Christmas in San Diego: Best Celebrations and Events

  • 01 of 06

    San Diego Bay Parade of Lights Harbor Parade

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

    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

    Coastal Californians are familiar with the idea of a Christmas parade on the water, with lighted and decorated boats standing in for floats, but if you're from somewhere else, it's a sight you'll never forget.

    The parade runs on two Sundays in December. Check their website for this year's schedule. It kicks off with fireworks at 5:30 p.m.

    Parking will be harder to find than usual. If you're not already downtown, take the San Diego Trolley to the Convention Center stop, then walk to Seaport Village or the Embarcadero Marina South. To get to the marina, go left around the Convention Center on Park Boulevard and follow the road to the waterfront.

    The route runs clockwise, starting at Shelter Island, past the city waterfront, turning just before the Coronado Bridge and continuing along the Coronado Waterfront.

    The best place to watch depends on your preference. To see it early, try Shoreline Park on Shelter Island or Harbor Island Drive Park. Near downtown, piers keep the boats away from shore, making them harder to see. For a closer view, go to Seaport Village or the Embarcadero Marina (where it arrives about 7:00 p.m.). The best viewing area on Coronado is around the Ferry Landing (about 7:30).

    Hornblower Cruises offers several options that include dinner and dancing while you cruise along with the parade.

    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, making early reservations essential.

  • 02 of 06

    Garden of Lights, San Diego Botanic Garden

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

    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 December but closed on the 24th and 25th.

  • 03 of 06

    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 five and 12 get a smaller entree portion (and a discount).

    If you like An American Christmas (or the idea of it), you may also be interested in the annual Bracebridge Dinners at Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee Hotel.

  • 04 of 06

    San Diego Christmas Lights

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

    December temperatures can be 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 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. You can find a long list of more lighted San Diego neighborhoods that are sure bets to get you to say: "Ooohhh...Aaaaah."

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    San Diego Christmas Activities

    Surfin' Santa at Seaport Village
    Courtesy of Seaport Village

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

    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

  • 06 of 06

    Holidays at San Diego's Most Popular Tourist Attractions

    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, a Christmas Village with Santa's Cottage. and even a dancing Christmas tree on weekends Thanksgiving through mid-December and daily through the end of the month
    • Legoland's Holiday Snow Days and Winter Nights: The park puts up 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 build a snowman with LEGO accessories. Stay until the sun goes down for a nightly Tree-lighting ceremony, entertainment, and live music. Winter nights run 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. The festivities run from early December through early January, except Dec. 24.