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, updated with new dates and activities for the 2019 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 on Friday, November 29, 2019 from 6-7:30 p.m.
While you are in Union Square, take your little ones to see Santa at Macy’s and and 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 pets make an even earlier appearance in the 2019 holiday season, with a kickoff event November 22 from 5-6 p.m.
2. Ice Skating
There are several places to ice skate in San Francisco to get in the holiday spirit. Union Square always has a large rink sponsored by Safeway and Alaska Airlines, open from November 6, 2019 to January 20, 2020 this year. Prices are $18 for adults and $13 for kids ages 8 and under for a 90 minute session and skate rental is included. Book tickets online in advance because times – especially on the weekends – regularly sell out.
Another easily accessible popup ice rink is located near the Ferry Building on Justin Herman Plaza by Embarcadero 4 in the Financial District. It is a bit larger than the Union Square rink with an equally awesome San Francisco location (and another airline sponsor – Hawaiian Airlines). It opens this year starting November 6, 2019. General Admission is $12, children 7 & under are $7, and skate rental is $5.
Last but certainly not least is an ice rink that was brand new last year, the T-Mobile Winter Park at Civic Center. Located in the shadow of San Francisco City Hall, this rink opens November 22, 2019 at 11:00am for a grand opening ceremony and then will offer skating 12–10 p.m. daily through January 5, 2020. Ticket prices are the same as the Union Square rink – $18 for adults and $13 for children 8 and under – and include skate rental.
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 the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill. The hotel constructs an enormous two story gingerbread house every year on display in the lobby, and the Fairmont has promised it will be even higher in 2019. 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 on November 30, 2019.
4. Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle & Sweet Shop
Not to be outdone, another of San Francisco’s iconic hotels also goes all out for the holidays. The pastry chef at Westin St. Francis located right on Union Square builds two castles of sweets each year, opening this year on Wednesday, November 27, 2019 at an opening ceremony at 11:00am, and available for viewing through January 2, 2020.
The hotel also has a special pop up sweet boutique where you can purchase holiday treats to take home. The sweet shop is open Thursdays to Sundays November 29-December 31 from noon to 8:00 p.m. in the hotel’s lobby.
This year for the first time, the Westin St. Francis is creating the “Holiday Hideaway” – special hotel floor designed just for families and decorated during the holiday season. Families staying on the floor will receive special treats , a “Letter to Santa Kit,” and a few other surprises. This floor is available December 19, 2019 to January 4, 2020.
5. A Christmas Carol at American Conservatory Theater
The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is a well-respected and well-established professional theater company in the Bay Area. ACT has a longstanding tradition of presenting a theatrical production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year. The show this year runs from November 29-December 24. Ticket prices for some shows start as low as $25, so you can take your family for a very reasonable cost in some of the cheaper seats.
6. Beach Blanket Babylon
The irreverent musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon has been a San Francisco tradition for over 40 years and is sadly coming to an end for good at the end of 2019. The show celebrates and makes fun of popular culture from a distinctly San Francisco point of view. The show is ever-changing, but it changes even more during the holiday season with a special holiday version.
The big question is: can and should you take your kids? Due to the fact that alcohol is served, children aren’t allowed at most showings, but children ages 5 and up are welcome at both Sunday matinee showings and the early shows on Wednesday evenings (see the full calendar here). The show definitely pushes a few boundaries but most of the jokes would go over the heads of younger kids. Plus, the matinee versions are toned down a little bit. In short, relax, laugh, and take the kids! (Editor’s Note: Beach Blanket Babylon is now sadly sold out through the end of its run, but I promise anyone with tickets already will have a blast!)
7. Joy at the San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo’s traditional ZooLights evening event is taking a break this year due to construction, but the zoo is still getting all decked out in holiday cheer during the season. Meet Santa, ride the train, and enjoy other holiday activities with your kids. The event runs every weekend from November 30 to December 29.
The zoo is also hosting breakfast with Santa December 7 & 14, held in the Lemur Cafe from 10 am to 12 noon. The breakfast features an all-you-can-eat buffet with special prices for zoo members. Best of all, reservations are not necessary!
8. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
A performance of the Nutcracker has been a San Francisco ballet tradition since 1944. This year, the show celebrates its 75th anniversary! Performances run from December 11-29, 2019 (excluding Monday December 16 and Christmas Day). The show allows children ages 3 and over to attend but recommends it for ages 5+. For a special treat, try to attend one of the show’s six “Passport Performances” where the first 500 children receive a special plush gift. At these shows, intermission beverages and treats are complimentary and at one hour prior to curtain, costumed characters are available for photos.
9. The Ferry Building Becomes the Merry Building!
The Ferry Building is bringing something brand new to San Francisco for the holidays in 2019 with its inaugural gingerbread exhibition and a transformation into #TheMerryBuilding. An enormous gingerbread replica of the iconic building sits in the real building’s lobby, free for the public to view and open through December 31, 2019. The display is full of well-known San Francisco sights.
The rest of the Ferry Building has holiday offerings too. Look for two special markets on December 1 and 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., a pop-up shop offering From Roy’s Italian-style panettone every Saturday through December 21; performances by local choral groups on December 7 and 14; and free holiday photo backdrops and selfie stations set up throughout the building all month long. Plus, the Ferry Building is just a great place to tackle a little holiday shopping with kids.
10. 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.
My family had the chance to experience holiday tea 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.
Some of the other well-known teas include the Gingerbread 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. 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.
11. Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf Holiday Events
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf also have a few major events during the holiday season. The major attraction is the Pier 39 Happier Holidays Celebration and Tree. This year, instead of a single lighting, there will be a nightly show synchronized to holiday music where the tree is lit ever half hour from 5 to 10 p.m. The show will run from November 26, 2019 through January 5, 2020.
Ghirardelli Square down on the other end of the wharf traditionally has a tree lighting ceremony all its own. Also be on the lookout for the Fisherman’s Wharf lighted boat parade on Friday, December 13, 2019 from 6-8 p.m.
BONUS: Other Holiday Events Beyond San Francisco City Limits
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. Some may be closer to where you live – no traffic or parking challenges necessary! Here are a few of our family’s favorites elsewhere in the Bay Area, from Oakland to the South Bay and everywhere in between.
- Oakland Zoo Lights
- Niles Canyon Train of Lights
- WinterFest at California’s Great America
- Fairy Winterland at Children’s Fairyland
- Gardens@Night at Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
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.
Do you have any San Francisco kid-friendly traditions in your family? Share your recommendations in the comments.
Disclosure: The Westin St. Francis hosted my family for tea and a night’s stay in December 2016. All opinions are my own.