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 2018 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 Tree Lighting on November 23, 2018 from 6-7 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.
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, open from November 7, 2018 to January 21, 2019 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.
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 and a bit cheaper than the Union Square rink with an equally awesome San Francisco location. It opens this year starting November 5, 2018. General Admission is $12, children 8 & under are $7, and skate rental is $5.
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 on November 23, 2018.
4. Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle & Enchanted Castle
(Editor’s Note: Unfortunately the sugar castles at the Westin St. Francis were cancelled this year but the lobby has plenty of festive decor to tour. Here’s to hoping they will return in 2019!)
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 castles of sweets each year, opening in 2018 on November 21. The hotel also has a special pop up sweet shop where you can purchase holiday treats to take home. The sweet shop is open on weekends from 11 am to 4:30 pm during the holiday season.
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 December 6-29. Tickets range from $10-$150, 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. 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.
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!
7. Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo
The renowned San Francisco Zoo gets all decked out in holiday lights during the month of December. Meet Santa, ride the train, and enjoy other holiday activities with your kids. The event dates for 2018 are December 14-16, 18-23, and 26-30 from 5-8pm. Pricing for 2018 is reasonable as well, at $10 for adults, $8 for kids ages 4-14, and free for kids 3 and under. Parking is $10.
8. San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker
A performance of the Nutcracker has been a San Francisco ballet tradition since 1944. This year, performances run from December 12-29, 2018 (excluding Christmas). The show allows children ages 3 and over to attend. For a special treat, try to attend one of the “family performances” where the first 500 children ages 4-12 receive a special gift. At these shows, intermission beverages and treats are complimentary and at one hour prior to curtain, Nutcracker characters are available for photos.
9. A Bronx Tale at SHN
Looking for even more family-friendly theater this holiday season? The shows put on by SHN in San Francisco are always top-notch and in the Broadway style. This year, one of SHN’s big shows during December is A Bronx Tale, running November 27, 2018 – December 23, 2019. The show is recommended as recommended for ages 12+, but kids must be a minimum of 5 years old to attend.
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 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 Tree. This year, instead of a single lighting, there will be a nightly show synchronized to holiday music at the top of each hour from 5 to 10pm. The show will run from November 21, 2018 through January 1, 2019.
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 December 14, 2018 from 6-8pm.
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
- Holiday@Night at Gilroy Gardens
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.