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.
2020 Update: The events of this year means the cancellation of many of the usual Christmas celebrations, events, shows, and gatherings around the city. Since many of these events will be back in 2021 when I update this post again, I’ve kept the descriptions in the list below. I have included a special insert about 2020 cancellations or changes so you can plan accordingly.
Additionally, since so many events in San Francisco proper are closed in 2020, I’ve included a new section at the bottom of this post highlighting family-friendly events all over the San Francisco Bay Area that you might want to consider instead. Many of these events are able to more safely take place outside the crowded confines of the big city.
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.
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.
Changes for 2020: While Santa won’t be meeting and greeting and there won’t be a big crowd for an official tree lighting ceremony, there will still be the usual giant tree in Union Square to set the holiday scene. Get on your holiday best and go get those Christmas card photos there this year!
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 early November until mid to late January each year. Prices in 2019 were $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 usually opens in early November each year. General Admission prices in 2019 were $12, children 7 & under were $7, and skate rental was $5.
Last but certainly not least is an ice rink that was brand new in 2018, the T-Mobile Winter Park at Civic Center. Located in the shadow of San Francisco City Hall, this rink opens right before Thanksgiving and stay open until after the New Year. Ticket prices in 2019 were the same as the Union Square rink – $18 for adults and $13 for children 8 and under – and include skate rental.
Changes for 2020: All three ice skating rinks have decided not to open for the 2020-2021 winter holiday season.
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. 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.
Changes for 2020: The hotel will sadly not be constructing its gingerbread house this year or hosting its usual holiday events.
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 the Westin St. Francis Hotel located right on Union Square builds two castles of sweets each year, opening most years right after Thanksgiving and remaining up until after the New Yeaar.
The hotel also traditionally has a special pop up sweet boutique where you can purchase holiday treats to take home. The sweet shop is usually open Thursdays to Sundays in the afternoon and evenings in the hotel’s lobby.
In 2019 for for the first time, the Westin St. Francis created the “Holiday Hideaway” – special hotel floor designed just for families and decorated during the holiday season. Families who stayed on the floor received special treats , a “Letter to Santa Kit,” and a few other surprises.
Changes for 2020: The hotel will sadly not be constructing its castles of sweets this year or hosting its usual holiday events.
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 traditionally runs from right after Thanksgiving until right before Christmas Day. 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.
Changes for 2020: While live theater isn’t possible this year, A.C.T. has gone virtual, deciding to stage an old fashioned radio style broadcast of the holiday classic. Buy tickets for one of the live shows, offered on either opening night on December 4 at 6pm or on “Family Fireside Night” on December 23 at 6pm. Or, you can purchase tickets for on demand listening December 5-31.
6. Joy at the San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo has a traditional ZooLights evening event (that took a break in 2019 due to construction). Last year, the zoo still was all decked out in holiday cheer during the season even without the ZooLights event. Visitors could meet Santa, ride the train, and enjoy other holiday activities with their kids on weekends during the month of December.
The zoo also hosts breakfast with Santa many years. The breakfast features an all-you-can-eat buffet with special prices for zoo members. Best of all, reservations are not necessary!
Changes for 2020: The San Francisco Zoo is not currently offering any holiday events in 2020. The Oakland Zoo, however, has something special just across the bay so keep scrolling to learn about it and other events outside of the San Francisco city limits.
7. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
A performance of the Nutcracker has been a San Francisco ballet tradition since 1944. Performances normally run from mi to late December. 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 “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.
Changes for 2020: While the live ballet can’t take place this year, the San Francisco Ballet is offering a virtual option for Nutcracker fans who want to help support this Bay Area institution. Virtual streaming performances are available November 27 – December 31, and go on sale November 17, 2020 here. Extras will allow guests to tour a virtual opera house full of fun activities, send downloadable holiday photos, view historical highlights of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, and learn steps from the choreography.
8. 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. An enormous gingerbread replica of the iconic building sits in the real building’s lobby, free for the public to view and open through the end of the year. 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, a pop-up shop offering From Roy’s Italian-style panettone every Saturday, performances by local choral groups, and free holiday photo backdrops and selfie stations set up throughout the building. Plus, the Ferry Building is just a great place to tackle a little holiday shopping with kids.
Changes for 2020: While the Merry Building gingerbread displays won’t be available this year, the Ferry Building is open for business in 2020 and will be in the holiday spirit this December! Expect holiday decor and seasonal pop up shops. Details are still forthcoming, so check back in this space in a few weeks for more.
9. 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.
Changes for 2020: None of the hotels will be able to host their holiday teas this year.
10. 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. 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 normally runs from late November until just past the new year.
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 in partnership with the St. Francis Yacht Club usually hosted on a Friday in mid-December.
Changes for 2020: As of the date of publication of this post, the Pier 39 events are not scheduled for 2020, but stay tuned for updates if anything changes. Ghirardelli Square is offering a modified celebration on Friday November 27 from 12pm-6pm. There will be a festive Holiday Marketplace, a Christmas Tree Stroll with trees decorated by local Academy of Art students, and a square-wide holiday lighting at 5pm. The lighted boat parade is tentatively scheduled for Friday December 16 at 6pm, but details have not been released and the event has not yet been confirmed.
BONUS: Holiday Events Beyond San Francisco City Limits Open in 2020
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. This year, many of them are the only ones able to safely operate under 2020 restrictions. 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 actually open in 2020!
1. Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari
- When: November 20, 2020 – January 17, 2021; 5:30-10pm (timed entry tickets with last entry at 8:00pm)
- Cost: $13 per person general admission, $6 per person for Oakland Zoo members
Replacing the Oakland Zoo’s usual Zoo Lights is a brand new night time festival, Glowfari. Animal shaped lanterns will dot the zoo grounds, and guests will be able to 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. Tickets are required and capacity is limited.
2. Fairy Winterland at Children’s Fairyland (Oakland)
- When: December 18-23, 26-30; 4-7 pm
- Cost: $13 per person general admission, $6 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 6:45pm 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 27, 2020 – January 3, 2021
- Cost: $10 per car from 4-5pm; $20 per car 5pm-10pm
This holiday light display has been a tradition in the South Bay for many decades. This year, Christmas in the Park is moving to History Park where it will function as a drive through experience. The historic buildings in the park will be decked out in decorations along with hundreds of trees. Santa will even make a distanced appearance. Timed reservations are required
4. Christmas Tree Lane (Alameda)
- When: December 5-31, 2020, 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. In 2020, the events will be scaled back for safety reasons but the residents have committed to decorating. Exact details will be posted closer to time on the street’s Facebook page.
Not Open in 2020
And here are a few others greater Bay Area holiday events that are closed in 2020 but that we hope to see again in 2021:
- Niles Canyon Train of Lights (Fremont)
- WinterFest at California’s Great America (Santa Clara)
- Gardens@Night at Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park (Gilroy)
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.