Reno surprised me. It had never been on my radar. It’s only a two-hour flight from Denver, but I never once thought to go there A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to visit Reno. And I figured, ‘why not.’
I really didn’t know what to expect when I got there. I assumed Reno was a smaller version of Las Vegas (that’s pretty much a crime to say in Reno). But, really, that’s what I thought. That’s the vision I had in my head. Big casinos and bright neon lights lining the streets. What I discovered was something completely different, something I never expected.
Reno has a lot more going for it than just gaming. The food scene is booming, craft breweries and distilleries are popping up everywhere, and art fills the streets. There are tons of outdoor activities to enjoy in the city and the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Amidst all the contemporary advancement, there’s still a strong sense of pride in the city’s past, and they’ve found ways to incorporate that into modern day life.
I was honestly impressed by what I experienced in Reno and I’m a little bummed I couldn’t spend more time there. However, I’m happy to say this city is still developing and growing, and there will be much more to see when I go back.
What was it exactly that captivated me about Reno? It’s unexpected characteristics that make it a true treasure to experience.
A Mixture of Past and Present
Reno has a colorful background. This isn’t history class, and I won’t write out a chapter on it’s past. But I will tell you that Reno has a rich variety of cultures and traditions. Evidence of Native American and Basque heritage can be seen throughout the city, and there are plenty of nods to the silver mining industry and western customs Reno was built on. And of course, there’s the large gaming scene, but you all know about that, right?
Many historic landmarks dot the streets, from religious structures and old railroad depots to government buildings and storied residences. Many of these buildings have been re-purposed to house restaurants, breweries, retail stores and modern apartments. The Reno Downtown Post Office was built between 1931 and 1934 in the Art Deco style. Today, the outside looks similar to how it did in the 1930s, but inside you’ll find The Basement, a mix of retail and dining below ground, and home goods retailer West Elm on the ground floor.
The Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad Depot was built in 1910. It boasts architectural features such as Italianate bracketed cornices, Roman arches, and red Spanish roof tiles. It served the railroad industry until 1958, when it was sold to a family that used it as a headquarters for the Sierra Wine & Liquor Company. Today, the building pays homage to its railroad and liquor past and serves as the home of The Depot Craft Brewery & Distillery (which I’ll talk about more later in the blog).
Step back in time with a visit to Virginia City. A short drive from Reno, Virginia City was once the richest town in the country thanks to its burgeoning silver mines. Today, you can visit the saloons and shops that were once bustling with thousands of residents.
Reno’s art scene
Have you ever heard of Burning Man? You know, that vibrant festival that happens every year out in Black Rock Desert in Nevada? Well, it’s not far from Reno. The benefit of the proximity? Reno takes advantage of the many art installations created for the self-expression gathering.
Several of these innovative pieces can be found throughout the city, prominently on display for locals and visitors to admire year-round. These pieces were created for one purpose, but they’re serving Reno in a whole other way. They’ve brought the vitality and color of Burning Man to the city streets.
One of the most iconic pieces can be found in downtown Reno right next to the river. It’s seven simple letters put together to create something that Reno now stands for: Believe. The sign has become part of the city, and the message resonates with the people here so much so that they have adopted the phrase, Believe Reno.
Right next to the Believe sign is one of the most stunning pieces I’ve ever seen. The Space Whale is a 50-foot representation of a whale and its baby. The piece is made of steel lattice and thousands of differently shaped, hand-painted pieces of stained glass. Unfortunately, the artist is asking for a lot of money for this, and Reno is unable to keep it for much longer. But if you happen to make it there in the next six months you’ll be able to spot this true treasure of the city. One piece of advice, try to see it at night when it lights up the city square.
Truckee Riverwalk Art
The Riverwalk is another place where you can take in Reno’s art. There’s a sculpture garden and several other pieces of Burning Man art scattered along the banks. Some of them are even interactive. The Portal of Evolution is a piece you can climb, if you so desire.
Reno Playa Art Park
Opened in November 2016, the Playa Art Park was designed to house a selection of installations that were at Burning Man that year. A few of the sculptures have since been switched out, and new ones from the 2017 event are now stationed there. While it may not be a huge display, there are some lovely and remarkable pieces that you don’t want to miss.
Reno has also commissioned several artists to paint murals throughout the city. Plastered on the side of parking garages and hotels and office buildings, you’ll see some of the most brilliant and breathtaking paintings around. I recommend taking a couple hours to wander the streets of Reno to discover all the different works of art.
Reno’s Culinary Scene
I never saw Reno as a culinary destination. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what kind of food Reno was known for. But as I was informed on my recent visit, the city is embracing some new styles of cuisine and inviting several acclaimed chefs to create innovative fresh dishes.
One custom that you will see embraced throughout Reno is the Basque dining experience. I don’t know how many of you know the history of the Basque population, but I’ll give you a quick background. The Basque people originate from Europe and come from a tiny region in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. This group of immigrants came to the United States and settled in Nevada and Idaho. In both states you will find a strong Basque culture, and the locals absolutely love the food and the traditions of this community.
We dined at Louis Basque Corner. This was my first sampling of Basque food, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Meals are served family style with generous portions. They include the soup of the day (ours was a chorizo, spinach, potato concoction that I could have eaten three bowls of), French bread, salad, Basque beans, French fries, a first course, main entree, dessert and a glass of house wine. We also enjoyed a plate of oxtail. The entrees consisted of hefty dishes like top sirloin steak, roast leg of lamb and filet mignon. Vegetarians beware. With all this food, be prepared to come hungry and leave in a solid food coma.
One thing you must try when you’re in Reno is the signature drink of Nevada. It’s called the Picon, or Picon Punch. It’s a Basque cocktail made with Amer Picon, grenadine, club soda, brandy and a lemon peel. The taste is bittersweet (literally) and it burns ever so slightly. It’s a strong drink. After one or two, you may be on the floor. But it’s a rite of passage for people visiting Nevada, and even though I couldn’t finish mine I’m happy to say I at least gave it a shot.
All- You-Can-Eat Sushi
But Basque food is not the only kind of cuisine you’ll find in Reno. What you may not know about Reno is that you can get all-you-can-eat sushi at pretty much any seafood restaurant. I dined at Oceano in the Peppermill resort and for the generous price of $32.99, I could eat all the sushi I wanted. Granted I get full quickly, so that didn’t last too long, but it’s a nice thought especially if you love sushi and are super hungry.
Craft Beer, Spirits and Cuisine
Reno has embraced the craft beer and distillery industry. Several new breweries have arrived on the scene creating new hangout spots for young residents of the city. I had the chance to visit The Depot, a craft brewery and distillery located in an old train depot. Not only did they have a wide selection of beer, but they also had an interesting selection of specialty cocktails. Being the beer drinker that I am, I opted for a flight. When I go back, I will definitely give those cocktails a try. To soak up some of the alcohol, we ordered a selection of appetizers. Luckily the depot has a top-notch chef and serves a range of American-style food. I recommend the cornbread fritters and the mac & cheese bites.
Reno’s Outdoor Adventures
Reno is the gateway to Lake Tahoe for most people. Arrive in Reno and the quick drive gets you to the biggest Alpine Lake in the country. But in between the city and the mountains there are several outdoor adventures to be had.
Did you know that Reno is home to the largest outdoor climbing wall? That’s right. You can test your strength on the 164-foot outdoor climbing wall located at the Whitney Peak Hotel. Inside, there is more than 7,000-square-feet of bouldering with over 3,200-square-feet of climbable space.
Skiing and Snowboarding
I guess the one thing I’ve always known about the Reno Tahoe area is there are ski resorts. I was unaware of how many there are. It boasts the highest concentration of ski resorts in the country. In a given day, you could ski 2-3 resorts, and even more in a week. I could plan a two-week ski vacation in Reno Tahoe, and never ski the same slope twice (unless I found one I really liked).
Being a Denver native, I always thought our ski resorts were fairly close. I had no idea that Reno is within 25 minutes of some slopes, and most are no more than an hour’s drive. Talk about convenient. In fact, there are a few resorts that offer free skiing and riding the day you fly in! Show your boarding pass at the ticket window to redeem a free lift ticket at Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows and Sierra-at-Tahoe, or a discounted ticket at Mt. Rose – Ski Tahoe. (Quick tip: Ladies ski for $49 on Thursdays at Mt. Rose.)
I spent my visit at Heavenly Ski Resort, in South Lake Tahoe, so I didn’t take advantage of these great deals. But I definitely will next time.
Powdery snowshoe trails await just a short drive from Reno. Unfortunately, my itinerary didn’t include a snowshoe excursion, but one of the other writers I was with had the good fortune to visit Chickadee Ridge. This scenic trail offers views of Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness. It’s also the perfect spot to interact with the local bird population (hence the name). Plop some seeds in your hand and wait for the colorful little birds to flutter on over for a bite. Don’t forget your camera, you’ll want to capture this wildlife encounter. You can also take a hike on the Mount Rose trail for views of both Reno and Lake Tahoe, or check out Galena Creek for a lovely casual trek.
In the summer months, you’ll see hundreds of kayakers paddling through the Truckee River. The Truckee River Whitewater Park has 11 drop pools and a kayak race course. You can rent a kayak and join in on the fun, or watch the action from the banks as professionals perform cartwheels and front flips in the rushing rapids. It was cold and cloudy during my visit, so unfortunately there were no kayakers on the water. But I fully intend to visit again in the summer, and hopefully I’ll spot a few (or get out there myself).
Reno opened my eyes. The picture in my head has completely changed. Even though I didn’t see or experience everything I wanted to, I was so intrigued by what I discovered that I have every intention of visiting again – and soon!
Have you ever visited Reno? Would you consider taking a trip there?
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