I’ve been hunting down the best places to spend Christmas in California for YEARS. As a former Wisconsinite, Christmas to me has always meant white snow, cold nights cuddling up by the fireplace in sweaters and tons of lights. Like, I want to see holiday lights covered on every surface for those hygge vibes!!!
After moving to San Francisco 6 years ago, where it’s a mild 60-70 degrees year-round, my husband and I have started seeking out Christmas vacations each holiday season to find that magic we grew up with. If you’re looking for a California Christmas, keep reading for my personal favorite cities to travel during December to soak up all the holiday magic!
Top Places To Spend Christmas In California For A Magical Holiday Getaway
Disclaimer: I’m a total Christmas betch. You know, someone who gets VERY excited about light displays, holiday music, ugly matching sweaters, pine-scented candles – the whole shebang. I totally insist on watching Christmas movies every night in December. THIS IS MY MOMENT each year to shine! Basically, I’m saying, you came to the right place as I’ve made it my personal mission to hunt down all the best Christmas places in California for you.
Christmas in California Weather (Aka What Christmas Is Like In California?)
Here’s the thing: California is a HUGE ass state. I really can’t stress that enough. It can take over 13 hours to drive from the North to the South. So, if you have a car with 4WD and don’t mind a long road trip, you can totally seek out snow in California in the mountains for that classic Christmas if you want.
Or, if you’re on the hunt for a warm Christmas with sunshine, palm trees and beach days, you can drive there, too. We have the best of both worlds here to quench whatever “Christmas” means to you! So – what’s the weather like? It’ll totally vary and you’ll need to pack accordingly based on your destination.
Best Places To Spend Christmas In Northern California
Because the state is so large I’ve broken down the best places in California at Christmas via region (North and South) so you can get your Christmas on close to home!
Nevada City Victorian Christmas Fair
Nevada City is the ultimate Christmas town in California and should be on every Christmas- lover’s bucket list. Nevada City is an actual real-life Victorian City. This area was once part of the Gold Rush scene and the city locals keen on preserving that history. So – the entire downtown area registered as a National Historic Place, which means the buildings are all authentic 1800’s buildings. And super Christmasy!
Their annual Victorian Fair happens every Wednesday and Sunday in the month of December. It’s like a cross between the Dickens Fair in San Francisco and a traditional German Christmas Market – think people dressed up in old-timey costumes, mulled wine, craft booths, music and of course, Santa walking around.
It’s a whole party and makes for a super fun Christmas-filled day in the mountains! Check the weather before heading up since it can get cold (aka bring a jacket and gloves!) I recommend you book a night at the National Hotel in downtown Nevada City to be in the heart of the action.
San Francisco Christmas Lights
If you can’t get away from work for a weekend trip, don’t fret! There are actually a lot of super fun San Francisco Christmas activities you can take advantage of! (Or, partake if you are visiting during the month of December!) One of my favorite things to do is Union Square Ice Skating around a giant Christmas Tree. It’s the West Coast version of ice skating around Rockefeller Square.
Make sure to buy tickets online ahead of time to avoid wait times. I recommend grabbing an hour slot at dusk, so you start the ice skating in sunset light and then get to watch the holiday lights in the square slowly turn on and twinkle. SO MAGICAL. After, you can take a romantic stroll around Maiden Lane (where we shot our engagement photos) or head to the Cheesecake Factory at the top of Macy’s. No, I normally don’t recommend my readers head to national chains BUT this one has outdoor seating overlooking Union Square so it’s a fun spot to grab a post-ice skating drink!
You can also head to the annual Charles Dickens Fair (a Christmas village in California!) This fair takes place in the Cow Palace and is a fantastic fair to visit if you can’t make it up to Nevada City. It’s like a live-action Victorian play happening around you – so fun!
Lastly – spend a night hunting down all the houses that decorate for Christmas! From Tom & Jerry’s house (it’s famous) to a Tunnel Light street to a Christmas swing, there are tons of amazing hidden gems here. Who needs snow when you have lights?!
Lake Tahoe (North & South)
Lake Tahoe is that classic winter Christmas getaway to snow, cold weather and all the traditional snowy mountain vibes. I don’t ski but there are tons fun Lake Tahoe winter activities to do that don’t require hitting the slopes – and during December this area goes all out!
All the ski villages have their own Christmas activities (like horse-drawn sleighs, ice skating, Santa, etc) Many of the larger hotels, like the Hyatt, will also have tons of decor and a few Holiday activities for guests. Though for Christmas, I’m always partial to renting one of these cute Lake Tahoe vacation rentals to cuddle up with my husband in and binge-watch the Christmas Prince after a day of winter hiking.
Pro tip: During your December visit, make sure to take the gondola up a mountain at Squaw Valley Ski Village – the views are amazing and you don’t have to ski down if you don’t want to! Instead, grab lunch up top and have an epic picnic.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is my favorite national park in the entire United States. No matter the season it’s always a magical escape – there’s something so powerful that happens when you drive under El Captian for the first time, you feel so small. While most people come during the summer, Yosemite in the fall and early winter (November – December) are actually some of my favorite months to visit!
That’s because the crowds are gone and you get all the Christmas winter magic (before the heavy mountain snowfall sets in!) I recommend you book a few nights at Tenaya Lodge, a cute hotel near the South Entrance that goes all out for Christmas. Think a giant tree in the lobby, ice skating under tons of Christmas lights, festive cocktails and more. Inside the park, you can attend the annual Christmas Bracebridge Dinner after a long day of winter hiking!
Carmel-by-the-sea is the ultimate fairy tale village in California. Seriously – house numbers aren’t allowed here and the buildings look like they were plucked from an Engish children’s book. And, since it’s a charming village, they hang tons of pretty Christmas lights and shop goes all out with festive store windows.
I love coming here on day trips from San Francisco or on a stop on my way to Big Sur. The main street is so fun to wander and pop into stores. Come down for the day, shop, soak up coastal Christmas vibes, grab dinner and then a sunset on the beach (they have some of the best in the state!)
Mendocino and Fort Bragg are two of my favorite cities in California. I really can’t accurately describe the pure beauty of the Mendocino Coast or the instant relaxing feeling you get during a visit. There’s no snow here, but the town does have decorations and some festive things (like the Mendocino Christmas at the Ford House, or Holiday Shunk Train rides!) along with the downtown area decorating.
Most of the luxury hotels up here will go all out for Christmas, and that’s where the real magic happens. Curl up next to a Christmas Tree with some local Anderson Valley wine while reading a book or enjoying a fresh seafood dinner. UG take me there now! It may be warm enough that you can even go glamping if luxury hotels are out of your budget, but I do recommend treating yourself to a few nights at the Inn at Newport Ranch.
Best Places To Spend Christmas In Central & Southern California.
Oh hey you warm weather lovers! While I also gravitate towards cold (or cool) Christmas vibes, I have plenty of friends who have the tradition of taking beach or desert Christmas vacations. These are the top warm-weather places to spend Christmas in Southern California!
Outside Santa Barbara is this adorable little Danish-style town full of wineries, cute shops, restaurants, charming hotels and – one of the best holiday events in the state. This whole city goes all out in December with Danish-themed festivities. Think light shows, parades, candlelit tours, Santa, caroling and all that North Pole magic you want without the North Pole temperatures.
If you’re looking where to spend Christmas in California that’s warm AND has been named of the best Christmas towns in California (well, America actually!) Solvang is your spot!
What is better than the happiest place on earth? The happiest place on earth during the Christmas season! Disneyland Resort takes the cake when it comes to Christmas Festivities so I asked my Disney-expert friend to write this next section of tips.
First off, the decorations at Disney during Christmas is just magical! As you walk down Main Street USA you can see all the shops are decorated with garlands, flowers, lights and ornaments that shine with pixie dust. With the park decked out in Christmas decor, the Instragramable spots are endless. Definitely take a picture of the classic Sleeping Beauty Castle covered in snow or the giant Christmas Tree as you enter Main Street.
One of my favorite things that Disneyland does during Christmas time is seeing the Haunted Mansion get Christmas-fied with “Haunted Mansion Holiday” Basically transforming the Haunted Mansion into a “ Nightmare Before Christmas” Attraction. Seeing all your favorite characters like Jack Skellingtion and Sally to the villainous Oogie Boogie as they try to get Sandy Claws.
Disneyland is known for its parades and fireworks, and you best believe their Christmas parade and fireworks are ones you don’t want to miss! The “A Christmas Fantasy Parade” is filled with lots of classic Disney Characters like the fab 5 (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto). The “Believe… in Holiday Magic! Fireworks” plays all the classic holiday songs with some Disney classic ones as well which you watch the fireworks shoot into the sky above the castle.
¡Viva Navidad! celebrates and showcases the Latinx holiday culture. You get to see performances from Donald Duck and The Three Caballeros and with Miguel from Coco singing “Remember Me” with amazing Folklorico and samba dancers. Another great thing about the holiday season at the Disneyland Resort is the food! You definitely want to check out at Disney’s California Adventure for the Festival of Holidays. It’s their Christmas-themed Food & Wine Festival.
Lastly, stop by the Grand Californian Hotel. The Grand Californian gets the most decorations out of all the hotels. With its cozy cabin vibes you will want to sit by the fireplace with some hot cocoa all day.
Palm Springs may be the ultimate town in California to just have an uber chill Christmas vacation. I recommend you book a cute Airbnb with a pool (like this one of these stylish homes!) so you and your crew can blast holiday music poolside with Christmas cocktails all afternoon.
At night head over to Candy Cane Lane (also sometimes called Christmas Tree Lane) over on Minerva Street in Cathedral City. All the residents decorate their houses and lawns with tons of light and decor. Or, head to the annual WildLights show complete with music, light shows and Santa!
Newport Beach is famous for it’s annual Christmas Boat Parade. The whole harbor lights up with over 50 boats decked out in holiday lights! If you’re in the Los Angeles area and looking for a fun Christmas activity with the family (or if you’re a kid a heart!) this is the ultimate event. You can even book a cruise to get up close and personal with the boats! (I hear San Diego has Christmas boats with lights too if you prefer the chill vibes of San Diego area instead!)
On top of the boat parade in Newport Beach, Fashion Island always puts up a GIANT Christmas Tree, and you can catch plays like the Nutcracker in nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center. Newport Beach is another city where it’s best to book a chic private house so you can spread out, blast that music and get into the holiday spirit together. This Airbnb is so dang cute!
I hope this helps you find the perfect place to spend Christmas in California for you and your family or friends! I’m always adding to this list as I discover new, whimsical towns to visit for the holidays. If you have a favorite spot that didn’t make the list, please drop a comment below since I’ll want to visit next year!!
Got questions? You can drop a comment or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll try to help! Happy holidays you Christmas betches you.