Christmas in San Francisco is magical, even without the presence of frigid temperatures and snow. And although the hip California hub has become one of the most expensive cities in the country, celebrating the holidays here can be done cheaply—sometimes even for free. From a lighted boat parade to a Santa-themed pub crawl, plus a number of Kwanza and Hanukkah events, there's something for every age and taste in the Bay Area.
Keep in mind that many holiday events planned for the 2020-2021 season have been altered or canceled. Check the websites of organizers for more information.
Parol Lantern Festival and Parade
The parol—a Philippine Christmas light—is the star (literally) of the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade in SoMa's Yerba Buena Gardens. Join paraders as they flaunt their handmade lanterns, then enjoy live music and cultural performances. In 2020, the program will take place virtually, including a photo gallery of parol creations, recipes for Filipino dishes, online storytelling, folkloric dance workshops, and more.
Holiday Happenings on Fourth Street in Berkeley
Across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, there's an entire street dedicated to holiday cheer. Thousands of lights flicker on Fourth Street nightly, creating a twinkling backdrop for musical acts and other festive events (mostly taking place across from the Peet's at 1776 Fourth Street). There's traditionally caroling and photo-taking with Santa and his elf on weekends, plus merchants selling gourmet food, cosmetics, jewelry, apparel, interior decor, and more. In 2020, the annual parade has been postponed, but Fourth Street encourages people to drop off letters to Santa in the Santa Mail Box, admire the lights, and participate in a virtual food drive.
Illuminate SF Festival of Light
See the city illuminated with dozens of eco-friendly light installations, from the Bay Lights blanketing the Oakland Bay Bridge to the Conservatory of Flowers' exterior "Night Bloom" display in Golden Gate Park. This extraordinary light show is free to view and easily accessible via public transit. It also offers a good alternative to more traditional decor. This season, the lights will be on display through January 23, 2021.
The Village Project Presents: Kwanzaa
The Village Project, a youth-centered nonprofit geared toward community building and diversity programs, will host virtual Kwanzaa events from December 26, 2020, to January 1, 2021. Each digitally streamed event will be 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). The entertainment lineup will include blues bands, dance performances, spoken word, keynote speakers, and a “Harriet Tubman, A One Woman” play for the January 1 closing.
In this unique mobile concert, people stroll the Mission around Delores Park, playing one of four different tracks of a composition on their smartphones or boomboxes. Every participant is a performer-listener of Phil Kline's acoustic piece, which is meant to be heard throughout San Francisco's streets. In 2020, the mobile sound sculpture will come to life at 7 p.m. on December 19.
The Sugar Castles at The Westin St. Francis
Every year, Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Houdré unveils colossal castles made out of sugar in The Westin St. Francis's Landmark Lobby. It's been a tradition since 2005 and has most recently included a 12-foot-tall medieval iteration resembling a French chateau (inspired by Houdré's own travels). It has also featured trains and other elaborate winterscapes, but the hotel hasn't confirmed a sugar castle display for the 2020-2021 season.
Thousands of revelers dressed up as Santa descending upon Union Square for a mass pub crawl through the city, from North Beach to Nob Hill. Be prepared to sing warped versions of Christmas carols as you imbibe and spread holiday cheer across San Francisco. Of course, you must be 21 or older to participate in SantaCon, so this event is not recommended for parents with children in tow. In 2020, SantaCon has been canceled.
Lighted Boat Parade
The Lighted Boat Parade on the San Francisco Bay is a must-see during the holiday season. A holiday tradition since 1994, the boat parade includes members of the St. Francis Yacht Club, Fisherman's Wharf Fishing Fleet, Golden Gate Yacht Club, Pier 39 Marina, and the Sea Scouts. A flotilla of more than 60 boats launch just off Pier 39, flaunting their elaborate lights and holiday decorations in a parade along the waterfront, lighting up the Bay. They head west past Fisherman's Wharf and Fort Mason before turning around at Crissy Field and heading back—anywhere along there, you'll find thousands of spectators. In 2020, the Lighted Boat Parade has been canceled.
Located in the Union Square area of downtown and taking place over the course of four to five glorious weeks, you'll find a jam-packed calendar of community performances and entertainment, family-friendly activities, food trucks, beer and wine gardens, and craft holiday cocktails—all part of Winter Walk SF. Nightly events (mostly free) take place on Maiden Lane and Grant Avenue between Geary and Post streets. In 2020, it's been canceled.