A world-class automobile museum and other things to do in Reno await visitors to this Nevada region that encompasses picture-perfect Lake Tahoe.

In my travels to just about every corner of the world and all but two U.S. states, I still haven’t made it to Las Vegas. But, to get a taste of the gaming and entertainment scene that lures people to Nevada’s urban hotspots, I recently spent a few days investigating what to do in smaller Reno, a city of 264,000, and nearby Lake Tahoe.  

For years I had seen Reno’s signature landmark, the lighted gateway arch proclaiming Reno “The Biggest Little City in the World.” That sign alone—one of America’s best-known city symbols—had always piqued my curiosity, and I’m constantly on the lookout for secondary cities that get less attention than the big kahunas like Las Vegas. 

Silver Legacy

The Silver Legacy, with its impressive white dome, is one of three casino hotels lining Virginia Street in downtown Reno. (Randy Mink Photo)

What To Do in Downtown Reno Nevada 

I’m not a gambler and don’t know how slot machines work, but I enjoyed poking around downtown Reno and the three interconnected casino hotels—Circus Circus Reno, El Dorado and Silver Legacy. Part of Caesars Entertainment and known collectively as THE ROW, all three offer vast gaming floors, shops, and a variety of restaurants and bars. At Circus Circus, The Midway is a fun spot for family things to do in Reno, with carnival/arcade games like balloon darts, basketball hoops, skee-ball and Whac-a-Mole, not to mention a food court. 

There’s also gaming action at hotel-casino complexes outside the downtown Reno core, namely the Peppermill, Atlantis and Grand Sierra. I stayed at the Italy-themed Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, a sparkling property that combines the charm of a Tuscan village with the splendor of a Renaissance palace. 

The Whitney Peak Hotel, one of two downtown Reno hotels without a casino, boasts the world’s largest artificial climbing wall. Rising from the second floor of the 16-story hotel’s east face, the wall takes climbers 188 feet above the city. It is part of BaseCamp Climbing Gym, an in-hotel facility that offers team-building for groups up to 30 and instruction on bouldering and climbing without ropes. The hallways of the mountain-themed Whitney Peak sport detailed ski trail maps of Western ski resorts. 

Visitors are welcome to check out the wall’s second-floor staging area, which abuts the iconic Reno Arch over Virginia Street. They can take close-up photos of the arch, but for those who get any daredevil ideas, a sign warns, “No Trespassing. It is illegal to climb upon or attach anything to the Reno Arch.”  

The Arch in Reno originally brightened the nights with red, white and yellow bulbs, but in 2017 the City Council voted to change its colors to silver and blue in honor of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Wolfpack sports teams. 

Like Reno, Las Vegas has more things to do than gaming. Discover some more exciting activities to do in Nevada. 

Things to Do in Reno’s Riverwalk District 

The Truckee River flows through the middle of downtown, a few blocks south of the Reno Arch. Stretching five blocks between Arlington Avenue and Lake Street, Reno’s revitalized Riverwalk District encompasses historical sights, cultural attractions, boutique shops, art galleries, and places to eat, drink and listen to music. Landscaped walkways line both sides of the riverbank and thread the island that is Wingfield Park. Some restaurants overlook the river, where you might see folks taking a dip or floating along in tubes, kayaks or rafts. A whitewater park generates a series of man-made rapids. The riverfront bike path provides more things to do in Reno and neighboring Sparks. Sierra Adventures rents gear by the hour or day. The 121-mile-long Truckee starts in Lake Tahoe and empties into Nevada’s Pyramid Lake.  

The Nevada Museum of Art, three blocks south of the river, hosts touring exhibitions throughout the year and rotates works from its permanent collections, which are strong on Indigenous, African American and Western art. Nevada’s only accredited art museum is undergoing a $60 million expansion that will be completed in early 2025. The three-story addition to this Nevada museum will include: 

  • Exhibition space 
  • An education and research center 
  • An architectural and art bookshop 
  • A restaurant with Tiffany-style stained-glass windows 
  • A rooftop sculpture garden with mountain and skyline views.  

In a historic, white-columned mansion around the corner from the museum, I discovered Sundance Books & Music, a bookstore with a big section on Nevada subjects. 

The National Automobile Museum in Reno  

The National Automobile Museum, on Lake Street at the edge of the Riverwalk District, is Reno’s premier attraction—in my book anyway. A gold mine for antique car buffs and nostalgia-seekers, it displays some of the oldest and rarest American cars in existence, including a 1892 Philion, a 1902 Capitol Chariot and other bizarre-looking machines that barely resemble the cars that rolled off the assembly line a decade or two later. The restored 1903 Duryea, which sold for $1,250, was produced by the Duryea Power Co. of Reading, Pennsylvania, maker of the first successful gasoline-powered automobile built in America.  

National Automobile Museum

Visitors to the National Automobile Museum in Reno can pose seated in this 1926 Ford Model T.

In the first gallery at the National Automobile Museum you’ll also see a 1909 Ford, 1910 Rolls Royce and 1913 Cadillac, among other highly polished classic cars in a collection derived from the holdings of gaming pioneer William F. “Bill” Harrah. (The founder of Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos once owned about 1,450 vintage vehicles.) The story of the newfangled horseless carriages begins with a blacksmith shop exhibit, as “smithies” were among the first auto mechanics.  

Mixed in with the cars are museum exhibits of vintage clothing and accessories, from dresses, stockings and hats to jewelry, purses and hat pins. Some of the items belonged to Harrah’s forebears. In the National Automobile Museum’s entry hall you can don white coveralls or other period apparel and pose seated in a 1926 black Ford Model T, the only car that guests are allowed to touch. Also near the entrance, you’ll see cars being lovingly restored in the automotive shop. A theater shows films on various car topics. 

The museum has about 200 cars on display in galleries and period streetscapes with storefronts and old-time gas pumps. My favorite section was Cars of the Stars. Among other vehicles, this gallery has: 

  • The 1973 Cadillac Eldorado given to Elvis Presley by his father (though Elvis soon gave it to his karate instructor).  
  • The Batmobile from the “Batman” TV series. This 1966 Lincoln is autographed above the cockpit by actors Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin) and Hollywood car designer and customizer George Barris.  
  • Al Jolson’s 1933 Cadillac,  
  • A 1961 Ghia owned by Frank Sinatra 
  • The 1941 “Lana Turner Chrysler,” owned by the actress’s husband, millionaire playboy Henry J. “Bob” Topping Jr. 
  • A Lincoln Continental convertible assigned to President John F. Kennedy.  
  • The 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause  
  • The 1953 Chevy Corvette bought sight unseen during the model’s first year by 6’4” John Wayne, who could barely fit into the small cockpit. The Hollywood legend later gave it to actor Ward Bond, a good friend who appeared in many of Wayne’s movies.  

To capture some of that Tinseltown glamor, visitors in Cars of the Stars can pose on a stage set with life-size cardboard likenesses of Sinatra, Presley and Marilyn Monroe. 

Spanning Lake Street by the river, near the National Automobile Museum and Renaissance Reno Downtown Hotel, is the original Reno Arch, dedicated in 1926. Like the more commonly photographed Virginia Street arch, erected in 1963 and replaced in 1987, it declares “Reno: The Biggest Little City in the World.”  

During the first week in August, Reno and Sparks rock with Hot August Nights, the largest classic car extravaganza in the country. Featuring some 6,000 vehicles, the nostalgia fest includes: 

  • Show-n-shines,  
  • Nightly cruises 
  • Drag races and burnouts 
  • Music from the 1950s through the early ’80s 

These are other events that top the list of things to do in Reno Nevada: 

  • THE ROW’s Great Italian Festival. On my trip, I was able to witness this Columbus Day weekend tradition that takes over downtown’s Virginia Street with grape-stomping and gelato-eating contests, a sauce cook-off, music acts and vendors dishing up everything from spaghetti and meatballs to fried calamari.  
  • Reno Rodeo in June 
  • Great Reno Balloon Race in September  

Temple of Bowling in Reno Nevada 

Bowlers know Reno Nevada for being home to one of America’s great bowling venues, the National Bowling Stadium. With 78 championship lanes, a 440-foot video screen and a raised spectator seating area, the cavernous space hosts prestigious bowling tournaments. When the building is open for competition, the public can visit the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, a satellite of the shrine on the International Bowling Campus (the sport’s governing home) in Arlington, Texas. Groups can rent the facility’s Kingpin Club, which has 10 lanes; otherwise, there is no public bowling on the premises. 

Reno’s Midtown District 

One of my favorite Reno discoveries was Midtown, a once neglected area that today buzzes with a funky, artsy vibe and an eclectic array of things to do. Perhaps you’ll be attracted to a:  

  • Craft brewery 
  • Music club  
  • Tattoo parlor 
  • Bubble tea stand 
  • Tarot card/palm reader  
  • Body piercing salon 

The highest structures in this low-rise neighborhood are neon motel signs harking back to another era; some of the retro motels in Reno Nevada are still in business. Several Midtown buildings are festooned with striking murals. Needless to say, photo opportunities abound on these lively streets just south of downtown Reno. 

I spent almost an hour in Junkee Clothing Exchange, a shop that purveys antiques and costumes in addition to second-hand apparel and jewelry. On any given day, antique hounds may stumble across a bearskin rug, 1960s Playboy magazines, framed photos of Marilyn Monroe or a beat-up pair of old-time boxing gloves. I picked up some slightly weathered Nevada license plates for the collection in my garage. 

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, as seen here from the Tahoe East Shore Trail in Incline Village, is surrounded by mountains and forests of fir and pine. (Randy Mink Photo)

Side Trip From Reno to Lake Tahoe 

From Reno, I drove through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Incline Village, Nevada for a look at Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake and the second-deepest lake in the U.S. (average depth of 989 feet, with maximum depth of 1,645 feet in Crystal Bay). Cobalt blue, remarkably clear and surrounded by lush forests of fir and pine, the lake—22 miles at its longest and 12 miles at its widest—straddles the Nevada-California state line at an elevation of 6,229 feet.  

After visiting several small shopping centers in Incline Village, I stopped at a scenic viewpoint and walked along a short segment of the Tahoe East Shore Trail, taking pictures like crazy. My immediate thoughts echoed the first impressions of Mark Twain, who wrote, “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”  

At Incline Village’s visitor center, I was intrigued by an exhibit on the old NBC-TV series “Bonanza,” a Western based at the town’s mythical Ponderosa Ranch, home of the Cartwright family. Though most filming for the highly rated Sunday night favorite was done at the studio in Burbank, California, the cast and crew came out to Incline Village for about two weeks a season to shoot on location. The first Western series televised in color, “Bonanza” ran from 1959-1973. A Ponderosa Ranch theme park opened in 1967 and closed in 2004. 

With more time at Lake Tahoe I would have pulled into Sand Harbor State Park, famed for its views of huge boulder formations. Before driving back to Reno, less than an hour away, I had lunch at Tunnel Creek Cafe, a laid-back place overlooking a bike path that runs along the shore to Sand Harbor. Bike rentals are available at the adjacent Flume Trail bike shop. Under the trees at an outdoor table on this blissful, 70-degree fall day, I enjoyed a perfect grilled cheese sandwich (mozzarella, Parmesan, cheddar) on Parmesan-crusted sourdough along with a bowl of tomato soup and a bottle of chocolate milk. 


From the pool deck to interior decor, touches of Italy accent Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno. (Randy Mink Photo)

Back at my grand palazzo in Reno an hour later, I headed to the Peppermill’s sumptuous pool area for a refreshing dip before dinner. At Italian-themed Romanza, one of the casino hotel’s nine restaurants, I feasted on rich, creamy chicken and gnocchi soup, a main course of meat-stuffed cannelloni smothered in cheese and bechamel sauce, and a basket of breadsticks and three different breads, all washed down by a bottle of house-made limoncello. Inside and out, the resort’s Italian flavor is always there to savor, from the generous use of marble to statuary reminiscent of ancient Rome and the Renaissance, from the red-tile roofs and stately colonnades to murals of the Tuscan countryside and great cities of Italy.  

Tourism information on the Reno/Lake Tahoe area is available from the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority. 

—By Randy Mink, Senior Editor 

Lead photo: Reno Arch on Virginia Street. (Photo credit: VisitRenoTahoe.com)