Planning a visit to San Francisco this holiday season? While the city’s ample holiday offerings can be expensive, there are so many family-friendly and free attractions and events to celebrate the season. Get insider tips from a San Francisco local TravelingMom on what to do and see.

Free Things to do in San Francisco for the Holidays - Union Square Tree

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Things to Do in San Francisco at the Holidays

The city of San Francisco is a beloved travel destination, but its star shines even brighter during the winter holidays. Holiday decorations and lights adorn the iconic buildings of the City by the Bay. The city also offers many special events and performances during the winter months for special family outings. And it goes without saying that the city’s shopping offerings are second to none.

What’s not to love? Of course – the price! San Francisco is extraordinarily expensive. Many of these special attractions and events cost a lot. Even if you are planning to splurge on a few holiday theater tickets or a special tea at one of the luxury hotels, there are still plenty of free things to do to salvage your budget. Here are my top picks for free things to do in San Francisco for the holidays with your family.

1. Santa at Macy’s in Union Square

The Union Square Macy’s is the flagship store on the West Coast and is a destination all of its own during the holiday season. Just like in the iconic New York City store, you can have your kids sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what they want for Christmas. Photo packages are – of course – an extra cost, but there’s no cost to see the big guy in person.

2. Union Square Tree Lighting

Free Things to do in San Francisco for the Holidays - Macys Tree Lighting

Photo Credit: San Francisco Travel Association photo by Drew Altizer

The city’s largest tree lights up the weekend after Thanksgiving each year, and the celebration is totally free to attend and watch. The lighting event features performances like the San Francisco Boys Choir and usually a pop act or two. In 2016, the event takes place on November 25.

3. Ghirardelli Square Tree Lighting

San Francisco’s other major tourist district, Fisherman’s Wharf, isn’t going to be left out of the holiday action. Ghirardelli Square holds a lighting of its own just after Thanksgiving each year (the 2016 event will also be held November 25). The special event features Santa visits, live music, snow, and plenty of free activities that are kid-friendly.

4. Pier 39 Tree Lighting

If you want to kick off the Christmas celebrations even before the Thanksgiving holiday, Pier 39 has a tree lighting of its own the weekend prior to Turkey Day. With crafting stations, carolers, and live musical performances, it’s a family-friendly and free way to kick off the holiday season.

5. Lighted Boat Parade

Because of its bay location, boating and the water are an important part of many San Francisco traditions. Celebrate all things nautical and get in the holiday spirit by watching San Francisco’s Lighted Boat Parade in mid-December (in 2016, the event will be held on December 16). The route starts at Pier 39, passes Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, and the St. Francis Yacht Club before turning around in front of Chrissy Field. There are many prime waterfront viewing locations. Bring a jacket for the windy and chilly waterfront weather!

6. Christmas Tree Lane in Alameda

Free Things to do in San Francisco for the Holidays - Alameda Christmas Tree Lane

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Who says all the Christmas fun has to happen in San Francisco proper? My little hometown of Alameda, California, in the East Bay (just minutes from downtown San Francisco) has one of the Bay Area’s most epic displays of holiday lights sure to put the Griswold family to shame. Each house on “Christmas Tree Lane” (a.k.a. Thompson Avenue) chooses a theme and goes all out with lights, decor, and sometimes soundtracks. There is one house with Jack Skellington decor and lights timed to the music of the Nightmare Before Christmas – always a favorite. Santa also makes appearances on weekends.

7. Winter Walk SF

For the second year in a row (thanks to the central subway construction), two blocks of Stockton Street near Union Square will be closed off and transformed into Winter Walk SF. The area will feature musical performances, food trucks, and other activities. Always a highlight is the adjacent window at Macy’s with adoptable puppies from the SPCA.

8. Westin St. Francis Holiday Castles & Decorations

Free Things to do in San Francisco for the Holidays - Westin St Francis Sweets Castle

Photo credit: San Francisco Travel Association photo by The Westin St. Francis

The pastry chef at the historic Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square is busy every holiday season. The hotel has displayed a castle of sweets in its lobby for many years, and two creations are planned for 2016: the original Sugar Castle as well as the St. Francis Enchanted Castle. Should your kids be tempted by the sweet treats, the hotel also features a sweet shop, so I can’t promise you’ll be able to get out totally free!

9. Fairmont Gingerbread House

Another iconic San Francisco hotel puts its chefs to work creating edible and impressive works of art and engineering. The Fairmont, atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, is well known for its two story gingerbread house in the lobby each Christmas season. The hotel hosts a grand unveiling reception open to the public each year with free refreshments and viewing opportunities in late November.

10. City Hall Lights

Free Things to do in San Francisco for the Holidays - City Hall Lights

Photo credit: San Francisco Travel Association photo

San Francisco’s City Hall is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Be sure to drive or walk by at night during the holiday season to see all of its usual gold adorned with dazzling holiday lights. The rest of the city has plenty of impressive lights and decorations to see if you want to make a tour of it. Be sure to check out the Ferry Building, the Embarcadero buildings, and the classic cable cars in their kitchy holiday decor.

Visiting San Francisco other times of the year? Don’t miss these guides with 10 free things to do in San Francisco and 25 free things to do in San Francisco with kids year-round.

Free Holiday Things to Do in San Francisco: Visiting San Francisco for the Christmas holiday season? Celebrate on a budget with these 10 fun and family-friendly activities - tree lightings, parades, decorations, holiday lights, and more.