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 9, 2021.
What’s in Store for the Holidays in 2021 in San Francisco?
While 2020 brought cancellations and closures galore, I’m thrilled to report that many of the city’s holiday celebrations, events, shows, and gatherings are coming back for 2021! Not all have been announced yet and details could still change based on changing conditions and local rules, so bookmark this post and keep checking back as I update it throughout the season.
Since so many events in San Francisco proper were closed last year, I added a new section in 2020 at the end of this post highlighting family-friendly events all over the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m keeping that again in 2021. Many of these events outside the city are held in outdoor venues, which some readers may prefer in the ever-changing public health landscape. Plus, all of them are amazing and worthy of a visit in their own right, especially for locals who can do many of these offerings in a single season.
Note that if you plan to attend an indoor event in the City of San Francisco, proof of vaccination for all participants ages 12 and up will be required (particularly at all restaurants and many shows) due to local ordinances. Testing requirements may be in place only for children ineligible for vaccination at larger indoor shows and gatherings. The city still has an indoor mask ordinance in most places except when eating and drinking. Some attractions may mandate mask even outdoors. Always check the event website for the latest requirements, as they may change throughout the season.
Christmas in San Francisco: Things to Do to Celebrate the Holidays
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 is back in 2021 from 6-9pm on November 26. The tree will be up from November 18, 2021 to January 22, 2022. Look also for a Chanukah Menorah on display November 28 through December 6.
While you are in Union Square, take your little ones to see Santa at Macy’s. Yes, Santa is back in 2021! This year, reservations will be required and distancing, masks, and other precautions will be observed.
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 will show screens of the animals instead of the animals live (from November 23, 2021 until January 2, 2022)
2. Ice Skating
There are usually several places to ice skate in San Francisco to get in the holiday spirit. This year, only one rink is open in the city proper – the large rink in Union Square sponsored by Safeway. This year, it’s open from November 3, 2021 until January 17, 2021.
Prices in 2021 are $19 for adults and children for a 60 minute session and skate rental is included. Book tickets online in advance because times – especially on the weekends – regularly sell out. This will be even more true in the 2021 because of the continued closure of other nearby rinks.
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 aren’t yet back in 2021, but keep an eye open for next year. If you want to go farther afield in the Bay Area to skate, the Kristi Yamaguchi Downtown Ice in San Jose is open November 19, 2021–January 9, 2022, and the Winter Ice Rink in Downtown Sunnyvale is open November 19, 2021–January 2, 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. It’s so big that adults can walk through it. Kids will especially enjoy the working miniature trains that encircle the creation. The grand opening this year for the Fairmont’s gingerbread house is usually right after Thanksgiving – in 2021, it will be on Saturday November 26 at 11:00am.
The hotel has other holiday packages and offerings, including a holiday tea (see #7 below for more details).
4. Let’s Glow SF
New in 2021 is Let’s Glow SF – a projection mapping light display coming to the facades of 4 large buildings in the Financial District. The displays will be visible each evening between December 3-12, 2021 and will feature vibrant holiday artwork. Look for them on the following buildings:
- One Bush Plaza
- 345 Montgomery St.
- Pacific Stock Exchange at 301 Pine St.
- Hyatt Regency at 5 Embarcadero Center
The Downtown SF website has a suggested walking route map to see them all in a short stroll.
5. 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 10-30. 2021.
The show allows children ages 3 and over to attend but recommends it for ages 5+. Guests who are 12 and up must present proof of vaccination, and all under 12 who are ineligible for vaccination must present a negative test result taken within 48 hours.
6. A Christmas Carol
While A Christmas Carol has historically been performed by The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), things are a little different in 2021. BroadwaySF is offering a new interpretation of the show this year at the Golden Gate Theater.
The show this year runs from November 26 until December 26, 2021. Note that children under 5 are not permitted.
7. 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 if your children love an excuse to dress up.
My family had the chance to experience holiday tea in the Oak Room at the Westin St. Francis a few Decembers ago and it was simply a treat. I was very worried bringing a then three year old into such a fancy setting but the event is truly geared to families. In 2021, the hotel has even more holiday tea offerings for families, including traditional afternoon tea with a pianist on 7 Saturdays and Sundays as well as a special “Dollie & Me” tea December 18 & 19.
All of the other well-known holiday teas are confirmed to be back in 2021, including the Holiday Tea at The Fairmont San Francisco, the Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz-Carlton, and the Children’s Magical Tea at the Top of the Mark in the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins.
8. Joy at the San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo’s holiday celebrations are a bit more toned down again this year, with Santa and his reindeer staying home. Nevertheless, Joy at the SF Zoo is back during regular zoo hours (reservations required).
During this celebration, the zoo is has plenty of seasonal decor as well as a holiday village of multiple house that are festive backdrops for family photos. Skipper’s Elf ‘n’ Go Seek is a new offering this year where visitors can spot hidden elf hats and shoes all over the grounds. Of course, the Lil Puffer train is also running regularly – it’s one of the best miniature steam engines in the state!
9. The Ferry Building Becomes the Merry Building!
The Ferry Building brought something brand new to San Francisco for the holidays in 2019 with its inaugural gingerbread exhibition and a transformation into #TheMerryBuilding.
While the gingerbread house isn’t back yet in 2021, the Ferry Building has plenty of holiday offerings this year. Look for special gift pop-up markets featuring local artists as well as a craft station for kids and families every Sunday during the season. The Ferry Building will offer live holiday music on weekends as well.
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 late November until January 9, 2022 this season.
The Pier celebrates Hanukkah as well! Each evening from November 28 to December 5, the menorah at the Entrance Plaza will be lit.
Ghirardelli Square down on the other end of the wharf traditionally has celebrations all its own. On November 26, 2021, the square will be lit up for the season. This year, the decorations include a number of holiday trees designed by local Academy of Art students. The celebrations at Ghirardelli Square continue with a glowing Hanukkah party on Sunday, December 5, 2021 from 3:00-6:00pm. Look out as well for two outdoor holiday movies in the square – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on December 17 and Elf on December 23.
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 17 at 6:00pm.
BONUS: Holiday Events Beyond San Francisco City Limits Open in 2021
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 2021!
1. Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari
- When: November 12-24, 26-30, 2021, December 1-23, 26-31, 2021, January 1-2, 5-9, 12-16, 19-23, 26-30, 2022 (timed entry tickets)
- Cost: $24 adults, $20 seniors/children, 10% discount for Oakland Zoo members
Replacing the Oakland Zoo’s usual Zoo Lights is a new night time festival, Glowfari. I was able to visit with my family last year when the event debuted, and it was truly breathtaking.
Animal shaped lanterns dot the zoo grounds, and guests take a one mile stroll through the sights. The California Trail gondola will be open to take in views from above, including of some prehistoric additions to the festival. Advance reservations are required and capacity is limited.
2. Fairy Winterland at Children’s Fairyland (Oakland)
- When: December 17-30, 2021 (closed Dec 24 & 25), 4-7 pm
- Cost: $15 per person general admission, $8 per person for Fairyland members
This classic local theme park will be decked out in lights and culturally-diverse holiday displays. Black Santa will lead kids in distanced Festival of Lights Parade at 6:30pm and hand out a treat to every kid. Kids can drop off their letters to Santa and complimentary hot cocoa is available to all! Reservations are required and the event will sell out. See details and buy here.
3. Christmas in the Park (San Jose)
- When: November 26, 2021 – January 9, 2022 (drive through experience), walk through event TBD
- Cost: $30-75 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 – a new location from last year’s first drive through event.
4. Christmas Tree Lane (Alameda)
- When: December 4, 2021 – New Year’s Day 2022, evenings
- 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. 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 19-December 28, 2021
- Cost: $30 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, so plan ahead!
6. WinterFest at California’s Great America (Santa Clara)
- When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays November, 26 2021 – January 2, 2022 plus some weekdays near Christmas.
- Cost: $45 at gate (substantial discounts if pre-purchased 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, 26 2021 – December 31, 2021.
Gilroy Gardens – another theme park south of San Jose that caters to younger kids – has plenty of holiday lights and offerings all its own every winter. The Holiday fun is back on for 2021, and the offerings are pretty robust for a smaller theme park in this unusual year.
Santa will make regular appearances and greet guests from afar. 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 feast add on to an evening in the park. Guests can even rent an “igloo” for the evening, complete with hot cocoa and appetizers to enjoy in it.
As with many theme parks right now, advance dated tickets are offered and it’s highly recommended to pre-purchase.
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: The Westin St. Francis hosted my family for tea and a night’s stay in December 2016. All opinions are my own.