Christmas in San Francisco
This post is a guide to things to do San Fransisco during Christmas, including special events, holiday lights tours, ice skating rinks, beautiful lights, and Christmas Day activities. If you are planning on visiting many attractions during the holidays, then consider a tourist discount pass, and be sure to check out our definitive guide of things to do in San Francisco.
Christmas is an amazing time to visit San Francisco. The city is full of culture, lights, events, and people. And the place is beautiful, festive, and fun every day. But with so many things to do, it’s difficult to figure out the Best Christmas Activities in San Francisco. And that’s why we have created a helpful guide for you!
Also, if you really want to make the most of your time in San Francisco during the holidays then consider taking a Holiday Lights Tour with City Sightseeing. Their 90 minute double-decker bus tour takes you to nearly all of the places included on this list so you can see all the best lights in just one evening!
Finally, an important thing to remember – if you plan on visiting many activities during your trip, you can probably save a bunch of money by picking up a San Francisco Discount Pass.
1. Visit the Union Square Christmas Tree
Union Square is Christmas Central in San Francisco! The whole place is covered with lights, decorations, and festivities. And best of all, we have a giant Christmas tree right in the middle of the square! The Union Square Christmas tree is the biggest tree in the area, and it’s in the center of the busiest shopping area of the city. Every year the city hosts a tree lighting festival where the Union Square tree is lit up, and it’s one of the most fun days of the year for kids and adults alike. If you’re going to be doing any shopping around the area, you won’t want to miss the best tree in the city!
2. Explore the Christmas Lights Around the City
There are great displays of holiday lights all over San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. If you have some free time (and a car would help), you can get to all of the best places to visit. We put together a list of the Best Christmas Lights in San Francisco and we would highly suggest you check that page out!
3. See the Rescue Animals at Macy’s
Every year, Macy’s teams up with the SPCA to display rescued animals in the windows of the department store. The store decorates the windows with a holiday theme, with tiny kittens and puppies in the windows. And best of all (or worst, if you have enough animals in your house!), all of the animals in the windows are available for adoption. So, head on up to the Christmas tree in Union Square, and then you can walk right down the block to Macy’s and check out all the cute little animals in the windows. Right next to Macy’s is a street called Stockton Street. If you visit that street over the month of December, you’ll see that they’ve closed it off to vehicle traffic and turned it into a large pedestrian mall. This area is called the San Francisco Winter Walk, and it is normally filled with festive activities, Christmas carolers, light shows, and other fun activities. Be sure to head over there if you’re near Macy’s!
4. Watch an Iconic Performance of The Nutcracker
You can go to The Nutcracker in many different cities around the country. But there is simply nothing like the San Francisco Nutcracker. Hosted at the incredible San Francisco Opera House, the venue is simply unbeatable. Located directly across from San Francisco City Hall, it is a beautiful theatre to watch the show. Whether you’re bringing kids or watching with adults, the Nutcracker is a wonderful holiday show to take in when you’re visiting San Francisco.
5. Visit the Amazing Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House
Perhaps you have made gingerbread houses while you were growing up, or maybe while your kids were growing up. If you have ever gathered the ingredients, cooked the gingerbread, decorated it with all the goodies, and somehow tried to make it look presentable, you’ll appreciate the difficulty of making a good gingerbread house. And this will also give you a good sense of how incredible the Fairmont gingerbread house is! This gingerbread house, created by the Fairmont’s own chefs Oscar Gonzalez and Kimberly Tighe, measures 22 feet high and 23 feet wide (6.7 by 7 meters), and is two full floors! They use hundreds of home-baked gingerbread bricks and over a ton (900+ kg) of frosting and candy treats. Don’t miss it!
6. Go Ice Skating
So, I understand that it may seem a bit weird to go ice skating when it’s 60 degrees outside. But don’t let that stop you when you’re in San Francisco! We have three great public ice skating rinks downtown, and they’re all delightful to visit in the winter. They open up in late November and they stay open all throughout the holidays. You can go there, rent some ice skates, listen to Christmas carols, and have a wonderful time. The city has three main ice skating rinks to visit:
- The Embarcadero Center – 4 Embarcadero Center. This is only a block away from the Embarcadero BART station and right across the street from the Ferry Building. You can go ice skating here and then watch the Bay Lights right after!
- The Yerba Buena Gardens Ice Rink – 750 Folsom Street. This is between the Montgomery Street and Powell Street BART stations.
- Union Square – 333 Post Street.
7. Have a Romantic Night by the Bay Lights
No trip to San Francisco can be complete without an evening by the San Francisco Ferry Building admiring the best light show in the Bay Area, the Bay Lights. A local artist strung up over 25,000 energy efficient LED lights along the 1.8 mile (2.9 km) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. And every night between sunset and 2:00 AM, the entire bridge is lit up in an incredible, never-repeating light show. If you want to see this amazing display, we recommend that you go to the Ferry Terminal for some dinner (at great restaurants such as Mijita, Hog Island Oyster Company, or The Slanted Door) or an evening of wine tasting at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. Then, wrap up in a jacket (and perhaps a scarf if it’s windy) and you can sit down on one of the many benches on the Bay side of the ferry building. From there, you can admire the breathtaking views and wait for the lights to turn on. Once you see it, we promise you won’t be sorry.
8. Take a Picture with Santa
Especially if you have kids, you simply must get a picture taken with Santa! There are plenty of locations around San Francisco to get a Santa picture, but we’ve put together a list of the best places to get the picture taken.
- Pier 39 – Located right on the waterfront, Santa will visit Pier 39 all throughout November and December.
- Macy’s Union Square – This store has an entire floor dedicated to Christmas. On the 4th floor of the department store, you’ll find an area called Santaland, which (no surprise here) is where you’ll find Santa all throughout December.
- Westfield Shopping Center – Under the Grand Dome of the mall, you’ll find Santa at the Westfield Holiday Bazaar (scroll down to learn more about the bazaar) all throughout December.
- The Fairmont Hotel – Along with this hotel having the greatest gingerbread house you’ll ever see (see above for more information), you can also see Santa there. He will be dropping by the hotel very quickly, during the lighting of the gingerbread house on November 26.
- Japantown Center Malls – In the heart of Japantown, there is a shopping center where Santa will be visiting on the weekends of December 3-4 and 10-11.
- The Ritz Carlton Hotel – This is one of the most luxurious hotels in San Francisco, and it’s where you can get pictures taken with the Big Man on December 1.
9. Westfield Shopping Center Holiday Bazaar
All throughout the holiday season, the upscale Westfield Center will host a holiday bazaar under the Grand Dome of the mall. They will offer all different types of local cuisine and gifts. But in addition to the fun shopping (and eating) that you can do, the center will host a variety of entertainment during the month of December. Local performers will come out and entertain you with acts from “A Christmas Carol,” “White Christmas,” and many other holiday plays. Check out their website to learn more.
10. Take in Some Festive Theater
This year, local theaters are putting on great holiday performances with plays such as “A Christmas Carol,” “White Christmas,” “Handel’s Messiah,” and others. The theaters in San Francisco are some of the best that you’ll visit, and we have world class stage actors and musicians putting on these performances. If you grab a ticket early, you can still get good deals. So come out here, dress up, and enjoy the show!
Many of the homes in San Francisco put on an impressive show of lights and decorations during the holidays. If you’re looking for a free and fun way to really get into the Christmas spirit, then we suggest that you go for a drive through the city’s most spirited neighborhoods. Below are some of our favorite places to see Christmas lights in San Francisco:
- Tom and Jerry house in the Castro District
- The homes along Chestnut Avenue
- The Ghirardelli chocolate shop in Ghirardelli Square
- For a full list, check out our post: Best San Francisco Christmas Lights
Holiday Lights Double Decker Night Tour
This live narrated 90-minute 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, from December 1st – December 30th
- Cost: $39.99 per adult; $29.99 per child
- Learn more and book your tickets here.
Note: This tour may sell out for some dates and it is suggested to book it in advance to reserve the date and the time.
Reviews: People seem very impressed with the quality of the guides, which some describe as “entertaining and engaging without being obnoxious.” As this tour is extremely popular, it can sometimes feel a bit overcrowded. One family complains about having to sit separately because they arrived near the departure time and almost all the seats had been filled. Be sure to get there early so you can all sit together on the top deck, which offers the best views!
There is no shortage of fun holiday activities happening in San Francisco throughout the months of November and December.
Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party
This immersive theatre performance is a one-of-a-kind event that transports you back to Charles Dickens’ Christmas Eve. “Explore over three acres of vintage exhibition halls, marvelously transformed into lamplit streets, boisterous pubs and wondrous theatres, music halls, dance parties, tearooms, and shops offering one-of-a-kind treasures.” Click here to purchase tickets.
Annual Cable Car Caroling
This long-time holiday charity event really epitomizes the spirit of Christmas. Ride along the famous San Francisco cable cars as you visit isolated older adults and adults with disabilities at assisted living centers.
Santacon San Francisco
Santacon is now a global phenomenon that sees thousands of participants don their best Santa attire as they go on an epic pub crawl. San Francisco hosts 8,000 Santas alone! Be sure to bring one new, unwrapped toy that can be donated to the Toys for Tots effort by the United States Marine Corps.
San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
Having premiered for the first time in the US in 1944 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the Nutcracker has become a Christmastime staple in the city. Be sure to book your seats in advance as they sell out quickly!
Macy’s Annual Tree Lighting
Union Square boasts one of the biggest and best Christmas trees in the city. The annual tree lighting ceremony takes place at the end of November each year and features several musical performances.
San Rafael Parade of Lights and Winter Wonderland
Though not technically in San Francisco, this Bay Area event is the only place you’ll find where you can play in the snow. You will find arts and crafts, live entertainment, children’s activities, free snow sledding, and one of the largest parades around. If you’re looking to avoid other tourists, then this might be the event for you as it draws a much more local crowd.
Drag Queens on Ice at Union Square
One of the most popular events of the holiday season, Drag Queens on Ice welcomes some of the fiercest participants around as they lip-sync and skate in Union Square. This is another event that sells out quickly, so be sure to get your tickets soon!
Ice skating is a great way to get into the holiday spirit. There are 2 holiday ice rinks that open between November and December, and one ice rink that remains open year-round.
Holiday Ice Rink at Union Square
Beautiful situated next to the giant Christmas tree in Union Square, this ice rink is the perfect place to come for a skate when you want to embrace the holiday spirit. Opens on November 1st and runs through the holiday season. Ticket prices range from $14.74 – $19.89.
Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero
The Holiday Ice Rink at the Embarcadero is the other rink in San Francisco that is available just for the holidays. Open November 3, 2017 through January 7, 2018, it has been welcoming both locals and visitors for more than 3 decades. Cost is $12 per person.
Yerba Buena Ice Skating
This is San Francisco’s premier ice skating and bowling alley that is open year-round. Though not quite as festive as the others, they do make an effort to dress the place up a bit around the holidays. Cost is $12 per person.
Though many places are closed on Christmas Day, there are a few attractions that remain open for those looking to celebrate the holiday in the city. Below are a few of our favorite family-friendly places to visit after a busy morning of opening presents!
- San Francisco Zoo and Gardens
- The Palace Hotel for Brunch
- Union Square for Ice Skating
- Botanical Gardens Society
- Grace Cathedral
- Contemporary Jewish Museum
Though December is one of the coldest months of the year in San Francisco, it is still a lot warmer here than in many other places around the world. In fact, the temperature almost never gets below freezing, and the last time it snowed in San Francisco was over 40 years ago. The average temperature throughout the month tends to hover between 46F-66F. For a full description of the weather, check out our post: Weather in San Francisco in December.