San Francisco Christmas: How to Spend a Holiday by the Bay

If you’ve ever dreamed of a holiday by the sea, both the lights and waves are glittering during the most wonderful time of the year in San Francisco!

Make your way to the Golden Gate City for an unforgettable Christmas in San Francisco. In addition to claiming fame as the setting of the ever-popular sitcom Full House, the seaport city is a bustling metropolis of eclectic architecture and captivating oceanside views.

You’ll find cooler weather (sans snow) around the holidays, but the area’s December highs in the 60s mean it stays pretty mild compared to colder parts of the country.

“San Francisco has only one drawback,” Rudyard Kipling said. “It is hard to leave.”

Come prepared to leave with a broken heart because you won’t ever want to go. To see the city aglow in all its winter wonderland magic, check out the Christmas lights, festivals, and activities available throughout the greater City by the Bay area.

Ready to find out why you’ll be so enticed when you spend Christmas in San Francisco? Read on!

Where to See Christmas Lights in San Francisco

We’ve scoped out the best and brightest light displays around the city for you. Check out the dazzling arrays of light at these events and destinations throughout the city to make your holiday merry and bright. This is one holiday tradition you can’t afford to skip!

Pro Tip: San Francisco’s City Hall should be the first stop on your list! Check out the iconic red and green glow the building takes on for San Francisco Christmas.

view of street during night with christmas lights and balls hanging on trees at Fourth Street during holidays at San Francisco, California, USAHolidays on Fourth Street Berkeley

November; Lights on every night until January 2024

Kick off the beginning of the Christmas San Francisco season on Fourth Street, which boasts three full blocks of dazzling decorations to stroll.

Bask in the beauty of a Bay area Christmas as you grab a complimentary hot beverage and tap your toes to live music. Additionally, enjoy a free magic show and tea light-making project! Don’t worry if you miss the kickoff. The lights will be on every night afterward until the new year!

Participating shops will be open later on Fridays and Saturdays throughout December. So, you can get some Christmas shopping done, too!

Fourth Street will collect donations on behalf of Alameda County Food Bank this year. Check out their website to donate! 

Family participating at an Interactive Exhibit at California Academy of Sciences - San Francisco, California, USA

‘Tis the Season for Science

November through January 2024

Visit the California Academy of Sciences to encounter a winter wonderland! In addition to enjoying beautiful falling snow, come face to face with nearly 40,000 animals that bring this festive event to life.

Live shows and themed activities make this affair a jolly time for all. This is one of the best things to do in San Francisco at Christmas for kids!

Pro Tip: Afterward, drive back to the hotel to another level. Swing by nearby Golden Gate Park to ooh and ah at a stunning light display!

Illuminate SF Festival of Lights

November through January 2024

The bustling art scene in San Francisco means there’s creativity on every corner of the city, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the independent artists. The holiday art scene presents another reason for art lovers to visit. During the Illuminate SF Festival of Lights, over 40 artists and 60 light art installations are showcased throughout the city.

Make it a scavenger hunt to see how many installations you can find as you explore the city. Or, go about it with more strategy by following the Light Art Trail. Shake it up this Christmas season with unique holiday activities in San Francisco like this one!

Photo Alert: It will be hard to choose just one, but post a photo of your favorite installation to rack up some likes! Show off your Christmas in the Bay area on the ‘gram.

Close up photo of a lantern shaped like a Gator at Oakland Zoo Glowfari Lantern Festival in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Oakland Zoo via Facebook

Illuminating Lantern Festival – Oakland Zoo Presents Glowfari

November through January 29, 2024

Plan a visit to the Oakland Zoo from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the holiday season for a mile-long adventure illuminated with giant, glowing animal lanterns. Keep your eye out for some of your favorites, like elephants, giraffes, and pandas!

Glowfari will kick off on November 11. Make a note on your calendar that it will be closed on holidays and open from Wednesday through Sunday only throughout January. Don’t forget to grab your tickets before you go! A visit to San Francisco at Christmas isn’t complete without visiting the zoo.

Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour

Throughout December

If you prefer to kick back and relax while taking in the San Francisco Christmas lights in an out-of-the-ordinary way, take a holiday lights tour on a fire engine! This 90-minute tour takes place aboard a vintage, open-air fire truck and weaves through some of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks.

You’ll get to see all the holiday lights along the way as a professional tour guide gives you ammunition for future trivia nights with fun facts about the city. So, be sure to book tickets ahead of time!

Photo Alert: Snap a picture in front of the fire engine. There will be fire jackets available to strike a pose in!

San Francisco City Holidays: Events and Festivals

While we’re sure the Christmas lights throughout the city are enough to leave you absolutely enchanted, San Francisco also hosts plenty of other holiday events and festivals each year that you won’t want to miss!

Spend the holiday in San Francisco for a swirl of heartwarming activities sure to fill you with Christmas cheer.

Children sitting in front of two women dresses as elves and a person in a bear costume at the Teddy Bear Tea in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco via Facebook

Teddy Bear Tea

Runs from November to December 

Looking for San Francisco Christmas time activities to do for the little ones? The kiddos will be adding this event to their Christmas list this year! Set in the fully decked-out Terrace Room of The Ritz-Carlton hotel, this Christmas event features a menu of hot chocolate and assorted sandwiches and sweets for the kids while they are entertained by a show starring an elf.

They’ll get to keep the fun going when they receive a teddy bear gift to take home! Add this to your collection of family friendly Christmas activities San Francisco.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

November through December; Weekends only

Watch in awe as San Francisco transforms into Victorian London for this elaborate Christmas party! Whiffs of roasted chestnuts fill the air with a comforting smell.

Guests get a firsthand experience of what Christmas was like during Victorian times with English foods, vibrant characters roaming around, and authentic street vendors.

Be on the lookout for all of Dickens’ classic Christmas characters during this immersive holiday event. The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is just one of many reasons why traveling to San Francisco for Christmas is sure to make your holiday season one for the books!

close up of lit up multi-colored parol with buildings in background at night for Parol Lantern Festival and Parade in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Alex Baranda Photography via Facebook

Parol Lantern Festival

December, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

To experience a whole other culture during your visit to San Francisco at Christmas, head to the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade. The event is open to the entire city! Snack on Filipino treats, shop Filipino-owned businesses and sing along to Filipino music before the finale of the night: the parol lighting ceremony.

Fun Fact: Parol lanterns are Filipino symbols of hope, luck, peace, and light. 

Things to Do During Your San Francisco Christmas

While you’re in the city, don’t forget to check out some of San Fran’s iconic landmarks. Tour the fear-inspiring Alcatraz Island or cruise beneath the awe-inspiring Golden Gate Bridge. There are endless things to do when you visit San Francisco!

Now that you’ve made plans to visit some classic tourist stops let’s get back to the Christmas theme. Get in the holiday spirit with these Christmas things to do in San Francisco.

Grab Tickets for a Christmas Show

What’s a Christmas Bay area vacation without watching a classic holiday show? San Francisco’s theater scene offers several Christmas shows to choose from, including:

  • The Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet
  • Handel’s Messiah by the San Francisco Symphony
  • A Christmas Carol at the A.C.T. Geary Theatre
Aerial view of an Ice skating rink in Union Square in San Francisco
Union Square shines bright with thousands of Christmas lights each season. Photo Credit: Union Square / Facebook

Go Ice Skating

The indoor and outdoor ice skating rinks around San Francisco draw in thousands of families each year. For a true winter wonderland experience that will complete your San Francisco holidays, you can’t beat skating under the soft glow of Christmas tree lights.

If you don’t own skates, no worries! Each rink offers affordable ice skate rentals for guests. Take a trip to San Francisco’s top ice skating rinks this winter:

  • Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square
  • Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center

Pro Tip: While you’re at Union Square, step inside Westin St Francis to see it decked out in impressive holiday wonder!

Wide shot of the life-size gingerbread house and large Christmas tree at Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Fairmont San Francisco via Facebook

Visit the Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House

Starting Thanksgiving Day, On display throughout the holiday season

You can’t say you’ve experienced a true San Francisco Christmas until you’ve seen the Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House in person. The hotel has entertained holiday guests for over a century, and the two-story gingerbread house is an annual tradition.

It’s so big you can dine inside the house! On top of being massive, the sweet smell of the gingerbread bricks doused in icing winds through the hotel halls to create an unparalleled Christmas atmosphere. This San Francisco Christmas-time treat is a must-see!

The Best Christmas Eats by the Bay

All this festive sightseeing is most definitely going to work up your appetite. Holidays in San Francisco require some delicious meals in between activities! Grab some Christmas chow at one of these top choices in San Francisco.

Jane the Bakery

When in San Francisco, do as the San Franciscans do. This means that savoring some sourdough bread is absolutely essential.

We suggest you get the job done at Jane the Bakery, where you’ll find a long lineup of breads and pastries. For a spinoff of the classic treat, try the chocolate sourdough. 

Craftsman and Wolves

Christmas is hardly complete without a good cup of hot chocolate.

At Craftsman and Wolves, order the Valrhona sipping chocolate for an indulgent hot chocolate experience. A fluffy homemade marshmallow is included to top it all off!

Pro Tip: Speaking of chocolate, chocolate lovers can’t visit San Francisco without stopping by Ghirardelli Square! Indulge in delectable cocoa goods.

View of the entrance to Top of the Mark, a black awning with gold accents on a white brick building in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Top of the Mark via Facebook

Top of the Mark

If you’re looking for fare that’s a little more filling, Top of the Mark is the perfect pick. Located on the 19th floor of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, the striking view of the San Francisco skyline offered by the restaurant and bar is hard to beat.

This restaurant keeps its doors open even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So, don’t forget to check the website for details on its special Christmas brunch and buffet!

Fog Harbor Fish House

Get your Bay-side seafood fix at Fog Harbor Fish House. This classic tourist stop on Pier 39 is one you can’t pass up.

The waterfront view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge, combined with house specials like Dungeness crab, creates an incredible dining experience for you to enjoy — even on the holidays. 

Plan Your Christmas in San Francisco Today!

San Francisco at Christmas time is a sight to behold. Before you jet off for your magical holiday in the Bay area, make sure you visit Tripster San Francisco to book the Bay Christmas attraction and activity tickets, plus a hotel room. 

With great savings opportunities, you’ll have more money to spend on gifts for your family! 

What Did We Miss?

Any San Francisco holiday festivals, events, or must-see sights we forgot? Share in the comments below!

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Written by Michaela Satterfield

Michaela is a journalist who views every story she writes as an adventure, leading her to explore new places and meet new people....

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