

Entering the barrio de Santa María just north of the old city walls, there were few signs of debauchery and partygoers. I myself have been to the nighttime festivities of the Carnavales de Cádiz twice. Two booze-soaked nights where I stepped in puddles of urine and around broken glass.

Ah, youth.

When the Novio suggested making a day trip to see a friend of his and see the famed chirigotas, I was in. Not that I didn’t have fond memories of botellones and ridiculous children’s costumes, of course.

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento, one I’d seen so full of drunk people and bottles of San David, was bright in the midday sun. As we’d drank our beers, the mist had rolled off of one side of the Atlantic and over the Bahía Sur, passing Cádiz’s skinny land mass in the time it had taken to drink two cervezas

We’d met Jorge in the tangle of streets in the old town. Cádiz is one of Europe’s largest cities, and thus there is little rhyme or reason to the layout of the peninsula. Long on one side, short on the other, I was instantly turned around in the colonial-style pedestrian streets.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Lunch was at trendy La Candelaria, owned by a far-flung relative of Jorge’s. In this city of water and industry, it sees that families have been here as long as Hercules himself, and nearly everyone who walked into the bar over our long lunch knew one another.  

But we came for more than atún rojo en tempura and never-ending glasses of wine (the good stuff, not the plastic bottle stuff). We came for the chirigotas and costumes. 

The origins of carnival celebrations worldwide are rooted in Christian tradition. Celebrated each year just before Lent, believers often used this six-week period to refrain from life’s excesses. Carnaval, a play on the Latin words ‘carne’ for meat and ‘vale’ for farewell, is a last-ditch effort to eat, drink and be merry/drunk before Lent begins. I’d taken that advice to heart all of those years ago, but today would be a far lighter – I’d volunteered to drive home.

Costumes are traditionally worn, and Cádiz’s celebration – one of the largest in Spain – makes light of the humor of gaditanos. Rather than extravagant costumes, gaditanos use their costumes as social commentary. Especially popular this year were Pablo Iglesia, whatsapp icons and the Duquesa de Alba.

costumes of the carnivals de cadiz

Funny Costume Ideas Carnavales de Cadiz

Crazy costumes at Cadiz carnavales

san esteban Carnavales de Cadiz

The chirigotas themselves are the huge draw of the daytime during the two weeks that the festivities drag on. These choruses, usually made up of men in the same costume, sing satirical verses about politics, current events and everyday life while troubadoring around the streets of the Casco Antiguo.

Small clumps of people choked the skinny alleyways as chorus members drank beer until they’d deemed that enough people had gathered to watch. They’d break into song, often asking audience members to join in. We saw everyone from kids dressed as housewives to men dressed as questionable nuns with plastic butts under their habits and plastic cups of beer in their hands.

what is a chirigota

costumes for Carnival

carnival in Cadiz chirigotas

The most famous chirigotas perform for crowds in the famed Teatro Gran Falla, but those who take to the street are often illegal – illegal as in looking for a good buzz on the street!

We wound our way from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Plaza San Antonio and up Calle Cervantes to the Plaza del Mentidero. Named not for liars but the fact that this is where town criers often announced news and events, this square has transformed into the place for rumors to be born – making it a focal point of the festivities (and closer to the Carnavales I knew – littered with bottles and half-eaten food!).

What it's like at the Carnavales de Cadiz

We were back in Seville before nightfall, thoroughly exhausted and still sporting wet shoes from the morning rainfall. Jorge took us around the Alameda park on the northern tip of the island as the sun began to set, a welcome respite from the crowds and noise.

Want more Spanish fiesta? Read my posts on the Feria de Sevilla | La Tomatina de Buñol | The Feria del Caballo de Jerez 

Ibiza’s Can’t Miss Emblematic Buildings

My only trip to the Baleares Islands has been to party mecca Ibiza, and island with seemingly more sheep than residents, more discos than churches. But there’s more to this ancient islands past the nightclubs and party offers.


One can find a lot of interesting buildings and medieval constructions to visit if a decision to take a trip to the island is made. Based mostly in monuments and emblematic constructions, Ibiza’s architecture brings us some of the most impressive buildings in Spain. In fact, the historic city is one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage City, thanks to its medieval constructions and Phoenician origins.

There’s a wealth of information about some of these buildings on Ibiza’s Official Tourism Site, and also you can check out some of their recommendations for visiting the island.

The Dalt Vila Walls

Located in the city of Ibiza to protect it from attacks in the past, these amazing walls, built in the XVI century and declared a World Heritage area by the UNESCO, is an attraction that no tourist should ever miss. The walled area, with a heptagonal form, has a defensive bastion in every one of its angles. 

The Puig de Missa

Located in the town of Santa Eularia des Riu, this church-cum-fortress of the XVI/XVII century is located in the hill nearby the town, therefore placing it in the perfect spot to prevent pirate attacks and refuge the townsfolk from their pillages, safe in the top of the hill.

Aside from the church, the town of Santa Eularia, known for its historic district formed by white houses and pleasant streets, is quaint and full of artisan shops that will prove very interesting for those who love anything medieval.

Des Savinar Tower

Located in the Hort Cove Natural Reserve, near the town of San Antonio, this impressive tower was completed in 1756. Originally intended to be an artillery tower, it never housed cannons, so it’s use was limited to a watch tower. With views of the Es Vedra and Es Vedranell rock, and a height of 200 meters above the sea level, the tower brings us a lovely vista of the sea, and sunsets deserving to be on the best postcards.

The beaches in Ibiza

Due to the large distance between the Hort Cove and the town of San Antonio, we need to rent a car in order to move around the cove and to the natural reserve. We can also make the most of our trip and enjoy the cove, where we will find a beach with thin sand and crystalline waters.

The Ibiza Cathedral

The Ibiza cathedral, built above an old arabian temple, is the shining jewel of the old town. With a beautiful Gothic style, this cathedral finished its construction in the XVIII century, and we can find important medieval art pieces in its interior, like the Saint Gregory altarpiece, or a collection of golden silver from the XIV century. Like many other churches in Ibiza, it has an special tower built as a refuge for the townsfolk from pirates. 

Aside from these magnificent constructions, in Ibiza we can find a lot of pristine beaches and fun nightlife, but for those of us who like to enjoy medieval zones and old buildings will undoubtedly enjoy something other than foam parties.

Have you ever been to Ibiza?

Other posts of interest: A Tenerife Road Trip // Spain’s Architectural Sites // Autonomous Community Spotlight: Islas Baleares

Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

Seville’s Best Terrace Bars for Summer

When the days in Seville heat up (which should have happened, um, six weeks ago), the streets empty out. Buildings are hugged for shade, gazpacho and cold beer are chugged by the gallon. Sevilla literally becomes a ghost town in the summer months, and those of us unfortunate enough to be here have only one option (unless you count day-long showers while eating popsicles as a feasible option, which I totally and shamelessly do):

Terrace bars, called terrazas.

Seville's BestSeville is nestled in the Guadalquivir River valley, one of the flattest parts in all of Spain. This means that all of the hot air sits in right on top of the city, creating an effect called er borchorno. During the evening, the Guadalquivir is just about the only place where we can get some relief, so many of the discos take their booze bottles down to the banks and take advantage of the breeze. I have tons of great memories of nights where I’d roll out of bed at 8pm when the night was finally cooling down, grab some drinks with friends and head to the discos.

Here’s a few of my top picks:

ROOF: This concept bar opened in Spring 2012, staking claim on a multi-storied roof in the Macarena neighborhood. An acquaintance was in charge of the set-up and social media, so I took advantage and dragged La Cait along with me.

The design is part-sevillano-bar, part-Moroccan-bungalow, and ROOF serves up imaginative cocktails along with decent snacks. Just be aware of the long lines for a drink on weekends, and bring your camera – the views are incredible, particularly at night. (ROOF is located on the top floor of the Hotel Casa Romana at Calle Trajano, 5. Cocktails will run you 6-8€. Open daily from midday.)

Terraza at Hotel EME – The hip hang at a terrace bar that’s right next to the Giralda, making it a perfect place to watch the sun go down while having a gin tonic. Electronic music pulsates at pretty much any hour of the day, and cocktails are wildly expensive, but treating yourself to an overpriced mojito when your best friend visits it acceptable, right? (Calle Alemanes, 27, on the 4th floor of the Hotele EME Cathedral).

Hotel Inglaterra – I was introduced to this bar when Gary Arndt, the blogger behind the successful Everything, Everywhere, had tapas with Sandra of Seville Traveler and me. The terrace doesn’t have a ton of character, with fake grass and plastic chairs, but it does have some of the best views of the center of town and a bird’s-eye view of Plaza Nueva – plus, it’s not too crowded or expensive. (Plaza Nueva, 7. Open from 5:30pm daily).

Capote – having a beer at Caopte takes me back to my days as an auxiliar de conversación, long before adult responsibilities like a full-time job and master’s. Nestled just below the Triana bridge, the open-air bar has great parties and promotions, and it’s often a good place from which to start the night. Famous for their mojitos, the bar’s always full of an eclectic mix of people, and they offer cachimbas and ample seating. (Next to the Triana Bridge, open from 1om until 4am from Semana Santa until mid September)

Embarcadero – I wasn’t clued into Embarcadero until a few summers ago. Crammed between two riverside restaurants, a steep staircase leads right down to the water, and the bar has a nautical feel. Embarcadero actually means pier, so lone sailboats rock gently with the current of the Guadalquivir, and heavy ropes are all that separate the water from the wooden planks of the floor. Live music, good service and unobstructed views of the Torre del Oro make this bar one of my favorites. (Calle Betis, 69. Open daily from 5pm until around 2am)

Alfonso – When the summer months get too hot to bear, two discos open at the foot of Plaza de América in María Luisa Park. With the dramatic backdrop of the lush green space and its museums, Alfonso’s breezy terrace rocks into the wee hours of the morning. This is a place to see and be seen without feeling so stuffy. (Located at the south end of Plaza de América in María Luisa park, just off Avenida de la Palmera. Typically open mid-June to mid-September from 10pm).

There’s a whole loads of other – Puerto de Cuba, Chile, Ritual, Bilindo, Casino – but I’m too low key to ever go to them (or get into them!).

The Gourmet Experience at El Corte Inglés: Even if it’s not summertime, the terrace on the top floor of the Corte Inglés in Duque operates yearround, provng that sevillanos will brave any sort of weather to be able to smoke and drink outside. 

terraza Corte Ingles Gourmet

Apart from food offerings, cocktails and beer are served every day of the week on the spacious terrace, which boasts views of the old town. (Situated on the sixth floor of the flagship Corte Inglés in Plaza del Duque, right in the heart of town. Open daily from noon; hours fluctuate for weekends and holidays.)

Have any favorite terrace bars in your city? Please have a sip in my honor – I’m busy planning my wedding!

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