San Francisco is lit up all over during the Christmas season, and there’s a number of places to check out the best lights. We’ve listed the places to check out on your own, but you can also see a lot of them on a sightseeing tour or walking tour. We also recommend checking out our Christmas in San Francisco post to get the most out of your visit to the city during the holiday season.
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. Residing in the Castro district, these guys work countless hours on their display every year, resulting in a truly amazing masterpiece for all to enjoy. The display has gotten so famous that they even have a documentary about the decorations!
Chestnut Avenue Houses
Chestnut Avenue in South San Francisco is the greatest collection of Christmas lights in the Bay Area. These houses have a friendly competition to see who can create the best display in the area, and the results are worth the drive to see them!
Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House
Making gingerbread houses is a fun Christmas tradition, but the Fairmont Hotel takes it seriously! Inside, you’ll find the place transformed into a winter wonderland that includes a massive two-story-high gingerbread house measuring 25 feet high, 35 feet wide and 10.5 feet deep. If you’ve seen it before, you’ll want to come back, because this year it’ll be the largest one yet!
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. You can learn more about the amazing (and criminal!) history of the Palace Hotel on our Secrets, Scandals and Scoundrels tour!
Union Square is the main commercial area of San Francisco, and every year its businesses compete to see who can have the grandest or most adorable display. Our favorite is the Macy’s store, where each year Macy’s partners with the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and sets up a window display with furry little friends that are up for adoption. These are great for the whole family to enjoy, and maybe for expanding your own family with a furry addition!
Ghirardelli Square is always a treat for visitors. In addition to their usually lit historic “Ghirardelli” sign, the businesses in the area really dress up for the holidays. 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!
Fisherman’s Wharf Sign
A great place for photo ops is the Fisherman’s Wharf Sign, which will be strung with lights during Chrismas. The sign is iconic and located in the most popular area of San Francisco, a place no tourist should miss visiting! There are plenty of seafood restaurants, shops, and is a great place for a simple stroll! You can learn more about Fisherman’s Wharf on a free walking tour.
Located at Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39, where you can find a beautiful 60-foot tall Christmas tree strung up with gorgeous lights! You’ll find additional shops and restaurants there, making it the perfect place to explore.
Market Street Lights
Market Street runs down the center of San Francisco and is always bustling with activity from cable cars, commuters, and the shops on either side. This makes it the perfect canopy for Christmas lights, and there will be plenty illuminating this busy street starting in mid-November.
A great place with Christmas lights in San Franciso that the whole family will enjoy is the Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo! Transforming after dark, the zoo turns into an enchanting winter wonderland with familiar Christmas characters like Santa and his reindeer! There will also be a holiday market with delicious snacks to enjoy. This annual event takes place on weekends from mid-December to the end of the year. Grab your tickets here.
Treasure Island is in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and it’s just a fantastic place to go to check out the entire city skyline from a distance. This also makes it the perfect place to see Christmas lights! The main things you’ll see are the large Embarcadero Center with its lights making the buildings look like giant Christmas presents, the Transamerica pyramid (which you can visit on our North Beach/Little Italy tour), Coit Tower, and other beautiful buildings.
December is one of the coldest months of the year in San Francisco. However, if you are visiting here from many other places in the world, you may have a different definition of the word “cold.” As you may have heard, San Francisco has a Mediterranean climate, meaning it doesn’t get very cold in our city. Read more »
This post is a guide to things to do San Fransisco during Christmas and also New Year’s Eve. We include holiday-themed tours, where to see holiday lights, ice-skating rinks, holiday performances, Christmas markets and more, updated for 2019. Don’t forget to look into our packing tips for winter trips!
This live narrated 90-minute bus tour of San Francisco takes you from Fisherman’s Wharf to North Beach, Chinatown to festive Union Square to see some of the most impressive lights in the city.
The tour then visits the Civic Center with brightly -decorated City Hall and then heads towards the Embarcadero where you can enjoy incredible views of the Bay Bridge. Finally, visit Treasure Island — which boasts some of the best Christmas Lights in the city — before concluding back in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Duration: 90 minutes Cost: $39.99 per adult; $29.99 per child Learn more and book your tickets here.
Below are just a few of the best places to see the holiday lights, Christmas tree lightings, and menorah lightings. For a more in-depth list, read our post on Christmas Lights in San Francisco.
Pier 39 Christmas Tree
The first tree lighting is November 26, 2019, at 5 pm. This tree remains at Pier 39 until January 5, 2020. Unlike other trees that remain lit throughout the day and night, this Christmas tree is a bit different.
Its lights are synchronized with music, and the tree lights ‘perform’ once an hour on the hour between 5 pm – 10 pm every night.
If you want to see something magical, plan your time accordingly! See what other great things there are to do there at Pier 39, by reading here.
Union Square Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
Celebrating its 30th year, the Macy’s Annual Tree Lighting will take place in Union Square Park right across from the front of Macy’s. This event will be taking place on November 29th, 2019. Festivities start at 6 pm. The tree lighting is at 6:40 pm.
The free ceremony will feature performances from local artists followed by the lighting of the tree that includes 30,000 lights and nearly 1,100 decorations. More information.
Giant Menorah Lighting in Union Square
Every night of Hanukkah from December 22- 30, 2019, you can attend the candling lighting of the Menorah in Union Square. More information.
TIP: Whether you are in Union Square to see the tree, the menorah or just shop, keep in mind that our pay-what-you-wishOriginal San Francisco Tour starts right next to Union Square.
Embarcadero Center Winter Carnival and Building Lighting
On Friday, November 22, 2019, from 4 pm to 7 pm all four Embarcadero Center buildings will be lit.
The carnival includes children’s activities, special performances, a visit from Santa and a fireworks show. The buildings stay lit throughout the holiday season. More information.
Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade
What else would you expect from the city on the bay? This parade features 60 boats “decked” out in holiday lights and decorations. Prime locations to see it are Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. December 13, 2019, from 6 pm- 8 pm. Read more here.
2019 is the second year that Winter Park Ice Rink will return to city’s civic center. It’s a nice alternative to the other more popular rinks. Prices are the same as the Union Square Ice Rink.
Admission and skate rental prices are $18 for adults and $13 for children (8 and under). Open November 22, 2019 – through January 5, 2020. Hours are from 12 pm – 10:00 p.m. daily. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or purchased at the ice rink ticket window.
This two-day event is a family-friendly market! With free admission, you can enjoy live entertainment and kids’ activities while you shop from local merchants, eat artisanal foods and attend a wine and beer tasting.
Held at the San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park. December 14 – 15, 2019, from 11 am – 5 pm.
Held at the Cow Palace in Daly City, this huge fair takes you back in time to a twilight evening in Dickens’ London. This is much more than a fair — it’s an experience.
The giant theatrically-lit hall will have costumed performers who are stationed in Victorian-era styled pubs, Christmas shops, tea rooms, and more. You can enjoy all sorts of roasted foods and holiday treats.
Tickets are required and sell out fast. Nov 23-Dec 22, 2019, 10 am-7 pm.
What do you get when you combine rock and roll, vaudeville, a splash of Burlesque and a dash of drag? You get a Very Merry Misfit Christmas! Starring Kat Robichaud (of The Voice) together with a live band. At the Alcazar Theatre. December 13 – 28, 2019.
If you’re looking for a museum that has a little of everything, this is the perfect place to visit.
After all, this is the only place in the world with an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and natural history museum all in one location.
As the name implies, the California Academy of Sciences focuses on several different branches of science, providing fantastic exhibits on a variety of popular subjects ranging from biology to astronomy and more.
This museum is located in Golden Gate Park, making it easily accessible and close to many other notable landmarks in San Francisco.
In this section, we will cover each of the discount opportunities available for tickets to the California Academy of Sciences, including tourist passes, combo packages, and other deals.
Tourist Attraction Discount Passes
If you’re planning to visit a lot of notable locations while you’re in San Francisco, a tourist pass could easily help you save a lot of money on several popular activities.
The California Academy of Sciences is included in several different tourist passes. Depending on which pass you choose, you could save anywhere from 15% – 50% or more off general admission prices.
Some of these services provide access to dozens of attractions over the course of 1, 2, 3, or 5 days. Others offer a specific selection of activities for one flat price.
There is also a build-your-own pass which essentially works as a basic discount service – all you have to do is purchase a ticket for two separate tours or attractions in order to get 20% off for each!
Here are the various pass options and the savings you can expect:
Similarly, if you hold a library card at certain Bay Area libraries, you may be eligible for the Discover & Go program which allows you to “check out” a pass which is good for museum admission for one adult and one youth.
In this section, we will cover some of the most popular exhibits available at the California Academy of Sciences.
We will also provide information about some of the most popular activities and events at this museum.
Penguins + Pajamas Sleepovers
Spend a night at the museum during these special sleepover events.
Participants will enjoy an overnight stay in an exhibit area such as the flooded forest tunnel or Philippine Coral Reef.
Each ticket includes access to the Rainforest until 8 pm, a live animal presentation, planetarium shows, late-night snacks and breakfast in the morning, as well as admission to the museum on the next day.
Availability is very limited, so you should purchase admission well ahead of time to make sure you can take part in the Penguins + Pajamas Sleepover.
Every Thursday night, this event allows visitors to enter the museum from 6 pm – 10 pm.
In addition to all the different exhibits you can see, there will also be music and cocktails available at the Academy Cafe and food cart.
Each NightLife event has a special theme, with some focusing on notable attractions in the museum and others inviting live musical guests to perform at the California Academy of Arts.
This activity is only available for 4 hours, so ticket prices are usually much more affordable. NightLife is only available to adults who are 21 and older.
With more than 40,000 live animals and 900 unique species, there is plenty of aquatic life to see at this aquarium.
In addition to attractions like their Coral Reef exhibit, they also have a colony of African Penguins. Kids may also enjoy the Discovery Tidepool, a touch-tank that allows visitors to actually make contact with several oceanic life forms.
Visit an actual, living rainforest located inside the museum.
This attraction is four stories high and filled with all kinds of exotic wildlife including birds, reptiles, butterflies and more.
There are a total of 1,600 different types of plants, animals and other life forms in this forest – can you spot them all?
Kimball Natural History Museum
Whether you want to see ancient fossils of dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex or learn about gems, minerals and more, there is plenty to experience at this Natural History Museum.
In addition to those attractions, there are also exhibits focusing on subjects like the California redwoods, earthquakes, DNA and more!
This 75-foot dome serves as the screen which provides an incredibly accurate digital representation of our universe and other galaxies.
The shows they provide change out every now and then, but you can usually expect them to focus on subjects related to astronomy, including explorations of other planets and even a tour of the moon!