This is the continuation of stories from our epic New Mexico Road Trip. You can read previous stories here. Highlights I shared so far included the appropriately named white desert White Sands, trekking with llamas and the magnificent Carlsbad Caverns.
Bright lights, loud music, pool parties, gambling and people on vacation who are enjoying massive casinos, giant buffets and air-conditioned shopping malls. That’s what usually comes to mind when you think of Las Vegas. Las Vegas, New Mexico couldn’t be more different from its bigger cousin of the same name in Nevada.
We were driving up to Las Vegas from Roswell, a town I had mixed feelings about, and were stopping here primarily because it seemed like a convenient place to interrupt the long drive from Roswell to Albuquerque. Plus, I had read somewhere that it was a picturesque town with an old Wild West vibe, which is why I wanted to check it out. The hotel I had found, the Historic Plaza Hotel (full review here), looked promising, but apart from that we didn’t know what to expect.
Arriving at the hotel was already an experience in itself. Sitting on the North West end of the main town square, you can’t miss the grand building, easily the most impressive structure around here. We rolled up right to the hotel where we could park outside for free right on the square (gasp.. does that even still exist?!) and when we walked through the historic entrance doors it felt like we had stepped back straight into the late 19th century. I expected posh ladies in flowing satin dresses waiting in the lobby for their carriages to be loaded, sipping on a glass of champagne while their servants were loading up the luggage and getting the horses saddled.
We didn’t spend much time in the hotel though – instead, we headed right back out to explore Las Vegas – what we had seen so far, was so much more charming than we’d expected. The town square, Plaza Park, was where the town had been founded in 1835, following the typical Spanish-colonial model. The green space is filled with leafy trees and wooden statues, all centered around a gazebo in the middle of the park where a Mexican mariachi band was playing live music.
It’s no wonder that Las Vegas is one of the most popular movie locations in the South West for any kind of old-fashioned Wild West movie. The entire town seemed like one big movie set! At the same time, it felt so unpretentious – and it is rare that you find yourself in a place that transports you back into another era in such a genuine way, without even trying (I am looking at you, Tombstone!).
We found ourselves walking straight into Plaza Antiques, a quirky antiques and vintage store where we were greeted by two sleepy cats and the friendly owners who happily chatted with everyone in the store. I love this about small towns – people always show interest in visitors and enjoy conversing with strangers instead of feeling forced to make small talk.
Being in a store filled with so much memorabilia and delightful little trinkets while we had a car that allowed us to buy stuff and actually be able to transport it home was too tempting, however, so we left quickly and walked down to Bridge Street, a street that is lined by beautifully restored Italianate houses on both sides. It really couldn’t be any quainter – and the parked SUVs feel completely out of place. Again, horse carriages would have felt more fitting.
It seems like everybody in Las Vegas knows each other, and the community spirit comes across in the Main Street Program in which the renovations are mainly done with the help of volunteers. Everybody comes together to help paint storefronts and clean up homes that are about to get restored.
The program led to the creation of new shops and business around the Plaza Park and Bridge Street area but also the historic Railroad district. Independent little stores, galleries, cafés and restaurants have opened in the historic buildings, bringing them back to life, and we peeked into art studios, an independent book store, and an old-fashioned drug store.
Located only 70 miles east of Santa Fe, you would think that more visitors make their way to this little town, but Las Vegas is overlooked by most New Mexico visitors – a true hidden gem, even though you can barely call it hidden. In the early to mid 19th century, the town became an important point along the Santa Fe Trail, a historic route between Missouri and New Mexico that transported people and goods before the railroad arrived in 1879.
The arrival of the train line led to an even bigger growth and an influx of different cultures from the east coast. With those, new architectural styles came to Las Vegas, diversifying the design of the buildings around town greatly. While the town had originally been set up in classic New Mexico style, with small adobe homes and a big Indian influence, the late 19th century saw a wide range of architectural styles being added to the cityscape of Las Vegas: in some parts of town, Victorian houses dominate; in others you’ll see Queen Anne, Mission Revival and Italianate buildings. Most of these buildings are still intact today, and over 900 buildings here are now listed on the national Register of Historic Places!
We let a free map that is handed out by the Visitor Center guide us; it outlines all of Las Vegas’ historic places and landmarks and different historic districts. In addition to the Park Plaza and Bridge Street District and the Railroad District, the Douglas/6th Street is a third historic district.
Around Carnegie Park we found many impressive Victorian buildings, some lovingly maintained by private residents, others housing B&Bs, and the beautiful neo-classical Carnegie Library in a lovely setting right in the middle of the park. You could see how well Las Vegas did at the turn of the 20th century – the little town even had an electric tram system back then.
While the town boomed when the railroad put it on the map for the important East-West trade, its glory faded just as quickly when rail travel for both goods and people was replaced by interstate highways and travelers would bypass Las Vegas on the I-25 just south of it.
As little as the façade of the town might have changed over the past one hundred years, behind the scenes a lot is happening with new businesses like the Old Town Drafthouse micro-brewery or art galleries arriving and after the successful renovation of the Historic Plaza Hotel, the once grand but now abandoned Castañeda Hotel near the train station will also be restored and open its doors again soon. Once the hotel reopens its door, the surrounding historic railroad district will also benefit from it and hopefully see more independent bakeries, cafes and galleries open their doors here.
If you happen to be in the area, make sure to stop in this little town. No matter if you plan a New Mexico road trip or travel across the country, you won’t regret visiting Las Vegas. At just over 15,000 inhabitants, the town is tiny. You can easily take in most of the town in half a day – stroll around the historic districts, have a meal in the Rialto or Charlie’s Spic & Span Cafe or enjoy a drink in Byroon T.’s Saloon (see below for details).
Staying at the Historic Plaza Hotel was a fantastic experience, and we found a great deal on Booking.com ($89 for a double room).
Cahrlie’s Spic & Span Bakery & Café is the happening place in Las Vegas – you can get anything here from sopapillas and classic New Mexican fare to good coffee and baked goods.
For a drink, head to Byron T.’s Saloon inside the Plaza Hotel. It offers the perfect Wild West experience and you can mingle with both other visitors and locals.
The Old Town Drafthouse on Bridge Street is a microbrewery that makes an excellent pale ale.
Right next door is the Rialto, a classic New Mexican restaurant (sadly for us, very meat-focused, but everybody kept recommending it us, so it must be good).
Head to the Visitors Center for the free Las Vegas map and visitors brochure and visit the historic homes and districts. Stroll down Bridge Street and take in the beautiful architecture, and pop into the shops along the street.
The City of Las Vegas Museum & Rough Rider Memorial on Grand Avenue (open Tu-Sa 10am to 4pm and (10am to 4pm on Sundays May-September) is free and has exhibits on the local history, the city’s famous residents and the Santa Fe Trail.