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Where to See the Best San Francisco Christmas Lights

Updated: March 17, 2024
 By Britt

This post is a guide to the best Christmas lights and holiday displays in San Francisco and how to see them.

We've updated the list for all of the top places to visit around the city for 2024 as best we can.


During the holidays, San Francisco sparkles more than it already does! Below we list the best places in the city to see Christmas lights and holiday displays.

It's easy to visit these on your own although they are located all over the city so you may not be able to see them all on your visit.

An easy way to see many displays in a few hours is to take a Holiday Lights Bus Tour. 

For example, you can take a Cable Car Holiday Nights and Sights Tour, which takes you to over 30 San Francisco’s festive-lit locations.

There are a few holiday-themed tours available. Our post on Christmas in San Francisco has tours listed as well as other holiday fun!

Union Square Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

The Macy's Annual Tree Lighting takes place in Union Square Park.   

The free ceremony features live performances, followed by the lighting of the tree that includes 30,000 lights and nearly 1,100 decorations.  

Be sure to take a look at the Macy's Holiday Windows display - it will warm your heart! 

Every Christmas, Macy's partners with the San Francisco SPCA and includes adoptable cats and dogs in their holiday displays! 

Dates for the 34th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting (2023) have yet to be announced, but we will provide this information as soon as it is available.

TIP: Our pay-what-you-wish Original San Francisco Tour starts right next to Union Square.

Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House

Making gingerbread houses is a fun Christmas tradition, but the Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill takes it to a new level - literally! 

You can visit the hotel’s lobby to see a massive two-story-high gingerbread house measuring 25 feet high, 35 feet wide, and 10.5 feet deep.

The entire lobby is lit in an elegant manner as is their giant Christmas tree.

The Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House typically opens up at the end of November, but official dates for 2023 are yet to be announced. See the hotel's website for more information.

Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf

This is one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city. During the holidays, you will see festive lights everywhere.

You definitely do not want to miss the 'singing' Christmas Tree at Pier 39.

The Pier 39 Christmas Tree is usually lit sometime in late November, but official dates for 2023 have yet to be announced.

If you head over to see the tree, read our post on the best things to do at Pier 39.

You can also see the Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade. 

This parade features 60 boats “decked” out in holiday lights and decorations. Prime locations to see it are Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. 

TIP:  Consider taking our pay-what-you-wish walking tour of Fisherman’s Wharf to learn about this historic part of the city.

Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square is always a treat for visitors.

In addition to their historic "Ghirardelli" sign lit up for the holidays, the shops in the area go all out for the holidays with Christmas decorations.

The Ghirardelli Square Christmas tree stroll typically begins in late November, but official dates have yet to be revealed. Timings are usually 12PM to 6PM.

The Ghirardelli chocolate store is frequently the best dressed, putting up holiday decorations all over the store.

While you're there, you should pick up some chocolate and visit the Ghirardelli "dessert-only" restaurant for an ice cream sundae!

Tom & Jerry House

Easily the best single house display of Christmas lights in San Francisco, you can always count on Tom and Jerry to brighten up your holidays with their setup. 

Join the crowds ooh-ing and aah-ing at the house atop Castro Hill. The address is 3650 21st Street (map and directions).

NOTE: Although one of the original owners of this house has sadly passed, it appears there are community organizers who have come together to keep this holiday tradition alive.

Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo

Transforming after dark, the San Francisco Zoo turns into an enchanting winter wonderland with familiar Christmas characters like Santa and his reindeer!

This is a great activity if you are traveling with kids!

There will also be a holiday market with delicious snacks to enjoy.

This annual event has yet to be announced for 2023, but they will likely have holiday decorations for their Joy at the Zoo event which you can enjoy during regular hours.

TIP: If you have plans to visit the San Francisco Zoo, you might want to look at one of the tourist discount passes that include the zoo for free.

You can find out more from our post comparing the various San Francisco tourist discount passes.

Market Street Lights

Starting in mid-November, lights and snowflakes illuminate this major thoroughfare. You can see the lights from the Market Street cable-car.

Our post on how to ride the San Francisco Cable Cars may come in handy for your excursion!

Palace Hotel

The Palace Hotel goes above and beyond with their Christmas tree displays. This swanky hotel is a fantastic place to visit if you're walking around on Market Street.

Stop into their historic lobby bar for some amazing cocktails or have coffee and tea to warm yourself up.

2023 dates have not yet been confirmed for this event.

TIP: You can learn more about the amazing, sometimes scandalous history of the Palace Hotel on our Secrets, Scandals, and Scoundrels tour!

Illuminate SF Light Festival

This event typically takes place from Thanksgiving until January 1st. There will be 37 large-scale light installations located throughout 17 neighborhoods.

They are all free to visit. 

You can also attend one of the available free light art tours running throughout the exhibition. For more information, click here

Giant Menorah Lighting in Union Square 

Every night of Hanukkah from December 18th - December 25th, you will likely be able to attend the candling lighting of the Menorah in Union Square.

A live stream of the Menorah lighting will be broadcast each night at 4:45 pm.

Find out more here

Embarcadero Center Winter Carnival and Building Lighting

Embarcadero Center will most likely be illuminated with 17,000 holiday lights this winter, but they have yet to announce official dates.

The buildings stay lit throughout the holiday season. More information.

Also, the holiday ice rink reopened last year and is expected to open this year too!

Oakland Glowfari 

Thousands of colorful lights and even laser light shows make the Oakland Zoo the place to be.

The show runs on various days between November 10th, 2023 – January 28th, 2024.

In addition to their amazing array of wildlife, you can see reindeer and you might just see Santa too!  

Oakland Glowfari will run from 5 pm - 9 pm. Ticket prices are as follows:

  • $26/Adults
  • $22/Children & Seniors
  • 10% off for Zoo Members
  • Kids under 2 are free
  • Seniors over 76 are free

See their website for details. 

San Francisco Christmas Lights

parol is a traditional Filipino ornamental, star-shaped Christmas lantern that symbolizes peace and hope. 

This unique holiday parade has more than 25 local organizations that march through Yerba Buena Lane carrying parols, lighting the lane.

At the end of the parade, there is a festival with music, games, entertainment, and food.

Dates for 2023 season is yet to be announced but last year, this annual event began from December 10th.


About The Author


Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: March 17th, 2024
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