Anywhere else on the state map, Boulder City would be a 5-star wonder; here, between the mega-attractions of Las Vegas and Hoover Dam it sometimes goes unrecognized as the inviting city it is.
Boulder City was built by the federal government to house the workers who built Hoover Dam, and was the first fully-developed planned city in America. After more than 80 years it still stands in such pronounced contrast to the higgledy-piggledy aspect of other Nevada towns that it seems an exotic flower indeed to have grown from our gritty desert soil.
For many years Boulder City was a federal reservation; homes could not be purchased, only leased, and gambling and liquor were prohibited. This tradition ran so deep in the community that it was nearly ten years after the feds gave up ownership (in 1960) before laws were relaxed enough to allow liquor licenses (casino gambling is still outlawed). A controlled growth ordinance enacted in 1979 limits the number of new building permits each year, so that the population increase here — so close to the fastest-growing city in America — is barely 400 people a year.
That's part of the reason the pace is slower here, and the vibe is calmer than in Las Vegas. This more relaxed environment is one of Boulder City's characteristic attractions, but there's some sparkle downtown and along the highway west, plenty of comfortable accommodations and plenty of good dining choices.
To explore Boulder City, park at the center of town at the Chamber of Commerce where you can get the maps and specific information you need for your visit. Begin your visit by walking across th street to the Boulder Dam Hotel. You will be transported effortlessly to 1933 when this was the most luxurious hotel in Nevada, catering to guests like Shirley Temple and the Prince and Princess of Norway. About 20 of the upstairs rooms (each one dedicated to a famous patron) have been refurbished for guests, and the hotel restaurant adjoining the almost-exactly-original lobby, serves breakfast to hotel guests without charge, and at modest cost to the rest of us.
The Nevada Southern Railway, the Veterans' Cemetery and the Bootleg Canyon Zipline are popular attractions, sidewalk dining and wining is an art perfected on late afternoons and early evenings downtown.
Hemenway Valley, to the north of the city proper, is one of the fabulous sights in Southern Nevada. It lies a wide, rocky barranca spilling down toward the broad blue expanse of Lake Mead, and near its top St. Jude's Ranch for Children welcomes visitors. The immense homes here were built with unrestrained exuberance, an architectural free-for-all that is the direct antithesis to the trim and tidy government houses on the other side of the hill. A brief digression from the highway to tour this magnificent neighborhood is highly recommended, and at Christmas when these mansions are elaborately decorated, it is mandatory.
The highway no longer crosses the Colorado by passing over Hoover Dam, and the deep internal tours of the electrical generators are no longer offered. Instead, the road has been diverted to the south, where a spectacular arched bridge was built across the river far below. An Overlook has been built for nervy pedestrians to walk out to a magnificent view of the great dam and Lake Mead.