The San Francisco Christmas season is one of my favorite times of year in the city. As a local, I love how festive people decorate their Victorians, ice skating in Union Square, going to holiday shows and pop-up bars, and best of all – how peaceful the city is this time of year.
If you also love Christmas, this post if for you. Get ready for all my favorite things to do for Christmas in San Francisco – the best pop-up bars, holiday shows, where to see Christmas lights, and more!
Christmas in California is never people’s first idea of the holidays — New York City and places like Berlin’s Christmas Markets always overshadow, but I love staying close to home this time of year. And thankfully, there’s so many hidden holiday gems and events to stay busy with.
I moved to San Francisco in 2014 and after almost 10 years of living here, I’m so excited to share with you all my vetted holiday season activities in the Bay Area!
What Is The Weather Like In San Francisco Bay Area In December?
First, what’s the weather like here furin the holiday season? San Francisco Christmas weather is usually wonderful, in my opinion. It’s usually 70 degrees and sunny on Christmas day here, but expect it to feel like a cool 70 degrees (aka, wear that ugly Christmas sweater!)
December can also bring rain (but never snow!) I remember the first year we moved here, I had a temp job near Oracle Park and had to wade through 3 feet of water to get to the office since the streets flooded. Basically, if you are visiting from out of state, keep an eye on the weather and maybe pack an umbrella.
All The Best San Francisco Christmas Activities
Now, onto the fun holiday things for Christmas in San Francisco 2023!
1. San Francisco Christmas Lights Hunting
Self guided holiday lights tours with my friends are my literal favorite thing to do during the holidays. So many Victorian homeowners take a lot of pride in decorating for Christmas and have huge, elaborate scenes set up that are free for the public to enjoy.
There are some classic houses that always have something going on in December, but there’s also always surprises and new light displays to hunt down each year. I usually set aside a couple nights each year to drive around the city until I find a light display outside a house.
I have a guide on all my favorite San Francisco Christmas Lights you can check out for my full list, but here are my favorite houses:
- 68 Castro Street House: Looks like the North Pole threw up on it, in all the best ways
- Castro Rainbow Tree: Best viewed in the daytime, actually!
- 45 Upper Terrace House: They also do Halloween, Valentine’s Day and St Patty’s Day decor. It’s awesome!
2. Union Square Ice Skating
Heading down to see the Union Square Christmas Tree and ice skating around it is always my favorite! I told my husband, I wanted to ice skate, hold hands and have hot chocolate.
There’s a little bakery on Union Square so I recommend you grab hot chocolate and cookies either before or after your skate time. I prefer the time slot that’s around sunset, I think dusk is the most magical time of day (plus the rink will be slightly less busy during this session.)
Pro tip: get tickets online so you don’t have to scan the mobile code at the ice rink and risk no more tickets being left. It opens in November and goes until Jan, but December is always the busiest!
3. Alamo Drafthouse Holiday Movie Parties
This year I grabbed my bestie and we went to see Elf at the Alama Drafthouse for one of their holiday parties and it was SO MUCH FUN! What’s special about Alamo Drafthouses is you can order food to your seat.
They have everything from cocktails, wine, beer, popcorn and really, really good food. There’s something extra fun about watching Elf with a bunch of people, all screaming lines out and laughing together. It’s going to be my new San Francisco Christmas tradition!
4. Entwined In Golden Gate Park
These San Francisco Christmas Trees are unique and so special! What started as a one-time only pop-up in 2020, now Illuminate SF comes back every year to Golden Gate Park with Entwined.
I’ve never seen anything like this light show. They install tons of towering trees that glow different colors in a grove, so it feels like you are wandering around a magical world. Best part – it’s totally free to attend!
5. Holiday High Tea
Look, I’m a Christmas Betch and there’s nothing more fun than grabbing Holiday High Tea (dawning cute dresses and probably a few bad British accents). Here’s the best places for Christmas tea in the city:
- Fairmont Hotel: Have tea in Laurel Court’s sophisticated charm over pots of fine loose-leaf tea , house-made scones, tea sandwiches, pastries and sweets. After make sure to check out their two-story gingerbread house, another famous Christmas in SF stop!
- Palace Hotel: The most famous high tea is probably the Palace Hotel in their beautiful and large garden court.
- The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus: I’ve been here with the girls and I love this tea since you can order champagne, too! It’s right off Union Square, so do those back to back.
6. San Francisco Christmas Pop-Up Bars
I’m such a sucker for Christmas pop-up bars and the San Francisco Bay Area always has so many good ones!! Some get all dressed up with tinsel and lights, other have special holiday meals or cocktails, and some even have cool events.
I always aim to visit a few – the best ones are below:
- Sippin’ Santa at Kona’s Street Market: Sippin’ Santa is my favorite Christmas Bar pop-up company. It’s like Tiki meets the North Pole!
- Miracle Pop Up Bar at PCH: Mircale is the other big Christmas bar company, and their bars always go all out with decor and good drinks! Note: they only have one mocktail option here, the others do a better job at non-alcoholic drinks.
- Deck the Halls Bar: Complete with a fireplace and stockings! They also have good mocktail options.
7. Fisherman’s Wharf Boat Parade
Every year, the St. Francis Yacht Club puts also on a Lighted Boat Parade around Fisherman Wharfs Pier 39, up to the Marina Green and back. This is usually around December 15th.
Make sure to grab some hot chocolate at Ghirardelli Square beforehand!
8. Holiday Sights at Night City Trolley Tour
What’s cuter than a San Francisco cable car? A Cable Car all dressed up in holiday decor and one that takes you around to all the best light displays in the city!! Book tickets for a trolley tour here.
9. The Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet
Experience the magical winter wonderland of toy soldiers, King of the Mice, Sugar Plum Fairy, and so much more via The Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House! The San Francisco Ballet is world-class and attracts top-tier talent, so this is always the best Christmas show to catch in the city.
10. A Christmas Carol
Every year the American Conservatory Theather (aka ACT) puts on A Christmas Carol and it’s a long-standing tradition for the Bay Area. They will be changing up the script in 2024, so 2023 is the last year to see the current version.
11. Macy’s Window Display
Get ready for the cutest dang thing in the entire city each Christmas: the Macy’s Christmas Window! They partner with SPCA to showcase puppies and kittens that are up for adoption. It’s like that song “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” come to life.
You can also watch their puppy and kitten cams online if you can’t make it down. LOVE.
12. San Francisco Dickens Christmas Fair
Who else loves a good costume moment? Every year at Cow Palace, the Dickens Christmas Fair happens and is the biggest old timey holiday party of the year. It’s a is a one-of-a-kind immersive adventure into Victorian London, where actors dress up and wander around sets that make you feel like you stepped back in time.
There’s hops, pubs, music halls, shows and way more. Set aside a whole day for this.
13. Conservatory Of Flowers Night Bloom
The Conservatory of Flowers Holiday Night Bloom is a new event but one that’s quickly grown popular. The Conservatory transforms their botanical gardens with lights and colorful displays to help transport guests into a magical tropical holiday paradise.
14. Christmas Drag Shows
I guarantee you that all of your favorite local drag performers will be doing something fun for Christmas and all the best drag bars and venues will be putting on some fantastic shows.
Top spots to check the event calendar for are:
- Diva Royale
- 620 Jones
- Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
15. Civic Center Christmas
A huge 50 foot Christmas tree it plopped outside City Hall and is even bigger than the Union Square tree! This special tree lighting ceremony usually kicks off Christmas events in San Francisco each year.
City Hall also always projects creative light displays on the side of the dome that can be seen for blocks away to really get you in the holiday spirt.
16. The Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle
Come see grand circular towers, 30 rooms, and 12 feet of detail at the Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle. It’s a giant chateau replica in the lobby that is free to visit for the public and always so dang impressive.
17. Santa Con
I’ll be honest – my 30-something year old self feels too old for Santa Con now, but if you are looking for a day of day drinking with friend while everyone dresses up as Santa, than this event is for you!
It’s usually the first or second weekend of December. Bars all around the city take part in the con and you can bar hop all day. It kicks off in Union Square around Noon – you can find more details on their website.
18. Clancy’s Christmas Tree Farm
I grew up in Wisconsin and we would always go to a Chrismas Tree farm to cut down a real tree and bring it home. While you can’t find that within San Francisco, Clancy’s Christmas Tree Farm is pretty dang close.
I love this lot. We go every year to pick up garland for decor. The first year in San Francisco we bought a real tree here (now we use this faux one) but Clancy’s have amazing trees of all types and sizes.
19. Grace Cathedral Christmas Eve Service
Grace Cathedral is beautiful. To me, it looks like Paris’ Notre Dame. They’re famous for their Christmas Eve services and Midnight Mass, along with Christmas Day service. If church is your thing, you have to check this out.
20. San Francisco Symphony
Charlie Brown Christmas is a classic, but imagine watching it on the big screen with live classical music to accompany it?! The San Francisco Symphony is famous for putting on special movie screenings, like Harry Potter, Charlie Brown and Home Alone.
21. Après-ski Igloo
In 2023, the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel started a new Après-ski Winter Chalet experience in an igloo dome. Bring your friends or date to the igloo, but come hungry since you’ll be feasting on cheese fondue, chocolate fondue, bread, roasted veggies, meats, fruits and desserts.
This is such a fun, unique Christmas activity in San Francisco that’s different from holiday tea or a pop-up bar. I recommend grabbing a night-time reservation when all the igloo’s lights are glowing!
Top Bay Area Christmas Activities
Outside San Francisco are tons of cool Bay Area Christmas things to do! Here’s some tip activities.
Mountain View City Hall Plaza German Christmas Market
Sadly there is now San Francisco Christmas Market (at least not a proper German one, I think they totally should put one in Fort Mason) but if you are willing to head down to Mountain View, you can find a German Christmas Market there!
San Jose Bar Crawl
I just got back from a fun San Jose Christmas Bar crawl with friends! There’s a few fun downtown San Jose Holiday Pop-up Bars that are worth the trip down. Start at Paper Planes, a Mircale bar, then across the street to bar 55, a Sippin Santa spot that all the fun tiki vibes you want.
Then, end it all at Minibar, an arcade bar that goes all out for Christmas. Just don’t forget to bring quarters!
San Jose Holiday Brew Bikes
Beer + bikes + Willow Glen’s famous holiday lights?! Heck yes! Holiday Brew Bikes are so much fun – my friends did one last year and they had a blast drinking and touring around all the best Christmas Lights San Francisco Bay Area has to offer.
Pelican Inn Christmas
Pelican Inn is the most unique Northern California hotel for Christmas – it’s built like a 16th century English inn! When London is too far away, head here to Marin County instead.
They have special Christmas Eve dinners. My husband and I are going this year, I’ll update you on how it goes but I am SO excited!
Napa Valley Merry Merry
If you’re visiting Napa Valley during this time of year, you simply must stop by the Meritage Resort and Spa “Merry Meritage ” festivities! They transform the courtyard with an ice skating rink, massive Christmas tree, fire pits, igloo domes, a food truck, they even pipe in fake snow for all the cozy holiday vibes. It’s open to the public, too!
Oakland Zoo Glowfari
Every year the Oakland Zoo puts tons of larger-than-life animal lanterns throughout the Zoo to turn it into glowing safarai. Aka “Glowfar”. It’s so much fun, especially for kids!
What To Do In San Francisco Christmas Day
Most Christmas activities in San Francisco will be done by the time it’s Christmas Day but there are still plenty of fun things to do on December 25th.
- Chinatown: The oldest Chinatown in the USA will have plenty of things open.
- Ice Skate Rink: Union Square’s rink will be open on the 25th for sessions!
- Take a long walk: my favorite thing to do with visitors is take a long walk around the city. Start at Market, go past Union Square, up through Chinatown, North Beach and down to Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also head to Marshall’s Beach for a hike with Golden Gate Bridge views.
- Picnic: Park Picnic culture is sacred here in SF, and December days can bring 70 degree weather and sun. Bring wine, snacks and a blanket and head to a park on Christmas Day!
- Boat Tours: Select companies down at Fisherman’s Wharf will have scenic boat tours available.
I hope this helps you plan a fantastic trip to the Bay Area, or helps you plan things to do in San Francisco for Christmas with your family if you’re local.
I adore my city during the holidays and I hope you have fun, too! I’m sure I missed fun events and pop-up bars, there’s always something new happening, so if you know of something please drop the details in the comments below!!