San Francisco Christmas
[ Insider Tips ]

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

Have you ever considered spending Christmas by the ocean? If you have yet to experience a San Francisco Christmas, add it to your bucket list immediately. Although spending the holidays in San Francisco still means cold weather (minus the snow), you can’t beat the sound of the waves crashing along the shore while you stroll along Pier 39 all decorated for the holidays. Plus, with the entire city shining bright with holiday lights, San Francisco becomes a magical winter wonderland.

Why not try something new this year and organize a San Francisco Christmas vacation for your family? The Christmas lights, festivals, and activities available throughout the greater Bay area are a great addition to any holiday vacation.

Union Square shines bright with thousands of Christmas lights and a giant Christmas tree
Union Square shines bright with thousands of Christmas lights each season. Photo Credit: Union Square / Facebook

Where to See Christmas Lights in San Francisco

The first step to any holiday vacation is discovering the biggest and brightest light displays around the city. Fortunately for tourists, San Francisco goes all out each Christmas with decorations of epic proportions. Check out the best light displays at these events and destinations throughout the city:

Lights On Stroll at Fourth Street Berkley

November 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm
Each year, Fourth Street lights up for the holiday season. This year, the street boasts three full blocks of dazzling decorations. You can stroll the street with your family, view the light displays, and receive complimentary beverages at select locations along the way.

Union Street Tree Lighting

November 23, 2018 at 5:30 pm
The Macy’s 29th Annual Tree Lighting celebrations in Union Square each year are a real holiday treat. This year’s tree features more than 43,000 energy-efficient lights and 700 holiday ornaments. The yearly event also includes holiday entertainment, shopping around the square, and a visit from Santa Claus on the sixth floor of Macy’s.

Union Square Fantasy of Lights

December 1, 2018 from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm
The holiday fun at Union Square doesn’t stop once the tree is lit. In December, head back to the square for the Fantasy of Lights festival. This magical event boasts thousands of twinkling lights, activities for all ages, an Elf Hunt, food vendors, rocking entertainment, and so much more. The Union Square Fantasy of Lights has been a San Francisco Christmas staple for 28 years and running, securing its place as a classic Bay Area holiday tradition.

Ghirardelli Square Tree Lighting

November 23, 2018 from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Christmas and chocolate fanatics alike gather to marvel at the iconic Ghirardelli Square tree and holiday decorations. During the 54th Annual Tree Lighting, guests can enjoy free children’s activities, riveting holiday entertainment, unbelievable shopping around the square, and a visit from jolly Old Saint Nick.

Illuminate SF Festival of Lights

Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s Day
The art scene in San Francisco is booming. Between the SFMOMA and the independent artists, the city is full of creativity. The Illuminate SF Festival of Lights spotlights vibrant works from San Francisco’s top artists for an unbelievable holiday art display throughout the city. Although not your typical holiday light display, the Illuminate SF Festival of Lights should not be missed! It’s easy to find yourself mesmerized by each new and intriguing piece you discover.

ZooLights at the Oakland Zoo and San Francisco Zoo

Throughout the month of December
San Francisco’s zoos, the Oakland Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo, each host their own ZooLights event each winter.

Visit the Oakland Zoo on December 7-23, 26-31, 2018 and January 1-6, 2019 for epic holiday laser shows, thousands of twinkling lights, outdoor adventures, and some of your favorite animals. The San Francisco Zoo hosts their ZooLights event on December 14-16, 18-23, and 26-30, 2018. While exploring the zoo, you’ll find holiday magic around every corner, including reindeer, Santa Claus, and seasonal treats! Tickets are required for entry to both events.

Holiday Lights Trolley Tour

November 23 through December 30, 2018
If you prefer to kick back and relax while seeing the San Francisco Christmas lights, take a holiday trolley tour. This 90-minute tour takes you through San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods, brings you to iconic landmarks, and passes by the best holiday lights. Your professional tour guide will also educate you on San Francisco’s history and holiday traditions.

A scuba diving Santa Claus swims with fish at an aquarium
Find Santa at ‘Tis the Season for Science! Photo Credit: California Academy of Sciences / Facebook

San Francisco Christmas: Events and Festivals

On top of the magnificent Christmas lights around the city, San Francisco also plays host to exciting holiday events and festivals each year.

Winter Events at the California Academy of Sciences

For an educational San Francisco Christmas vacation, head over to the California Academy of Sciences. For children, this intriguing Bay Area attraction offers ice skating, indoor snow flurries, a polar-themed exhibit, and the Science of Snow during their ‘Tis the Season for Science event. The planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all transform into a winter wonderland for this one-of-a-kind event held from November 16, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

Adults can visit at night for a Holiday Bazaar on December 13, 2017 at 8:00 pm. Featuring seasonal cocktails, local vendors, special holiday programs, and more, this 21+ event is guaranteed to put even the “Grinch-iest” of visitors in the Christmas spirit.

Lighted Boat Parade

December 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm
The annual Lighted Boat Parade at Fisherman’s Wharf is not to be missed! As the oldest holiday boat parade on the bay, this parade packs in the charm of the Christmas season in San Francisco with catchy holiday music and jaw-dropping light displays on various boats. For the best views, find a spot at Pier 39, Aquatic Park, Crissy Field, or the Marina Green.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

November 17 through December 23, 2018
Watch in awe as San Francisco transforms into Victorian London for this elaborate Christmas party. Guests can get a firsthand experience of what Christmas was like during Victorian times with roasted chestnuts, vibrant characters roaming the halls, 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 open on select nights in November and December and requires tickets to be purchased in advance. Be advised that parking is available for a fee.

Parol Lantern Festival and Parade

December 8, 2018 at 5:00 pm
The Parol Lantern Festival and Parade is put on each year by the Bayanihan Community Center. The entire city of San Francisco is invited to participate in the annual festival with parol making workshops and a sensational lantern parade that brightens up the whole city.

San Francisco SantaCon

December 8, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Have you ever wanted to hang out with hundreds of people dressed up as Santa Claus? Now’s your chance! SantaCon begins at noon in San Francisco’s Union Square. Guests must be fully dressed as Santa Claus or an Elf to participate. Organizers also ask each participant to bring a gift donation for Toys for Tots.

A little girl ice skates with her mother on an outdoor rink in San Francisco
Bring the whole family ice skating in San Francisco. Don’t forget a jacket!

Things to Do During a San Francisco Christmas

From touring Alcatraz Island to viewing the Golden Gate Bridge, you can choose from hundreds of things to do when visiting San Francisco for Christmas. Get into the holiday spirit with these Christmas-themed activities in San Francisco.

Get Your Tickets for a Christmas Show

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

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, you can’t beat skating outside under the soft glow of Christmas lights. Plus, if you don’t own ice skates, don’t worry! Each rink also offers affordable ice skate rentals for guests. Take a trip to San Francisco’s top ice skating rinks this winter:

Visit the Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House

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 been entertaining holiday guests for over a century and the two-story gingerbread house is an annual tradition. On top of being massive, the aroma from the 25-foot high gingerbread house winds through the hotel halls creating an unparalleled Christmas atmosphere.

River Otter Days at Aquarium of the Bay

On select days in December, Aquarium of the Bay celebrates winter by adding over 1,000 pounds of snow to the River Otter habitats. You’ll love watching these lively otters play in the snow! Be sure to check out the holiday decorations around the aquarium, too.

A Dungeons Christmas at San Francisco Dungeon

Looking for an unexpected Christmas activity in San Francisco? Check out A Dungeons Christmas at the San Francisco Dungeon. While this holiday attraction may be too scary for younger children, teenagers and adults can experience an interactive ride, tour, and performance of San Francisco’s yuletide past. From the ghosts of Alcatraz to greedy gold miners, you never know who you’ll celebrate the Christmas season with at the San Francisco Dungeon.

San Francisco lights up at night with skyscrapers, boat lights, and signs.
San Francisco glows each holiday season.

Plan Your San Francisco Christmas Trip Today

Before you jet off to the Bay Area, make sure you visit Reserve San Francisco to book your attraction and activity tickets plus a hotel room. With great savings opportunities such as Bundle it!, you’ll have more money to spend on gifts for your family and San Francisco holiday activities.

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