10 Great Views of San Francisco's Union Square at Christmas

  • 01 of 10

    Union Square at Christmas

    Christmas Tree in Union Square, San Francisco
    ••• Christmas in Union Square, San Francisco. ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    San Francisco's answer to New York City's Fifth Avenue is Union Square, the United States' third-largest shopping area. City founders had the good sense to set this piece of land aside from development, making it a city park instead. Over the years, it's seen a lot of activities, but in recent years around Christmas, Union Square always dons a festive demeanor. A big Christmas tree goes up in the middle; an ice rink sprouts seemingly from nowhere, and all the shoppers take a stroll across it to enjoy the scene.

    You visit Union Square any time of year for great shopping. Find out more in this Union Square visitor guide, or take a photo tour.

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  • 02 of 10

    Christmas Tree in Union Square

    Union Square Christmas Tree
    ••• Union Square Christmas Tree. ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The big tree is Macy's Gift to the City of San Francisco. It goes up in Union Square every year and is usually lit for the first time on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Starting in 2011, the 83-foot-tall big tree is artificial - which lets just one more big evergreen stay put in the forest where it grew up.

    Early evening, about the time this picture was taken, is a good time to see the Union Square Christmas decorations at their most cheerful.

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  • 03 of 10

    Union Square Ice Rink

    Ice Skating at Union Square
    ••• Ice Skating at Union Square. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The Union Square Ice Rink is open over the holidays, and into mid-January. It's open most of the day and well into the evening, with 90-minute sessions starting every even hour. You can buy tickets on the spot - or avoid disappointment and get them online ahead of time.

    Get all the details at their website.

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  • 04 of 10

    Macy's Union Square Christmas Lights

    Macy's Christmas Windows, San Francisco Union Square
    ••• Macy's Christmas Windows, San Francisco Union Square. ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    One of the biggest department stores in town - and in fact in the entire western United States, Macy's has lots of storefronts to decorate. The big, five-story entrance windows take a colored glow, while the smaller windows in the section next door get filled with sparkling lights.

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  • 05 of 10

    Nieman Marcus Christmas Tree

    Nieman Marcus Christmas Tree, Union Square San Francisco
    ••• Nieman Marcus Christmas Tree, Union Square San Francisco. ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The big entrance atrium at Nieman-Marcus is pretty anytime, with its gorgeous, gold-colored stained glass ceiling recycled from an earlier era department store. At Christmas, they put a big tree up. If you stop and look at it for a few minutes, you might wonder how they get that big thing into the store, but we hear it's a faux fir, built around a modular metal frame.

    From their Rotunda Restaurant, you can have afternoon tea while checking out the top of that gorgeous tree - or watching the shoppers down in the square.

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  • 06 of 10

    Christmas Windows

    Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Window at Union Square
    ••• Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Window at Union Square. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Some of the Union Square department stores do nice holiday display windows, but don't expect extravaganzas like you might see on Fifth Avenue.

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  • 07 of 10

    Fish-Eye View

    Union Square Reflected in a Light Globe
    ••• Union Square Reflected in a Light Globe. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.
    This picture looks a little like it was taken with one of those wide-angle lenses people sometimes call fish eyes, but it's really more of a bird's-eye view. How did we manage this perspective? Do you see the pole on the left? This is actually a silvery sphere mounted on a light pole, so we leaned back against the pole, pointed the camera straight up to capture the reflected scene below. The Christmas tree is at about the two o'clock position, Macy's is at five. The ice rink is at ten. And the black blob at the bottom of the pole is the photographer.
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  • 08 of 10

    A Different Kind of Santa

    Street Performer Santa in San Francisco's Union Square
    ••• Street Performer Santa in San Francisco's Union Square. ©2011 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Street performers like this one are often found at Union Square, but at Christmas, they get into the spirit.

    Here's what happened leading up to this cute pose. First, I dug in my pocket to find a tip - it's the polite thing to do if you're going to take a street performer's picture. Then I found the spot where I wanted to photograph him from. When he saw me there, with camera ready, he held out his tip can.

    I smiled, nodded and gestured "in a minute." He struck the pose, I gestured "OK" and dropped the tip in his can. Liking the amount, he returned the "O-K!"

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  • 09 of 10

    Battle of the Gingerbread Houses: Westin San Francisco

    Gingerbread Castle at the Westin St. Francis
    ••• Gingerbread Castle at the Westin St. Francis. ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

     According to the San Francisco Visitor's Bureau: "an elaborate gingerbread house war is waged every year between two of the area's most historic hotels: The Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill and the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, just a few blocks to the south. These two vie every year to out-gingerbread each other in a friendly holiday spirit."

    This creation was in the lobby of the Westin.

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  • 10 of 10

    Illuminated Dome at the Westfield San Francisco Centre

    Illuminated Dome at the Westfield San Francisco Centre
    ••• Illuminated Dome at the Westfield San Francisco Centre. Courtesy of Westfield San Francisco Centre

    A purist might claim that the Shopping Center isn't really in Union Square because it doesn't face the square itself, but it's only a short walk away and certainly part of the holiday shopping scene.

    Every year, a light show transforms the center's 1908-era stained glass dome into a light show. The theme changes, but the one above is from the Nutcracker ballet performance.

    And while you're there, you can pose for a free holiday photo in Santa’s shop or with a holiday-themed backdrop.