Christmas in San Francisco: 25 Things To Do [2024 Guide]

Christmas in San Francisco Feature

Last updated: December 23rd, 2023

TL;DR: We’ve celebrated Christmas in San Francisco for 7 years and explored the biggest, brightest, and most spectacular Christmas events in the Bay Area. Here are the top three:

If you’re feeling that “most wonderful time of the year” energy, here’s my guide to the best ways to spend Christmas in San Francisco.

From live music to high tea and much more, Christmas in San Francisco is an eventful time of year. 

There are events with free admission, affordable prices, and even some options for high-end experiences and romance. 

And if you’re unsure of the weather in San Francisco at Christmas, I can assure you there’s no better place to spend the holidays. 

The holidays in San Francisco get nice and brisk. Indoor Christmas activities feel extra cozy, but it’s never too cold to enjoy the outdoor festivities. 

Dig out your favorite Christmas sweater and watch classic Christmas stories take the stage or visit Santa at the zoo. 

And if you’re still a little chilly, you’ll have no trouble finding warm, festive beverages and treats wherever you end up. San Francisco loves its holiday eats.

I’ve narrowed down the best 25 things to do in the Bay Area across the broad spectrum of happenings. 

Lots of these events are seasoned San Francisco traditions, so you can trust dedicated locals to bring the spirit across these Bay Area Christmas events. 

Happy holidays–get out there and celebrate with San Francisco!

Note: this article contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

San Francisco City Hall seen at night illuminated by red and green lights, with a large Christmas tree in the foreground.

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Things to Do During Christmas Time in San Francisco

A Christmas Carol & The Nutcracker

When: December, various nights
Where: The Toni Rembe Theater and The War Memorial Opera House (respectively)
Cost:
Christmas Carol starting at $25; Nutcracker starting at $193

Dress up to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, or The Nutcracker Christmas ballet accompanied by the SF Ballet Orchestra.

Both are timeless traditions in San Francisco. I first saw A Christmas Carol when a childhood friend was cast. It’s fun to see the creative ways that this age-old story is brought to life.

After the play, visit the Dicken’s Fair, our favorite Bay Area Christmas Market.

If you’ve never seen a ballet, The Nutcracker is the best place to start. I’ve seen The Nutcracker 5+ times, and it never gets old. There’s something in it for every age.

Children under three years old are not allowed at the SF Ballet production, but there’s a shorter, 50-minute version of The Nutcracker by the Mark Foehringer Dance Project at The Fort Mason Center.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

When: Weekends November 18th – December 17th, 10am – 6pm
Where: Historic Cow Palace, San Francisco, CA
Cost: ages 5-12 $25, ages 13+ $45

If you’re seeking more Charles Dickens Christmas magic, the annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace is a Bay Area Christmas tradition dating back to 1970.

This giant family Christmas fair is one of many iconic San Francisco Bay Area Victorian Christmas traditions.

Hundreds of costumed performing characters transport you back to Victorian London.

When we went to this fair, Suneel learned how to fence, we both helped Dr. Watson solve a murder, and I won prizes at the carnival games. It was everything we imagined Victorian London to be!

The theatrically lit music halls, pubs, festive vendors, and dancing made this a great experience.

Plus, you can do Christmas shopping, drink spicy mulled wine, sing Christmas carols, and much more at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.Tip: Go on one of the earlier weekends. The weekend before Christmas gets packed and you end up spending way too much time waiting in lines.

Read our full guide to getting the most out of The Great Dicken’s Fair.

San Francisco Symphony: Christmas Concerts & Christmas Movies

When: Select dates throughout December
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave. San Francisco, CA
Cost: Starting at $17.50

The San Francisco Symphony presents Christmas concerts for music and movie lovers throughout December. 

The SF Symphony performs pieces such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Deck The Halls, Handel’s Messiah, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Holiday Gaiety, and A Charlie Brown Christmas

Decorations, festive get-ups, and a rich Christmas spirit bring each Christmas season performance to life. 

San Francisco Christmas is incomplete without witnessing the towering Christmas trees and winter wonderland in the Symphony Hall’s lobby. 

Check out their calendar to see which show speaks to you.

Have a Holiday Tea Party

When: Select dates in December
Where: Ritz Carleton Hotel, Fairmont Hotel, and Palace Hotel
Cost: Price varies based on location

I’m a sucker for any chance to dress up and drink tea with holiday biscuits. Luckily, there are several opportunities in the Bay area for holiday tea parties.

If you have young kids, Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz Carleton is the swankiest children’s tea in town. They offer treats for all ages, and teddy bears get in free.

Kids will also love the Palace Hotel’s Santa Claus Tea. This is a traditional high tea with family-friendly holiday fun.

For a Victorian-style tea party, the Fairmont Hotel hosts a Holiday Afternoon Tea, perfect for get-togethers with the gals. Their holiday menu has delicate sandwiches, pastries, and treats for kids.

Pro Tip: Don’t miss the life-size gingerbread house at the Fairmont Hotel. It’s worth visiting, even if you don’t have tea there.

Thrive Center Winter Wonderland

Thrive Center Winter Wonderland
Thrive Center Winter Wonderland

When: Events on Select Days in December
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco, California
Cost: Free ($5 for ice skate rentals)

I’m a Warriors fan, so I had to check out the Thrive City Winter Wonderland (outside of the Chase Center arena). 

There was tons of fun to be had at this year’s tree lighting ceremony with live music from local choirs and Joseph Simmons of Run-DMC fame, dancing from the Warriors cheer squads, and booths for photos with Santa and more.

They have events throughout the season, including a Christmas tree illumination, Menorah lighting, and a Kwanzaa celebration. 

There are even ice skating and DJ parties—but plan ahead because skating isn’t open every day. 

Tip #1: You can register for some of the events online to make sure you’ll be allowed in. But it’s usually not needed–we didn’t register for the tree lighting ceremony and it was fine. Tip #2: Keep an eye out for the Grinch. . . he likes to photo-bomb!

San Francisco Cable Cars

San Francisco Cable Cars

When: Throughout December
Where: (See Map) Powell + Market to Fisherman’s Wharf area; California + Market to Van Ness Avenue
Cost: Single ticket, no transfers $8; Discounted ticket $4; Kids under 4 years are free

It’s business as usual on the historic cable cars of SF—with the addition of holiday decorations.

Instead of grabbing a taxi or Uber, hop aboard a cable car and hold on tight. 

Whether you live in the Bay Area like me, or you’re visiting San Francisco for the holidays, you have to ride the cable cars at some point.

Keep an eye out for specially decorated cable cars, like the Phillipino Christmas car, decorated by the Filipino American Arts Exposition.

San Francisco cable cars are an iconic thing to do any time of year, so why not capture Instagram-worthy pictures surrounded by garlands and lights?

Gingerbread House & Holiday Festivities at Fairmont San Francisco

Gingerbread House & Holiday Festivities at Fairmont San Francisco
Gingerbread House & Holiday Festivities at Fairmont San Francisco

When: Throughout December
Where: Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Varies by activity

Visiting the famous two-story gingerbread house at the historic Fairmont San Francisco in Nob Hill is a beloved Bay Area holiday tradition. 

Whether you’re just looking to experience the beautiful decorations in the hotel’s grand lobby or staying in one of their Santa Suites for the weekend, there are many options for festive fun at The Fairmont around Christmas time. 

Select days through December offer Holiday Tea, Santa sightings, and many more Christmas events. 

And make sure to take a stroll through their life-sized gingerbread house. You can even dine right in the gingerbread house if you like.

Tip: We had fun making this part of a holiday bar crawl because it’s not too far from Miracle at PCH and Thriller Social Club.

Grace Cathedral: Concerts & LGBTQ+ World Tree of Hope 

The facade of Grace Cathedral light up with a warm glow in fading, early evening light, with knobbly trees and bushes in the foreground.

When: Concerts on select dates; RWF Tree viewable until January 5, 2024
Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Concert prices vary; RWF events free

The historic Grace Cathedral is home to Christmas concerts throughout December (right up to Christmas Eve!) and the Rainbow World Fund Christmas tree. 

Bundle up when you visit because Grace Cathedral sits atop Knob Hill and has romantic views of the San Francisco skyline.

Visit for live Christmas carols by SF’s Choir Of Men & Boys and the Bay Area’s finest brass musicians and gaze up at the record-breaking 23-foot RWF tree—nicknamed the World Tree of Hope.

Every year, the World Tree of Hope is decorated with origami cranes carrying wishes for better LGBTQIA+ futures.

The Sugar Castle at the Westin St. Francis

The Sugar Castles at the Westin St. Francis
The Sugar Castles at the Westin St. Francis

When: Beginning late November & throughout December
Where: The Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free

The Sugar Castle at The Westin St Francis in Union Square has been an SF holiday tradition since 2005.

As the story goes, the hotel’s Executive Pastry Chef, Jean-François Houdré, unveiled his first Sugar Castle – a Medeival life-like French chateau – in the hotel’s lobby. 

Since then, Chef Houdré has brought a new rendition of the Sugar Castle each year, growing more elaborate, intricate, and larger. 

Meant to resemble the chef’s hometown of Bourdeaux, recent renditions have featured grand circular towers, over 25 rooms, lighting in the windows, a surrounding village, and even a holiday train. 

Past castles reached over 12 feet and used over 1200 lbs of sugar!

If you’re not nearby, don’t worry! While it was fun to check out, we don’t think it’s worth a special trip unless you’re in the area for something like ice skating at Union Square.

Holiday Activities at Ghirardelli Square

When: Throughout December
Where: Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Prices vary by activity

Ghirardelli Chocolate Square is a bustling holiday hot spot for anyone who likes chocolate and festive activities. 

Twinkling lights cover the grounds so it feels like stepping into a storybook. 

The old brick factory houses artisan shops, restaurants, and a Ghirardelli Chocolate store (don’t miss the ice cream sundaes!).

Check the Ghirardelli Square calendar to meet St. Nick, light the Menorah, build Gingerbread houses, or listen to carolers sing.

Annual Boat Parade & Merry-Time at the Wharf

When: Throughout December (Boat Parade 2023 date TBD)
Where: The Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free

With Christmas events and decorations spanning all the way from Pier 39 to Ghirardelli Square, there’s no shortage of festivities down at the Fisherman’s Wharf during the holidays. 

But, if you’re wondering, “Is Fisherman’s Wharf open on Christmas day?” the answer is no. However, they are open on Christmas Eve.

The annual Christmas Boat Parade has been an SF Christmas tradition of festive boat decorating since 1994.Put on by the San Francisco Yacht Club, it’s an absolute must-see if you like all things nautical.

Enjoy a warm meal at one of the best waterfront restaurants in San Francisco and learn more about things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Check Out All the Holiday-Themed Bars

Check Out All the Holiday-Themed Bars
Check Out All the Holiday-Themed Bars

When: Throughout the holidays
Where: All over San Francisco
Cost: Prices vary

When it’s time for adult fun, head to our favorite holiday-themed bar: Miracle at PCH.

At Miracle, lights are strong from every corner, wrapping paper covers the walls, and there are plenty of photo ops for your naughty or nice side.

Tip: Get to PCH early or on an off day in order to avoid the line to get in (it can be as long as an hour at busy times). Also, you should know that there’s a $10 cover charge.

We also had a great time at Thriller Social Club, Cavana, and The Summer Place Bar. They’re all fully decorated for the holidays and serving themed drinks.

Tip: Thriller Social Club is a fun arcade bar better for younger crowds and groups while Cavana makes for a great date spot and is nice and cozy.

Tip: The drinks at The Summer Place are strong! We liked them, but beware!

We also tried Kaiyo Rooftop and the Alchemist (which other lists recommend), but they just weren’t thaaat decked out compared to other places. 

I’ll update this post when we make it to Holly Jolly Bar in South of Market. It looks like fa-la-la-fun.

SantaCon Bar Crawl San Francisco

A group of five young women 
 and one young man stand in a lane posing for the picture, all dressed like Santa Claus at the SantaCon Bar Crawl in San Francisco.

When: Saturday, December 9th, 2023
Where: Union Square, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free + donate a new, unwrapped toy to the Fire Department toy drive

Now, let’s say you’re spending Christmas in San Francisco and looking for +21 Christmas events. . .

It’s time for SantaCon.

SantaCon is one of the biggest, most boisterous holiday events in San Francisco. 

Thousands of people dressed as Santa, Christmas trees, and elves meet by the giant Christmas tree in Union Square. 

Together, the party-goers drink, dance, and enjoy the merry Christmas spirit. 

SantaCon began in 1994 and unexpectedly gained traction, spreading to Portland, Seattle, and New York in the following years.

And if you have Grinch-duty during SantaCon, but still want Christmasy drinks, plan a visit to Deck the Halls Pop-Up Bar.

Christmas Trees Scavenger Hunt

A view from above looking down at Pier 39's 60-foot Christmas Tree, with the Bay Bridge visible against a light orange and blue sunset in the distance.

When: Throughout December
Where: All over the city!
Cost: Free

Taking pictures with the ornate Great Tree at Union Square is a classic tradition, but San Francisco has several note-worthy trees. 

This year, we’re doing a scavenger hunt to find the best Christmas trees around the city.

After unwrapping presents, pile into the car, crank up the Christmas music, and explore San Francisco. 

We recommend seeing the trees at Union Square, Grace Cathedral, the Fairmont Hotel, Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, Pier 39, the Palace Hotel, Thrive City, the Civic Center, and Neiman Marcus. 

This is a great outing for Christmas Day since you can stay in your pajamas.

Looking for more Christmas lights in San Francisco? We’ve got you covered with our ultimate guide to the best places to see Bay Area Christmas lights.

See the Most Impressive Neighborhood Christmas Lights

A Bay Area Spanish-style stucco house glowing pink and decked out in Christmas lights just after dusk.

When: Throughout December
Where: 68 Castro Street and Merced Heights
Cost: Free

The best place to see neighborhood lights is at 68 Castro Street. The lights on this Castro house are so densely packed that it’s hard to take them in at first. 

You could stare until your neck hurts.

After visiting the Castro house, venture out to Merced Heights. You’ll get more of a neighborhood experience here. House after house is covered in colorful lights.

If you’re up for a drive, head slightly out of San Francisco, to Alameda for Christmas Tree Lane

Pro Tip: Grab holiday treats to eat on the way. We love Miller And Lux Provisions, which offers special soft-serve croissant cones and holiday-themed treats. Or go to Dandelion Chocolate for the creamiest hot chocolate of your life.

Christmas Brunch at the Palace Hotel

When: Christmas Day
Where: The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco
Cost: Children $85, adults $170

Since the 1800s, The Palace Hotel has offered timeless Christmas traditions to the San Francisco community. 

Their annual Christmas Day brunch is a decadent way to start Christmas Day. It’s the best place to be if you’re wondering where to go for Christmas in San Francisco. 

Gaze out at the 30-foot Christmas tree in the Garden Court and listen to live musical performances.

With an elaborate array of savory and sweet brunch options, you will feel like Christmas royalty at this holiday brunch. 

Reservations are required.

Christmas Joy at the SF Zoo

When: Throughout December, including Christmas Day
Where: The San Francisco Zoo
Cost: Children $15, adults $22

Joy at the SF Zoo is one of the few Christmas activities open on Christmas Day.

It’s a great way for kids to get out of the house after opening presents. Santa and his elves will be there, too.

Get festive with the zoo’s critters and admire holiday lights strung across the various animal shelters. 

Stop in at the Lemur Cafe for holiday treats, play hide-and-seek with elves, and spot reindeer. Christmas is run by animals there.

And if you’re busy on Christmas day, Joy at the SF Zoo runs throughout the Christmas season.

Union Square: Ice Skating, Macy’s Christmas Tree, and Pet Adoptions

Union Square Ice Skating
Union Square Ice Skating

When: Daily, November – December (skating through January 15)
Where: Union Square, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $20 to skate, but free to see the Macy’s window displays!

Going to Macy’s in Union Square is one of San Francisco’s most beloved Christmas traditions. It just doesn’t get old.

You can watch kittens and puppies play in Christmassy displays as they wait for adoption—and even take one home. Adoption fees are reduced, and nothing says Christmas like giving a cat or dog a new home.

While you’re in the San Francisco center, take pictures with Santa, go ice skating, and marvel at the Great Tree in Union Square.

We love ice skating at Union Square. It’s the perfect way to get your family out of the house on Christmas day. Plus, there are plenty of food and drink options if you work up an appetite on the ice.

Tip #1: Go to the 7th-floor window of Macy’s to see Union Square decked out from above.

Tip #2: Scheduled events at the Union Square ice rink as well as after-work crowds make the 4:00 pm shift the best one, if you can make it.

Christmas Lights At City Hall

San Francisco City Hall seen at night illuminated by red and green lights, with a grove of knobbly, leafless trees in the foreground, and a large Christmas tree to the right of the frame.

When: Evenings throughout December
Where: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Pl, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free

Deck the (City) Halls this Christmas, and head down to take in the LED lights at San Francisco’s City Hall. 

With its ornate architecture, City Hall is the setting for hundreds of wedding photoshoots. Throughout December, it glows with Christmas lights. 

The thousands of LED lights change colors based on daily celebrations. Today, it might be red and green to celebrate the holidays, but tomorrow blue for the First Night of Hanukkah, and then orange for World Human Rights Day.

Check the lighting schedule on the City Hall website or have the kids guess what color it will be that night. My favorite is when it shines gold on New Year’s Day.

Entwined at Golden Gate Park

Entwined at Golden Gate Park
Entwined at Golden Gate Park

When: December – April
Where: Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park, 240 John F. Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free admission

In past years, Entwined was one of our favorite things to do in San Francisco during the holidays. 

This year, there’s only one installation. It’s pretty, but not worth visiting unless you’re already in the neighborhood.

Entwined is a winter festival of light and color that lasts from December to April.

It’s the city’s way of ringing in the holiday season, right under Golden Gate Bridge. 

Usually, there are hundreds of light and art installations, sculpture artists, live performances, music, and hot chocolate, making for a cute date night or family evening.

Looking for more to do at night around the city? Read our guide to the best things to do at night in San Francisco.

What is There to Do on Christmas Day in San Francisco?

Ice Skating at Union Square is the best thing to do on Christmas day. If you want something a little more sophisticated, brunch at the Palace Hotel or explore Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo.

If you’re on a budget and don’t feel like getting out of your pajamas, go on a Christmas tree scavenger hunt to find the prettiest trees around the city.

Christmas Things to Do Near San Francisco

Looking for more Christmas cheer? Here are three mention-worth events that aren’t in San Francisco:


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mimi McFadden Headshot

Mimi McFadden
Founder & Editor-In-Chief

Mimi McFadden grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and started The Atlas Heart in 2013. What started as a blog to keep her family up-to-date on her travels is now a full-time website where she shares her love for her home state of California and the outdoors. When Mimi’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, eat paneer, play basketball and guitar, sing karaoke, and connect with friends and family over board games or a good escape room. Over the 28 years that she has been in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz, San Diego, San Francisco, and most recently, Berkeley, California.

Taylor Neal
California Travel Writer

Taylor is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, yoga instructor and frontline worker who spends most of her time in her van (Vannigan) winding through the coastal and mountain roads of California where she feels most at home. From navigating the realities of van-life to the fluctuations in diverse climates and landscapes, Taylor is excited to bring everything she’s learned about California to fellow wanderers seeking beauty and adventure.

Additional Expert Contributors: Suneel Jain, Elina Ansary, and Jodelle Marx.


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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.

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