| Last updated: December 18th, 2023
TLDR: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is our favorite Christmas event in San Francisco. This fun, festive Victorian London-themed fair is the perfect family-friendly outing if you want an immersive experience rather than a lighting spectacle.
Is it too cliche to say we went into the Dickens Fair with great expectations? Regardless, the fair met those expectations, and even exceeded them!
The smell of sugar, cinnamon, and roasted nuts floats in the air once you enter. “Happy Christmas” greetings echo from innumerable Londoners as you walk along the streets.
The Ghost of Christmas Past lurks around every corner. There are Fancy dresses and sophisticated attire to behold.
Trinkets at shoppes (yes, we’re spelling some words in the old-timey style for this article). Singing and dancing, general merriment, and so much more!
We loved our day at Cow Palace, celebrating Christmas in Victorian-era style.
But there was also a lot to see in just one day. This is why we compiled a quick review complete with tips, details, and notes from our day at the annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair so you can make the most out of the event.
Cow Palace Arena & Event Center, 2600 Geneva Ave, Daly City, CA 94014
Weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas (2023 season is finished, stay tuned for 2024 dates!)
$40 adults; $25 under 12; free for kids under 5
What is the Dickens Fair?
The Dickens Fair is an annual Christmas event in San Francisco that recreates a Victorian Era London full of singing, dancing, and a magical Christmas atmosphere in the Cow Palace event center.
For fact-checkers: I know the event is actually in Daly City, but it’s on the border of San Francisco, so I’m just going to stick with that.
You can walk from room to room at the fair, encountering actors playing Charles Dickens or peddling old-timey goods.
There’s singing, dancing, and other performances to enjoy, as well as other period-themed activities like a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery or high tea at Cuthbert’s Tea Shoppe, and so much more.
The Dickens Christmas Fair is also very family-friendly.
If you have kids, there’s a baby changing station, areas for decorating ceramics and other arts and crafts, a carousel and carnival games for kids, lax policies for strollers and bringing food inside, and tons of entertainment that kids will enjoy.
If you’re not a kid, you can still enjoy all that (maybe not the baby changing station), plus holiday drinks and other activities that kids might not be interested in, like the aforementioned high tea or the cancan dancing show right before closing time.
This year, I went with my wife (no kids) and loved everything there was to do. I plan to go again next year to see everything I missed out on!
With eight different rooms scheduling events constantly, plus additional areas with numerous other items, it’s impossible to experience everything in just one day.
When and Where is the Dickens Fair?
The Dickens Fair runs on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) from November 18 to December 17. It starts at 10 am and goes until 6 pm.
The Dickens Fair takes place at the Cow Palace event center in Daly City, just south of San Francisco.
There’s a large parking lot ($15 for parking), and we didn’t have any issues when we got there at 10:30 am, nor have we heard of any parking difficulties from friends and family who have gone.
Local tip: If you don’t want to pay $15 for parking and you don’t mind walking 10-15 extra minutes, there’s also plenty of street parking around Cow Palace in Daly City.
The Best Things to Do at the Dickens Fair
Watch the Shows
The renditions of A Christmas Carol, holiday songs, and other performances are all entertaining. We enjoyed sitting down, sipping a seasonal drink, and catching a show.
There’s a lot of entertainment to choose from, so below are our suggestions.
Fezziwig’s Dance Party
Go here to watch portions of A Christmas Carol, listen to Christmas carols, join in on the dancing, and play parlour games (charades).
It’s all very family-friendly; we saw lots of kids here having fun and running around.
Victoria and Albert Bijou Music Hall
This hall showcased the kinds of street performers/oddities you can imagine running into on the streets of London.
We watched Cy the Sword Swallower, and he was very entertaining. I had to verify online when I returned home just to make sure, but he truly swallows them!
There’s no trickery! I don’t understand the anatomy behind it, but it was a fun show, and he was also funny.
The other performances looked fun, and there was always an audience when we peeked in, but we didn’t get a chance to spend more time there.
Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House
We spent most of our time here when we wanted to watch a show because it was such a fun atmosphere. Plus, the actor playing Mad Sal was terrific.
The shows at Mad Sal’s feature can-can dancers and Irish dancing and are advertised as “shockingly scandalous.”
So, perhaps, not quite as kid-friendly, although we thought they were appropriate even for kids.
Maybe we caught the more modest shows, but you see more “scandalous” attire at a beach, and even the language was fine.
Then again, we’re not parents, so take that with a grain of salt!
Other shows at the Dickens Fair include Chancery Lane (renditions of scenes from A Christmas Carol), the Athenaeum Club (science and arts exhibitions and lectures), and Dickens Study (readings of A Christmas Carol).
These weren’t as appealing since we prefer more active and lively performances, but I’d want to check them out more next year to get the full experience.
Of the shows we did make it to, the actors, sets, and performances were all excellent.
There are some places we didn’t get to try out this year, like the Father Christmas Stage (caroling, songs, fairy tales), the Paddy West Stage (songs), and the Mermaid Tavern Stage (we skipped this, but the space looked fun and we regret missing out).
Tip: We initially tried to plan out our whole day. But pre-planning isn’t always necessary. There’s so much to see that you can just wander around and take it all in. If there are a couple of shows in particular that are must-sees for you, just make sure to note those down.
Sherlock Holmes Experience
We love games. And the Sherlock Holmes Experience was perfect for us! If you stop by 221B Baker Street, you’ll meet with Dr. Watson, who will ask for your help to solve a case.
All around the Dickens Fair are newspapers that contain clues to help you do that.
It’s a satisfying mystery to try and solve. And it’s free! So we’d recommend trying it out, and if you don’t like it, you don’t need to continue.
Tip: Take pictures of the whole newspaper. Then, you can refer back to it in case you missed anything.
There’s also a similar experience called Jekyll & Hyde And The Elixir Of Madness. It’s $65 per person and gives you a pass to collect five drinks (three alcoholic) custom-made for the game and word puzzles at each of the various pubs.
We did this and enjoyed it, but overall, we don’t recommend it because of the drinks: at $65, it’s a bit expensive, and the drinks didn’t taste great and were pretty weak.
The puzzles were fun but pretty simple if you’re used to escape room-level puzzles (we do a lot of escape rooms, so we figured out the puzzles fairly quickly).
Tip: If you decide to do this paid experience, we recommend having just one person in your group buy it. That way, you’ll get access to the puzzles without needing everyone to pay and get the same drinks.
We said we like games, right? Well, we’re suckers for carnival games, too.
At $4 per game, it was a lot cheaper than typical fairs.
And they’re mostly run by little kids with fake English accents… adorable! (We don’t know how they get around child labor laws, but we’re willing to turn a blind eye in this case).
Tip: The kids running the show want you to win. For the “Boot the Cat” game, you might be allowed to step closer if you tell them some trivia about Sherlock Holmes.
We tried out the fencing activity. It’s $12 for 15 minutes (though we might’ve gotten nearly double that amount of time). If you’re tempted to try it out, we recommend it.
Beware, you can work up a bit of a sweat very quickly. They have experienced fencers on staff there to teach you and duel against you. It’s a very fun experience. I now want to try fencing at a local club since I enjoyed it so much!
Tip: Watch out for the pointy tip!
Enjoy the Food and Drinks
There’s a good variety of food and drink stalls at the Dickens Fair. While meat pies and fish n’ chips are the most popular items, they offer many other options, including vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free meals.
We got the fish n’ chips, and for $18, it was a bit smaller than you’d expect at a restaurant but seemed fair for this kind of festival (we’ve certainly been gouged worse at other events).
The food was good, though, and added to the experience.
The bars and pubs are all fun to check out, as well. The hot buttered rum and eggnog were our favorite holiday drinks, but the absinthe bar was our favorite for vibes and grabbing a good drink.
Tip 1: The meat pies are highly recommended and very popular. We didn’t get to try them because they sold out (around 1 pm), so make sure to get them early in the day.
Tip 2: You’re allowed to bring in your own food and water. So, if you’re trying to stay on a budget, the Dickens Fair makes it easier to do that.
There’s still a lot more to do at the Dickens Fair. They have self-guided tours, high tea, and port and chocolate tastings.
The high tea and port and chocolate tastings sold out very quickly, so we didn’t get to try them.
Tip: We recommend booking experiences for high tea or the port and chocolate tasting in advance or first thing once you get to the Dickens Fair if you want to experience them.
Many shops sell unique goods like puzzle rings, wands, Victorian-era clothing, and more. We personally didn’t end up buying anything since most shops were very expensive, but it was fun just popping into these shops to see what they had.
Plus, the shopkeepers were also in character and fun to chat with.
And just wandering around was a hoot. So many people, even visitors, are dressed up to the nines. The decorations and festive atmosphere is magical. It was enjoyable spending the whole day there, and it went by super fast.
What to Wear to the Dickens Fair
There’s no particular dress code. You can go in regular clothes and many people do. But if you enjoy dressing up, this is a great chance to try on fun clothes.
The Dickens Fair website offers guidance–but generally, there are many options, from dresses, long skirts, blouses, and all sorts of jackets to fancy headwear or just a handkerchief around the hair. Even just jeans or slacks with a dress shirt would do!
While it’s not mandatory for kids to dress up, we think it should be–they totally stole the show with all their outfits.
Tip: The event is indoors. Although there’s a five-minute walk from the parking lot to the event hall, some of which is outside, you’ll be inside during the event, and it’s a very comfortable temperature. So, there is no need to bundle up, even if it is wintertime.
Photographic Inspiration for Your Visit
FAQs about the Dickens Fair
Can I participate in the fair?
You can! For more information, check out the fair’s information on how to get involved.
Are there ethical issues with the fair?
There was previously a boycott of the fair due to issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, human resources, handling sexual harassment, and more.
We’re happy to report that the owners and groups representing the workers’ and volunteers’ interests reached an agreement.
Conclusion: So, Should You Go to the Dickens Fair?
Yes, go to the Dickens Fair! We loved it. Our friends and family have all enjoyed it a ton too. We’re sure that even the Grinch would have a jolly old time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Suneel has lived in California for 32 of his 35 years of life. He regrets those other three because there really isn’t any other state like the Golden State. Suneel has lived in San Diego, Berkeley, San Francisco, Fremont, Hayward, and Sacramento, and has crashed on plenty of couches when visiting friends and family throughout the rest of the state. As a San Diegan, even if he lives in Norcal now, he still insists on saying “the” before the freeway number, rooting for the Chargers (even if they’re not in San Diego anymore), and gets excited whenever he has an excuse to make a trip down.
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