Christmas in San Francisco: 25 Things To Do [2023 Guide]

A cable car decorated with wreaths and bows for Christmas in San Francisco, driving over a wet-looking brick street.

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

When: December 6th – 24th
Where: The Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Starting at $25 [based on last year]

Dress up to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, at The Toni Rembe Theater

Buying tickets to this classic Christmas tale stands the test of time as one of San Francisco’s most beloved traditions. 

With a lively, talented cast, gorgeous costumes, abundant music, and the special ghostly touch that makes A Christmas Carol such a timeless favorite, you’ll always be in for a wonderfully festive evening out when seeing this masterpiece. 

Performances run throughout December, giving you ample time to get out and see the show. 

Get dressed up, grab a drink from the bar on your way in, and make a whole evening of this Christmas classic outing.

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.

They guide you through the theatrically lit music halls, pubs, festive vendors, and dance floors.

You can do Christmas shopping, drink spicy mulled wine, sing Christmas carols, and admire the Christmas tree at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.

The Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet

When: December 13th – 30th, 2pm & 7pm shows
Where: The War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $193 [based on last year] Tickets go on sale September 20, 2023

Going to see The Nutcracker Christmas ballet is another timeless tradition. 

The SF Ballet puts on a gorgeous show year after year that keeps the Bay Area coming back excited and ready to celebrate Christmas together. 

Seeing the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House is an excellent excuse to visit San Francisco during the holiday season.

San Francisco Ballet’s performance showcases over 150 dancers. And it’s impossible not to feel the holiday magic while listening to the live SF Ballet Orchestra.

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

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.

Rainbow World Tree of Hope Lighting at Grace Cathedral

When: 2023 dates TBD
Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free admission

The Rainbow World Fund returns to the Grace Cathedral every December for their annual Tree Lighting Ceremony.

For 15 years, they’ve held beautiful fundraiser events with holiday music, cheer, and wishes for better LGBTQIA+ futures. 

Their 23-foot tree – nicknamed the World Tree of Hope – takes center stage. 

Rainbow community members spend hours decorating it with origami cranes that carry handwritten wishes. It’s a record-breaking feat.

This holiday wonder is a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Music from the San Francisco Boys Choir contributes to the warm atmosphere of the tree lighting. 

This is also a good event to attend if you’re building new queer Christmas traditions now that Tom and Jerry’s House is no longer decorated.

Kittens & Puppies in Macy’s Windows & Macy’s Holiday Decorations

When: Daily, throughout November & December
Where: Macy’s Union Square, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free

One of San Francisco’s most beloved Christmas traditions is going to see the window displays of Macy’s in Union Square. It just doesn’t get old.

Each year, Macy’s creates cushy winter scenes for kittens and puppies to call home for the holidays. 

These sweet little fluff balls come from the SPCA and are waiting to be adopted, so what better way to spread some holiday cheer than to go down and visit them?

The only way to get more festive is to take one home with you.

And while you’re in the San Francisco center, you’ll be able to enjoy lots more decorations offered by the Union Square Macy’s. 

The store puts up the Great Tree in Union Square each year, with thousands of Christmas lights, ornaments, and even an ice rink.

You can also meet Santa to tell him all your Christmas wishes and take a family Christmas photo.

Santa Claus Tea at Garden Court of the Palace Hotel

When: Select dates in December, 2–4:30 pm
Where: The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $65 for children ages 5–12, $95 for adults

San Francisco’s Palace Hotel hosts a festive Santa Claus Tea in the Garden Court each year to combine traditional high tea with family-friendly holiday fun. 

Bring the kids out for an afternoon of Christmas treats, and get the chance to tell Santa what’s on your family’s Christmas lists this year. 

There will be kid-friendly beverages, hot chocolate, holiday teas, candy canes, and lots more goodies.

San Francisco Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour

When: Daily throughout December
Where: Meet at 650 Beach St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: From $60.96

What better way to see San Francisco’s holiday lights than to climb aboard a vintage open-air Mack fire engine and tour the city on a festive fire truck? 

This holiday lights tour is a unique San Francisco Christmas treat. Holiday train rides just got one-upped!

This 1.5-hour ride will take passengers past Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero, Market Street, and Union Square to see the Union Square Christmas Tree. 

There will be lots of Christmas music and commentary about the stops made by your enthusiastic guide as you ride through the city. 

The temperature in San Francisco at Christmas can drop, so wear your coziest Christmas sweater and then don the Firefighter’s jacket provided on the trip for unique family photo ops along the way.

SF’s Embarcadero Center Christmas Lights

When: 2023 dates TBD
Where: The Embarcadero Center, 2 Embarcadero Ctr, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free

The annual Building Lighting Ceremony & Carnival kicks off the Bay Area holiday season with Bay Area city splendor.

There are twinkling lights, decorations, hot cocoa, carnival games, family activities, and live performances. 

There will also be a special appearance from Santa, and his elves, who have a special moment amidst the light show of over 17,000 lights across the Embarcadero Building. It’s a Christmas spectacular indeed.

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 elaborate and beautiful holiday lights that adorn the outside of San Francisco’s City Hall. 

These are some of the most beloved Christmas lights in San Francisco. 

The thousands of LED lights and light domes change colors and patterns throughout the month, all the way up to Christmas Eve. 

You can just keep going back to see what they’ve come up with next. 

I suggest making a round of the Christmas lights in San Francisco each week. You can explore new areas and visit City Hall as the nightly finale.

Gingerbread House & Holiday Festivities at Fairmont San Francisco

A model gingerbread house and a giant, heavily-decorated Christmas tree for Holiday Festivities in the lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco hotel.

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.

Christmas Concerts at Grace Cathedral

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: Select dates throughout December
Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Starting at $17 [based on last year]

The historic Grace Cathedral sits atop Nob Hill, overlooking the breathtaking San Francisco skyline.

It’s the perfect setting for Christmas concerts throughout December, right up to Christmas Eve. 

Live music by SF’s Choir Of Men & Boys and the Bay Area’s finest brass musicians fills the stunning Grace Cathedral with holiday cheer, bringing your favorite carols to life year after year. 

Be sure to bring your singing voice and your holiday spirit.

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!

Entwined at Golden Gate Park

The sculptural light installation, "Entwined," see lit up in early evening at a pond in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

When: December 1st – March
Where: Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park, 240 John F. Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free admission

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

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

With hundreds of light and art installations, sculpture artists, live performances, music, and hot chocolate, this festival is a great way to spend an evening with the family or a cute date night. 

Entwined is unlike any other arts festival in the Bay. It intersects the worlds of interactive art, light shows, technology, and public space with a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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

TeddyBear Tea at the Ritz Carleton

When: 2023 dates TBD
Where: The Ritz Carleton Hotel, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $157 [based on last year]

In the mood for elegance? The annual Teddy Bear Tea at The Ritz Carleton is one of my favorite kid-friendly things to do in San Francisco around Christmas.

Teddy Bear Tea is the swankiest children’s tea in town during the holiday season and offers treats for all ages. 

The kids’ menu features hot chocolate, tea sandwiches, pastries, and sweets, while the adults’ menu offers premium teas and alcoholic drinks for more mature guests. 

Make sure your teddies remember their fancy dresses and bow ties for this load of family fun.

Holiday Activities at Ghirardelli Square

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

Some of the best San Francisco Christmas events take place at Ghirardelli Square all season long.

This square is, of course, home to Ghirardelli Chocolate – don’t miss it!

After tasting all the seasonal chocolates, enjoy screenings of favorite Christmas movies, DIY crafts, live concerts, and pop-up shops.

I recommend drinking a glass of mulled wine and watching the holiday lights. 

Check their website to learn which movies are screening, when, and other event-specific details.

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.

Christmas in the Park San Jose

Christmas in the Park San Jose

When: 2023 dates TBD
Where: Plaza de Cesar Chavez, downtown San Jose
Cost: Free admission

Christmas in the Bay Area extends past the city limits of San Francisco, and this San Jose holiday tradition is definitely one worth venturing out of the city for. 

Christmas in the Park has been a San Jose tradition for over 45 years.

This community-focused walk-through event features over 40 live musical performances, art installations, and local artists.

There are DIY crafts, a train ride, snowmen, and a 50-foot Community Giving Tree at the center of it all. 

It’s a warm and fuzzy, feel-good family day trip. You can really feel the community’s love and holiday warmth at this whimsical, cheery event.

Interested in doing more in the area? Read our guide to the best things to do in San Jose and the best San Jose hikes.

60-foot Christmas Tree & Ice Rink at Pier 39

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: Late November through December
Where: Entrance Plaza of Pier 39, San Francisco, CA
Cost: Free admission

A San Francisco Christmas is only complete with a viewing of the giant 60-foot Christmas tree at Pier 39. 

I promise this one will knock your socks off – it appears straight out of a Hallmark movie. 

There are tree illumination presentations every half hour from 5 pm – 10 pm nightly. 

And make sure to bring your ice skates or rent some while you’re down there. The best view of the beautiful tree is from the ice skating rink right at Pier 39. 

Don’t miss the hot chocolate while skating. It really brings the whole Christmas vibe together.

Read our complete guide to things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf.

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.

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

Take a Drive Down Christmas Tree Lane

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

When: Throughout December
Where: 3200 Thompson Avenue, Alameda, CA
Cost: Free

Taking a drive down San Francisco’s Christmas Tree Lane is a local classic holiday outing for anyone looking for things to do on Christmas in San Francisco for families. 

Every year, Thompson Avenue transforms into a Christmas tree adventure at the hands of neighborhood residents.

Embrace the holiday spirit by singing Vic Damone’s Christmas in San Francisco song while strolling through the neighborhood (yes, he did just rhyme “barbeque board” with “hasn’t been said before”). 

What a great outing for Christmas Day!

The Presidio Tree at The Presidio Inn

When: December 1st
Where: The Presidio, 93 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco, CA
Cost: From $50

Each year, on the first Friday in December since 1957, the folks at The Presidio string colorful lights from the balconies. 

For locals, the illumination of a 30-foot Christmas tree outside the historic Presidio Inn marks the holiday season.

This hotel is rich in history as a cozy holiday stay for military families over the holidays since the 1800s. 

They’re all about tradition and even more about yummy holiday treats.

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.

Ice Skating in Union Square

A crowd of people Ice Skating in Union Square in San Francisco, with Saks Fifth Avenue, a giant Christmas tree, and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel visible in the background.

When: Throughout December, including Christmas Day
Where: Union Square, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $20

Get everyone out of the house on Christmas day by going ice skating. 

Having fun with the family at the Union Square ice rink is a tradition in the Bay that just doesn’t get old. 

Even if you’ve never tried ice skating, Union Square is worth the visit. 

The square is beautiful around Christmas time, and you may feel inspired to give skating a whirl once you arrive. 

There will also be plenty of food and drink options if you work up an appetite on the ice. 

There’s nothing quite like a warm meal after an outdoor winter activity!

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Taylor Neal

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.

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

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