Guide to Christmas in San Diego: Activities, Parades, and Lights

Hotel del Coronado holiday lights

John Bahu / Hotel del Coronado

If you think a white Christmas is overrated and you prefer to spend the holidays near the beach and in a t-shirt, then look no further than San Diego. The average high during December is 66 degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to sit outside for holiday parades, ice skate on the beach, or take part in an outdoor seasonal festival.

You might miss out on the nostalgia of a winter wonderland Christmas, but the bright side is that you won't have to worry about any holiday events being canceled due to weather.

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Ice Skate on the Beach

Outdoor Ice Skating in Southern California

Kayte Deioma

If you want to mix the best of winter and summer, then try "Skating by the Sea" at the Hotel del Coronado. It's one of the few places where you can enjoy this quintessential winter sport and then slip off your skates and head straight to the beach. For a more complete winter experience, reserve a premium spot around one of the rinkside fire pits with full food and beverage service. Skating by the Sea is open beginning November 26, 2019, and runs through January 5, 2020.

The Viejas Casino and Resort is a little further inland and doesn't have the majestic seaside views, but it does have Southern California's largest outdoor ice rink. About 30 minutes east of downtown San Diego in Alpine, California, the rink is open daily beginning November 1, 2019, through January 3, 2020, including holidays. Starting January 4, 2020, the rink is open on weekends during the entire month of January.

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Get in the Spirit with December Nights

December Nights at Balboa Park
kellinahandbasket / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The city of San Diego throws a massive festival called December Nights to celebrate the oncoming holiday season in scenic Balboa Park. December Nights is the city's largest free festival, with up to 350,000 attendees throughout the weekend of December 6–7, 2019. Taste international dishes from the many food stalls, enjoy the non-stop live entertainment, and marvel at the expansive light display that has been ranked as one of the nation's best by "USA Today." Enter any one of the 16 museums in the area, including the San Diego Natural History Museum and Comic-Con Museum, which offer free admission during the December Nights Festival.

Free parking is available at the San Diego Zoo and City College lots, but it fills up quickly. A free shuttle picks up and drops off in downtown San Diego on Ash Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, and ride-sharing services are also an option.

03 of 11

Discover the Magic of the Toyland Parade

North Park Toyland Parade

North Park Toyland Parade

Get into the holiday spirit during the annual Toyland Parade and Festival in San Diego's North Park neighborhood. It's a family-favorite tradition that brings together residents and visitors from around the whole county. Watch as vintage cars, marching bands, rhythmic dancers, and beauty queens march down University Avenue, until the grand finale of Santa Claus who rides through atop a fire truck.

After the parade, Christmas festivities continue throughout the day along University Avenue. Listen to local music performers, shop at the local businesses, and get a picture with Santa under the iconic North Park sign.

The parade and festival take place on December 8, 2019, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

04 of 11

Enjoy the Neighborhood Christmas Lights

Holiday lights in a San Diego neighborhood.
Mike Liu / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Visiting Christmas lights is a holiday pastime, and the San Diego area boasts a variety of impressive displays that will not disappoint. One of the most famous is in the South Bay neighborhood of Chula Vista, known as "Christmas Circle." Since 1955, a growing group of homes adorns the entire neighborhood in over-the-top light displays to the delight of visitors. Christmas Circle always opens the second Saturday of December and runs until December 26.

In the East County area of El Cajon, a neighborhood deemed "Jingle Bell Hill" also puts on an impressive display at Solomon Avenue and Pegeen Place, and runs from December 7–26, 2019.

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05 of 11

Take in Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo Jungle Bells
mliu92 / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For a wild twist to holiday festivities, take in the San Diego Zoo's annual Jungle Bells celebration. Catch special animal tours throughout the day and get photos with Santa at the zoo. In the evening, listen to special holiday entertainment, go on a twilight tour to see nocturnal animals emerge for the night, and experience the 3D light show Aurora, which recreates the effects of the Northern Lights.

The zoo grounds are transformed during Jungle Bells with Christmas lights, carolers, and special shows. Jungle Bells debuts for the season on December 13, 2019, and runs daily until January 5, 2020, apart from Christmas Eve when it's closed.

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Watch the Boat Parade

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights
Tony Webster / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights is one of the most anticipated events of the season in all of San Diego county. It's so big that one parade isn't enough and it repeats on back-to-back weekends, December 8 and December 15, 2019.

Over 80 lavishly decorated boats cruise through San Diego Bay, as 100,000 spectators look on from the shore. This year's theme pays homage to another popular San Diego event, Comic-Con, so expect to see your favorite superheroes and comic characters sailing in the water.

The parade starts at 5 p.m., and some of the best viewing areas are along the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Harbor Island, and Coronado.

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Take in the Holiday Bowl Big Balloon Parade

Holiday Bowl Big Balloon Parade
Port of San Diego / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Holiday Bowl Parade is known for one thing: balloons. Dubbed "America's Largest Balloon Parade," more than 30 giant balloons will float down the one-mile route along the Embarcadero, along with bands, drill teams, and more. Free streetside viewing is available along the parade route, but grandstand seats are also available for purchase if you want a guaranteed comfortable spot.

The parade is a precursor to the highly awaited Holiday Bowl football game at SDCCU Stadium. Due to the game being scheduled later this year, the holiday parade takes place after Christmas, on December 26, 2019, starting at 3 p.m.

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Grinch Out at the Old Globe

The Grinch Old Globe Theater

Henry DiRocco / The Old Globe

The Old Globe Theater production of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" has established itself as an annual holiday classic. The musical tells the story of the classic Dr. Seuss book with incredible sets and memorable performances, in a play that speaks to audiences of all ages. Dr. Seuss lived most of his life and published all of his major books in San Diego, so seeing his work brought to life in his hometown is extra-special.

Back for its 22nd year, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" begins running on November 10 and closes December 29, 2019.

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09 of 11

Enjoy The Nutcracker on Stage

The Nutcracker
Gabriel Saldana / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

"The Nutcracker" has enchanted children and adults alike for generations, and the California Ballet Company will be presenting their rendition at the San Diego Civic Theater from December 14–24, 2019. The visionary choreography is accompanied by the illustrious San Diego Symphony, and even young children will appreciate the magic of this holiday classic. After matinee and early evening shows, they can even get pictures with Clara, the Nutcracker, and the Sugar Plum Fairy as a memorable keepsake.

The full-length performance of just over two hours is only open to audience members at least 4 years of age. However, if you want to introduce a younger child to the world of dance at a more digestible showing, bring them to one of the family-friendly performances on December 13 and 20, 2019. It's cut down to an hour and includes the scenes most likely to captivate your little ones.

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Go Shopping

Shops and Christmas decorations in Las Americas shopping mall, San Diego, USA
anouchka / Getty Images

Shopping over the holidays is often more than just buying gifts. For many, it's a way to hook up with friends and family, making the shopping trip more of a social outing. During the holiday season, most malls and shopping centers also treat shoppers to carolers, light displays, and towering Christmas trees. A trip to the mall can really be a full holiday experience.

Westfield owns a chain of shopping centers that are peppered around the San Diego area, such as Plaza Bonita in South County, Westfield UTC in La Jolla, and Westfield North County in Escondido.

The Fashion Valley shopping center, located in the Mission Valley neighborhood, is one of San Diego's premier malls and features many upscale brands like Bloomingdale's, Tiffany, and Burberry.

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Give a Gift

Toys for Tots

Toys for Tots

Lest we get all wrapped up in the material aspect of Christmas, how about buying one extra gift and donating it to someone in need? Whether it's through the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, or one of the many gift drives conducted by local TV and radio stations, giving to those less fortunate helps remind us all what the holiday season is really about.

The Grossmont Shopping Center in La Mesa conducts a toy drive from November 29 until December 8, 2019, with donated items benefitting kids at Rady Children's Hospital.

If you can't find a Toys for Tots donation center near you, you can bring a new, unwrapped toy to any San Diego County fire station, and it will then be delivered to Toys for Tots.

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