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: December 22, 2022.
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What’s in Store for the Holidays in 2022 in San Francisco?
While 2020 brought cancellations and closures galore, some of the city’s holiday celebrations, events, shows, and gatherings were back in 2021. The year 2022 promises many more returning events – and in much more of a return to normal format. Thank goodness!
A lot of venues 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.
While nearly all public health restrictions are gone in San Francisco in winter 2022, a lot of venues have permanently adopted some changes to these 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 so it’s 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. While most of the decorations are already up long before Thanksgiving, the season really gets underway with the Union Square Macy’s Great Tree Lighting that traditionally takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The official tree lighting ceremony actually happened early and incognito this year without a public date being announced. But guests can see the tree in all its glory from November 9 through December 31, 2022. There is a Chanukah Menorah on display as well, with a lighting ceremony each night of Chanukah from December 18-25, 2022 (details here from the Bill Graham Menorah Project).
Brand new in 2022 is Union Square’s “Winter Wanderland Holiday Market.” The plan is to transform Hallidie Plaza (near the Powell Street BART station) into an area with vibrant Christmas markets similar to those found in many major European cities. Vendors on the plaza will sell local handmade gifts and holiday tree decorations with lots of treats and drinks for purchase as well. Winter Wanderland runs from November 25-December 24, 2022.
While you are in Union Square, take your little ones to see Santa at Macy’s. Yes, Santa is back again in 2022! Reservations will be required and plans are for Santa to remain a little distanced behind a desk. Visits are always free with photos 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. In 2021, the windows showed screens of the animals but the cute kittens and puppies are back (live and in the fur) in 2022. Animals will be present November 18, 2022–January 1, 2023 on Thursday–Sunday only.
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 2, 2022 until January 16, 2023.
Prices in 2022 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 2022. 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 2022.
3. Fairmont Gingerbread House
San Francisco hotels really get in the holiday mood as well, 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. In 2022, a brand new design is planned so even if you’ve seen it before, it will be well worth a return trip!
The grand opening this year for the Fairmont’s gingerbread house is usually on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. This year, look for the spectacle to start Saturday, November 26, at 11:00am.
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, all of which are making a full return in 2022! (Check out more favorite Christmas hotels around the country.)
Returning this year after several years off is the Sugar Castle created by the hotel’s Executive Pastry Chef. It opens in the hotel’s grand lobby on November 23, 2022 at 11:00am with a special open-to-the-public unveiling with complimentary hot chocolate treats. It will be visible daily until January 2, 2023.
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 26 to December 18, 2022 from 11:00am-4:00pm.
Like the Fairmont, the Westin St. Francis hosts a family-friendly holiday tea on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are two special “Dollie and Me” teas offered on December 17 and 18, 2022 as well as a Breakfast with Santa December 10, 2022.
5. Let’s Glow SF
Let’s Glow SF was new in 2021 to the city and is making a return in 2022. Let’s Glow SF is a projection mapping light display show appearing on the facades of four large buildings in the Financial District. The displays will be visible each evening between December 2-11, 2022 from 5pm to 10pm featuring vibrant holiday artwork. The 2022 “Countdown to Glow” switch-on celebration is scheduled to take place at 525 Market Street at 6:30pm on December 2, 2022.
Look for displays on the following buildings:
- One Bush Plaza
- Pacific Stock Exchange at 301 Pine St.
- Station J at 222 Leidesdorff St.
- Hobart building at 582 Market St.
Shows at each building are 5 minutes long and run every 10 minutes.
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 8-27, 2022. The ballet permits children ages 3 and over to attend but recommends the performances for ages 5+.
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 2022, the show returns to 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 November 30 until December 24, 2022. New in 2022 are discounted tickets for children 17 and under, making an afternoon or evening out at the theater more affordable than ever for families to attend.
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 10, 11, 17, & 18, 2022 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 17 & 18 from 12:00pm-2:00pm where children 5+ 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 Children’s Miracle Network and 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 and 1:00pm on November 26 and 27, December 3 and 4, December 10 and 11, and December 17-23, 2022.
- 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: December 3 and 4, 10 and 11, and 17 and 18, from 12 noon to 3:00pm.
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. The Ferry Building’s gingerbread house returns in 2022, available for first viewing at a Holiday Open House on November 30 from 5:00-7:00pm as well as throughout the holiday season.
Look 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 gingerbread 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 Pier 39 HapPIER Holidays Celebration and Tree. Instead of a single lighting, there is a nightly show synchronized to holiday music where the tree is lit every half hour from 5 to 10 p.m. The shows run November 22, 2022 until January 8, 2023 this season.
Ghirardelli Square down on the other end of the wharf traditionally has celebrations all its own. This year, Santa is making an appearance several days a week for photos next to the Square’s giant tree. The Square is also hosting JCCSF’s Glowing Hannukah Party on December 18, 2022. Look out as well for outdoor holiday movies in the square, live music, and other activities throughout the season.
Related: Complete Guide to Ghirardelli Square for Families
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 in mid-December, and this year will take place on December 16, 2022.
11. Disney’s Frozen at Broadway SF
The North American touring cast of Broadway’s Frozen the Musical is making the City by the Bay its home during the holiday season this year. The show features all the popular songs from the movie kids (and adults) know and love as well as an expanded score with a few new sounds to keep it fresh.
The musical will be shown at the Orpheum Theater on Market Street near Civic Center BART Station. Show dates are November 18 – December 30, 2022. Be aware that although toddlers and preschoolers may love the movie, the live action musical requires that children must be at least 5 years old to attend. Disney recommends Frozen the Musical for ages 6 and up.
BONUS: 10 More Holiday Events Beyond San Francisco City Limits Open in 2022
Even though I enjoy a chance to make a trip into the “big city” for a special holiday outing, the entire Bay Area has so many special events and activities to celebrate the season. Here are a few of our family’s favorites elsewhere in the Bay Area, from Oakland to the South Bay and everywhere in between that are open in 2022!
1. Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari
- When: November 11-13, 16-23, 25-27, 30, 2022 | December 1-23, 26-31, 2022 | January 1-8, 11-15, 18-22, 25-29, 2023
- Cost: $24 adults, $20 seniors (65-75)/children, 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 – Sundays in November and every night December 1-23 from 6:00pm to 9:30pm (line closes at 9:15pm).
Tickets sales opened November 1, 2022 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 16-23 & December 26-30, 2022 (“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 for Fairy Winterland. Black Santa leads kids in the Festival of Lights Parade at 6:30pm and hands out a treat to every kid. At the events before Christmas, kids can drop off their letters to Santa (and afterwards, they can mail thank you notes!). 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.
3. Christmas in the Park (San Jose)
- When: November 25, 2022 – January 1, 2023 with time slots from 5:00-10:00pm (drive through experience), walk through event November 25, 2022 – January 1, 2023 from 12:00pm-10:00pm
- Cost: $30 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 having two celebrations – the traditional event in downtown San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park and a drive through lights experience. The drive through experience, “Blinky’s Illuminated Holiday” will be held in Lake Cunningham Park.
4. Christmas Tree Lane (Alameda)
- When: December 3 – December 31, 2022, 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 18-December 28, 2022
- 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!
Related: Ultimate Guide to Train Rides and Attractions in Northern California
6. WinterFest at California’s Great America (Santa Clara)
- When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays November 25, 2022 – January 1, 2022 plus some weekdays near Christmas.
- Cost: As low as $29.99 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. Holiday at Gilroy Gardens (Gilroy)
- When: Select nights November 25, 2022 – December 31, 2022.
- Cost: $40-$50
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 on for 2022, and the offerings are pretty robust for a smaller theme park.
In 2022, Santa will appear nightly in his workshop through December 23. The park also offers multiple shows, including A Charlie Brown Christmas live musical performance. There’s also an ice skating under the stars (for an additional fee), sparkling light displays, and lots of seasonal food offerings. Hearty eaters may want to consider the holiday buffet feast add on to an evening in the park.
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 18, 2022 – January 4, 2023
- 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 quite 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 is jumping in on the holiday fun with a Snowland event this year.
The hotel will be decked out in holiday decor and the event will include visits with Santa (starting November 26), seasonal arts & crafts, a “Frosty Fest” family dance party, and more.
Our family is headed to Great Wolf Lodge Manteca just before Thanksgiving for a quick early season visit, so make sure you are following along on Instagram for all the fun in action.
9. Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party (Daly City)
- When: Saturdays and Sundays (+ Friday after Thanksgiving) from November 19 through December 18, 2022
- Cost: $18-45 for admission to the fair ($15 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. Even if you don’t have tickets, the outdoor “Vauxhall Gardens” area is free to the public and has an ice skating rink, Christmas tree sales, and beverages and refreshments for purchase.
10. IlluminOdyssey at CuriOdyssey (San Mateo)
- When: November 4, 2022-January 16, 2023 (Tuesday – Sundays 10am-5pm). Also open First Firday Nights until 8:00pm (November 4, December 2, January 6)
- Cost: $18-45 for admission to the fair ($15 parking)
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.
Tuesday 5th of October 2021
Leslie, any updates for 2021?
Sunday 7th of November 2021
@Madeline, do you have the link for the Westin's regular tea as well? Thank you for these amazing ideas!!
Sunday 7th of November 2021
@Leslie Harvey, Hi! Here is the link for the Westin Mother Daughter Dollie + Me Tea: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/dollie-me-holiday-tea-at-the-westin-st-francis-tickets-190817198377?aff=Website
Sunday 7th of November 2021
Tuesday 5th of October 2021
Updates will definitely be coming in the next week or two. Waiting for a few more of these venues to release their final plans for 2021 before I do a full scale refresh. Stay tuned!
Thursday 12th of December 2019
Great tips here! Please note that SF Zoo isn't doing Zoo Lights this year. Instead, they have Joy at the Zoo during the day.
Delbra Arline Howard
Thursday 14th of November 2019
Splendid ads; hopefully my family will add a few of these events to our itinerary!
Wednesday 12th of December 2018
An event I went to last year was Mark Foehringer's Nutcracker Sweets at Fort Mason. While the SF Ballet's Nutcracker is unmatched in its beauty, it is not an appropriate venue for small kids. Nutcracker Sweets is much shorter and caters to a young audience. It felt a little low-budget but I was really happy to have a nice alternative to bring my 3 year old. http://mfdpsf.org/nutcracker-sweets/.
Saturday 1st of December 2018
Please note that the Westin St Francis is under strike and doesn’t have its holiday decor (such as the sugar castle) up right now.
Tuesday 11th of December 2018
Thanks for the update! We went in last week to take a peek and were surprised to find them gone too. Here's to hoping they'll be back in 2019.