Reno, Nevada, used to be my supply stop. In the late 1990s, I would grab goggles and gallons of water, then high-tail it to the Burning Man festival in the desert some 150 miles north. I’d barely glance out the car window at the casino-studded skyline, which didn’t interest someone who preferred a flaming effigy to a one-armed bandit.
Then last year, I moved an hour away. Soon, I started driving to – not through – the “Biggest Little City in the World.” Visit after visit, I noticed its efforts to diversify beyond gambling and a reputation as the world’s divorce capital, and have grown to love a place – growing into a hub for artists and outdoor enthusiasts – that I had overlooked.
“Reno is on the cusp of becoming a talked-about city,” Sam Sprague told me as I surveyed his home-decor shop in the Midtown District. Like many people in Reno, Sprague is proud of his rapidly changing city that holds attractions far beyond its old reputation.
Nestled alongside the Sierra Nevada in the Great Basin Desert – and with the Truckee River coursing through downtown – Reno has a temperate climate and so much outdoor access that you can skip the hour-long drive to Tahoe and hike, cycle and paddle on the same day.
Gambling is still part of the city. Walking though downtown, I noticed pawn shops and grittiness near the casinos. Colorful murals were an unexpected jackpot. Across from the Circus Circus sign, I admired Reno Playa Art Park’s eye-popping sculptures. Beyond the Grand Sierra Resort’s gigantic casino, its desert sun-drenched poolside cabanas tempted me to lounge all day and stay in one of its 1,900 rooms.
The city is also betting big on its future, with improvements that include $80 million in transportation upgrades that will connect the Midtown District with the University of Nevada. The wager is already a winner. Tech companies like Tesla are bringing jobs (as well as gentrification and housing headaches). And Reno’s neighborhoods are reinventing themselves into a celebration of everything local, from organics to art.
These days, I still stock up on supplies here, but I’m more inclined to linger than to leave.
Watersports enthusiasts don’t need to leave downtown to hone their skills on the rapids. With a half-mile of channels and pools, as well as 7,000 tons of rocks and boulders, Truckee River Whitewater Park is suitable for beginners and advanced kayakers alike, as well as inner tubers and canoers. Stand-up paddleboarding is also popular beyond the rapids. Landlubbers can watch the action from Wingfield Park’s grassy banks or one of several pedestrian-friendly bridges over the river.
Named by AutoWeek as one of the country’s top five, the National Automobile Museum houses more than 200 vintage cars, some in historically accurate, life-size dioramas. A 1981 gold-plated DeLorean greets visitors at the entrance. From there, we’re off to the races. Among the mind-bogglingly diverse collection amassed by casino mogul William Fisk “Bill” Harrah, don’t miss the 1907 Thomas Flyer, which won the 169-day New York-to-Paris race in 1908.
Inside the museum but out of this world, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education is particularly captivating for aspiring astronauts. It offers displays, virtual reality roving and a spaceflight laboratory that simulates solar-system journeys. The center’s Science Saturdays include planetarium programs and live presentations.
Guidebook musts: The Nevada Museum of Art, the state’s only art institution accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, focuses on how humans interact with natural, man-made and virtual environments. The 70,000-square-foot-building, which echoes nearby Black Rock Desert’s geology, houses a permanent collection of Western and contemporary art. Recent exhibits include Australian aboriginal memorial poles, Georgia O’Keeffe’s camping equipment and an affecting tribute to Chinese immigrant railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada. The sky plaza has stunning views of the city, desert and mountains.
While walking through Rancho San Rafael Regional Park’s 23-acre Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden, it’s easy to reflect on Reno’s abundance of natural riches. The arboretum’s groves and gardens hold more than 4,000 kinds of plants, including many Nevada natives. One of the city’s few wetlands attracts more than 55 species of birds.
Once home to cattle and sheep ranches, the 570-acre park is only five minutes north of downtown. Visitors can appreciate sweeping views of the city, Truckee Meadows, the Sierra Nevada range and Great Basin Desert. Mountain bikers and hikers have miles of trails to explore. In the unlikely event of rain, you can still picnic in a pavilion or check out a ranch house and a museum.
Where to eat
Fancy some wood-fired Korean barbecue pizza? How about kimchi tacos, tempura, ramen, Banh mi, curry or masala dosa? At West Street Market, I enjoyed my salad of sesame-ginger microgreens while appreciating the eye candy of so many cuisines scattered across the tables, including abundant gluten-free and plant-based options. (That Korean barbecue pizza, for example, is surprisingly vegan.) Don’t forget coffee and gelato for dessert.
Seven restaurants and cafes, all highlighting organic and local foods, share space in this airy warehouse: Thali, Thali Lounge, Maya’s South Indian Cuisine, the Pizza Collective, the DeLuxe, Bibo Coffee and Sabrina’s West Street Kitchen. The common area features exposed brick, cement floors and wooden beams, as well as big tables and comfy couches for family meals.
Since 2013, lively, homey Great Full Gardens Cafe and Eatery has celebrated all things local, including the Lake Tahoe water in its tap kombucha and the organic ingredients from nearby farms. The owners even work together with a nonprofit organization to bring greenhouses to area schools.
I couldn’t tear myself away from the pesto tofu scramble and warm kale salad with cranberries and shallots. My companion ordered a tangy, sauerkraut-dripping Reuben sandwich on local sourdough and jackfruit tacos with snappy jalapeqo aioli to go.
The inspired beverage menu includes local coffees, spicy mocha with vanilla and almond, chai and superfood drinks made from turmeric, matcha, maca and even mushrooms. On the desserts list: decadent cookies a la mode and kombucha floats.
Guidebook musts: The Eddy, right on the Truckee River downtown, is a community gathering place and watering hole spread through a half-dozen repurposed cargo shipping containers. Three bars – Mountain, River and Desert – offer wine, cocktails and 24 craft beers on tap, two of which my companion threw back while he beat me at bocce and corn hole on the expansive lawn. The many games are free, including oversized Jenga and Connect Four.
With a wood-fired oven and toppings including dairy and nondairy cheeses, balsamic glaze and barbecue sauce, Firetrail Pizza was the perfect fuel for an apres-gaming hangout in chairs that dangled from another container’s ceiling. Pooches and kids are welcome.
Homegrown Gastropub’s owner, a third-generation Reno resident, expanded his business from a food truck into a cozy restaurant with a textured metallic ceiling, chandeliers and plush olive-colored booths. Diners can enjoy a range of mealtimes, from breakfast to late-night nosh. The menu focuses on organic, locally grown fare with an emphasis on comfort food, such as French toast, Benedicts, tacos and pizzas (salads too). Save room for a shake or float from the impressive dessert selection.
Step up to the corrugated metal-and-cement bar adorned with melted drip candles and a Himalayan salt lamp for beers, wine and cocktails from local breweries and distilleries. I sipped a cucumber-lime mocktail while watching midtown passersby.
The Basement, located under a historical downtown post office, hosts a dozen independent services, retailers and food vendors for inspired browsing. I window-shopped Scandinavian decor, homemade apothecary products and jewelry before grabbing a cup of java at Global Coffee and relaxing in the warehouse-style communal space.
Also, try a drink at speakeasy-style Seven Troughs Distilling or tame that mountain-man face at the Beautiful Bearded Man barbershop. Be sure to check out the contemporary and old-time photos on the walls.
In the market for a unicorn onesie? How about goggles, butterfly wings, faux fur or body chains? Bursting with exuberant kitsch, The Melting Pot World Emporium has everything that a longtime or aspirational burner (a.k.a. Burning Man participant) could want – on or off the playa. During my tour, manager Lisa Etcheverry turned off the normal light in the party room, letting the black-light apparel reveal their glorious glow.
Since owners Eric and Monique Baron opened the doors in 1996, the countercultural mainstay has sold outrageous and practical clothing, accessories, jewelry and more, much of it locally designed and created.
Guidebook musts: Since 1985, Sundance Books and Music, has been a hub for Northern Nevada literary and music fans. It sponsors readings, book signings and other events, including the day-long Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl each September, and even has its own press.
The bookstore resides in a 1906, three-story, post-Colonial mansion, with some of its many rooms devoted to fiction, nonfiction and used books. A wall of Nevada-related tomes stretches across one lower-level room, next to chairs that entice bookworms to burrow.
“Visitors are sometimes surprised that there’s a literary community here, but it’s really quite vibrant and phenomenally supportive for books and art,” owner Christine Kelly said.
For 15 years, Sam Sprague’s home decor store, with its eclectic farmhouse vibe, has eschewed mass-produced goods in favor of locally made art and furnishings. Micano Home and Garden’s artful displays hold unique items such as wheelbarrows transformed into tables and Edison bulb lamps made from old gears and rotary phones. I was drawn to an artful contraption repurposed from a home radiator, galvanized pipes, salvaged wood and various lightbulbs.
“We have relationships with local artists and try to use as many upcycled materials as we can,” Sprague explained. “And the industrial farmhouse style reflects the roots of Reno and where we can land in the future.”
Where to stay
There’s no gambling, but something even better awaits at this boutique hotel: urban adventure. From the base of the world’s largest artificial climbing wall on the outside of Whitney Peak hotel, I squinted up at its dizzying 164-foot height, directly over the iconic Reno Arch. Inside, a 7,000-square-foot park includes two 15-foot-tall boulders, another climbing wall and a kids room.
“The facility attracts experienced climbers, as well as first timers who are bitten by the bug and start climbing regularly,” the desk attendant said. If you get nibbled, classes and memberships are available.
The pet-friendly, nonsmoking hotel features 310 rooms, sleek decor – and a sauna and steam room for post-climbing relaxation.
Guidebook must: Overlooking the river, mountains and downtown, the Plaza Resort Club Hotel offers 10 floors of guest rooms, each with its own theme, including gaming, railroads and the Reno Air Races. General Manager John Wolf showed me around, pointing out photos and artwork that designers worked with the Nevada Historical Society to locate. Guests can enjoy a gym, speakeasy-style cocktail lounge and pool with an antique bar.
A couple of shabby storefronts are relics of the once-neglected Midtown District, but they’re greatly outnumbered by a head-snappingly diverse jumble of independent retailers and services, including high-end and vintage clothing boutiques, record stores, wine bars, hipster taverns, poke bars and acai cafes. In July, visitors can catch the Midtown Art Walk and free jazz, bluegrass and reggae concerts.
Plan for a few hours to walk South Virginia Street and its environs. I couldn’t decide which of the district’s 80-plus murals were my favorite. Art Spot Reno offers self-guided and docent-led tours.
Guidebook must: Just steps from the Virginia Street Bridge – where new divorcés allegedly flung their wedding rings into the Truckee River – the Raymond I. Smith Truckee River Walk heralded Reno’s renovation in the 1990s. Today, the Riverwalk District is a symbol of municipal unity, with restaurants, shops and galleries. Entertainment venues such as the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts host local and touring acts.
The neighborhood’s nine parks include City Plaza, which showcases two huge Burning Man installations: a 50-foot-tall steel-and-glass humpback whale and calf, as well as a 70-foot-wide steel “BELIEVE” sculpture that underscores the city’s faith in its new direction.
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