One of my absolute favorite things about San Francisco is its ever-changing ebb and flow to styles, trends, and embracing the weirdness. It’s what gives this city part of its magic. That is until it’s Christmas in San Francisco.
The city by the bay hunkers down in its annual traditions of tree lights, events, and stunning window displays with the comfort of a hug from grandma who’s making you a warm cup of cocoa with extra marshmallows. She knows just how to make you feel loved and welcome every time you visit.
And while some things have changed, such as proof of vaccination at most indoor events and restaurants. Masks are still asked within businesses. And a negative covid test is required at some large indoor ticketed events. Some things will stand the test of time. Like strolling under the huge gingerbread house in the Fairmont, and seeing kittens play with ornaments in the windows of Macy’s.
Always remember to double-check dates, opening times, and weather conditions before traveling.
Ultimate Christmas Guide To Things To Do In San Francisco
Union Square Fun for All Ages
Every year, the day after Thanksgiving they light the giant tree in Union Square. Macy’s always does a fun holiday reveal for their windows and it’s unofficially the official start to the holiday season downtown. The tree is usually up mid-Nov through till mid-Jan.
There is also a Chanuka Menorah on display within the square as well. This is a fun holiday event with activities for children and other festivities to take part in. Check dates here
Even though there are a handful of other ice skating events in the city, by far the most popular is the Union Square ice rink. It’s decent sized and a ticket will run you about $20 for an hour session. Book your tickets early to make sure you get the times and quantity you need. The weekends tend to book up quickly with visitors and locals all wanting a turn. The rink usually opens early Nov thru Mid January.
Feast Upon the “Enchanted Sugar Castle” in the St. Francis Hotel
With each passing year, Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Francoise Houdre out-does himself with a stunning 12 ft. Medieval French Chateau that gets more incredible and grandiose every year. In years past, the castle is said to use over 600lbs of sugar in its design.
The unveiling can be a fun event with hot chocolate and cookies. Usually, the weekend after Thanksgiving but is displayed all the way through Jan 1.
Macy’s is a One-Stop-Shop for Christmas Fun
They’ve made it very easy to entertain kids and adults with their annual events and fun displays. Even window shopping is a blast.
Partnering with the San Francisco SPCA, you can see all the cuteness with 4 paws up for adoption. With Instagramable photo ops and special adoption events, they make spreading the word easy and accessible. You can make donations or start the process yourself if you fall in love with one of the cuties.
Once inside Macy’s head on over to the holiday shop Santaland and take a classic photo with Santa. Reservations are required ahead of time, but there is plenty of availability. Afterward, drop off a letter for Santa at any Make-A-Wish letterbox in Macy’s and they will donate $1 for every letter.
When you’re done with Macy’s head outside for some fresh air and snacks at Winterwalk SF. A cozy street blocked off so shoppers can take a load off and grab a bite to eat at the ever-changing food trucks or stalls set up in and around the blocked-off green space. This place makes a great photo op as well.
The Famous Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House
From downtown Powell St. take a cable car up the hill or Lyft (trust me on this, that incline is a b*!ch) to the Fairmont hotel. I highly suggest entering the hotel from the Mason St entrance for the full experience. This beautiful hotel is a landmark for SF and has stood the test of time with its giant marble columns and old-world regal style.
With over a century of dazzling the city with their holiday traditions, the most famed is the 2 story gingerbread house built within the lobby as an entrance to the Laural Court dining room. Surrounded by running toy trains and dripping with candies, this holiday favorite is truly wonderful and awe-inspiring.
High Tea Holidays
If you would like the full experience, book a high tea with the Laurel Court Restaurant after marveling at all the small details of the gingerbread house that’s bound to give you major sugar cravings.
While definitely not for the faint of heart wallet-wise, this can be a genuine treat and incredible memory for any family. Nibble on pastries, scones, and small sandwiches while sipping away on a steaming pot of tea.
Other great places for a “Holiday Tea” are:
- Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz-Carlton
- The Oak Room in the Westin St. Francis
- Children’s Magical Tea at The Top of the Mark
- The Garden Court Restaurant in the Palace Hotel
Locals Tip: While you’re on top of the hill (Nob Hill to be exact), take in some fresh air and wander over to Huntington Park. Check out the Christmas lights that surround the park and throw a coin into the fountain. Watch a few dogs play and just sit peacefully in the court.
As a Nob Hill native, seeing the lights in the park every year really signified that it was definitely the holiday season. This park is one of my favorite spots in the city. It feels like a secret, even though everybody knows it’s there. And if you’re curious, go check out the outdoor maze at Grace Cathedral. It’s enchanting in its own right.
Make Sure to Take in the SF Ballets Nutcracker
Talk to anyone who’s grown up in the Bay Area and most will have a beloved story of going to the ballet as a child to see The Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House. Playing since 1944, this time-old tradition is a staple for many families as well as one of the most traditional things to do in San Francisco for Christmas. If you have the chance it is a truly magical night. Runs early Dec through to the 30th.
Don’t Be a Scrooge and Go See The Christmas Carol
Another classic San Francisco Christmas event is The Christmas Carol at the Golden Gate Theatre. Previously always played at the A.T.C, the story of the greedy old boss who learns a lesson or two always tears at our hearts and is beautifully portrayed in this timeless story on stage.
Located close to downtown in the Theatre District, it’s easy to make a reservation at one of the many restaurants nearby and get a Lyft in no time to see the play. Note: No children under five are allowed. Runs end of November to end of December.
Stick with the Theme and Check Out the Dickens Fair
This is one of the events in SF that truly stands out as special. Similar to a Renaissance fair, participants and vendors go all out and immerse themselves into the roles of the Victorian timeline. And they own it. It’s like you step back in time and enter a world of dirty London streets and politeness.
Wander through the pathways and try treats both savory and sweet. Shop the wares of many of the crafts and goods throughout the fair. And when you need a rest, there are some fun plays and musical events throughout the day to watch. The Dickens Christmas Fair is very kid-friendly but adults have a blast as well. Check-in every year to see any adjustments made to the scheduling and updates with safety protocols. Usually runs the three weekends before Christmas.
More info: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
A Christmas Bar that Even St. Nick Would Be Proud Of
A recent trend in metropolis cities is the invention of the Holiday Pop Up Bars. And we’re here for it. The most simplistic way of describing them is that it’s as if Xmas just threw up all over your favorite gin joint. And when I say all over, I mean ALL OVER. No stone is left unwrapped.
My personal favorite is always checking out what the PCH (Pacific Cocktail Haven) team is up to every year, but there are a few to choose from. Locations vary for some every year, so make sure you look up where it’s moved to, as they are rarely every in one spot twice.
Get Your Christmas Lights Fix at These Fun Spots in the City
Unlike the suburbs where you get to drive slowly down the street and marvel at all the houses that go all out in adorning their facades (except for that one house that refuses, there’s always one). With dripping icicle lights and blow-up Santa scenarios, we here in the city like to go big with our trees. And create events around lighting them.
Most lighting events will happen with some fanfare. A particularly fun one is the Golden Gate tree lighting with a carnival and snow on the day of (usually early Dec). There is also a cool art installation nearby called the “Entwined” Illuminated Forest at Peacock Meadow every year. This runs throughout the holiday season from late Nov-Dec.
And you can always check out the nightly synchronized lighting at the Pier 39 Wharf Tree. Where every 30mins there is a synced light and holiday music show from 5 pm-10 pm. Starts late Nov- early Jan.
Other San Francisco Christmas trees and fun city lights to see:
- City Hall Lighting (mid-Dec)
- Fisherman Wharfs Lighted Boat Parade w/ the St. Francis Yacht Club (mid-Dec)
- The Tom & Jerry House (private residence that goes above and beyond)
- San Francisco Zoo Lighting *Santa often makes an appearance as well.
7 Christmas Markets for Unique Gifts & Stocking Stuffers
Ok, so one way that San Francisco will never disappoint us is in its fabulous shopping. But aside from the obvious big fancy stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, it also thrives in small handmade artisanal wares and curated items that can’t be found anywhere else.
Below are some of the best annual San Francisco Christmas markets if you looking to step outside the malls.
Check out Funcheapsf every year for the most updated location & list of shops below, as pop-up shops tend to change location with availability.
- Annual Sunset Mercantile Holiday Shop (early Dec)
- Italian Christmas Market at Fort Mason (early Dec)
- Hayes Valley Holiday Stroll + Block Party (early Dec)
- Academy of Science Annual Nightlife Holiday Bazaar (mid-Dec)
- Ghirardelli Square’s Holiday Market + Christmas Tree Stroll (Tree Stroll from late Nov – Late Dec)
- Ferry Building Xmas Shopping (holiday stalls all throughout Dec)
- Christmas in SF Store – Pier 39
Catch a Christmas Movie at the Fort Mason Drive-In
This is a fairly new addition to the cities to-do list. With its insane popularity, we don’t think it’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. Normally nostalgic flix and popular cult classics, they are now adding holiday favorites to the schedule. Tickets sell out quickly so make sure to plan ahead, but even if it’s not the holidays, this can be a fun thing to do while playing in the city.
Check out the schedule & tickets here.
The Annual Santa Skivvies Run- a True SF Event
San Francisco, for some reason, loves the excuse to get down to their unmentionables and run through their beloved streets. And this one is for a good cause. Unlike the very popular Bay to Breakers Marathon, this run is to benefit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
A mile+ loop that runs around the Castro with 100’s of attendees sporting nothing but their skivvies and maybe an antler or Santa hat. Of course, it is San Francisco, so you’re bound to see some more creative costumes, but the point of the run is to get out there and support the cause. It’s $40 to participate in the run and FREE to watch and join in the festivities. Lots of local businesses share in the event as well in support, so there is plenty to do before and after. It’s always a fun day and you get to burn some calories and raise some money too. A win-win for everybody.
Sign up at Santa Skivvies Run.
Santa Con SF
If running isn’t your thing but you’re in the mood to get dressed up in a red suit of your own, Santa Con might be right up your alley. This is most definitely an adult-only event, and if I’m being honest, can get a bit messy.
It’s a city-wide bar hop that meanders throughout different neighborhoods with different routes. I don’t know a single person that’s ever finished a “route” but I’m sure many have tried. And it is a good time, even if you don’t participate, just being out and about on Santa Con day makes for some epic people watching. Usually around the second weekend of Dec.
Check here for dates and participating bars.
Looking for Something To Do in San Francisco On Christmas Day?
Below are a few ideas for things to do if you are in the city for the actual big day. Please check the times and buy tickets ahead when possible. And remember, be kind to those that are working during the holidays. They are giving up their holiday time so you can have time with your families and friends:
- Hornblower Christmas Day Dinner Cruise
- California Academy of Sciences
- Japanese Tea Gardens
- Botanical Gardens (Free on Christmas day)
- San Francisco Zoo
- Golden Gate Bridge Walk (open to public Christmas Day)
So there you have it, “An Ultimate Guide to Christmas in San Francisco”. As mentioned in the shopping section, a local favorite for all current and annual events happening is FuncheapSF.com. This is a great resource for updated dates and start times for both new and recurring events.