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

November 17, 2021

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!

Head to the Golden Gate City for an unforgettable Christmas. 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."

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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 Bay area.

To find out why you'll be so enticed by the beautiful San Francisco on Christmas, 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:

Holiday Lights at Fourth Street Berkeley

November 20, 2021, at 5 p.m.; Lights on every night at 5 p.m. until January

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

Bask in the beauty as you grab a complimentary hot beverage and tap your toes to live music. Participating shops will be open later, so you can check those out, too. Don't worry if you miss the kickoff -- the lights will be on every night until the new year.

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

Close up photo of carolers singing in front of a Christmas tree at Ghirardelli Square Holiday Marketplace & Christmas Tree Stroll in San Francisco, California, USA.

photo credit: Ghirardelli Square via Facebook

Ghirardelli Square Holiday Marketplace & Christmas Tree Stroll

November 26, 2021, at 12 p.m.; Lights and trees on display until the end of the holiday season

Christmas and chocolate fanatics alike gather to marvel at the iconic Ghirardelli Square during the holidays. At their annual lighting event, you'll find first-rate Christmas shopping and trees trimmed with talent, as they're designed by students at the Academy of Art. It all culminates in the lighting of the square at 5 p.m.

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This year, there's a special surprise waiting for you at the lighting.'s a secret, we're not telling you what it is, you'll have to go see for yourself!

If you can't make it to the lighting event, the lights and trees will still be there throughout the holiday season.

Photo looking up at the SkyStar with the lights on as part of Illuminate SF Festival of Lights in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: San Francisco | The Official Guide via Facebook

Illuminate SF Festival of Lights

Thanksgiving Day through New Year's Day

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 30 artists and 40 light art installations are showcased throughout the city.

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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.

Photo Alert: It will be hard to choose just one, but post a photo of your favorite installation to rack up some likes!

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

Mid-November through the end of January

Plan a visit to the Oakland Zoo from 5 p.m. to 10 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 12. 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.

Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour

Throughout December

If you prefer to kick back and relax while taking in the San Francisco Christmas lights in a unique 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.

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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!

A San Francisco Christmas: 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!

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 2021

Saturdays and Sundays running from November 27, 2021, to December 19, 2021

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 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 and gingerbread fairy.

They'll get to keep the fun going when they receive a teddy bear gift to take home.

Pro Tip: They didn't forget about the adults! Find a selection of premium teas and wine just for the grown-ups at this annual event.

Close up photo of actors drinking at the The Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair via Facebook

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

December 4, 2021, through December 19, 2021; Weekends only

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 English foods, vibrant characters roaming around, and authentic street vendors.

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Be on the lookout for all of Dickens' classic Christmas characters during this immersive holiday event. This year, the event managers are playing it safe by hosting a drive-thru version of this classic event. So enjoy all the old-time fun from the comfort of your car!

Close up photo of a taxidermy fox wearing a crown with Christmas decorations in the background at the The Menagerie Holiday Oddities Market in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: The Menagerie Oddities Market via Facebook

The Menagerie Holiday Oddities Market

December 4, 2021, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Like a scene from a fantasy storybook, The Menagerie Holiday Oddities Market stationed in the West End Arts District of San Francisco is sure to be unlike any festival you've ever traversed before.

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You're bound to run across the perfect gifts for the people on your list who already have everything. So stir your curiosity with this treasure trove of completely original goods.

Pro Tip:  Come hungry as there will be a food truck spread and dining options from local restaurants!

Taylor Swift preforming a concert in a red dress.6th Annual Taylor Swiftmas: Out of Exile 

December 11, 2021, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. the next day

Leave a blank space on your calendar for a night of non-stop dancing to celebrate Christmas Swiftie-style. There are so many references to parties in Taylor Swift's repertoire that it's almost impossible to choose just a few, but a party this big means you'll be dancing like you're made of starlight all night long!

a lit up star in blue checker print for the Parol Lantern Festival in San Francisco, CA, USA


Parol Lantern Festival

December 11, 2021

To experience a whole other culture during your visit to San Francisco, head to the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade. The event, put on each year by the Bayanihan Community Center, 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, blessings, luck, peace, and light. 

Things to Do During Your San Francisco Christmas

While you're there, 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 activities in San Francisco:

Grab Tickets for a Christmas Show

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

ice skating rink in union square 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, you can't beat skating outside under the soft glow of Christmas 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:

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 November 27, 2021, and 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 been entertaining holiday guests for over a century, and the two-story gingerbread house is an annual tradition.

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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. 

The Best Christmas Eats by the Bay

All this festive sightseeing is most definitely going to work up your appetite. 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 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.

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.

They keep their doors open even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so don’t forget to check the website for details on their special Christmas brunch and buffet. 

Fog Harbor Fish House 

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

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

Plan Your San Francisco Christmas Trip Today

Before you jet off for your magical holiday in the Bay Area, make sure you visit Tripster 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.

What Did We Miss?

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

michaela smiling holding magazine with body of water in background

Written By Michaela

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

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