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

Christmas in San Diego defies all the stereotypes weather-wise, but there's no shortage of shows, events, and attractions to discover during the winter holidays. From traditional parades and dinners to festive lighting displays and activities, you're sure to find something to put you in the Christmas spirit this year.

  • 01 of 06
    Decorated Boat in the San Diego Parade of Lights
    Port of San Diego/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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, the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights is a sight you'll never forget.

    The 47th Annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights will take place on December 9 and 16, 2018, starting with fireworks at 5:30 p.m. and is free to enjoy. This year's theme, Tropical Island Christmas, will be incorporated into each decorated boat in the two-hour parade.

    The route for the parade runs clockwise in the bay, starting at Shelter Island and heading past the city waterfront before turning at the Coronado Bridge and continuing along the Coronado Waterfront.

    The best place to watch the parade early is from Shoreline Park on Shelter Island or in Harbor Island Drive Park. On the other hand, if you want a closer view, you can head to Seaport Village or the Embarcadero Marina around 7 p.m. on both days of the parade.

    Additionally, restaurants along the route including Bali Hai on Shelter Island, Tom Ham's Lighthouse, Island Prime Restaurant, Anthony's Fish Grotto and the Fish Market also offer great views of the parade. However, seats are limited, so making an early reservation is essential.

    Parking will be harder to find than usual if you're driving here, so you might want to 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.

  • 02 of 06

    Located on Coronado Island, LAMB's Players Theatre puts on a series of Christmas productions each year in December in honor of the holiday season.

    In 2018, productions kick off with LAMB's Festival of Christmas, an annual series of performances of an original play. This year's production "Reaching for the Stars" tells the story of an old man named Father Christmas who guides the residents of a hip urban neighborhood toward accomplishing their goals. Performances will take place on select nights and evenings from November 30 to December 30.

    On Monday, December 17, 2018, you can also stop by LAMB's Players Theatre at 6:30 p.m. for "Lamb's Christmas Cabaret," a special night of music featuring 12 of the area's best singers covering Christmas classics old and new.

    Although LAMB's usually co-host a popular holiday dinner theatre experience with the Hotel del Coronado called "An American Christmas" every year, the production had to postpone its 2018 production due to budgetary restrictions.

  • 03 of 06

    Spend Your Holidays at Popular Tourist Attractions

    Christmas Tree Lighting at Legoland
    Courtesy of Legoland California

    San Diego is home to some of the biggest tourist attractions in California, including Sea World, Legoland, and the San Diego Zoo, each of which celebrates the holidays a little differently.

    Sea World, for instance, has Christmas themed animal shows, Breakfast with Shamu and Santa, a Christmas Village complete with Santa's Cottage as well as a dancing Christmas tree on weekends from Thanksgiving through mid-December and daily through the end of the month.

    Meanwhile, Legoland puts up lots of seasonal LEGO creations, including a life-sized Santa and reindeer, as part of their annual Holiday Snow Days and Winter Nights event. For most of December, you can visit the park's snow play area where you can throw real snowballs at LEGO targets, or you can stay until the sun goes down for a nightly Tree-lighting ceremony, entertainment, and live music. In addition, Legoland will celebrate the end of the year with nightly fireworks between Christmas and New Year's Eve.

    Finally, the San Diego Zoo will stay open later than usual from early December through early January for a nightly tree-lighting ceremony followed by bell ringer games, holiday performances, and family-friendly activities.

  • 04 of 06
    Garden of Lights at the San Diego Botanic Garden
    Courtesy of San Diego Botanic Garden and Rachel Cobb

    Although you won't find nearly as many public Christmas trees in San Diego as you would elsewhere in the United States, there's one place in the city you can go to see an entire forest illuminated with Christmas lights this December: Garden of Lights at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

    Each night from 5 to 8:30 p.m., over 125,000 sparkling lights transform the Garden into a winter wonderland full of festive activities and refreshments appropriate for the whole family. Although younger children may enjoy the lights and gardens more, there are plenty of adult-oriented events, drinks, and performances to enjoy throughout the month.

    Besides taking an hour-long stroll through the gardens and enjoying the lights, guests can roast marshmallows over a wood fire, visit Santa Claus, and enjoy the performers most nights of the month.

    The Garden of Lights is open for most of December​ but will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 2018.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06
    Light Display from Christmas Card Lane, San Diego
    ©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    December temperatures can be so high in San Diego that hearing the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" might make you laugh and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" seems more like a hallucination, but the residents of San Diego still go all-out for Christmas when it comes to holiday lighting displays.

    In fact, San Diego has more neighborhoods full of lights than any other California City, including the famous "Christmas Card Lane" on Ovideo Street off Black Mountain Road. Each year, homeowners along this street create huge lighted cards as Christmas greetings, which are on display from December 10 through 31.

  • 06 of 06

    Discover Other Winter Activities

    Surfin' Santa at Seaport Village
    Courtesy of Seaport Village

    Although the may not be many huge events happening this holiday season in San Diego, there are plenty of activities available for those who are looking for fine dining experiences, museum events, or opportunities to exercise outdoors.

    In early December, you can head to Balboa Park for December Nights, a free event featuring live musical performances and holiday refreshments at some of the area's museums. Alternatively, you could stop by the Hotel Del Coronado for Polar Bear Tea or the posh Westgate Hotel for Teddy Bear Holiday Tea on weekends throughout the month.

    Fortunately, San Diego's warm weather doesn't stop the Christmas ice skating; you can try the rinks at Liberty Station, Hotel Del Coronado, or the city's largest ice rink at Viejas Outlet Center. However, if you head over to Seaport Village, you'll be greeted by an entirely different way to enjoy the outdoors at the Santa by the Sea event, where Saint Nicholas arrives by surfboard wearing board shorts and his signature red cap.