Christmas in San Francisco 2019: Parades, Celebrations, and Events

Budget-Friendly Holiday Events, Parades, and Lights

Christmas in San Francisco can be magical. 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. Visit the City by the Bay and enjoy the special winter traditions associated with December holidays.

When packing for your trip, don't forget that San Fransisco is typically warm during the day and cold at night, even in the winter months, though this varies depending on how close you are to the ocean. 

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Winter Walk SF - Union Square

Winter Walk SF
2017 Union Square

Located in the Union Square area of downtown and taking place over the course of five glorious weeks (November 29-December 31), 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.

Head to Union Square on Grant Avenue between Geary and Post streets and Maiden Lane and enjoy the mostly-free nightly events. 

Winter Walk SF is a great way to unwind or stop for a bite to eat while out shopping in the bustling downtown shopping district.

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Lighted Boat Parade

santa cruz harbor lighted boat parade
Santa Cruz Yacht Club

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. 

On Friday, December 13, 2019, from 6 p.m. 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 just off Pier 39 and 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 residents and tourists alike gathered to witness the spectacle.

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SantaCon SF
Stephen Kelly / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Descending upon Union Square itself at noon on Saturday December 7, 2019, 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, beginning at Union Square at noon and then continuing through neighborhoods like Nob Hill and North Beach. 

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.

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 San Francisco 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 in on the merriment.

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Parol Lantern Festival and Parade

Parol Lantern Festival and Parade
Bayanihan Community Center ​

The parol, a hand-made Philippine Christmas light in a star shape is literally 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 14, 2019 at 4 p.m. at Yerba Buena Lane, Jessie Square, and St. Patrick’s Church and the theme is "We are the Light," celebrating the resilience of community members including leaders, artists, and youth, who've been facing challenges throughout the Bay Area for years.

Parol Lantern Festival commemorates its 17th year in celebration of San Francisco's new Filipino Cultural District, SoMa Pilipinas, where 25 groups are expected to present their giant parols for the parade. There will also be live musical performances, Filipino sweets, and a prize for the best hand-made life-size parol lantern.

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SF Public Library's Holiday Train Exhibit

San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco Public Library

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 inside the San Francisco Public Library where the Holiday Train returns December 7 2019 through January 9, 2020.

Enjoy 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 enjoy the carefully crafted 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 for a little while.

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Holiday Happenings on Fourth Street in Berkeley

SF Fourth Street Christmas
Fourth Street

Across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, there's an entire street dedicated to festive cheer, musical events, and coming together to celebrate the holidays from November 22, 2019 through December 21, 2019, with thousands of lights clicking on nightly. 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 for dates, times, and more details about the performances.

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Illuminate SF--Festival of Light

Discover a city illuminated with dozens of eco-friendly light art installations, from the Bay Lights on 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 on public transit. It also offers a good alternative to more traditional seasonal light displays.

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GLOW: Festival of Lights

Another stunning light show, this one at the Exploratorium along the city's Embarcadero waterfront. From December 5, 2019 to January 26, 2020 experience illuminating exhibits, gleaming kinetic sculptures, and the interactive installation Kaleidoscope constructed as an 8-foot-square light table that turns motion and energy into engaging light patterns.

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Rororiri Holiday Pup-Up at Tilden Hotel

On Saturday, December 21, from 1-3pm, the Tenderloin's Tilden Hotel is hosting an inaugural "Holiday Pup-Up" with the Cow Hollow-based rororiri, a boutique brand specializing in luxe pet clothing and accessories. Shop for fur-baby bandanas, stylish pooch jackets, timeless bow-ties and organic treats. The event takes place on the hotel's al fresco Backyard and four-legged friends are welcome.

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The Sugar Castles at The Westin St. Francis

In the lobby of the Westin St. Francis.

Westin St. Francis 

Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Houdré and his team have created two one-of-a-kind handcrafted sugar castles in the hotel's Landmark Lobby. To celebrate a Westin St. Francis tradition that began in 2005, there's a spectacular 12-foot-tall Medieval Sugar Castle resembling a French Chateau: one inspired by Chef Houdre's travels and featuring grand circular towers, individual rooms, and colorful illuminated windows. This year the display also boasts two trains, including a new locomotive that winds its way around a snowy ski resort.

The second sugar castle, known as the St. Francis Enchanted Castle, showcases a winter wonderland of elaborate gift boxes, gingerbread trees, and brilliantly colored candies, all intricately handmade with sugar and pastry. Elves can be spotted climbing their way to the top.

Both castles will be on display through January 2, 2020.

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