Reno, along with its unofficial twin city, Sparks, sprawls for 91.5 square miles over hills and mini-mountains, through meadows and wetlands, past skyscrapers and subdivisions, ethnic enclaves, and gated community mega-mansions. In 1927, with its 26,000 residents, Reno was proclaimed “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Present day Reno’s greater metro area is closing in on a half million. The ethnic and economic mix of the population influx, coupled with the area’s diverse geographic features, adds up to a metropolis-in-the-making that embraces everything from outdoor adventure to funky museums and shops and, of course, gambling.
5… Get your game on, go play
In the gambling glory days of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Casino Row extended for nine downtown blocks and spilled over to side streets. Today, only a handful of major hotel/casinos front on Virginia Street; their former counterparts replaced by pawn shops, souvenir stands, condos, and by-the-week hotels.
Although outlying Grand Sierra Resort, Peppermill, and John Ascuaga’s Nugget (in Sparks) continue to get high marks, savvy travelers frequent -- and are welcomed at -- two “neighborhood” casinos patronized by locals. Atlantis (3800 S. Virginia Street, 775-825-4700; www.atlantis.com) grew from a 142-room motel in 1970 to a three-tower, 1000-room hotel/casino that regularly wins “Best of Reno” awards. If you prefer natural light to neon, head for the casino’s glass-enclosed over-crossing above South Virginia
Street, where you can enjoy panoramic city views while playing the latest slot machines or dining on sushi and seafood.
Also tops with Reno locals is Tamarack Junction (13101 S. Virginia Street; 775-852-3600; www.tamarackjunction.com), a stand-alone casino about eight miles south of downtown. With less neon and noise than in the bigger casinos, amenities range from decent food to an outdoor garden where non-gamers can sit gazing at the Sierra Nevada while their friends play slots and blackjack.
4…Time your visit for festivals and events
When Reno’s tourism count began plummeting in the mid-1980s, the city’s movers-and-shakers worried. The “something that had to be done” became a series of new annual events added to the existing PRCA-sanctioned Reno Rodeo, Great Reno Balloon Race, and National Championship Air Races. Inaugurated in 1986 as the first of these new events, Hot August Nights has become the city’s largest celebration, drawing about 850,000 people each year with its parades, proms, show ‘n shines, swap meets, hula-hoop contests and auctions.
Now, the combination of old and new annual events number well over two dozen. Among the more sublime offerings are many of the 400 performances presented during Artown, the entire month of July’s cultural extravaganza when stars like Baez and Barishnikov take center stage. Great fun and largely free, the ethnic celebrations -- Basque, Native American, Chinese, Greek, Black, Mexican, East Indian – are especially popular with families. In the ridiculous category, August’s La Tomatina finds participants paying money to buy tomatoes that they toss at friends and local dignitaries.
In September, Street Vibrations, causes the earth to reverberate as hundreds of motorcyclists vroom around town. And if you’re planning a spring visit, the Reno River Festival in May attracts kayakers from around the world and also includes non-boating events such as a marathon whose participants dress in costumes and run through mud.
3…Meet your shopping needs, from Lederhosen to belly dancing gear
Once upon a time, Renoites went to San Francisco for everything except underwear and toothpaste. But as Reno’s population grew, so did its shopping. Now you can buy everything from bindis and Bollywood movies (A-I Appliance and Indian Grocery; 2303 Oddie Blvd., Sparks) to designer duds at discount prices.
The Nevada Store (3362 Lakeside Court, Reno) provides a one-stop shop for locally produced gourmet foods, clothing and even the Nevada Trivia Game. Sundance Bookstore (1155 West Fourth Street #106) carries what’s perhaps the state’s largest selection of Nevada books. FrameWorks (Franktown Corners, 2287 Kietzke Lane) features original paintings and prints of area landmarks by Reno artist Roy Powers.
Billed as “Reno’s Coolest Counter Culture Store,” The Melting Pot (1049 S. Virginia Street) offers exotica including a huge array of Belly Dance apparel, accessories and music. Bavarian World’s delicatessen (595 Valley Road) carries the likes of Lederhosen, senf (German mustard-mayonnaise), spaetzle mix and Christmas decorations. For Hispanic Foods, look in at the lavish King Ranch Market 1500 S. Wells Avenue).
As for those designer duds, you’ll find them at Legends (1310 Scheels Drive, Sparks; www.experiencelegends.com ;775-358-3800; Mon,- Sat., 10 a.m -9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.), where more than three dozen stores include Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th, Banana Republic, and other usual suspects.
2…Cars and curios await
Thanks to two men -- both originally from California -- Reno boasts a pair of museums worth traveling significant distances to see. Bill Harrah was crazy about cars and over the years the gambling magnate, who started his empire with a Reno bingo parlor in 1937, amassed an automobile collection of approximately 1,500 vehicles. Upon his death, 175 of them were donated to the National Automobile Museum (10 S. Lake Street; 775-333-9300; www.automuseum.org.; Mon – Sat, 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.). The mint-condition autos shine in three galleries, each of which represents a different era of the 20th century -- complete with storefront facades and period memorabilia.
Instead of joining the family business, department store heir Wilbur May took forty trips around the world, The thousands of items he collected -- everything from Tang Dynasty vases to dime store-quality trinkets -- are displayed at Wilbur D. May Museum (1595 N. Sierra St.; 775-785-5961; Wed. – Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) The museum's first four rooms recreate living quarters at May's Double Diamond Ranch south of Reno, which he bought in 1938. Items displayed in five galleries can best be described as eclectic. Among the objects you’ll find are a giant Russian soup tureen, beaded purses, mounted animals, assorted miniatures, scarabs, daggers, and funerary objects.
1…Take a hike
You don’t have to be well-heeled to enjoy Reno’s outdoor pleasures, but do remember to pack your walking shoes. Then you can stroll past architectural history in the Old Southwest area. Admire the ivy-covered buildings -- backdrops for Hollywood’s “Boy Gets Girl” movies of the 1940s -- on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Farther north at Rancho San Rafael Park, the paths through Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Gardens traverse twelve acres of memorial groves, gazebos, cascading water, creek-side meadows and various gardens.
Miles of public trails encircle the city, winding through its newer subdivisions. Among the most spectacular views are those at Caughlin Ranch, an upscale residential development (off W. McCarran Blvd.) that offers 26 miles of maintained paths, many of which interconnect.
Most accessible to tourists, the Truckee River Walk is a 1.3-mile waterside promenade in the heart of downtown. Other popular walks are around Virginia Lake (a block from S. Virginia St. and Plumb Lane, the Crooked Mile at Idlewild Park and Oxbow Nature Area (off W. Second St.) The latter lets strollers experience the river’s natural environment of decades ago -- a one-third mile interpretive trail and two-story observation tower are Oxbow’s main features.