Dickens Fair, San Francisco

Singers at San Francisco's Dickens Fair
••• Singers at San Francisco's Dickens Fair. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

At the Great San Francisco Dickens Fair, you can meet Father Christmas on the streets of Victorian London. If you're lucky, you'll run into Queen Victoria or her husband Prince Albert. You can meet Charles Dickens, too — and listen to him reading one of his famous stories. You might even see Oliver Twist getting hauled away to prison. And that's are only the beginning.

According to the fair's website, it's "one of the most elaborate, inventive and authentically-Victorian Christmas events anywhere in the world." You'll find dozens of others dressed in period costume, playing roles large and small - from the queen to a lowly chimney sweep.

They're all excited to talk to you and pose for photographs. But their nineteenth-century brains may be puzzled about the device you're taking those photos with.

The Dickens Fair is a charming event that some people travel long distances to attend. But even more than that, it's so immersive that it draws you out of the everyday routine for a few hours. Don't be surprised if you leave it feeling refreshed and relaxed as if you took a trip to another place.

If you're looking for more ways to celebrate the holidays, try this guide to Christmas in San Francisco. You can also browse through these photos of Union Square at Christmas. Or see what's going on in other parts of the state in the guide to California at Christmas.

What Is The Dickens Fair?

The San Francisco Dickens Fair has entertained Bay Area residents for decades. For five weeks before the holiday, part of the San Francisco Cow Palace turns into a bustling, 19th Century London street scene.

It's a big production, covering more than 120,000 square feet. It's an elaborate party, to say the least, with hundreds of costumed players. You'll also find seven stages where singers and dancers provide entertainment.

If all that wears you out, you can have a beer or other liquid refreshments at four traditional pubs.

For something stronger, try the Bohemian Absinthe Bar. Or go for caffeine instead and enjoy a cup of hot tea and cucumber sandwiches at Cuthbert's Tea House (reservations required). Many of the food stands feature British-style classics like bangers and mash, meat pies, fish, and chips or roasted chestnuts. And if all that isn't enough, you can even start your holiday shopping at any of dozens of shops.

Some attendees get into the spirit of things, wearing Victorian-style costumes. It isn't required, but if you want to join in, they ask you not to come dressed as characters from Dickens novels.  You'll find more costume information here.

Reasons to Go to the Dickens Fair

The Dickens Fair is a popular event among many local area residents, who enjoy dressing up in Victorian-style clothing. It's also fun for visitors and a surprising number of people who enjoy the Steam Punk style. It's enjoyable enough that I have been twice in the past handful of years.

I like the Dickens Fair's fun atmosphere, the variety of things to see and do and the good-natured, nostalgic ambiance. I'm guessing that Charles Dickens' London may not have been quite like the Dickens Fair, but it's still fun to spend some time thinking of a bygone era.

The shops have well-made merchandise, reminiscent of the era. That makes it a good place for a bit of holiday shopping - if the people on your list would enjoy what you find. The food is tasty and reasonably priced compared to similar events. 

I usually spend a couple of hours walking around, browsing and having a bite to eat. If you sit down to watch all the shows, stop in all the shops and have a full meal, you could easily be there for two to three hours.

Reasons to Skip the Dickens Fair

If you don't like Merry Old England, you may not like the Dickens Fair. It's also not the best of places to go if you dislike crowds. The adults I have been to the fair with all liked it. Some smaller children with short attention spans may get bored Others may not. I have also seen children there who were completely engaged with the goings-on.

Dickens Fair Basics

The Dickens Fair runs for five weekends before Christmas. Details are at the Dickens Fair website. Admission is charged. Reservations are not required, but buying tickets online in advance will save you money. Parking is extra and paid at the venue.

If you stay more than a couple of hours, tickets are well worth the price and it's less expensive per hour than going to a movie.

Buy your tickets online through the first few days of December and get a discount. Children aged 12 and under get discounted admission with no convenience fee added. Senior and military discounts are also available.

If you want to have a meal in one of the on-site restaurants, make your reservations ahead, or you may wind up waiting a long time - or not getting in at all.

Tips for Enjoying the Dickens Fair

This popular event can draw big crowds, but when we attended on a Sunday morning in early December, it was - as Goldilocks might say - just right. Enough people were there to make it seem festive and fun, but it wasn't so crowded that moving around was difficult.

  • A few events require reservations: a sit-down meal at The Tippling Toad and a few other entertainments. More info and reservation contacts are here.
  • The Dickens Fair stays in nineteenth century period, but it's also twenty-first century enabled. You can buy your tickets online and download them to your mobile device.
  • If you arrive by automobile, you'll pay to park. It's a short walk from the parking lot to the exhibition halls which are next to the main Cow Palace. If you don't want to make the walk, you can catch a shuttle that will take you to the front door. 
  • Many long-time attendees recommend arriving at opening time to get ahead of the crowds. I don't think it's needed. We found it easy to get in (and around) when we arrived shortly before noon on Sunday.
  • If you arrive early enough, you may be able to find parking on the street and avoid that expense.
  • Bring cash for the food and drinks, but most of the retail shops accept credit cards.
  • You can leave the fair and re-enter if you get a hand stamp on your way out.
  • Leave the pets at home. They won't be allowed inside.
  • The fair is accessible to those who have mobility challenges, and they rent wheelchairs by the half-day if you need one.

How to Get to the Dickens Fair

Directions to the Cow Palace in Daly City from all the main highways are at the Dickens Fair website. They also have directions using public transit. The fair runs a free shuttle from the Glen Park BART station.The Cow Palace address is 2600 Geneva Avenue.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of reviewing the Dickens Fair. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.