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- Christmas in San Francisco
- 1. Visit Union Square
- 2. Go Ice Skating
- 3. Christmas Tree Lighting at Pier 39
- 4. Fisherman’s Wharf Boat Parade
- 5. Winter Events at the California Academy of Sciences
- 6. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
- 7. Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House
- 8. The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
- 9. Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle & Sweet Shop
- 10. Macy’s Department Store Windows
- 11. “POP by the St. Francis” for Champagne
- 12. Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo
- 13. Holiday Lights Tour
- 14. Indulge at Ghirardelli Square
- 15. Let It Snow!
- How to Save Money in San Francisco
There’s something magical about Christmas in San Francisco. The air is crisp, the decorations are beautiful, and everything is alive with festive energy! If you are lucky enough to be planning a visit to the City by the Bay during the holiday season, here is a guide to all the awesome family-friendly sights and activities to check out.
Disclosures: The writer was hosted for this trip. Also, TravelingMom uses affiliate links. If you click through and buy, TravelingMom will receive a small commission at no additional charge to you.
Christmas in San Francisco
Christmas is my favorite time of year to visit San Francisco – or any big city for that matter! From ice skating to gingerbread houses to attending a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, there are so many ways to celebrate Christmas in San Francisco! Here are 15 fun things to do and see that are sure to get you in the holiday spirit.
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1. Visit Union Square
Union Square is truly the heart of San Francisco during the holidays. Its centerpiece is the ice skating rink (more on that in a minute) and a gorgeous towering Christmas tree with 40,000 twinkling lights and ornaments. Pose the family here for a holiday family photo!
Union Square also has a giant Menorah, and daily lighting ceremonies take place each evening of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Throughout the season there are musical performances. With its prime location in the center of the city’s best shopping and iconic hotels, Union Square simply exudes holiday glam.
2. Go Ice Skating
Nothing says holiday fun like ice skating. There are several rinks in the Bay Area. The three major ice skating rinks in San Francisco are:
- The Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center: Located adjacent to the Hyatt Regency and across from San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center offers views of the Bay Bridge and waterfront. Sessions cost $7 for children and $13 for adults. Skate rental is an extra $5.
- T-Mobile Winter Park at Civic Center: This rink debuted in 2018 in the heart of San Francisco. It is the newest seasonal ice skating attraction. Located in Civic Center Plaza, The Winter Park features an ice rink and expanded skating track that weaves through a lighted tree forest. Tickets are $13 for children and $18 for adults, including skate rentals.
- The Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square: This is probably the most popular of all the San Francisco Bay Area outdoor ice skating rinks. Families can skate in San Francisco’s iconic plaza beside a gorgeous tree and surrounded by festive lights and the sounds of the holiday season. If you’ve ever visited Rockefeller Center in New York City during the holidays, you’ll definitely get that same vibe in Union Square! General admission for the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square including skate rental is $18.
3. Christmas Tree Lighting at Pier 39
San Francisco has so many beautiful Christmas trees on display during the holiday season! You’ll find them at almost all the big hotels and shopping centers, and many other tourist attractions.
But don’t worry if you’re not able to make the official tree lighting ceremony, which usually takes place right after Thanksgiving. At Pier 39, the beautiful 60-foot-tree lighting ceremony happens every night from late November through early January.
4. Fisherman’s Wharf Boat Parade
San Francisco’s oldest Christmas parade takes place on the water! Head to the wharf for the Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade and watch boats cruise by dressed up in lights for the holidays. For 2019, the parade is set for December 13, from 6 to 8 p.m.
You can watch the parade from anywhere along the route, which begins just off Pier 39 and goes past Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, and the St. Francis Yacht Club before turning around near Crissy Field to return to Pier 39.
5. Winter Events at the California Academy of Sciences
Science-loving kids will love visiting San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences any time of year, but the museum offers some extra special things during the holidays.
During the “‘Tis the Season for Science” event, kids can frolic under indoor snow flurries, meet real reindeer, watch a movie inside the Snowman Theater, and learn about animals that live in snowy climates. Animals include polar bears, weasels, snow geese, and snow leopards. (There is also a really cool planetarium here. We saw the “Expedition Reef” show – not at all Christmas-related but still awesome! There is also a “Passport to the Universe” show, narrated by Tom Hanks.)
6. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
The Nutcracker is an iconic holiday ballet, and if you are in San Francisco during the holidays, this is the place to see it! The Nutcracker actually made its American debut in San Francisco in 1944. Since then, it has been a holiday tradition every year in San Francisco.
In addition to the regular performances, there are several family performances geared toward younger kids.
The Nutcracker is performed at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco’s Civic Center District.
7. Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House
For more than a century, the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco has wowed visitors with its two-story, intricately decorated gingerbread house in the hotel’s grand lobby. If you are heading to San Francisco during the holidays, this is a must-see attraction. You have not smelled gingerbread until you’ve inhaled the delicious scent of this dazzling display!
Once complete, the gingerbread house will stand more than 25 feet high, 35 feet wide and 10.5 feet deep and will feature more than 6,000 house-made gingerbread bricks (largest bricks to date), 1,650 pounds of candy and 3,300 pounds of royal icing.
Kids will also love the railroad track that circles the Gingerbread House!
8. The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
San Francisco transforms into Victorian London for this elaborate Christmas party. Experience what Christmas was like during Victorian times while enjoying shopping, holiday treats (roasted chestnuts!) and entertainment. You’ll see all of Dickens’ classic Christmas characters roaming around during this immersive holiday event.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair takes place at the Cow Palace Arena & Event Center in nearby Daly City. It is open on select nights in November and December and requires tickets to be purchased in advance.
9. Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle & Sweet Shop
Located in Union Square, the Westin St. Francis is one of the most iconic hotels in San Francisco. Every holiday season, it unveils two one-of-a-kind holiday castles in the Landmark Lobby.
Handcrafted by Executive Pastry Chef Jean François Houdré and his team, the towering 12-ft. Medieval Sugar Castle resembles a life-like magical French Chateau. The castle weighs more than 1,200 pounds and features 20 grand circular towers, 30 rooms, glowing windows and a two trains running around the castle.
The Westin St. Francis Enchanted Castle is a winter wonderland of elaborate gift boxes, gingerbread trees, and brilliantly colored candies, all intricately handmade with sugar and pastry. The castles are on display through January 2. There is also a special sweet shop in the lobby during the holidays.
10. Macy’s Department Store Windows
Do some window shopping in Union Square!! Macy’s has spectacular windows during Christmas in San Francisco. Take some time to admire the window displays from the street.
The best are the SPCA windows. Macy’s has made a generous Christmas tradition out of turning store windows into an adoption center for dogs and cats in need of loving families. This event has placed more than 8,000 animals in forever homes and raised nearly $400,000 for the San Francisco SPCA.
Even if you are not in the market for a new pet, the window displays are adorable and who doesn’t want to look at cute animals? Kids will love watching the pups and cats play, and if you feel so inspired you can even make a little donation.
11. “POP by the St. Francis” for Champagne
After a day of shopping, sightseeing and looking at Christmas decorations in San Francisco, stop back in to the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square.
The Westin St. Francis’ Pop-Up Champagne Bar is open through New Years Eve. Located off the Landmark Lobby, the beautifully decorated space boasts expansive windows overlooking the Macy’s Holiday Tree, the Union Square ice rink, and the iconic cable cars.
The menu features splits of Moët Impérial Brut and Chandon Rosé, along with Anchor Steam Christmas Lager and assorted treats such as cheeses and freshly baked goodies. Kids are welcome (but of course no champagne).
12. Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo & Gardens deck the halls during the holiday season, illuminating the zoo for the annual Zoo Lights event. Admire the lights, say hello to Santa, ride the train, sip hot cocoa and enjoy other holiday activities at the zoo with your family. Zoo Lights takes place from 5-10pm on select evenings throughout December.
Also happening at the zoo during the Christmas season is Reindeer Romp. Santa’s reindeer friends, Belle, Holly, and Peppermint check in to the zoo through New Year’s Day for this event, which is particularly popular with little ones.
13. Holiday Lights Tour
View San Francisco’s holiday lights from aboard a 1970s VW hippie bus. It is truly a unique and fun way to see San Francisco.
Complete with shag carpet and holiday music, San Francisco Love Tours takes you around the city at night to see the best holiday lights and views. We did the regular tour before the Christmas season and it was so cool; I can only imagine what a dash of holiday cheer adds to the experience!
The hippie buses take only up to 6 people at a time, so it’s an intimate experience and the small vehicle can go places that big tour buses cannot. Two photo stops are included on the two-hour tour, and a picture in front of the VW is a great photo op in itself.
14. Indulge at Ghirardelli Square
Located in the Marina area just a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square decorates its 50-foot-tall Christmas tree with lights and oversized chocolate bars! Don’t miss this sweet display, and while you’re there, stop into the shop for some chocolatey gifts and other sweet treats.
15. Let It Snow!
Soaring 17 stories high with an open atrium, Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Financial District has the world’s largest hotel lobby. We stayed here during our recent visit to San Francisco, and the hotel is truly breathtaking!
During the holiday season, the Hyatt Regency has a daily snowfall in its atrium lobby. Complementing the thousands of cascading lights and towering Christmas tree, snow falls three times a day in the hotel’s lobby near the front desk, at 1, 6 and 8 p.m. every day.
For more information about visiting San Francisco during the holidays and all year long, check out the San Francisco Travel Association’s official website.
How to Save Money in San Francisco
Save money on a visit to San Francisco by buying a San Francisco CityPASS.