san francisco holidays

Join in the holiday fun in San Francisco. (Photo: Shutterstock)

San Francisco

Ding, Ding, Ding Went the Sleigh Bells: A Holiday Guide to San Francisco and Beyond

San Francisco and the surrounding region might not get much snow, but they’re still full of winter wonder. This is especially true during the holidays when Christmas trees light up the city and annual events set streets aglow with their own unique take on the season.

Winter Walk at Union Square

Experience the return of a holiday tradition: the Union Square Winter Walk. For 10 days in December, two blocks of Stockton Street are blocked off and open only to pedestrians. Enjoy the holiday cheer as you wander through food trucks and bar gardens and participate in fun activities. This event is free to the public and family-friendly, so feel free to take your whole crew.

Holidays on Ice

Lace up a pair of skates at the Union Square Ice Rink. Set up in the shadow of the famous Christmas tree, this local favorite is open daily from early November through New Year’s Even. You can also try out your spins at the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center, located on Justin Herman Plaza across from the Ferry Building. Considered the largest outdoor rink in San Francisco, it’s open seasonally from early November through early January.

Tea with Santa

The stunning Palace Hotel, with its glass-domed Garden Court, transforms into an enchanted snow globe scene at Christmastime. It’s the perfect setting for the annual Santa Claus Tea, where little princes and princesses can snack on tiny sandwiches, stacks of mini cakes and tarts. A highlight is the crown and candy scepter they receive on arrival along with a visit from Santa, who is available for picture taking and wish-list making.

Artisan Open Studios

Watch local creatives at work. (Photo: Getty Images)

More than 100 artists and craftspeople open their workshop doors during the Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios, an experience that runs on weekends starting after Thanksgiving and ending the weekend before Christmas.

Shop for blown glass, ceramics, sculpture, ornaments, jewelry, photography — really, any gift idea imaginable — via a self-guided tour (maps are available online and in the free newspaper East Bay Express).

Feel like getting your hands dirty? Some studios offer workshops.

Visit Victorian London (Kind of)

Weekends from Thanksgiving through Christmas, step into Victorian London at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party in Daly City, featuring hundreds of costumed fictional and historical characters.

Visitors will feel like they’re walking through a larger-than-life Dickensian village as they stroll festively decorated lanes complete with roasted chestnuts, street vendors, live music and dozens of apothecaries, parlors and emporiums overflowing with artisan-made gifts.

Glowfari at the Zoo

The Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari event is one of the best places in the Bay Area to see seasonal lights. Fun for the whole family awaits — adults and kids alike will enjoy the huge colorful lanterns shaped like different animal species.

Throughout December, you can meet Santa every evening from 6 to 9 p.m. Or grab dinner at the Landing Café, where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the bay.

The Nutcracker Tradition

san francisco holidays
Plan a night at the Nutcracker ballet. (Photo: Shutterstock)

On Christmas Eve, 1944, the American premiere of The Nutcracker dazzled audiences at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, and an instant holiday tradition was born. Many decades later, the San Francisco Ballet continues to invite people of all ages to come to celebrate the season with Clara and her magical friends.

Fabulous Sounds of the Season

The 300-strong San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has been caroling its way into locals’ holiday hearts since 1978. The ensemble will perform several times during the season, culminating in an annual appearance at the iconic Castro Theatre.

san francisco holidays
Indulge in holiday sweets. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Sweet Festivities

At Ghirardelli Square, you can ring in the season with a more than 50-year tradition: a tree-lighting ceremony in late November, followed by a Christmas market, live music and a visit from Santa. The space is home to shops, restaurants and, most notably, America’s oldest continuously operating chocolate manufacturer, Ghirardelli Chocolate, which dates to 1852.

A Capital Holiday

In California’s capital city of Sacramento, Macy’s Theatre of Lights is a local tradition that kicks off after the annual tree lighting and features a live reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Meanwhile, Sacramento Ballet offers its own version of “The Nutcracker.You also won’t want to miss Imaginarium 360, the city’s largest holiday light festival.

Napa By Trolley

On the Napa Holiday Light Trolley Tour, you can clang-clang-clang in the season on a motorized replica of an 1890’s cable car—all for a good cause: Proceeds for the experience benefit Foster Children of Napa County. You will get to hear Christmas carols, sip hot cocoa and admire the lights adorning the Victorian homes and buildings of Napa’s historic downtown.