Culture + Style

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.

Tree-Lighting Tradition

New York has Rockefeller Center and San Francisco has Union Square, wherecrowds gather on the day after Thanksgiving to see Macy’s Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at Union Square. A tradition for nearly 30 years, the event includes live music, carolers and dance performances, as well as the big moment: turning on an 80-plusfoot reusable Christmas tree lit up with 33,000 low-energy LED lights.

Holidays on Ice

Lace up a pair of skates at the Union Square Ice Rink. Set up in the shadow ofthe 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 intoan enchanted snow globe scene at Christmastime. It’s the perfect setting for theannual Santa Claus Tea, where little princes and princesses can snack on tinysandwiches, stacks of mini cakes and tarts. A highlight is the crown and candyscepter they receive on arrival along with a visit from Santa, who is available forpicture taking and wish-list making.

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

The Nutcracker Tradition

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.

Holiday Carnival

The Embarcadero Center’s office towers outlined in 17,000 white lights are as much apart of the city’s holiday landscape as the Christmas tree in Union Square. Don’tmiss the annual, mid-November Building Lighting Ceremony, followed by a carnival with games, face-painting booths, cookie-decorating stations and fireworks.

Boat Parade of Lights

Line the shoreline between Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge to watch the Holiday Lights & Sights Boat Parade, which features more than than 60 boats with decked hulls. You can get outstanding views from Aquatic Park, the Marina Green and Crissy Field, as well as at water-facing restaurants such as Alioto’s, Greens or McCormick & Kuleto’s.

Fabulous Sounds of the Season

The 300-strong San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has been caroling its way intolocals’ 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.

Camp Classic, Holiday Edition

Claiming to be the world’s longest running musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon is a show so quintessentially San Francisco there’s a street named after it. The ever-changing cast of pop-culture characters dressed in over-the-top hats has lured more than 6 million people to tiny Club Fugazi in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The holiday-themed costumes and shows unfurl from mid-November through the end of the year. Note: You must be 21 to attend, except during Sunday matinees.

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, and the Global Winter Wonderland features a holiday theme park with carnival rides, illuminated displays, ice skating, holiday shopping and international foods.

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.