My favorite time of year in the San Francisco Bay Area is almost here! The weeks leading up to Christmas in San Francisco are always filled with kid-friendly special events and activities, so it is no surprise that many travelers choose to make their way to my hometown for the holidays.
Whether you are a lucky local like me or just planning a visit to San Francisco’s mild climate to escape the cold back home, here are my top picks for families spending time during December and the holidays in San Francisco.
Last updated: November 17, 2023
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What’s in Store for the Holidays in 2023 in San Francisco?
After several year of cancellations and modifications, the holiday celebrations are truly back in San Francisco in 2023.
One thing that you might notice is that many offerings are being announced earlier than ever. And some of them also sell out earlier than ever! If you want have a few magical outings with your family, you likely need to start making some reservations ASAP.
That said, a lot of venues still don’t release their full holiday lineup all at once. I update this post multiple times each year, so bookmark it and keep checking back. That’s the best way to learn about all any straggler events and additional details for previously-announced activities as they are released.
Since so many events in San Francisco proper were closed in recent years, I added a new section a couple of years ago at the end of this post highlighting family-friendly events all over the greater San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve decided to keep that addition permanently going forward. Many of the events outside the city are amazing and worthy of a visit in their own right, especially for locals who can make time for more than a couple of these offerings in a single season.
Note also that while public health restrictions are gone in San Francisco in winter 2023, a lot of venues have permanently adopted some changes to events like advance reservation requirements. Always check the event website for the latest rules, as they may change throughout the season.
Christmas in San Francisco: 11 Things to Do to Celebrate the Holidays in the City
If you want to stay within the city limits for holiday fun, here are 11 of the best shows, events, celebrations, and outings in San Francisco during the Christmas season suitable for families. While there are plenty of splurges on the list, note that quite a few of these activities are free to view and attend. It’s entirely possible to put together a full day of holiday fun even on a tight budget! (See more free things to do in San Francisco with kids.)
1. Union Square Festivities
Union Square is the center of many of San Francisco’s best holiday decorations and events. Most of the decorations are already up long before Thanksgiving, usually from Veteran’s Day Weekend until New Year’s Eve. This year, the tree will be lit starting November 9, 2023. Note that there is no longer an official tree lighting ceremony to kick off the season like there was in years past.
There is a Chanukah Menorah on display as well, with a lighting ceremony each night of Chanukah from December 7-14, 2023 (details here from the Bill Graham Menorah Project).
Coming back in 2023 after several years off is Union Square’s “Winter Walk.” Two blocks will be completely closed off to cars, creating a turf-covered pedestrian zone for shopping, food trucks, and live entertainment. Winter Walk is tentatively scheduled this year to run from December 15-24, 2023. The whole area has other festive decor as well, including larger-than-life painted ornaments on the Ornament Trail along the cable car line and snowflakes on Maiden Lane.
While you are in Union Square, take your little ones to see Santa at Macy’s. Yes, Santa will be back again in San Francisco in 2023! Reservations are required and open at 6:30am daily starting on November 19 for dates up to five days in advance. Visits are always free with photo packages available for purchase.
Also in Union Square, you can window shop (or just shop) ’til you drop. Always a hit with everyone in the family is the SPCA’s Holiday Window at Macy’s where adoptable pets frolic in adorable holiday scenes. The cute kittens and puppies are back (live and in the fur) in 2023. Animals will be present November 17, 2023–December 31, 2023 on Thursday–Sunday only from noon to 5pm.
2. Ice Skating
Pre-2020, there were usually several places to ice skate in San Francisco to get in the holiday spirit. This year, only one rink has been announced in the city proper – the large rink in Union Square sponsored by Safeway. This year, it’s open from November 1, 2023 until January 15, 2024.
Prices in 2023 are $20 for adults and $15 for children 8 and under for a 60 minute session, with skate rental included. Book tickets online because there will be no ticket booth for in-person sales in 2023. I also highly recommend booking early, as this activity – especially on the weekends – regularly sells out.
Note that the rink near the Ferry Building on Justin Herman Plaza by Embarcadero 4 in the Financial District as well as the T-Mobile Winter Park at Civic Center by City Hall don’t look to be coming back in 2023.
3. Fairmont Gingerbread House
San Francisco hotels really get in the holiday mood each year, and one of the most magnificent hotel holiday displays is at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill. The hotel constructs an enormous two story gingerbread house every year on display in the lobby open for the public to view for free. It’s so big that adults can walk through it. Last year brought a brand new design so even if you’ve seen it in years prior, it is well worth a return trip.
The grand opening for the Fairmont’s gingerbread house is usually on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. The decorations remain until the New Year.
The hotel has a number of holiday packages and offerings to make a staycation or a trip out of it, including a Santa suite experience with a seasonally decorated room, included breakfast, and a number of holiday treats. The hotel also hosts a kid-friendly holiday tea (see #8 below for more details).
4. Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle & Sweet Boutique
Not to be outdone, another of San Francisco’s iconic hotels also goes all out for the holidays. The Westin St. Francis Hotel located right on Union Square always has a number of special holiday offerings!
Returning this year is the Sugar Castle created by the hotel’s Executive Pastry Chef. It usually opens in the hotel’s grand lobby around Thanksgiving with a special open-to-the-public unveiling. This year the event will be held Wednesday, November 22 at 11am. The castle will remain on display daily through January 2, 2024. New this year is an “augmented reality” feature where guests can explore the inside of the castle with the scan of a QR code.
Adjacent to the sugar castle is the Westin St. Francis pop up Sweet Boutique, offering sweet treats for purchase. It will be open on Saturdays and Sundays from November 25 until December 17, from 11am-4pm.
Like the Fairmont, the Westin St. Francis hosts family-friendly holiday events on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kid-friendly holiday tea will held in the Oak Room December 2 and 3, 2023. There are also two special “Dollie + Me” teas offered on December 16 and 17, 2023 as well as a Breakfast with Santa on Saturday and Sunday, December 9 and 10, 2023. (see more on hotel holiday teas in #8 below.)
Finally, for guests looking to have a holiday meal, the hotel features a decadent buffet brunch on both Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. (Check out more favorite Christmas hotels around the country.)
5. Let’s Glow SF
Let’s Glow SF was new to the city in 2021 and is making a return for its third annual showing in 2023. Hosted by the Downtown SF Partnership, Let’s Glow SF is a projection mapping show featuring vibrant holiday artwork illuminated on the facades of several large buildings in the Financial District.
The show launches December 1, 2023 at 6pm on Market Street facing the Ferry Building with Countdown To Glow. This event is free and open to the public with complimentary hot chocolate, s’mores, and other treats and swag. The projections will be lit for the first time at 7pm that evening. The displays will then be visible each evening between December 2-10, 2023 from 5pm to 10pm.
The 2023 building projection sites are:
- One Bush Plaza
- Pacific Stock Exchange at 301 Pine St.
- Landing at Leidesdorff at 565 Commercial St.
- Hobart Building at 582 Market St.
- Ferry Building
- Salesforce Tower
Shows at each building are 5 minutes long and run every 10 minutes. The Downtown SF Partnership’s site has a handy map to help you plan out an efficient route to see them all!
6. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
A performance of the Nutcracker has been a San Francisco ballet tradition since 1944. Performances normally run from mid to late December. This year, the ballet’s performance dates are December 13-30, 2023.
The ballet permits children ages 3 and over to attend but recommends the performances for ages 5+. There are special performances for school groups and one sensory-friendly performances as well.
7. A Christmas Carol
It’s not quite the holiday season without at least a few retellings of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. In 2023, the show is again in its traditional San Francisco home at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.).
The show this year runs in the Toni Rembe Theater theater just off of Union Square from December 6 until December 24, 2023. The theater offers discounted tickets for children 17 and under, making an afternoon or evening out at the theater more affordable than ever for families to attend. My family already has tickets this year for one of the first shows of the 2023 run, and can’t wait to report back on how it looks this year!
8. High Tea for the Holidays
San Francisco may be known for its free-spirited and alternative reputation, but some very historic traditions are alive and well in the City by the Bay — namely afternoon tea. Several of the fanciest San Francisco hotels host tea year round, but the holiday teas are a tradition for many San Francisco families year after year.
Tea with your kids is a pricey outing, but it’s also a truly unique experience that might be well worth it, especially if your children love an excuse to dress up.
Hotels offering teas that welcome families for the holidays include:
- Holiday Tea at the Oak Room at the Westin St. Francis: Available December 2 & 3, 2023 from 1:30-3:30 (reserve on Open Table). The hotel also offers a special “Dollie + Me” tea in conjunction with kit & sis on December 16 & 17 from 12:00pm-2:00pm where children 4+ can bring along their favorite doll.
- Holiday Tea at The Fairmont San Francisco: Tea is served in the hotel’s signature restaurant Laurel Court just off of the lobby’s grand gingerbread house display. The holiday tea is offered Thursdays through Sundays after Thanksgiving and daily in the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s.
- Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz-Carlton: The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, offers a tea with teddy bear gifts for a good cause (some proceeds go to the Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area and kids are also encouraged to bring a toy to donate to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals). Tea is offered in the Ballroom on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00am, 1:00pm, and 4:00pm on November 25 and 26, December 2 and 3, December 9 and 10, and December 18-23, 2023.
- Magical Tea at Top of the Mark in the InterContinental Mark Hopkins: The Top of the Mark has one of the most stunning locations in the city atop the historic InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. This the place for tea with a view! The Magical Tea serves up a number of classic tea dishes as well as plenty of kid-friendly food choices like mac and cheese, sliders, and french fries. Activities like cookie decorating with the chef and balloon art are also included. Magical Teas are offered Saturdays and Sundays in December up until Christmas: November 25 and 26, December 2 and 3, December 9 and 10, December 16 and 17, and December 23, 2023, from 11:00am to 2:00pm.
9. The Ferry Building Becomes the Merry Building!
The Ferry Building on San Francisco’s waterfront transforms into the The Merry Building every holiday season. It’s a popular destination to eat and shop in every season, but it always takes things up a notch as the holidays approach.
The offerings announced are very family-friendly. So far in 2023, they include a Santa visit on December 3 and a large seasonal open house with warm drinks, cookie decorating, and holiday crafts on December 6, 2023.
Look also for special gift pop-up markets featuring local artists as well as a craft station for kids and families every Sunday during late November and early December. There’s even a holiday cookie decorating class for anyone looking to take their Christmas cookies to the next level. Events are listed on the Ferry Building’s website.
10. Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf Holiday Events
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf also have a number of major events during the holiday season. The major attraction is the Holidays at Pier 39 celebration and tree. Details for 2023 are still forthcoming, but last year the Pier featured a nightly show synchronized to holiday music where the tree was lit every half hour from 5 to 10 p.m. The holiday celebrations run November 21, 2023 until January 7, 2024 this season.
Ghirardelli Square down on the other end of the wharf traditionally has celebrations all its own. This year, Santa kicks off the season by lighting the Square on November 24, with additional appearances on December 8 and December 17 for photos next to the Square’s giant tree. The Square is also hosting JCCSF’s Menorah Lighting for Hanukkah on December 10, 2023. Look out as well for outdoor holiday movies in the square, live music, and other activities throughout the season.
Last but certainly not least, the annual Fisherman’s Wharf lighted boat parade in partnership with the St. Francis Yacht Club is always a highlight on the waterfront. It’s usually hosted on a Friday evening in mid-December, and this year is likely to take place on December 15, 2023.
11. Disney’s The Lion King at Broadway SF
BroadwaySF always hosts a family-friendly musical in one of its theaters during the holiday season. In 2023, the North American touring cast of Broadway’s The Lion King is making the City by the Bay its home during the holiday season this year after featuring Frozen last year. The show features all the popular songs from the movie kids (and adults) know and love.
The musical will be shown at the Orpheum Theater on Market Street near Civic Center BART Station. Show dates are November 22 – December 30, 2023. Be aware that although toddlers and preschoolers may love the movie, the live action musical recommends that children be at least 6 years old to attend.
BONUS: 10 More Holiday Events Beyond San Francisco City Limits To Do in 2023
Even though I enjoy a chance to go into the “big city” for special holiday outings, the entire Bay Area has so many special events and activities to celebrate the season. Here are a few of our family’s personal favorites elsewhere in the Bay Area, from Oakland to the South Bay and everywhere in between!
1. Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari
- When: November 10-12, 15-22, 24-26, 29-30, 2023 | December 1-23, 26-31, 2023 | January 1-7, 10-14, 17-21, 24-28, 2024
- Cost: $26 adults, $22 seniors (65-75)/children (2-4), 10% discount for Oakland Zoo members, free for under 2 and 76 and over.
A few years ago, the Oakland Zoo retired its Zoo Lights holiday event and debuted a new night time festival, Glowfari. I was able to visit with my family when the event debuted, and it is truly breathtaking.
Animal shaped lanterns dot the zoo grounds, and guests take a one mile stroll through the sights. The California Trail gondola is open to take in views from above, including some prehistoric additions to the festival. Santa is available for a visit in the area outside the zoo with the amusement park rides on Fridays through Sundays in November and every night December 1-23 from 6:00pm to 9:00pm (line closes at 8:45pm).
Tickets sales open November 1, 2023 at 9:00am. Tickets for later dates are released on a rolling basis 28 days in advance so there are plenty of opportunities to snag a ticket – even as popular as this event is!
2. Fairy Winterland at Children’s Fairyland (Oakland)
- When: December 15 – 17, 20 – 23, & 26 – 30, 2023 (“Thank You Santa” Nights), 4-7 pm
- Cost: $18 per person general admission, $9 per person for Fairyland members
This classic local theme park by Oakland’s Lake Merritt is a favorite any time of year. But during the holidays, it gets decked out in lights and culturally-diverse holiday displays from around the world for Fairy Winterland. Black Santa leads kids in the Festival of Lights Parade. Kids can make ornaments, candles, and chalk art in addition to enjoying Fairyland’s engaging puppet shows and attractions. Complimentary hot cocoa or cider is available to all.
Dated tickets are required. Be sure to book in advance online as the event will likely sell out. Tickets go on sale to members November 2, 2023 at noon and to the general public November 9, 2023 at the same time.
3. Christmas in the Park (San Jose)
- When: November 29, 2023 – January 1, 2024 with time slots from 5:00-10:30pm (drive through experience), walk through event November 24, 2023 – January 1, 2023 from 12:00pm-10:00pm
- Cost: $30-35 per car for drive through experience, free walk through event
This holiday light display has been a tradition in the South Bay for many decades. This year, Christmas in the Park is again having two celebrations – the traditional free event in downtown San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park and a drive through lights experience.
The downtown event has live performances from community groups, a decorated tree forest, and Santa visits. The drive through experience has thousands of lights set to music and will be held in 2023 in San Jose’s History Park.
4. Christmas Tree Lane (Alameda)
- When: Early December TBD – approximately December 31, 2023, usually evenings 5:00-10:00pm
- Cost: Free (but donations are welcome to help cover the street’s electricity costs).
A residential street in the little East Bay town of Alameda that I call home is a holiday attraction that draws in guests from around Northern California. Houses are decked in thousands of lights, most with a unique theme, from Nightmare Before Christmas to Peanuts and more.
Visitors can slowly drive the street for a quick visit or park in surrounding blocks (if you can find parking!) and take stroll by each house instead. Enterprising local organizations often sell goodies and warm drinks for good causes on weekends. Exact details will be posted closer to time on the street’s Facebook page.
5. Niles Canyon Train of Lights (Fremont/Sunol)
- When: Select dates November 17-December 29, 2023
- Cost: $35 per person (ages 3+)
The only full scale historic railroad in the Bay Area has a magnificent holiday train ride offered each winter season. The Niles Canyon Train of Lights is a 1.5 hour journey from the East Bay towns of Fremont or Sunol with Santa sightings, hot cocoa, and seasonal decor.
This is a popular holiday tradition with Bay Area families. Weekend dates sell out almost instantaneously when tickets are released each fall (usually in early October), so plan ahead!
6. WinterFest at California’s Great America (Santa Clara)
- When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays November 24, 2023 – December 31, 2023 plus some weekdays near Christmas.
- Cost: As low as $32.99 if purchased in advance online
The largest theme park in the Bay Area hosts this evening holiday party many nights between Thanksgiving and the New Year. WinterFest at California’s Great America combines holiday lights, live performances, characters, seasonal snacks, an ice rink, and plenty of regular theme park rides. As far as regional theme park celebrations go, this one is top notch and well worth your money.
7. North Pole Nights at Gilroy Gardens (Gilroy)
- When: Select nights November 24, 2023 – December 30, 2023.
- Cost: $50-55
Gilroy Gardens – another theme park south of San Jose that caters to younger kids – has holiday lights and a seasonal event all its own every winter. The holiday fun is back in 2023 with a brand new celebration called North Pole Nights, and the offerings are pretty robust for a smaller theme park.
In 2023, the entire park will be transformed to become the North Pole. The park will also offer a new musical show, and numerous characters including Santa and Mrs. Claus are available for meet and greets. There’s also an ice skating under the stars (for an additional fee), sparkling light displays, and lots of seasonal food offerings.
Holiday tickets are flexible and good for entry any day of the holiday schedule, with the exception of opening weekend discount tickets.
8. Snowland at Great Wolf Lodge (Manteca)
- When: November 24, 2032 – January 8, 2024
- Cost: Included in an overnight hotel booking, day passes ($40-$150 per person) also available on select dates
While Great Wolf Lodge is a family entertainment destination a lot of American families already know and love, it’s still pretty new to the Bay Area and not on the radar of a lot of local families just yet. But the holidays are a great time for a first visit, as Great Wolf Lodge’s Northern California location in Manteca is jumping in on the holiday fun with a Snowland event again this year. Our family went last year for a stay just before Thanksgiving and really had a blast.
The hotel is decked out in holiday decor and the event includes visits with Santa (check for availability), seasonal arts & crafts, a “Frosty Fest” family dance party, and more.
9. Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party (Daly City)
- When: Saturdays and Sundays (+ Friday after Thanksgiving) from November 18 through December 17, 2023
- Cost: $18-45 for admission to the fair ($20 parking)
If it’s not quite enough to see A Christmas Carol each holiday season, you can actually live it at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Held in Daly City’s Cow Palace, this event celebrates Victorian Christmas traditions with performances, shops, and food and drink. And of course, guests can see many of their favorite period characters in costume.
Tickets are only sold online in advance to the fair itself and do sell out, so plan a visit in advance.
10. IlluminOdyssey at CuriOdyssey (San Mateo)
- When: November 10, 2023-January 28, 2024 (Tuesday – Sundays 10am-5pm). Also open First Firday Nights until 8:00pm (November 4, December 2, January 6)
- Cost: $21.95 child/senior 62+, $24.95 adult
CuriOdyssey is a beloved outdoor science museum and zoo near the San Francisco Airport. During the holiday season, the museum offers a winter light experience that is as beautiful as it is educational. The exhibition focuses on the science and characteristics of light. The light creations are interactive and meant to be touched so kids can really explore them with all of their senses.
Bonus that this is one seasonal activity that is open on many weekdays when many of the rest of them are only offered on already jam-packed weekends in December!
Do you have any San Francisco or Bay Area kid-friendly traditions in your family? Share your recommendations in the comments.
For more holiday decorations and events on the West Coast, don’t miss Stuffed Suitcases’s guide to the 10 best Christmas towns on the West Coast.
Disclosure: I have attended a few of the events listed over the years as a hosted guest, including The Westin St. Francis holiday tea, Ritz-Carlton Teddy Bear Tea, WinterFest, and the Safeway ice rink. All opinions are my own.