Las Vegas evolves at a pace that makes Gaga seem stagnant. No two visits are the same: There's always a new club, restaurant or show to shake up the experience. And there's no better time to go than New Year's Eve, when the city kicks into highest gear and more people are on the Strip than in New York City's Times Square.
WHERE TO STAY
On a four-mile jag that boasts more hotel rooms than nearly every major world city, the Strip's hot new kid is the $3.9 billion, 3,000-room COSMOPOLITAN OF LAS VEGAS (rooms from $200). The pair of 60-story towers opened in late 2010 with cavernous, modern rooms and full wraparound balconies that provide the best view of neighbor BELLAGIO's famed dancing fountains. The resort's guests have ranged from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jerry Bruckheimer. Talent manager Mark Armstrong of Sanders Armstrong Caserta praises the balconies -- unique among Vegas resorts -- because "now you can actually go outside your own room if you like to have a drink or a cigarette." (Hotels have traditionally avoided balconies because of jumpers.) Be aware, though, that room prices can at least triple for New Year's Eve.
Up the block, CAESARS PALACE is set to unveil its newest hotel, OCTAVIUS TOWER (rooms from $249), on Jan. 2, an addition of 668 rooms and suites including six gargantuan suites, similar to those in neighboring towers that have been occupied by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and President Obama. The tower's fancy new rooms, which feature marble floors, private lobbies and Anichini linens, are part of an $860 million investment that will include the renovation and rebranding of a 180-room section of the resort as NOBU TOWER, due in late 2012. That's the first hotel offshoot of the venerable Robert De Niro restaurant chain.
At the ripe young age of 6, WYNN LAS VEGAS (rooms from $290) also has renovated its 2,700 rooms, lightening the color palette and replacing every last chair, mattress and table. Michael Bay is a regular at the resort.
And the 2-year-old MANDARIN ORIENTAL (rooms from $225) at CityCenter recently became the only Forbes Travel Guide triple-five-star property in Vegas, recognized for its hotel, spa and restaurant, TWIST BY PIERRE GAGNAIRE.
WHERE TO EAT
Most of the longtime Vegas favorites remain, including the tres upscale GUY SAVOY at Caesars, a draw for Irwin Winkler and Ryan Gosling when leisurely French cuisine appeals. But the Cosmopolitan's debut has brought a welcome surge of culinary energy to what has become one of the world's most significant dining towns. Among the new resort's hits are the brilliant Jose Andres tapas joint JALEO, a favorite of Ryan Seacrest and Julianne Hough; the city's first high-end Greek eatery, ESTIATORIO MILOS; and Scott Conant's latest, SCARPETTA.
"I like the meatballs at Scarpetta so much, I had like three orders. That's how obsessed I was with them," says producer (and enthusiastic gambler) Randall Emmett, who spent two weeks at Caesars recently while shooting the upcoming sportsbook dramedy Lay the Favorite, starring Bruce Willis.
The Cosmo has even reinvented the age-old uninspired Vegas buffet with WICKED SPOON, which serves fresh, attractive food mostly in individual ramekins or plates. "It's not communal," says Armstrong, "and everything is really, really delicious."
Across the street at PARIS LAS VEGAS is the new American brasserie SUGAR FACTORY, where Nicki Minaj and Adrian Grenier have indulged their sweet tooth. It's ostensibly a burger joint that also offers such fare as red velvet pancakes and a pizza topped with milk chocolate, peanut butter and jelly. For gourmet small plates, search out restaurant impresario Michael Morton's sleek year-old hideaway wine bar LA CAVE at WYNN or hit FLEUR at MANDALAY BAY, a French-inspired tapas place that chef Hubert Keller converted from his Michelin-rated Fleur de Lys.
While it's unusual for Hollywood insiders to wander from the Boulevard's bright lights, celebrity chefs the world over have favorite hole-in-the-wall haunts. Among those is CHINA MAMA (3420 S. Jones Blvd.), where Top Chef Masters' Rick Moonen gets his "crazy-good soup dumplings," and LOTUS OF SIAM (953 E. Sahara Ave.), a Thai place sought out by Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio and Food Network star Susan Feniger. Says Colicchio, "Chefs appreciate ethnic food that's not about fancy food."
WHERE TO PARTY
Nothing has been quite so explosive in recent years in Vegas as the onslaught of hip nightclubs, and New Year's Eve will see the debut of two more. Bellagio's HYDE LOUNGE, the brainchild of SBE impresario Sam Nazarian, will have some of the best real estate in town overlooking the hotel's fountain display. Or you can ring in 2012 with Fergie at the new 1 OAK at THE MIRAGE. Those hotspots will find themselves in stiff competition with the Cosmopolitan's mammoth, high-tech MARQUEE, a favorite of Bravo's Andy Cohen and screenwriter Diablo Cody, and Wynn's XS, which played host to Prince Harry in November and is a hangout for Brett Ratner and Usher. Another newcomer, the 9-month-old CHATEAU at Paris Las Vegas, is a magnet for the likes of Britney Spears' manager Adam Leber and actor Joe Manganiello.
Acts headlining in Vegas on New Year's Eve also include Stevie Wonder at the Cosmopolitan (whose concert will be live-streamed to the Strip), LMFAO at HAZE nightclub inside CityCenter's ARIA resort, Mary J. Blige at the TROPICANA, Bruno Mars at THE BANK nightclub at Bellagio and John Legend at PALMS.
As far as more traditional Vegas entertainment, the only place with consistent showstoppers these days is the splendid COLOSSEUM at Caesars Palace, which lured both Celine Dion and the increasingly Swarovski-crystal-encrusted Elton John back for long-term shows then added Rod Stewart to its singular lineup.
Meanwhile, in a city with seven Cirque du Soleil productions, it's challenging for other shows to break through. But the recent Caesars Palace sleeper smash ABSINTHE -- an acrobat-cabaret show that features, among other things, Holly's World reality star Angel Porrino stripping inside a giant balloon -- has done it. "It's this psycho circus. It's really, really wild," says Vince Neil of Motley Crue, which will have a three-week residency at HARD ROCK HOTEL in February. Talent manager George Shapiro and David Arquette have taken in the show as well. Evidently, it has also influenced the Crue: Tommy Lee insists their show at the Hard Rock will be less standard-issue concert and more "a Cirque-type, over-the-top, full-blown interactive thing."