A Guide to Holiday Fun in San Francisco

San Francisco might not get snow, but it’s still full of winter wonder. This is especially true during the holidays when Christmas trees light up the city and quintessential events set the streets aglow with a style unique to the City by the Bay.

Macy’s Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at Union Square

New York has Rockefeller Center and San Francisco has Union Square, where crowds gather to see the city’s favorite 83-foot reusable Christmas tree lit up with 33,000 low-energy LED lights. Now in its 26th year, the holiday tradition kicks off this year on Friday, November 27, at 6 p.m., beginning with live music, carolers and dance performances. At around 6:40 p.m, the tree lights up Union Square and the spirit of onlookers. 

Outdoor Ice Rinks

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 every day from November 4 to January 18, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. (closes New Year’s Eve at 9:30 p.m.). The Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center, located on Justin Herman Plaza across from the Ferry Building, opens on November 4 and is the largest outdoor rink in San Francisco. Last skate is January 3.

Palace Hotel Santa Claus Tea

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The stunning Palace Hotel, with its glass-domed Garden Court, transforms into an enchanted snow globe scene at Christmastime, a 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. December 7, 14, 21 and 28, 2015, from 2:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. $95 Adults, $65 Children (5-12). Reservations essential.

Holiday Lights & Sights Boat Parade

Line the shoreline between Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge to watch more than 60 boats fete nautical Noel with decked hulls. This year’s colorful event sets sail on December 11 at 5:30 p.m. Spectators will get outstanding views from Aquatic Park, the Marina Green and Crissy Field, as well as at water-facing restaurants such Alioto’s, Greens or McCormick & Kuleto’s.

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus

This sensational group of 300 volunteer members has been caroling its way into San Francisco holiday hearts since 1978. The “HoliGays are Here” show takes place on December 11 and 12 at the Nourse Theater (275 Hayes St.). The chorus will also perform three shows at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.) on Christmas Eve (5 p.m, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.). Tickets $25-$65

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker

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. Seventy-one years later, people of all ages still come to celebrate the season with Clara and her magical friends. Opening night is December 16, with evening and matinee performances running through December 31. From $47 to $275, depending on seat location and day.


Embarcadero Center Building Lighting & Carnival

The Embarcadero Center’s office towers outlined in white lights are as much a part of the city’s holiday landscape as the Christmas tree in Union Square. Don’t miss the 29th Annual Building Lighting Ceremony at 4 p.m. on November 20 followed by a carnival with games, face-painting booths, cookie-decorating stations and fireworks. At 6:00 p.m., the Holiday Ice Rink becomes a stage for a sneak peek at Disney On Ice presents Frozen, sure to be a kid pleaser.

Ghirardelli Square

This historic retail space is home to shops, restaurants and, most notably, America’s oldest continuously operating chocolate manufacturer, Ghirardelli Chocolate, sweetening San Francisco since 1852. See original equipment and tuck into a hot fudge sundae at the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop or pick up some of Ghirardelli's famous candy SQUARES™, a perfect stocking stuffer. The beloved tree-lighting ceremony celebrates its 51st year on November 27 at 5 p.m., and is followed by a Christmas market, live music and a visit from Santa. 
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Roy Cunningham’s Nutcracker Ballet, the best known of all Sacramento Ballet productions, invites everyone to celebrate the holidays with young Clara and her friends as she embarks on her magical journey. The annual production features young, new actors making their first foray into the performing arts, making this production an unforgettable holiday show. The spectacular performance runs December 9-23, 2017.

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The ninth annual Theatre of Lights is a local holiday tradition following Macy’s Tree Lighting ceremony. The holiday event features a live reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and is performed on the balconies above K Street. The production returns on November 22, 2017.  


Global Winter Wonderland - Cal Expo


Returning November 11, 2017, Global Winter Wonderland at the Cal Expo is a sensational multi-cultural, holiday festival in Sacramento, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. The holiday theme park is full of carnival rides and illuminated displays. Spend time ice skating, tasting international food, and holiday shopping. Tickets are $16-$18, or $34 for All Inclusive.

Napa Holiday Light Trolley Tour

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It’s not a one-horse open sleigh, but a motorized trolley replica of an 1890s vintage cable car is Napa’s way of clang-clang-clanging into the holidays. Listen to Christmas carols, sip hot cocoa and “ooh and ahh” at the lights adorning the Victorian homes and buildings of Napa’s historic downtown neighborhood. Tours depart at 6:30 p.m. from the Oxbow Public Market and last about an hour and a half.  Adults, $25; children-under-10, $15. Proceeds benefit Foster Children of Napa County.

Beach Blanket Babylon Holiday Show

This, the world's longest running musical revue, 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 six million people to tiny Club Fugazi in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The holiday-themed costumes and shows unfurl November 18 through the end of December. Guests must be 21 years old to attend, except during Sunday matinees. Tickets $25-$130.

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