Lake Tahoe and Reno have heard all of your back-handed jokes about how the two cities are nothing more than Las Vegas’ far less glamorous cousin. And sure, the two stops separated by about an hour do gambling, lavish stage shows and steak dinners on a smaller scale. But these destinations are so much more than mere Sin City spinoffs.
Each offers high-end hotels, outdoor activities and a culinary scene that wows. But don’t just take our word for it. We wrangled the help of two well-known local personalities, U.S. Ski Team member Lila Lapanja and influential business owner Jessica Schneider, to show us sides of the cities that would even make Vegas jealous.
Contrary to what winter skiers and spring breakers have you thinking, Lake Tahoe doesn’t close up shop in the summer. On the contrary, when temperatures start to rise, locals simply pack up the thermal shirts and throw on tank tops. Naturally, Lapanja loves her hometown in the cooler months, but she’s got nothing but warm things to say about the area during the other seasons.
“In the winter and fall,” Lapanja says, “the water and air temperatures are usually chilly. Looking at Tahoe [any time] is a pleasure. But in the summer, when the surface water warms up to about 65 degrees, it feels great to jump in! I think people would enjoy the experience of paddle boarding, kayaking, boating or swimming in the warmer months.”
Keep reading for a few of Lapanja’s other local tips and some of our own takeaways from a recent visit to the area.
When it comes to luxury accommodations, two options stand out — Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe and Edgewood Tahoe. The former had already established itself with a gorgeous, 170-room layout, and it only enhanced the experience in 2017 by adding the beautiful Lake Club, an ultra-exclusive lake house with a wooden bar, a private pier and a rotating menu of summery bites.
Edgewood Tahoe, long known for its beloved golf course, debuted a lodge, with its alpine-inspired décor and delicious local dishes, in early 2018. But even with all of the waterfront views and towering ceilings, what we recall most fondly about the property is a spa featuring 8,500 square feet of natural refinement and seasonally shaped treatments, like spring’s citrus grove pedicure.
For an even more homey experience that doesn’t skimp on the amenities, check into Cedar Crest Cottages, a family-owned, nine-unit escape that works on a number of levels. From discerning couples looking for high-end touches (glass-enclosed showers, fine linens) to families longing to stretch out (full kitchens, walking distance to the lake), this property shrouded in towering trees delivers enough pine-scented posh for everyone in your party.
Like Lapanja said, it won’t matter what the calendar says — Lake Tahoe will be ready to impress. Seeing as how forecasts mostly will call for 60-degree temperatures or higher over the next few months, you’ll want to stop by North Lake Tahoe’s Olympic Bike Shop for a two-hour rental. Freestyle it without a map (with the quaint town and lake as your backdrop, we don’t blame you), or go the 19-mile round-trip route from the bike shop to Sugar Pine Point State Park.
During the trek, meander through wooded corners, around residential areas and alongside the lake’s photogenic western shore. Don’t even think about timing yourself along the way; you’ll pause far too often for pictures that stopwatches will be deemed useless.
Less than 15 miles from the bike shop is Thunderbird Lake Tahoe, a sort of throwback attraction that’s hard to put to words. The brainchild of George Whittell Jr., the lodge is a sort of mansion-meets-living-museum-meets-events-space that proves more than worth the two hours you’ll have allotted for the visit. Admire the structure’s Tudor-style influence. Discover the underground tunnels and hidden walkways. Gawk at the Thunderbird yacht, a 55-foot vessel that wedding couples use for making grand entrances to their nuptials.
When it comes to eating, you can bet an Olympian will know where to go. “I enjoy Fireside Pizza in Squaw Valley,” says Lapanja, who’s also hungry for a spot on the 2022 Olympic team. “The Village at Northstar also has great ambiance. In my hometown [of Incline Village], I love getting Mexican food from T’s Mesquite Rotisserie.”
Another neighborhood favorite where you’ll feel right at home is Rosie’s Café. This North Tahoe landmark has served up equal parts kitsch and down-home comfort since 1989. And once you dig into the hearty, generous portions, you’ll see why. Grab a traditional burger (topped with Thousand Island dressing) or an oven-roasted turkey sandwich to fuel your afternoon.
Not a five-minute walk from there is Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique, chef/owner Douglas Dale’s Asian-American-fused gift to town. Ahi poke cones are delightfully served upright in a bed of grains. Bay scallops make a beautiful dish with arame seaweed and aioli. A host of other proteins and fish is laid so elegantly on handmade plates that you don’t know if you should frame your entrée or put a fork in it.
The picture you have in your head for Reno is only partially accurate. Yes, flashy casino lights and elaborate stage productions have been a part of the DNA of “The Biggest Little City in the World” since the 1930s, but they aren’t the only things the city flaunts these days. Reno is arts. Reno is community. Reno is small-business incubation. Come to think of it, the real Reno is probably the exact opposite of what you’ve been told.
One of the most instrumental voices in this charge is Jessica Schneider. Her businesses, Junkee Clothing Exchange and Simple Ice Cream Sandwiches, are bustling enterprises now, but a few years back, when the Midtown District had no identity, Schneider saw past the empty streets and boarded-up buildings. She recognized an opportunity for growth.
And sure enough, in subsequent years, the blocks have livened up. And blocks bordering those have done the same thing, galvanizing this underdog city and turning it into what Schneider calls, “a rising phoenix.”
“I knew we needed a local movement,” Schneider says. “People would come here just for the casinos. Now, they go to Junkee and [restaurants like] Süp and Two Chicks. There are microbrews, art and live music. That’s why Midtown took off so fast — [the locals] were starving for it.”
To immerse yourself in this rejuvenated Reno, you’ll want to stay at Whitney Peak Hotel. A stylish, non-gaming property that opened in 2014, Whitney Peak is that proverbial breath of fresh desert air that has 310 fabulously chic rooms, the popular Cargo Concert Hall and the world’s tallest outdoor climbing wall (16 stories) — all mere feet from the famed Reno Arch.
A short walk from that landmark sits Silver Legacy Resort Casino, a stay that’s more in the traditional mold for the city. While rooms here aren’t neglected — in fact, a two-year, $100 million makeover of Silver Legacy and sister properties Eldorado Resort Casino and Circus Circus Resort is nearing its completion — it’s clear that the attention is placed on entertainment. A part of THE ROW, a newly branded entertainment hub in the heart of the city, Silver Legacy has an 80,000-square-foot casino floor filled with slot machines, baccarat tables and video walls for sports-betting fans. But as proof that the casino isn’t lost in an ’80s fog, millennials can try their luck with futuristic games like True 3D Wheel of Fortune.
Silver Legacy knows that it’ll take more than a few good poker hands to keep you entertained, so it tempts with relaxing treatments in the new-look spa, resounding stage productions (The Illusionists’ residency started in mid-April) and a brand-new TopGolf Swing Suite. All of that and we haven’t even begun talking about THE ROW’s summer concert slate highlighted by Wynonna Judd (June 1), Lyle Lovett (July 12), the Isley Brothers (August 16) and Hall & Oates (September 12).
But another side of downtown Reno, one with less lights and loud slots, is The Riverwalk District. Besides the natural calm from the Truckee River, you’ll love how the neighborhood showcases businesses peddling local beer (The Brewer’s Cabinet), novelty apparel (Home Means Nevada Co.) and other homegrown entrepreneurs (The Basement).
“The [Reno] city council really understands the city’s potential,” Schneider says of the budding enterprises around town. “With all the tech companies like Tesla [who owns the massive Gigafactory just outside city limits], they know that we’re going to have a boom. And it’s happening.”
Because of past misconceptions and Reno 911! reruns, the quirky city isn’t always taken seriously. And this rings especially true on the dining scene.But for every $12.99 steak dinner found near a casino floor, there are places such as The Eddy cooking up new images. Constructed out of shipping containers and a well-executed vision for a collaborative hangout space, The Eddy is where locals go to eat tasty fish tacos, enjoy happy hour and watch their dogs roam about.
Not too far away from all of that outdoor excitement is Liberty Food and Wine Exchange, an artisan eatery promoting Reno/Tahoe farmers through a fun, flavorful menu packed with cheese boards, wood-roasted cauliflower and smoked pork tagliatelle.
Just next door of Liberty is the May-opening Reno Axe, the aptly named establishment where you’ll be able to throw Paul Bunyan’s favorite tool at wooden targets while tossing back cold ones and nibbling on pizzas and items from the grill.
And, of course, there’s the dining scene back on The Row. Sure, you can find a cowboy ribeye at Ruth’s Chris and a barbecue burger at Canter’s Delicatessen, but you’ll want to save at least one meal for Eldorado’s La Strada. An eye-opening dinner here proves once and for all that there’s no way that Reno could be stuck in the past by preparing a rigatoni that remarkable.