Best Christmas Celebrations in San Francisco California

  • 01 of 10

    Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremonies

    Christmas Tree in San Francisco's Union Square
    ••• Christmas Tree in San Francisco's Union Square. Kevin Lau/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    San Franciscans have a batch of unique Christmas traditions, including a lighted city skyline and some entertaining musical events. But they don't ignore traditions. Christmas tree lighting ceremonies draw crowds, who continue to visit throughout the season.

    The biggest, splashiest-looking trees go up at:

    • Union Square: The traditional Macy's tree is lit for the first time on Thanksgiving1 weekend. Placed in the middle of Union Square, the tree is 80 feet tall (nearly seven stories) and covered in 21,000 twinkling LED lights. The best place to watch the ceremonies is in the square, but you can also make a reservation at Burger Bar in Macy's Union Square, where you can see it all from the windows.
    • Pier 39Pier 39's tree-lighting happens the weekend before Thanksgiving, with a 60-foot-tall tree located near the entrance to the pier shopping area. Afternoon concerts begin the festivities, followed by the tree's first lighting in the early evening.
    • Ghirardelli Square: Ghirar...MOREdelli decorates their 50-foot-tall Christmas tree with — what else — oversized Ghirardelli Chocolate bars, and it's first lit during Thanksgiving weekend. Musical performances, puppet shows, and stilt walkers perform, leading up to the first lighting.
    • Golden Gate Park: The tree in Golden Gate Park is a live one, a 100-plus-year-old Monterey cypress. You can see it near the east entrance at McLaren Lodge, 501 Stanyan St. (and Fell). The tree lighting takes places on the first Thursday of December.

    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

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  • 02 of 10

    City Lights

    San Francisco Holiday Skyline at Sunset
    ••• San Francisco Holiday Skyline at Sunset. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The San Francisco Embarcadero Center buildings are outlined in 17,000 lights every holiday season, giving the San Francisco skyline a special look. In fact, you can amaze your friends if you know about this. If you see a skyline photo with the buildings outlined in lights, you can confidently say it was taken in December.

    Embarcadero Center is located on The Embarcadero near the Ferry Building. A winter carnival at Justin Herman Plaza next to the center precedes the seasonal illumination ceremony, followed by fireworks. It all happens the Friday before Thanksgiving, but the Holiday Ice Rink opens a week earlier, staying open for nine weeks, through the holiday season.

    The best place to see the lights is to get away from them a bit. One of the best viewing spots is from Treasure Island (exit I-80 in the middle of the Bay Bridge). If you can't get all the way out there, walk to the end of Pier 7.

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  • 03 of 10

    More Lights

    ••• Holiday Lights in South San Francisco. Courtesy of California Christmas Lights

    If you like to see beautifully lighted homes and neighborhoods, try California Christmas Lights ​which lists hundreds of houses that light up for the holidays, mostly in northern and central California. They also have some handy lists of walking neighborhoods and must-see houses.

    Besides nicely decorated houses, the fishing boats moored at Fisherman's Wharf are lit through the holiday season. You can see them along Jefferson Street between Jones and Taylor.

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  • 04 of 10

    Holiday Lights Boat Parade

    San Francisco's Lighted Boat Parade
    ••• San Francisco's Lighted Boat Parade. Courtesy of Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District

    San Francisco's only Christmas parade, the Holiday Lights Boat Parade happens on the water, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Shortly before tjem, details are usually posted on the Fisherman's Wharf website.

    You can watch it anywhere from the route, which begins just off of Pier 39, goes past Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason and the St. Francis Yacht Club before turning around near Crissy Field to return to Pier 39 along the waterfront.

    Best places to see it are Aquatic Park, Pier 39, Marina Green and Crissy Field.

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  • 05 of 10

    Union Square

    Holiday Skating in Union Square
    ••• Holiday Skating in Union Square. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Union Square is San Francisco's shopping hub and the square is where the big Macy's tree goes up. You'll also find an ice skating rink open for the holiday season.

    Shops and department stores surrounding the square decorate their facades with lights and fill their windows with special seasonal displays. Pop into the surrounding hotel lobbies to check out their seasonal trappings and see the gingerbread houses. Take a photo tour of Union Square at Christmas.

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  • 06 of 10

    Great Dickens Christmas Fair

    Singers at San Francisco's Dickens Fair
    ••• Singers at San Francisco's Dickens Fair. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a slice of the Old Country runs for five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas at the Cow Palace with entertainment, food and drink and shopping.

    It's more fun that it sounds like unless of course, you're just a Scrooge at heart. Read more about the Faire and get some tips for enjoying it.

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  • 07 of 10


    San Francisco Ballet
    ••• San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson. Used by Permission.

    The Nutcracker is the iconic holiday ballet, and no one performs it better than the San Francisco Ballet, where the classic ballet made its American debut in 1944. The local version is set in the City by the Bay, during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition.

    The performance is so well-regarded that Brad Maxwell of the Nutcracker Ballet website says: "'s just not Christmas until you've traveled to the magical place The San Francisco Ballet takes you."

    Performances start in mid-December and continue through the end of the month and all the details are on the SF Ballet website.

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  • 08 of 10

    Holiday Trains

    Holiday Lights Train at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
    ••• Holiday Lights Train at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Courtesy of Roaring Camp Railroad

    It's worth a drive to Santa Cruz for a bit of old-fashioned holiday fun. That's where the Roaring Camp Railroad runs a Holiday Lights Train, leaving from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's an especially festive, old-fashioned affair with live music on board and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

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  • 09 of 10

    Christmas With Walt Disney

    Walt Disney Family Museum in Presidio San Francisco
    ••• Walt Disney Family Museum. ©2012 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The Disney Family Museum offers holiday screenings of the film "Christmas With Walt," which includes scenes from television specials and even some of Walt's home movies.

    They also screen other Disney films with a holiday theme, and all are free with museum admission.

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  • 10 of 10

    Musical Traditions

    San Francisco Christmas Ornament
    ••• San Francisco Christmas Ornament. ©2014 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    San Francisco-based a capella singing group Chanticleer performs their Chanticleer Christmas concert of Gregorian chants and popular tunes in some of the area's prettiest venues.

    In Oakland, the California Revels celebrate the season at the Scottish Rite Temple, with music, dance, and storytelling to celebrate the winter solstice.

    The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performs their annual holiday concert, which takes its inspiration from a 1994 event when 994 hundreds of people dressed as Santa Claus and took to the streets of San Francisco. The chorus, more than 275 men in red suits, perform at Davies Symphony Hall and the Castro Theater.