Christmas in San Diego

  • 01 of 06

    San Diego Bay Parade of Lights Harbor Parade

    Decorated Boat in the San Diego Parade of Lights
    ••• Decorated Boat in the San Diego Parade of Lights. Port of San Diego/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Best Christmas Celebrations in San Diego, California

    Christmas in San Diego defies all the stereotypes, weather-wise, but that doesn't mean San Diego's residents are short on Christmas activities. We'll clue you in on the best Christmas parades, dinners, lights and Christmas celebrations.

    San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

    Especially good for: Limited budgets (free to watch)
    How Long: Takes about 2 hours to pass one spot
    More Info: Parade of Lights Website

    Since 1971, San Diego's boating community has been putting on the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights. Coastal Californians are familiar with the idea of a Christmas parade being held on water, with lighted and decorated boats standing in for traditional floats, but if you're from somewhere else, it's a sight you'll never forget. In fact, it's so much fun they do it twice, on two Sundays in December. Check their website for this year's schedule.

    As many as 40,000 people turn out for each running of the parade, but with such a long parade route,...MORE it's not as crowded as you might think. Expect some crowds and parking will be harder to find than usual. If you're not already downtown, your best bet may be taking the San Diego Trolley to the Convention Center stop, then walk to Seaport Village or the Embarcadero Marina South. To get to the marina from the trolley station, go left around the Convention Center on Park Blvd and follow the road to the waterfront.

    The parade kicks off with fireworks at 5:30 p.m.

    The parade route starts at Shelter Island, runs past Harbor Island and the city waterfront, turns just before the Coronado Bridge and continues along the Coronado Waterfront. To see it early, try Shoreline Park on Shelter Island or Harbor Island Drive Park. Next best places for viewing are around Seaport Village and the Embarcadero Marina (where it arrives about 7:00 p.m.) and where the boats pass close to shore. The best viewing area on Coronado is around the Ferry Landing (about 7:30). Piers and buildings downtown keep the boats further away, making them harder to see from the main waterfront.

    A fun way to see the parade from the water is on a boat. If you don't own one, Hornblower Cruises offers several options that include dinner and dancing while you cruise along with the parade.

    A few restaurants along the route also offer good viewing, including Bali Hai on Shelter Island, Tom Ham's Lighthouse, Island Prime Restaurant, Anthony's Fish Grotto and the Fish Market. Seats are limited for this popular way to celebrate the holiday, so reserve early.

    They do a similar (albeit smaller) parade over on Mission Bay, sponsored by the Mission Bay Yacht Club.

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  • 02 of 06

    Garden of Lights, San Diego Botanic Garden

    Garden of Lights at the San Diego Botanic Garden
    ••• Garden of Lights at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Courtesy of San Diego Botanic Garden and Rachel Cobb

    Garden of Lights at the San Diego Botanic Garden

    Especially good for: Children, especially ages 3 through 8
    How Long: An hour for a leisurely stroll, longer if you participate in the activities
    More Info: Garden of Lights Website

    The effect seems truly magical - more than 100,000 tiny, twinkly lights hung all around the botanical garden. It's a hit with folks of all ages, but children old enough to run around on their own and young enough to still believe in fairy tales seem to like it most. Besides walking through the gardens and enjoying the show, you can roast marshmallows over a wood fire, visit Santa Claus and enjoy the performers.

    The Garden of Lights is open most of the month of December but closed on the 24th and 25th.

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  • 03 of 06

    An American Christmas

    An American Christmas
    ••• An American Christmas. Courtesy of Lamb's Players

    Especially good for: Anyone who enjoys a good, old-fashioned Christmas
    More Info: An American Christmas Website

    On Coronado Island, Lamb's Players Theatre and the nearby Hotel del Coronado team up to present An American Christmas, a music and dining experience. In the hotel's ballroom, you'll be transported back to 1915 to become guests of the fictional Marshall family, who are greeting friends at the hotel. The Marshalls entertain with music, dance and song and the Hotel Del's chef goes all out to create a five-course Christmas meal to go along with it.

    Reserve your tickets online. The price includes the meal, entertainment, champagne toast, self-parking, taxes and gratuities. Wine and other drinks are available for an extra charge.

    Children under the age of five aren't admitted. Kids between 5 and 12 get a smaller entree portion (and a discount).

    We haven't had a chance to enjoy An American Christmas yet, but if you like it (or the idea of it), you may also be interested in the annual...MORE Bracebridge Dinners at Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee Hotel.

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  • 04 of 06

    San Diego Christmas Lights

    Light Display from Christmas Card Lane, San Diego
    ••• Light Display from Christmas Card Lane, San Diego. ©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    With December temperatures so high that hearing the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" makes you laugh and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" seems more like a hallucination, you've gotta do something to get in the holiday mood. In San Diego, that means hanging out the Christmas lights, and they've got more neighborhoods full of them, more than any other California city.

    The photo above was taken at "Christmas Card Lane," on Oviedo Street off Black Mountain Road, where homeowners create huge lighted cards as Christmas greetings. It runs December 10 through 31, but it's far from the only show in town. We found out about it from our colleague in San Diego, a native San Diegan who has a long list of lighted neighborhoods that are sure bets to get you to say: "Ooohhh...Aaaaah."

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  • 05 of 06

    San Diego Christmas Activities

    Surfin' Santa at Seaport Village
    ••• Surfin' Santa at Seaport Village. Courtesy of Seaport Village

    The San Diego Christmas fun doesn't stop with the big events we've outlined. You'll find tons of other things to do. These are some of the best:

    • See Santa by the Sea: At Seaport Village, Santa arrives on a surfboard and swaps his velvet and fur for board shorts.
    • December Nights in Balboa Park: It's Balboa Park's Christmas gift to the community, held in early December. Balboa Park museums open their doors free of charge, and there's plenty of entertainment and holiday happiness.
    • Ice Skating: San Diego's warm weather doesn't stop the Christmas ice skating. Try the rinks at Liberty Station, Hotel Del Coronado,  or the city's largest ice rink at Viejas Outlet Center
    • Holiday Tea: The Hotel Del Coronado serves a special Victorian Tea throughout the holidays. For the younger set, the posh Westgate Hotel serves a special Teddy Bear Holiday Tea on weekends in December.
    • Hotel Del Coronado: Holiday lights outlining the hotel's classic shape are reason enough to see...MORE it, but you can also go ice skating or have a holiday meal. If you stay overnight, an elf will tuck the little ones in for the night.
    • More Parades: Early in December, try Chula Vista’s Starlight Parade or the La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival

    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

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  • 06 of 06

    Holidays at San Diego's Most Popular Tourist Attractions

    Christmas Tree Lighting at Legoland
    ••• Christmas Tree Lighting at Legoland. Courtesy of Legoland California

    Holidays at the San Diego Theme Parks

    • Sea World: The park has Christmas themed animal shows, Breakfast with Shamu and Santa, The Christmas Village with Santa's Cottage and even a dancing Christmas tree. Weekends Thanksgiving1 through mid-December, daily through end of the month
    • Legoland's Holiday Snow Days and Winter Nights: Lots of seasonal LEGO creations including a life-sized Santa and Reindeer. The snow play area has real snow, where families can throw snowballs at LEGO targets and even build a snowman using LEGO accessories to decorate. Stay when the sun goes down for a nightly Tree-lighting ceremony, entertainment, and live music. Runs the whole month of December, with nightly fireworks between Christmas and New Year's Eve.

    Holidays at Other Big San Diego Attractions

    • San Diego Zoo: The zoo stays open later than usual for a nightly tree-lighting ceremony, bell ringers, and lighted animal figures, along with shows and activities. Runs from early December through early January,...MORE except Dec. 24