Although San Fransisco has become one of the most expensive cities in the United States, celebrating the holidays in the Bay Area can be done cheaply—sometimes even for free.
From a lighted boat parade and a Santa-themed pub crawl to Kwanza and Hanukkah events and festivals, there's something for everyone this holiday season if you're planning to visit this central Californian city, and even though San Francisco hasn't gotten significant snowfall since 1976, you can still enjoy some winter traditions associated with December holidays.
Explore the following list of events, activities, and attractions and get ready for your winter vacation to San Francisco. Also, when packing for your trip, don't forget that San Fransisco is typical warm during the day and cold at night, even in the winter months, though this varies depending on which neighborhood of the Bay Area you are in.
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Winter Walk SF
Located in the Union Square neighborhood and taking place over the course of five glorious weeks, the endless jackhammering goes quiet and the giant hole in the earth on Stockton between Geary and Ellis streets is covered up by green astroturf to welcomes shoppers to take a break from the holiday madness.
Nightly events take place the entire month of December (excluding Christmas Day) featuring food trucks, carolers, musicians, and free activations by Blastaround, T Mobile, and Macy’s partnerships on select days.
Partnering with both SFMTA and the food truck event team Off the Grid (which hosts food truck "rallies" all over the city on different days of the week), the Winter Walk SF is a great way to unwind or stop for a bite to eat while out shopping in the bustling Union Square shopping district.
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Perhaps just as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge is to the city, so is the notion that a Bay full of ships means it's going to be a rare, fogless day in San Francisco, but that SF staple gets flipped on its head with this next annual holiday tradition: the Lighted Boat Parade.
This year on December 15 from 6 to 8 p.m., a flotilla of more than 60 boats festooned in lights and holiday decorations will parade along the waterfront, lighting up the Bay with holiday cheer just after sunset.
Boats will launch from Pier 39 then head west past Fisherman's Wharf and Fort Mason before turning around at Crissy Field and heading back. Camping out anywhere along there, you'll find thousands of residents and tourists alike gathered together to witness the spectacle.
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Descending upon Union Square itself at noon on December 9, 2017, SantaCon makes its return to San Francisco bringing with it thousands of revelers dressed up as Santa (or a creative interpretation of him) or one of his sidekicks like an elf or reindeer to join a mass pub crawl through the city.
Be prepared to sing warped versions of Christmas carols, drink and act responsibly, and civilly and belt out “Ho, ho, ho!” as you imbibe and spread holiday cheer across the city.
Check the linked website (above) for participating locations, lyrics to SantaCon's naughty carols, etiquette guidelines for the event (keep it classy, Santas!), and up-to-date information on where the main Santa will be and when.
You must be 21 or older to participate in SantaCon (well, to go to the bars anyway), so this event is not recommended for parents visiting SF with their children. We also highly encourage all participants to read the About Page for SantaCon, which explains the strict rules of behavior that must be followed to join the merriment.
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The parol, a hand-made Philippine Christmas light in a star shape, is, well, the star of the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade in Soma's Yerba Buena Gardens. Join people parading with their hand-made parol lanterns and enjoy music and performances in this celebration of part of the cultural diversity that makes San Francisco so unique.
This year, the event kicks off on Saturday, December 9 at 5 p.m. at Yerba Buena Lane, Jessie Square, and St. Patrick’s Church and the theme is "Let Tradition Be Our Light," encouraging guests to familiarize themselves with how their own lanterns reflect their cultural heritage, the familial traditions that have been passed down for generations.
Parol Lantern Festival commemorates its 15th year in celebration of San Francisco's newest Filipino Cultural District, SoMa Pilipinas, where 25 groups are expected to present their giant parols for the parade.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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In this unique mobile concert, people stroll the Mission around Delores Park, playing one of four different tracks of a composition on their smartphones, boomboxes, or CD players (a limited number of CDs and cassette tapes are available and lent out).
In this extremely "San Francisco" event, everyone’s a performer-listener of Phil Kline's acoustic piece, which is meant to be heard outdoors in December. This year the mobile sound sculpture comes to life between 5 and 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 9.
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Typically located at the Fort Mason Center in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco and formerly called "Bazaar Bizarre," this juried show has indie artists, designers, and craftspeople offering their ceramics, bags, bath products, toys, clothing, hats, posters, gourmet sweets and other wares plus DIY workshops, a raffle, DJ music, and a photo booth that happen throughout the year.
This year, though, the San Francisco Bazaar moves to the California Academy of Sciences inside Golden Gate Park for "NightLife: Music, Creatures, and Cocktails" on Thursday, December 14 from 6 to 10 p.m. for a night of holiday museum programming and local artists' goods.
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The galleries, live music performances, art-making activities and a puppet workshop are all free on Christmas Day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in the Soma neighborhood of San Francisco.
This is the perfect opportunity to check out some of the cultural heritage on display at this unique museum. Current exhibits include "Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid;" "Sabbath: The 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational;" "In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art—Allison Smith and Christina Zetterlund;" and "Kutiman: offgrid offline."
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If you're looking for somewhere truly quiet to go and escape from the holiday bustle, the perfect place might be right in the heart of the Civic Center neighborhood inside the San Francisco Public Library where the Holiday Train returns for its fifth anniversary from December 3, 2017, to January 7, 2018.
Check out this magical display inside the case outside the Fisher Children's Center on the Second Floor of the Main Library, where the Hogwarts Express and Polar Express zip around villages alongside Thomas the Tank Engine.
After you check out the miniature replicas of these literary trains—Thomas from "Thomas the Tank Engine" series by W. Awdry, Hogwarts Express from the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling, and the Polar Express from the book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg—grab a book and escape this world to another for a little while.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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From December 26, 2017, through January 1, 2018, the Village Project, a youth-centered nonprofit geared toward community building and diversity programs, will hosts events for its 12th annual citywide Kwanzaa celebration.
Each event is themed upon a different core principle of the Kwanzaa traditon—Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith)—and features a different performer each night.
This year's entertainment kicks off on December 26 at noon at City Hall with a keynote speech by John Templeton followed by a performance by the St. Gabriel's Brass Band at 2 p.m. at the Museum of the African Diaspora and a performance by Bernard Anderson & Band at the African American Arts & Culture Complex at 7 p.m.
For a full list of performers and venues and a detailed explanation of each of these special celebratory days, visit the official Village Project website.
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Across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, there's an entire street dedicated to festive cheer, musical events, and coming together to celebrate the holidays, with thousands of lights clicking on nightly from November 17, 2017, through January 2, 2018—most activities happen across from Peet's at 1776 Fourth Street.
Besides live music, there’s caroling and photo-taking with Santa and his elf on weekends as well as merchants, especially between Hearst and Virginia, where it’s a hub of gourmet food, cosmetics, jewelry, apparel, chocolate, kitchenware, interior decor, gardening and stationery shops.
Special events include caroling with the SF City Chorus, decorating holiday stockings, and live music every Saturday and Sunday evening of December; check the official website above for dates, times, and more details about the performances.
This year, merchants will also be collecting warm coats to be donated to Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), a nonprofit that helps homeless and poverty-stricken residents of the Bay Area get back on their feet.