Any recent picture of Las Vegas will show a glittering metropolis in the centre of the southern Nevada desert, where over 40 million tourists flock every year to see the City of Lights for themselves. Whenever anyone thinks of Vegas, gambling, casinos, celebrity, wealth and excess instantly spring to mind, but this wasn't always the case. Here's how Vegas evolved from humble beginnings in the Mojave desert into the thriving city we see today.

The 19th century roots of Vegas

Rafael Rivera was the first person of European descent to enter Las Vegas Valley, and decided it would be the perfect place to build Mexican merchant Antonio Armijo's trade route between New Mexico and California - the Old Spanish Trail. He named the valley Las Vegas, meaning "the meadows", in tribute to its spring-watered grasses. Mormons unsuccessfully settled there in 1855, and Octavius Gass claimed their abandoned fort, christening the area "Los Vegas Rancho".

The start of Sin City

When the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad was built in 1905, connecting Las Vegas to America's primary rail roads and the Pacific, railroad company backers auctioned off what would become the downtown area. Earning the notorious reputation of 'Sin City', Las Vegas' future was set. Despite the 1910 state ban on gambling, illegal drinking clubs and casinos were established, meaning that when it was lifted in 1931, a network of organised crime already existed in Las Vegas. This then helped to build it in the years that followed; casinos and showgirl venues were set up on Fremont Street from 1931 to entice workers constructing the Hoover Dam.

The beginnings of the Strip

Today's Las Vegas Strip began when the El Rancho Vegas resort, opened in 1941, was built on a section of U.S. Route 91. Over the following years, more hotels and casinos sprung up here, including the Flamingo, which was frequented by the most well-known celebrities. It was opened in 1946 by Bugsy Siegel, a mobster, using Mexican drug money. 

Gambling, celebrity and investment

Money from organised crime and other sources, including the Mormon Church, Princeton University and Wall Street banks, helped to build other large casinos/hotels such as the Riviera, the New Frontier, the Sahara and the Sands. Las Vegas became synonymous with casinos, as over eight million tourists came to try their luck and rub shoulders with the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. See the Mail Online's collection of rare photos showing Las Vegas during, before and after this golden age in its history.

Howard Hughes' purchase of the Desert Inn in 1966 and subsequent buying of $300 million worth of hotels meant that hotels and casinos traditionally run by mobs were now in the hands of corporations.

The Mirage and the birth of today's mega-resorts

Seasoned casino developer Steve Wynn's 1989 opening of Las Vegas' first mega-resort, the Mirage, gave birth to the enormous, all-encompassing hotels and casinos we see in Las Vegas today. Taking inspiration from various cities around the globe, old casinos were replaced with gigantic mega-resorts in the same vein as the Mirage. Now, visitor numbers exceed 40 million per year, and Las Vegas continues to rake in trillions of dollars as income from casinos and hotels pours in. If you're one of the millions travelling to Las Vegas this year, has created a beginner's guide to blackjack to help you master this ever-popular card game.

From an oasis in an arid desert to the enormous grandeur of the City of Lights, Las Vegas' history is not as long as some other cities', but it is arguably more colourful and interesting than most.