Best Neon Museums in the West

Museums, tours, and classes devoted to neon are popping up all over the West.

Stardust marquee at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, picture
Stardust marquee at the Neon Museum.
Courtesy Neon Museum, Inc.

Science can explain how neon signs work—electricity illuminates an inert gas sealed inside a glass tube—but it can't account for the sheer magic of their glow. "These signs are often landmarks that tie into memories," says Al Barna, coauthor of San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons. Erected mainly from the 1930s to the 1960s and now considered folk art, neon signs have become hot attractions.

More than 200 decommissioned signs, which once graced names big (the Stardust) and small (the Yucca Motel), fill the Boneyard at Las Vegas's Neon Museum. Walk among them on a daytime tour, or reserve a ticket for Brilliant! During this new nighttime program, projectors reilluminate about 60 marquees while period songs, such as Sinatra's "Luck Be a Lady," play.

San Francisco's Chinatown, Union Square, and Castro neighborhoods are replete with neon—if you know where to look. On twilight walks, the preservation experts behind San Francisco Neon guide the way. Book in advance to join the tour, and you might see an eye-popping movie palace marquee, a sparkling gold martini glass, or a rare three-sided Chinese lantern.

By day, the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, showcases vintage and modern neon, electric, and kinetic art. After dark, it's the launch point for bus cruises, which sail past neon-lined pagodas and other illuminated icons of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. And, if you're so inspired, MONA also offers DIY classes, where you can learn to bend glass tubes filled with neon.

Stroll down a replica small-town- America Main Street awash in neon at the new National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Oregon. The renovated 1910 Elks building holds more than 100 pieces—all courtesy of David Benko, an enthusiast who has collected neon for over 30 years.

Burger Chef sign at the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Oregon, picture

Burger Chef at the National Neon Sign Museum.

Courtesy National Neon Sign Museum

Folks in Pocatello, Idaho, treasure their neon legacy. Thanks largely to the community's Relight the Night project, 25 historic signs (including a running Greyhound Bus dog) now shine in historic Old Town Pocatello, with plans under way to add more signs along Union Pacific Avenue, already being called "Neon Alley."

For 50 years, the sign for the Starlite Motel in Mesa featured an animated neon swimmer known as Diving Lady. Then in 2010 a storm felled the local landmark, and it looked like swim time was over. But thanks to the 2013 completion of a $120,000 restoration, the famed diver once again plunges six times per minute into her tiny, electric-blue pool.

The bright green dragon with the flickering tongue—which hangs, incongruously, above Zucca Ristorante in Ogden, Utah—might have inspired a similar sign in the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner. Created in 1948 for local Chinese noodle shop Star Noodle, the dragon disappeared when the restaurant did, in 2007. Ogdenites then rallied to save the sign and, in 2015, the restored 10 foot by 12 foot beauty took its place above Zucca, where it dazzles with 400 linear feet of multicolored tubes.