San Francisco, in the beloved Bay Area of Northern California, has many unique Christmas traditions, including a lighted city skyline and some entertaining musical events, but visitors and locals will also find traditional events going on throughout the season. The best and most festive events happening this Christmas in the hilly "City by the Bay" include everything from a holiday ice skating rink to a lighted boat parade to some fun shopping. Revelers can also hop on a famous cable car and make their way to various parts of town to watch the lighting of huge, well-adorned trees, along with concerts and ballets.
Delight in the City Lights at Their Holiday Best
Near the ferry building downtown, The San Francisco Embarcadero Center's four buildings are outlined in 17,000 lights every holiday season, giving the San Francisco skyline a distinctive look.
A free family winter carnival precedes the seasonal illumination ceremony, followed by fireworks. It all happens the Friday before Thanksgiving, but the Holiday Ice Rink opens in early November for several weeks, through the holiday season. You'll find the rink in Embarcadero Plaza across from the historic Ferry Building.
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 in The Embarcadero.
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 downtown, the tree is more than 80 feet tall (nearly seven stories) and covered in 30,000 twinkling lights and hundreds of decorations. 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: At tourist attraction Pier 39 bordering the Fisherman's Wharf district, the nightly lighting of a 60-foot-tree filled with ornaments dazzles crowds from late November through early January. The event includes holiday music.
- Ghirardelli Square: In the Marina area public square, Ghirardelli decorates their 50-foot-tall Christmas tree with not only lights but their oversized chocolate bars, of course, and it's first lit in November. 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. The tree lighting typically takes places in early December and includes children's activities such as a cookie factory, carnival rides, arts and crafts, and more.
See the Lights in Local Neighborhoods
If you like to check out beautifully lighted homes and neighborhoods, California Christmas Lights lists hundreds of houses that sparkle for the holidays, mostly in northern and central California. They also have some handy lists of walking neighborhoods and must-see houses.
Another option is to view the fishing boats moored at Fisherman's Wharf, lit through the holiday season. You can see them along Jefferson Street between Jones Street and Taylor Street.
Watch a Holiday Lights Boat Parade
San Francisco's oldest and biggest Christmas parade on the water, the Lighted Boat Parade, happens on a Friday night a couple of weeks before Christmas. 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.
Some more great places to watch the parade from are Aquatic Park, Pier 39, the Marina Green, and Crissy Field.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a party based on a Victorian London era with hundreds of colorful costumed players. The event runs for five weekends in November and December with entertainment, food and drink, and shopping. This slice of the Old Country tradition since 1970 takes place at the Cow Palace exhibition halls in Daly City, about a 30 minute-drive south of San Francisco.
It's more fun than it may sound like, unless you're just a Scrooge at heart.
Union Square is San Francisco's shopping epicenter, and the location of the big Macy's tree. You'll also find an ice skating rink open for the holiday season from early November through late January, with twinkling lights all around.
Shops and department stores surrounding the square decorate their facades with lights and fill their windows with special seasonal displays. Pop into the area hotel lobbies to check out their holiday trappings, and don't miss the elaborate gingerbread castle at the Westin St. Francis.
See San Francisco's Iconic Nutcracker Ballet
The Nutcracker is the iconic holiday tradition, and no one performs it better than the San Francisco Ballet, where the classical ballet made its U.S. debut in 1944. The local version is set during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, a world fair that took place in San Francisco.
Performances usually start in mid-December and continue through the end of the month.
Take a Holiday Train Ride
It's worth a 1.5 hour 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 in which old railroad cars, decorated with tons of colorful lights, pass local homes. It's an especially festive affair with live music on board and a visit from Santa Claus.
The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio offers holiday screenings in December of the film "Christmas With Walt," which includes scenes from television specials and even some of Walt's home movies, along with "Mickey's Christmas Carol," a Disney version of Charles Dickens’ classic "A Christmas Carol" book.
They also screen other films with a holiday theme, and all are free with museum admission.
Enjoy Holiday Musical Traditions
Chanticleer, a San Francisco-based a capella singing group (without instrumental accompaniment) performs A Chanticleer Christmas concert of Gregorian chants and favorite holiday tunes in some of the area's prettiest venues for a few weeks in December.
About 40-minutes away from "Frisco," the California Revels celebrate the winter solstice in several December performances with music, dance, and costumes held at the Sanctuary of First Congregational Church of Oakland.
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 250 men in red suits, perform at Sydney Goldstein Theater in early December.