San Francisco residents have a batch of unique Christmas traditions, including a lighted city skyline and some entertaining musical events, but you'll also find traditional events going on throughout the season. Use this guide to find the best and most festive events happening this Christmas in San Francisco.
See the City Lights at Their Holiday Best
The San Francisco Embarcadero Center buildings are outlined in 17,000 lights every holiday season, giving the San Francisco skyline a distinctive look.
Embarcadero Center is on The Embarcadero street near the Ferry Building. A winter carnival at Justin Herman Plaza next to the center precedes the seasonal illumination ceremony, followed by fireworks. It all happens the Friday before Thanksgiving, but the Holiday Ice Rink opens a week earlier, staying open for nine weeks, through the holiday season.
The best place to see the lights is to get away from them a bit. One of the best viewing spots is from Treasure Island (exit Interstate Highway 80 in the middle of the Bay Bridge). If you can't get all the way out there, walk to the end of Pier 7.
Enjoy Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremonies
Christmas tree lighting ceremonies draw crowds, who continue to visit throughout the season. The biggest, splashiest-looking trees go up at:
- Union Square: The traditional Macy's tree is lit for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend. Placed in the middle of Union Square, the tree is 80 feet tall (nearly seven stories) and covered in 21,000 twinkling LED lights. The best place to watch the ceremonies is in the square, but you can also make a reservation at Burger Bar in Macy's Union Square, where you can see it all from the windows.
- Pier 39: Pier 39's tree-lighting happens the weekend before Thanksgiving with a 60-foot-tall tree located near the entrance to the pier shopping area. Afternoon concerts begin the festivities, followed by the tree's first lighting in the early evening.
- Ghirardelli Square: Ghirardelli decorates their 50-foot-tall Christmas tree with oversized Ghirardelli Chocolate bars, of course, and it's first lit during Thanksgiving weekend. Musical performances, puppet shows, and stilt walkers perform, leading up to the first lighting.
- Golden Gate Park: The tree in Golden Gate Park is a live one, a 100-plus-year-old Monterey cypress. You can see it near the east entrance at McLaren Lodge, 501 Stanyan St. (and Fell). The tree lighting takes places on the first Thursday of December.
See the Lights in San Francisco Neighborhoods
If you like to see beautifully lighted homes and neighborhoods, try California Christmas Lights which lists hundreds of houses that light up for the holidays, mostly in northern and central California. They also have some handy lists of walking neighborhoods and must-see houses.
Besides nicely decorated houses, the fishing boats moored at Fisherman's Wharf are lit through the holiday season. You can see them along Jefferson Street between Jones and Taylor.
Watch a Holiday Lights Boat Parade
San Francisco's only Christmas parade, the Holiday Lights Boat Parade happens on the water a couple of weeks before Christmas. Shortly before, details are usually posted on the Fisherman's Wharf website.
You can watch it anywhere from the route, which begins just off of Pier 39, goes past Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason, and the St. Francis Yacht Club before turning around near Crissy Field to return to Pier 39 along the waterfront.
The best places to see it are Aquatic Park, Pier 39, Marina Green, and Crissy Field.
Union Square is San Francisco's shopping epicenter, and the square is where the big Macy's tree goes up. You'll also find an ice skating rink open for the holiday season.
Shops and department stores surrounding the square decorate their facades with lights and fill their windows with special seasonal displays. Pop into the surrounding hotel lobbies to check out their seasonal trappings, and don't miss the gingerbread house at the Westin St. Francis.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a slice of the Old Country, runs for five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas at the Cow Palace with entertainment, food and drink, and shopping.
It's more fun than it may sound like. That is unless of course, you're just a Scrooge at heart.
See San Francisco's Iconic Nutcracker Ballet
The Nutcracker is the iconic holiday ballet, and no one performs it better than the San Francisco Ballet, where the classical ballet made its American debut in 1944. The local version is set in the City by the Bay, during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition.
Performances usually start in mid-December and continue through the end of the month, and all the details are on the SF Ballet website.
Take a Holiday Train Ride
It's worth a drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz for a bit of old-fashioned holiday fun. That's where the Roaring Camp Railroad runs a Holiday Lights Train, leaving from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's an especially festive, old-fashioned affair with live music on board and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. For more information visit their website.
The Disney Family Museum offers holiday screenings of the film "Christmas With Walt," which includes scenes from television specials and even some of Walt's home movies.
They also screen other Disney films with a holiday theme, and all are free with museum admission. You can find the schedule on the Disney Museum website.
Enjoy Holiday Musical Traditions
San Francisco-based a capella singing group Chanticleer performs the Chanticleer Christmas concert of Gregorian chants and favorite holiday tunes in some of the area's prettiest venues.
In Oakland, the California Revels celebrate the season at the Scottish Rite Temple, with music, dance, and storytelling to celebrate the winter solstice.
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performs their annual holiday concert, which takes its inspiration from a 1994 event when hundreds of people dressed as Santa Claus and took to the streets of San Francisco. The chorus, more than 275 men in red suits, perform at Davies Symphony Hall and the Castro Theater.