Christmas in San Francisco is the most magical time of the year! Looking for all the best things to do in the city to get you in a jolly holiday spirit? Read on for the most festive Christmas activities, events, and attractions in San Francisco!
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style (is that song stuck in your head now? Because it sure is stuck in mine!)…Christmas in San Francisco is one of my favorite times of the year! It’s just so magical to see the city dressed up in festive lights, and to see the holiday spirit abuzz all around you.
While it’s not nearly known as a Christmas city like New York, there’s still plenty happeneing in San Francisco in December – it’s almost as good but on a smaller scale!
There are so many ways to celebrate the holidays in San Francisco, from tree lightings, to outdoor ice rinks, to special events and performances. Looking for the best Christmas events, activities, decorations and more? Read on for the ultimate list of must-dos in the city during the holiday season!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase or booking, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Pictures & Words is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to amazon.com and affiliated sites at no cost to you.
Fun + Festive Things to Do At Christmas in San Francisco
Christmas in San Francisco at Union Square
I always love Union Square during the holiday season because it becomes the heart of all things Christmas in San Francisco. The holiday spirit of the city truly comes alive here. There are lots of festive things to do and see here – here is a rundown of some of the highlights:
Union Square Ice Rink
The festivities here kick off when the Union Square Ice Rink officially opens for the season in early November, and stays put until Martin Luther King Day the following year. The rink is open from 10am to 11pm daily, and each 90 minute session starts at the top of every even hour. Admission is $20 for adults, and $15 for children 8 and under, and includes skate rental.
This is by far the most popular (and crowded) outdoor ice rink in the city, and it’s easy to see why as it is definitely one of the best Christmas activities in San Francisco! The best time to skate is after the tree goes up so you get sort of that Rockefeller Center vibe (coming from someone who finally skated there after visiting NYC in December!)
Be sure to buy your tickets in advance as they tend to sell out during peak times, especially during the weeks surrounding Christmas. The rink also has some fun special events and sessions, such as a polar bear skate, and a drag queen night.
2023 dates: 11/1/23-1/15/24
Union Square Christmas Tree
Union Square truly comes alive after the tree is lit. The 83-foot tall tree has some 40,000 twinkling energy-efficient LED lights and 700 ornaments, and is one of the largest and most recognizable sights in San Francisco at Christmas
The tree lighting ceremony usually takes place every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but is not expected to take place in 2023. Performances by various local acts take place leading up to the main event, in which the dazzling lights of the tree are finally illuminated and stay on through the end of the year.
Union Square also has a giant Menorah, and daily lighting ceremonies take place at 5pm on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. On the first night, there are musical performances by various acts leading up to the lighting ceremony, much like the Christmas tree ceremony.
Christmas Events in San Francisco at Macy’s
There are a variety of events that take place at the flagship Macy’s location in Union Square:
SPCA adoptions + holiday windows: One of the most iconic sights during the holidays in San Francisco is the wreaths in the windows of the flagship Macy’s store at Union Square. Not only do they make a perfect photo op from across the street, but they are for a good cause as well – each of these windows houses adoptable dogs and cats who need loving homes, in partnership with the San Francisco SPCA.
This has become one of the most beloved annual traditions of the holiday season (I mean, adorable puppies and kitties – how could it not?!). More than 8500 animals have found loving homes throughout the event’s 30 year history. The decorations and adoption event runs mid-November through New Year’s Day.
Santaland: In addition to getting your holiday shopping done at Macy’s (or just window shopping…or buying presents for yourself), you can also say hi to Santa, convince him that you’ve been good this year, and take a photo with him at Santaland, located on the sixth floor.
Holiday Lane: The store’s top floor also transforms into Holiday Lane, and you can shop for festive decor and gifts here. You can also drop off letters to Santa at the Believe mailbox through Christmas Eve – for every letter collected, Macy’s will donate $1 to the Make-a-wish Foundation (up to $1 million).
Cheesecake Factory view: Be sure to also stop into the Cheesecake Factory, also located on the top floor – you can get a unique bird’s-eye view of all the festivities down below from the patio here!
Christmas Decorations in San Francisco at Neiman Marcus
Just across the street from Macy’s is Neiman Marcus, which is also the home of a four-story tall Christmas tree in the store’s foyer. Be sure to look up to take truly appreciate the size of the tree, and to also look at the beautiful Art Deco stained glass ceiling – it’s one of the most beautiful sights in San Francisco in December.
You should also go up to the Rotunda on the fourth floor to get a unique view of the tree and to be up close to that ceiling. If you also feel like having being fancy, you can also opt to do high tea here – one of the best in the city!
Westfield San Francisco Centre
While technically a few blocks away from Union Square itself, the Westfield mall on Market Street plays host to numerous holiday events at its fourth floor atrium.
The real attraction here is the 50-foot Christmas tree, which hangs upside-down from the mall’s signature dorm. The tree is covered in crystals and almost looks like a giant chandelier, making it one of the most unique Christmas decoration sin San Francisco.
Note: The Westfield did not hang the Christmas tree in 2022 – TBD to see if it will return in 2023.
Westin St. Francis
The Westin St. Francis has also displayed elaborate sugar castles in their lobby, created from sugar and pastries by their pastry chefs, along with a pop up sweet shop selling holiday treats.
They also host a high tea service -enjoy fine artisan teas from Mighty Leaf or Red Blossom Tea Company along with a selection of English tea sandwiches and sweet treats inside one of San Francisco’s most iconic hotels.
Also hosted at the hotel is breakfast with Santa, a holiday brunch, and POP! Champagne loung.
For updates, additional information, and to make reservations, keep your eyes peeled on the events calendar.
Christmas Events in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center
The Embarcadero Center, right across from the Ferry Building on the city’s waterfront, also plays host to a number of festive San Francisco Christmas events and activities!
Embarcadero Center Holiday Ice Rink
Another place to get your skate on is at the Embarcadero Center Holiday Ice Rink, located at Justin Herman Plaza. I personally prefer this rink over the Union Square rink, because it is larger (it is the largest outdoor rink in the Bay Area) and feels much less crowded.
The best time to skate here is at night, when you can see the twinkling Bay Bridge and the glowing Ferry Building as you glide across the ice. Even better is if you come around sunset, because you can see the lights dance against the sky as the colors transform from light to dark.
The rink is usually open from early November until early January.
2023 update: TBD to see if they are opening this year, but say that they are hoping to!
Embarcadero Center Building Lighting and Carnival
The Embarcadero Center’s four towering buildings, illuminated with over 17,000 holiday lights, is another iconic sight in San Francisco in December. The official lighting of the building takes place on November 18 this year, and is celebrated with a carnival, complete with an ice skating show and a fireworks display. The lights stay on through the end of the year.
Civic Center + City Hall
I’m all about the outdoor ice rinks (fun fact about me: I did a few years of lessons when I was younger, and picked up adult figure skating again recently), so I was super excited when they announced Winter Park at Civic Center in 2018.
Located right in front of City Hall, which has its own spectacular Christmas tree right in front of it. The building itself gets lit up in red and green (or blue for Hanukkah). City Hall also has its own tree lighting ceremony and festivities in the first week of December (December 6 in 2023), with live music and kids’ activities.
What sets this rink apart from all the others that pop up is a 400-foot track that splits off the main rink and weaves through a lighted tree forest – this was inspired by internationally-famed Wiener-Eistraum ice rink located in the City Hall Square of Vienna.
Also be sure to check in December in San Francisco out the stunning Christmas tree inside of City Hall itself, which adds a festive touch to an already gorgeous interior. You can see it when San Francisco City Hall is open to the public, Monday-Friday 8am-8pm.
Note: They haven’t had the ice rink here in several years, but I’m leaving the photos up in anticipation that they will bring it back one day in the near future 🙂
Fairmont Hotel Christmas Events
The iconic Fairmont Hotel is home to some of the best San Francisco Christmas activities and happenings. Here are some of the happenings taking place here:
Gingerbread House: The main highlight here is a two-story gingerbread house, which stands at 25 feet tall and is made from 6000 pieces of house-made gingerbread, 1650 pounds of candy, and 3300 pounds of icing.
The house is on display in the Fairmont lobby during the end of November (usually around Thanksgiving) until New Year’s Day. You can stroll through and admire all the details on the exterior of the house – it is a pretty impressive sight (and yes, you can actually smell the gingerbread).
Gingerbread tea: Did you also know that you can also have afternoon tea inside the house? You can have a private tea service for up to 8 people inside the gingerbread house – what a cool experience! Here are more details.
Lobby tree: While the gingerbread house is the main draw at the Fairmont, the lobby also features a gorgeous 23 foot tall tree.
Cirque Holiday Bar: The hotel’s Cirque Bar will have special seasonally-themed cocktails for the holiday season.
Santa Suite: Want an all-out celebration? The hotel also has a Christmas-themed Santa Suite, complete with Santa-inspired decor, a selection of classic holiday movies to watch, a “candy and hot beverages bar” (with an adult beverage for adults in the party), and more. Rates start at $1599.
For a truly unforgettable holiday experience in San Francisco, you can also spend a night at the Fairmont Hotel!
Christmas Activities in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel
The century-old Palace Hotel has had a longstanding reputation as one of the city’s best and most luxurious hotels, so it is no surprise that it is also one of the best places to visit in San Francisco at Christmas
I make a stop here every year in December in San Francisco to gaze at the trio of trees in the hotel’s elegant atrium. The trees are not particularly big, but they definitely stand out against the stunning glass ceilings, breathtaking chandeliers, and shiny marble floors.
The hotel’s Garden Court restaurant hosts a popular holiday tea service during the holiday season, where you can admire the trees while enjoying some scones and sandwiches (with your pinkies up of course!) served on fine china and silver.
For an extra festive tea service with the little ones, the Garden Court also hosts a Santa tea service, with the man in red himself! The lounge also offers a Holiday Prince and Princess Tea service, where little guests take home a jeweled crown and candy scepter.
Holiday tea at the Palace Hotel isn’t cheap, but if you’re on a budget but still want a similar experience, you’re in luck! You can still come to the Garden Court outside of afternoon tea hours and enjoy a cup of (pricey) coffee or glass of wine, while gazing at the trees and taking in the soft piano music.
Spending a night or two at the Palace hotel would also make for a special time during the holidays- the hotel is renowned for its luxury and world-class service.
Christmas Happenings at the Ritz Carlton Hotel
The Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz Carlton has been one of the most beloved annual traditions for San Francisco for many years. Created as a way to bring families together in true holiday spirit, this tea service also gives back a portion of each ticket sale to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
During the service, children are served teddy bear-shaped sandwiches and hot chocolate while enjoying a holiday show, and receive a teddy bear photo to take home; adults can also enjoy specialty cocktails. Be sure to reserve your spot in advance.
The Ritz Carlton also hosts its traditional afternoon service with a holiday twistThe hotel also has a gorgeous 40 foot tall Christmas tree in the lobby, along with an annual lighting ceremony. At the event, which takes place at the end of November, the tree is illuminated by a local family from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Santa also makes an appearance for photos.
Looking for a luxury hotel to stay at during Christmas in San Francisco? Consider spending a night at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco!
Sir Francis Drake Hotel’s Tea Under the Tree
This annual holiday tea service is presented in collaboration with Crown & Crumpet, one of the city’s most popular tea houses. The festive tea service takes place in the historic Union Square hotel, all decked out for the holidays! Here’s where to look for more information, menu, and updates.
Christmas Activities in San Francisco at Fisherman’s Wharf
The Fisherman’s Wharf area may be one of the most touristy spots in the city, but it is home to some of the most festive San Francisco Christmas events. Fisherman’s Wharf and its surrounding attractions are play host to numerous holiday events, which are perfect for getting into the holiday spirit!
Christmas Decorations in San Francisco at Pier 39
Experience holiday magic at Pier 39, which comes alive with festive decorations and a giant Christmas tree. Each of the 13,000 energy-efficient LED lights, 400 ornaments, and 150 bows are individually secured onto the 60 foot tree, which takes about 3 weeks to decorate.
A dazzling light show will also illuminate the tree every 30 minutes from 5pm to 10pm every night. Pier 39 also hosts an annual tree lighting ceremony. Check the events calendar more details about the event, as well as other holiday happenings.
2023 dates: 11/21/23-1/7/24
Lighted Boat Parade at Fisherman’s Wharf
Watch as boats adorned with festive lights and decor parade around the San Francisco Bay in the oldest and largest lighted boat parade in the San Francisco Bay. The parade is presented by the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District and the St. Francis Yacht Club, and is one of the most unique San Francisco Christmas events.
The parade starts just off Pier 39 and continues along the waterfront past Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, the St. Francis Yacht Club, and Crissy Field. You can find more information about the parade and fleet here.
Christmas at Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square is the home of another giant Christmas tree in San Francisco; this 50-foot tree is decorated with oversized Ghirardelli chocolate bars because, well, duh. There is also a tree lighting event that takes place Thanksgiving weekend, with musical performances, puppet shows, and stilt walkers.
The 2023 event takes place on Friday, November 24. Check the events calendar for more information, as well as additional holiday events.
Christmas Events in San Francisco at the Presidio
San Francisco’s own National Park also comes alive during the holiday season, and is home to its own Christmas tree and festive events. The event usually takes place at the park’s Main Post, and will have carolers, kids’ activities, and light refreshments. A lantern-lit forest walk will take place afterwards.
For more holiday fun, head on over to the Walt Disney Family Museum which presents a double feature screening of Christmas With Walt Disney and Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
2023 update: Details have yet to be announced, but you can keep your eyes peeled on the events calendar for updates.
Christmas at Golden Gate Park
America’s largest urban park is also one of the best places to visit in San Francisco in December, with a Christmas tree and several seasonal events.
Christmas Tree Lighting + Winter Carnival
Golden Gate Park’s Christmas tree is a live one – the 100 year old cypress tree resides at McLaren Lodge right at the eastern entrance of the park. The tree is illuminated at an annual tree lighting ceremony and winter carnival that usually takes place on the first Thursday in December.
The event also transforms the area into a festive winter wonderland, with a snow play area and tobboggan rides, live entertainment, carnival rides, cookie decorating, a visit with Santa, and more! You also get free admission into the neighboring Conservatory of Flowers on the day of the event. Keep an eye on the park’s event page for more information and updates.
Night Bloom at the Conservatory of Flowers
Speaking of the Conservatory of Flowers – it has some of the most magical San Francisco Christmas lights, with its iconic white facade illuminated with dazzling lights during its Night Bloom installation. Inside the conservatory, vibrant lights completely transform the galleries and rainforest, allowing the plants to shine in a new light.
Other special installations include a highly-instagrammable geometric light art display by Oakland-based artists HYBYCOZO and a Bloom Lounge, where you can eat, drink, and be merry inside an inflatable dome.
2023 update: This was cancelled the last few years because of the pandemic, but you can check the event page to see if they bring it back for 2023.
California Academy of Sciences
Science and holiday merriment come together at the California Academy of Sciences’s annual ‘Tis the Season for Science exhibit, making it a fun and educational San Francisco holiday activities. Learn about how animals thrive in polar and Antarctic climates, meet a reindeer, and enjoy live music as you get into the holiday spirit!
The museum also puts a festive spin on NightLife, its Thursday night 21+ after dark event. Personally, I think that NightLife is the best time to visit the museum because admission is cheaper and each weekly soiree has a fun theme. The holiday NightLife events also feature seasonally inspired cocktails and a Christmas bazaar for extra holiday fun! Check here for more information and upcoming holiday themes.
Thrive City at the Chase Center
The Chase Center, the home of the Golden State Warriors, also puts up a giant Christmas tree and lights as part of their Thrive City Winter Wonderland. The 30-foot tree is decorated with 4,550 animated lights, 2,600 ornaments and a 4-foot animated snowfall topper that will perform a synchronized show every 30 minutes.
There is also a lighting ceremony, with fun activities and an appearance by Santa!
In 2023, they are also hosting a free ice skating rink on certain days between December 9-26. Capacity is limited to 20-30 skaters, and you will need to make a reservation – first come, first served.
2023 dates: Opens November 29
Christmas Performances and Shows in San Francisco
One of the best ways to experience December in San Francisco is to watch a holiday performance from one of the city’s award-winning performing arts institutions. Many of these performances have become a treasured holiday tradition for many in San Francisco! I list some of the highlights below:
The Nutcracker by the San Francisco Ballet
Did you know that this holiday classic was first performed in America by the San Francisco Ballet? After the enormous success of the first performance, part of the Pan Pacific Expo in 1944, the Ballet has debuted several new productions of it over the years, and it has become an annual holiday tradition for many San Franciscans.
After living in San Francisco for 10 years, I finally got to see the SF Ballet’s rendition of the Nutcracker last year and I have to say – it was a dazzling and magical performance! The best thing about this version is that it takes place in San Francisco, so the sets have the city’s iconic Victorian facades. It is definitely something that puts a unique spin on the iconic holiday ballet and definitely one of the best performances to see!
Here’s where to go for more information and to purchase tickets – I definitely recommend buying them ASAP as they tend to go quick (part of the reason it took me a whole 10 years to finally go see it)!
Holiday Performances by the San Francisco Symphony
You can also celebrate the holidays in San Francisco with the Grammy award-winning San Francisco Symphony, which also puts on a number of festive concerts, including movie play-alongs, and performances of both classic and modern holiday numbers.
Join the Symphony as they play the score live from popular holiday movies such as Love Actually (absolutely dying to see this one as it’s my all-time favorite!), It’s a Wonderful Life, and a Charlie Brown Christmas. Other performances include Handel’s classic Messiah, Holiday Soul, and a Merry-achi Christmas. Here’s more information and to buy tickets.
A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory Theater
Now in its 44th year, the ACT’s rendition of the classic Dickens holiday tale has become a favorite during the holidays season! Performances take place from Black Friday until Christmas Eve. You can find out more information or buy tickets – also keep your eyes on Goldstar as they often have discounted tickets.
Holiday Performances and Events at the Grace Cathedral
The Grace Cathedral, the city’s own cathedral, also plays host to a number of holiday performances and events, which is some of the most wonderful San Francisco holiday activities. Some of the concerts include the American Bach Soloists’s rendition of Handel’s Messiah, a singalong for children and families, a brass and organ Christmas, and a choral performance by the church’s Choir of Men and Boys.
The cathedral is also home to the Rainbow World Fund’s World Tree of Hope. The tee, which boasts more than 17,000 origami ornaments, is a gift to the city and the LGBTQ community. There are also wishes that are sent in from all around the world and are printed and folded into cranes, which are displayed on the tree.
The Grace Cathedral also hosts Christmas services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. More information about the church’s Christmas events and services.
Christmas Festivals and Events in San Francisco
It’s the most festive of the year and that means some extra fun events and festivals throughout Christmas and San Francisco! These events are perfect for being extra jolly and getting into the holiday spirit, or even getting some of your Christmas shopping done!
Great Dickens Holiday Fair
Take a step back in time at the Great Dickens Holiday Fair. The festival is staged to look as if you’re in Victorian-age London (Dickens’s London Town) with winding alleys and theatrically-lit music halls, pubs, dance floors, and Christmas shops, along with hundreds of costumed characters. It also features holiday shopping, treats, and entertainment.
2023 dates: 11/18-12/17
Get your ho-ho-ho on along with thousands of Santas who will fill the streets! The annual event and pub crawl, which also takes place in cities all over the world, is always a jolly good time! It can be a bit rowdy and crazy at times, but it is a spectacle and definitely something that is super fun to experience at least once in your life!
The festivities start at “north pole” aka Union Square at 11:30am, and Santas disperse through the city from there. There is also a toy drive taking place, and it is requested that you bring a new, unwrapped toy to participate. Many bars throughout the city have drink specials on this day (although some bars also don’t welcome the Santacon shenanigans and have signs that say “no Santas” – please be respectful).
Here are the latest updates on SantaCon for 2023 – the event is scheduled to take place on Saturday, December 9.
Christmas Pop-Up Bars in San Francisco
For an extra jolly time, be sure to have an extra festive drink at one of the holiday-themed bars that pop up in San Francisco at Christmas! These bars, which are open for a limited time only, are decorated in extra festive fashion, and feature holiday-themed cocktails that celebrate the season!
Be sure to get your drink on at these bars while you can!
The holiday themed Miracle popped up in New York several years ago to smashing success, and soon expanded across the country – including in San Francisco! The drinks are inventive and tasty, and the decor will put even Scrooge into the holiday spirit.
Miracle pops up inside Pacific Cocktail Haven (580 Sutter Street @ Mason), located near Union Square.
Deck the Halls
Have a fa-la-la-la-la jolly good time at Deck the Halls, which features festive drinks and decor much like Miracle. Also part of the celebration is a Driedel Bar, which features Hannukah-themed drinks as well.
They will post 2023 updates on their Instagram page.
Illuminate Festival of Lights
San Francisco’s streets become illuminated with extraordinary light sculptures at the Illuminate Festival of Lights, which runs throughout the city from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. The event features 39 works by over 30 artists, displayed in 17 neighborhoods, showcasing the extraordinary local light art scene. For a list of features artists, works, and locations, see here.
Holiday Light Tours in San Francisco
San Francisco at Christmas comes alive with festive light displays throughout the city – one of the best ways to see them is to go on a holiday tour that takes you to all the most beautifully decorated spots in the city!
This 2 hour guided tour takes you around all the most festive parts of the city (Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Palace of Fine Arts, Chinatown) in a vintage VW bug, decked out in shag carpets and bed curtains! Santa hats are provided for those picture perfect holiday photo ops.
More San Francisco Christmas Lights + Decorations
The city has no shortage of Christmas lights and displays! Here are a few more locations where you can see some more festive decor (because one can never get enough, amirite?):
The decorations in front of the office buildings at 100 California St. are one of my favorite San Francisco Christmas photo spots! Those giant red ornaments make the perfect backdrop for all your holiday Instagram photos. The flower pots which usually adorn the steps out front are also replaced by poinsettias, which also add a festive touch to your photos.
You’ll find one of the city’s most beautifully decorating Christmas trees in front of the 555 California building. At 80 feet tall, it’s also one of the city’s tallest! A tree lighting event will also take place on November 28.
Tom & Jerry’s House
Quite possibly the most extra house you’ll see during Christmas in San Francisco. Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein have been together for 43 years, and they have put together spectacular holiday display in front of their house, located at 3650 21st St., for almost 30 years.
**NOTE** Please, PLEASE remember that this is a private residence in a quiet residential neighborhood. Be respectful of the property and its inhabitants, as well as its neighbors. Be quiet and courteous, don’t block driveways, and pick up after yourself.
2023 update: Sadly, one of the inhabitants of the house recently passed away – TBD to see if they put up the decorations in 2023.
Want to see more decorated houses this year? See this site for listings of the most festively decorated houses throughout the city (and California).
Weather in San Francisco at Christmas
While you won’t be getting a white Christmas in San Francisco (although the city’s higher elevations do get a slight dusting of snow every once in awhile), the city’s Mediterranean climate means that it never gets *too* cold around here.
The average high in December in San Francisco is 58 F/14 C, with lows at 47 F/8 C. That means that if you’re from a colder climate, you won’t find it very cold at all; however, if you hail from one of the warmer parts of the world, or even from Southern California, you may swear that it’s freezing cold (I grew up in So-Cal and still feel like I’m freezing my butt off every winter).
While you probably won’t see snow, chances are likely that you will experience rain in December in San Francisco. December is the city’s wettest month of the year, with up to 8 inches of precipitation.
What are some of your favorite things to do during Christmas in San Francisco? Throw them out in the comments below!
Caroline is a Southern California based traveler, writer, and photographer. She travels all around California, the US, and the world in search of the most colorful places, the most delicious food, and bucket-list adventures. Her aim is to inspire other travelers discover how to add more adventure and joy to their lives. On Pictures & Words, you’ll find detailed guides + itineraries, along with vibrant photos to help you plan the the most epic trips. When she’s not traveling, Caroline also runs half marathons.