In which Lydia Manch goes double or nothing with her Christmas spirit in the entertainment capital of the world…
We’re skimming over Las Vegas after dark, and the city’s one big Christmas tree beneath our helicopter.
The pointed spire of the Strat looks like we’re in reach-out-and-touch-it distance, the skyscraper glowing white and ruby. The Eiffel Tower marking Paris Las Vegas is golden against the darkness; the Sphere’s neon purple tonight, the display casually spinning every few minutes and making it look like the world’s largest, most futuristic bauble.
For somebody who’s never been to Las Vegas in summer, going to say this very confidently: it’s better in winter. We arrive into a December that’s crisply sunny but not punishingly hot, so wandering the Strip and Downtown on foot suddenly becomes a normal option rather than an extreme sport. And in Vegas the long winter nights are a feature rather than a bug, the city’s brightly-lit flamboyance only at full bloom after dark; the idea of long, decadent dinners and big-name shows all feeling more fitting when it’s dark outside and there’s a slight desert-winter chill in the air.
That said, I’ve never thought of Vegas as a festive destination, and this is a time of year when any trip you take has to deliver hard on Christmas spirit to justify the time away from the people (and fireplaces/pubs/Die Hard viewing situations) you love most in the world. Can a long weekend on the Strip ever become Christmas-getaway canon?
Our four days in the city pack in stops at some of the Strip’s glitzier hotels and restaurants, some exhibitions, some cocktail hours, some big shows, some designer shopping, some rooftop bars. And aside from the occasional pitstop at the Bellagio’s roulette tables (and the fact your aperitivo hour view’s dominated by Venetian gondolas or the Eiffel Tower or the Bellagio’s 300 metre high, thousand-plus fountains) this is actually a very familiar recipe. Go to a show or two, eat at a destination restaurant or six, do some gift shopping, go see the lights: it’s the opulent, high-Americana version of your parents’ annual pre-Christmas trip to London, just dialled up to a level of lavish excess the way Vegas dials up everything.
The halls of the Bellagio, where we’re staying, are very thoroughly decked. The hotel reaches peak Christmas in the huge, extravagantly floral Bellagio Conservatory display, a free-to-visit series of towering Nutcracker tableaux years in the planning; from our lunchtime booth in Sadelle’s window we’re overlooked by a 20-metre quietly spinning ballerina – like all of the main figures in the Conservatory, created from tens of thousands of roses.
It’s one of several explicitly Christmassy installations and activities that we hit during our few day trip – another being the Illuminarium Las Vegas, an immersive, family-friendly space where huge surroundsound screens play festive scenes to a soundtrack of carols. And probably the purest dose of festive spirit for me in Vegas comes from the rooftop ice rink at the Cosmopolitan, where we skate with – Christmas miracle – no fatalities to others or myself, before pulling up Adirondack chairs around the rink-side firepits and ordering whisky cocktails and smores. Occasional bursts from miniature snow machines send flurries down around us and with the flicker of the firepit, the chill rising off the ice and the Strip skyline being brash and a bit hypnotic on all sides, it’d be easy to just do this on repeat every day of our trip.
But a lot of the things that end up contributing to that big, kitsch, festive feel of the trip are probably less Vegas being specifically Christmassy than just… Vegas being Vegas. The path we take through the Strip’s food scene has the same feeling of celebratory lawlessness I associate with the throes of the holidays – you know, when your meals no longer have defined times and borders and just become boundless like the ocean, an anarchic blend of heartwarming comfort food and big, blow-out mid-December decadence and late-night scavenging through the fridge.
And the comfort food on this trip’s emperor-tier (brown butter pierogis at The Bedford by Martha Stewart, and rooftop smores-making kits at the icerink, I’m looking at you). This being Vegas, it’s not short of choice in the high-end decadence category but if you have to narrow it down to one or two places to eat like a Tudor monarch: make it LPM at The Cosmopolitan, for their garlic butter snails and the Tomatini cocktail – delicate and savoury and smelling like a rainy Italian garden – or the neon-lit delicacy of WAKUDA at The Venetian for their lobster ceviche and lychee martinis.
In defence of the number of restaurants and bars and three-course breakfasts and Christmas set menus happening on a four-day trip: there’s a lot of action to fuel. Somewhere in between the skating and the Illuminarium and that helicopter tour over the city after dark, we also [deep breath]: make a very efficient pitstop at North Premium Outlets, where the cluster of designer stores might have made for some outstanding Christmas shopping if I hadn’t spent it exclusively buying gifts from me to me; speedrun the 1000 photo ops at the Museum of Illusions; hit the roulette and craps tables at the Bellagio where, fyi, you can still get a huge rush playing for hypersmall stakes if, like me, a crowd of strangers chanting praise at you for nothing more than throwing some dice around is the currency you’re truly here for; drink late-night martinis in casino bars and, thanks to the east-to-west jetlag working in our favour, still wake up in time to do some half-hearted hotel room yoga with sunrise flooding in over the mountains.
And we tick off the traditional Christmas take-in-a-big-show box with a visit to The Sphere for Darren Aronofsky’s Postcards From Earth, a 50-minute scifi interplanetary journey where the immersive tech – a cocoon of wraparound screens, haptics shuddering your seat in sympathy with the spaceships landing on screen, wind effects pumped through the venue to echo the feeling of being balanced on a mountaintop – gives a feeling of vulnerability and high-exposure and grandness of scale to rival the helicopter flight.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve rarely slept better on a long-haul than I do on the red-eye back to Heathrow – our Vegas pre-Christmas delivering a go-big-then-sleep-hard arc that matches my actual Christmas MO pretty closely.
The last we see of the city is it dropping away beneath us from the plane windows, a constellation of lights and swagger and neon goodtimes. Happy Vegas-mas to all those who celebrate.
The Arbuturian were hosted by Visit Las Vegas. The Fountain View Suites at the 5-star Bellagio Hotel & Casino start at $440 a night in December, and Premium King Rooms start at $190 a night. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from London Heathrow to Las Vegas.
For more details about Las Vegas at Christmas, hotel options and travel packages, see Visit Las Vegas.