Despite a lack of snow, Christmas in San Francisco can be just as magical as New York.
San Francisco knows how to turn on the holiday charm and put together Christmas activities that will knock your socks off.
From Christmas fairs to holiday high teas, we’ve rounded up the best San Francisco Christmas activities on the peninsula to satisfy even the most holiday-happy humans.
This post was first written on December 16, 2019, and updated on November 28, 2020 to include pandemic-friendly information.
Christmas in San Francisco
They’re not listed in any particular order, except maybe the order that I visited each place.
Christmas should be a time to catch up with friends and family, and spread some cheer. While the pandemic means that Christmas in 2020 has to be a little different, there are still plenty of events that have pivoted to be safer in the current circumstances.
There’s no better place to capture that spirit than at a Christmas fair. We’ll begin with a very Dickensian Christmas, with a trip to Victorian London.
Go Victorian at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair
This has to be one of the best Christmas activities in San Francisco, hands down. Not only are there more than 800 hired actors dressed as various characters from Charles Dickens’ many novels, walking around and interacting with the crowd, but lots of shoppers get into their steam punk and Victorian gear to really immerse themselves in the atmosphere.
**Note: The 2020 Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been cancelled, but you can still shop from small businesses online and watch new videos each weekend, including a reading of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, music by the Coventry Carolers, cook along to English recipes, or learn to make holiday gifts.
Head out to the Cow Palace Exhibition Halls (I still giggle at the thought of a cow kingdom, filled with cow subjects, living under a wise cow Queen), where you’ll be transported to Victorian London for as long as you want. In the hallowed halls you’ll be welcomed to London, by greeters, and given a map of London, but it’s much more fun to just peruse the ‘streets’ and see what you can find.
Shop stalls are laden with musical instruments, antiques, beautiful old books, as well as jewelry and headbands. If you’d like to start your Victorian attire collection there are plenty of stalls catering to both men and women, and a salon where you can get your hair braided in any number of intricate styles.
Dotted throughout the exhibition halls you’ll find theatre troops performing plays, pantomimes, dances, pats of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and shows specifically aimed at children. Grab a pie with mash and mushy peas or any other traditionally warming English lunch or dinner, and stop in at one of the bars for a wee dram or two. I know that’s Scottish, but I like it better than a “tipple”.
Dates: Each weekend from Black Friday to December 23, 10am-7pm
**Note: The fair has been cancelled for the 2020 season to protect actors and visitors. You can watch Dickens Fair at Home performances here.
Entry: Fees vary depending on age, see website for details
Details: Go to the official website
Address: Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave, Daly City
See holiday decorations in San Francisco
You can spend a whole day walking around San Francisco enjoying the decorations in just a small part of the city. I know that it’s nice to visit at night to see the lights in all their twinkling glory, but if you have small children who won’t make an evening tour, it isn’t a waste of time to make a daytrip.
Mr M’s mum (mom) and I spent a Sunday wandering some of the best Christmas displays in the city and didn’t even have to break a sweat.
I can’t take any credit for this little itinerary, it was put together entirely by my partner-in-Christmas-fun, and it’s a certified great day.
Westfield San Francisco Christmas decorations
Start at Powell Street BART station and walk right into Westfield’s San Francisco Center and up the escalators to the giant Christmas bauble light decoration outside of Nordstrom.
Once you’re done looking up at the twinkling lights, head over to the a 102-foot-wide dome, built back in 1908. The dome’s grandeur has been enhanced by an upside-down chandelier tree that hangs 50-feet into the atrium.
The tree has caused a little controversy among Christmas tree purists, but it seems to have also sparked a new market in the upside-down variety of tree.
The 2020 tree lighting ceremony is virtual, and will take place on Thursday, December 3 at 7pm. Book here.
Macy’s Union Square Holiday window displays
One of my favourite San Francisco Christmas activities is visiting the puppies, kittens, rabbits and other animals up for adoption in the Macy’s Christmas display windows.
Macy’s teams up with the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco Animal Care & Control to raise money for the animal-sheltering organisations.
Each animal seen in the Macy’s holiday display windows is available for adoption between 5pm-7pm daily, or from the SF PCA and SFAA the following day.
**Note: Animals will not be present in Macy’s windows in 2020. Instead they will be shown on video screens throughout the store and you can watch (and adopt) them from home by clicking here.
Neiman Marcus Union Square four-storey Christmas tree
There are two reasons to visit the department store mostly frequented by the “fat-of-wallet”.
Firstly, you get to look at pretty designer clothes that you could never afford (and some ugly things too).
But secondly, you can also catch sight of the four-storey Christmas tree nestled in the store’s entrance.
Take the escalators up a few floors to really experience the tree properly, or book an Afternoon Tea at the store’s Rotunda restaurant.
San Francisco Union Square’s Christmas tree & Menorah
If you’re not yet fully into the spirit of San Francisco Christmas activities, you’re about to be.
Each year Macy’s provides a tree, this year’s stretches 83-feet in the air, and is adorned with more than 30,000 lights and about 1,100 decorations. And you thought putting up the tree at home was a chore.
This is the place to strap on a pair of ice skates and take advantage of the skating rink that appears for the holiday season. It’s popular though so you may want to book in advance to ensure you get a spot on the rink.
The square also features the Bill Graham Menorah, which is lit each night, one candle at a time to celebrate Hannukah.
**Note: The ice skating rink will not open in 2020/21 due to the pandemic. The 2020 Union Square Christmas tree lighting ceremony was a private one and took place without fanfare on November 18.
Candy castles at the Westin St. Francis Hotel
You’re going to get your fill of gingerbread houses in a minute, but first head across Powell Street and pop into the Westin St. Francis Hotel.
The hotel began the sugar castle tradition back in 2005, and the 2019 creations by Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Houdre and his team, included two gingerbread castles.
The first is a 12 foot tall Medieval castle that resembles a French Chateau, and is nestled under the hotel’s lobby clock.
The second castle is more of a winter wonderland, with a more modern design made from sugar and pastry.
**Note: I couldn’t find any information on whether there would be any gingerbread creations in 2020. But it’s probably safe to assume that there won’t be.
Life-sized Nutcrackers at the Intercontinental San Francisco
Fair warning where it’s due, you’re going to have to walk up the very steep Powell Street for five blocks to get to the Intercontinental.
But there are always the cable cars if you need a helping hand up the hill.
Nutcracker soldiers stand guard outside the entrance doors to the hotel.
Life-sized gingerbread house at the Fairmont San Francisco
Now cross California Street and head into the Fairmont Hotel – that’s the one with the Tony Bennet statue out front.
Stand in the doorway for a minute to marvel at the 23-foot Christmas tree, but don’t dilly dally for long because you’ve got a two-storey gingerbread house to explore.
It takes a team of chefs and engineers to construct the 25 foot high and 35 foot wide gingerbread monstrosity, made of more than 6,000 gingerbread “bricks”.
Apart from the veritable mountain of building blocks it takes to construct the house, there’s also the 1,650 pounds of candy and 3,300 pounds of royal icing that goes into making it a holiday masterpiece.
Be warned that this is a popular attraction and you may have to wait in line to view the house. You can book a holiday tea, private event, or a “proposal” package to pop the question, inside the gingerbread house if you’d like.
**Note: Due to the pandemic, there will not be a gingerbread house at the Fairmont San Francisco in 2020.
Selfie-stations & Gingerbread in the Ferry Building
Inside the Ferry Building you’ll find some “selfie-stations” set up for kids (or your inner-child) to get some cute holiday snaps.
You can also catch some gingerbread houses made by stores within the Ferry Building itself.
If you have younger children in your Holiday sight-seeing group, you can take them ice skating at the rink just outside the Emarcadero Center and then pop across to the Ferry Building for some treats like an empanada, ice cream, or a cheeky “cheesequake”.
**Note: Due to the pandemic, the Ferry Building is offering al fresco dining, and is following state rules in regards to the number of people allowed into the building.
Old-world musical charm at the Palace Hotel
The Palace Hotel was built in 1875 and was the most costly hotel to be built at the time.
From the lobby, walk through to the Garden Court, which features 72,000 pieces of glass in its ceiling, and is one of the largest expanses of coloured glass in the world.
Settle into a comfortable couch for a touch of “old-world” Christmas, and listen to the band play in front of the hotel’s Christmas trees.
**Note: Due to the pandemic, the Garden Court restaurant, pictured above, will be closed in 2020.
Visit San Jose’s Christmas in the Park
Much like the Victorian Christmas is built on tradition, Christmas in the Park has been running for the past 30 years and many of the floats will include their first years’ build date.
Held in downtown San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez, Christmas in the Park is spread over two acres of more than 60 musical and animated exhibits. The real pièce de résistance though, are the Guinness World Record setting 600 illuminated and decorated Christmas trees. Of course there’s a giant Community Giving Tree to go with it.
Each tree is decorated by a different community group, business or school from the San Jose area, and the groups are as diverse as you can imagine – from local churches to the Satanic Bay Area collective.
This is a real wonderland for children and adults alike, with ice skating, the Lima Train, melting snowman, caroling mice and elf wood crafters. And with areas with names like Reindeer Ranch, Snowflake Falls and Candy Cane lane, you know it’s going to be a whimsical delight.
Santa also makes an appearance to take photos with the kids, and you can get other animated photos in Santa’s sleigh, go on rides or just enjoy the twinkling lights.
Christmas in the Park will be held in History Park in 2020, to allow it to become a “drive-thru” event. There will be 32 original and reproduction homes, business, and landmarks set up on the 14-acre site.
Reservations are necessary for the event that will cost $10 per car during twilight hours (4PM-5PM), and $20 from 5PM to 10PM.
Dates: November 24 – December 25, 5PM-10PM
**Note: The 2020 Christmas in the Park event will be a Drive-Thru holiday experience at History Park in San Jose.
Entry: $10-$20 per car (reservations necessary)
Details: Go to the official website
Address: Inside San Jose’s Kelly Park, intersection of Senter Road and Phelan Avenue.
Visit a historic home decorated for Christmas
The 16 acre Filoli estate is nestled midway down the peninsula in Woodside.
It was owned by two prominent San Francisco families over the years and features English-style enclosed grounds, complete with hedges, orchards and fields full of flowers.
The estate is now in the hands of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and open to the public to view and enjoy.
I visited last during the spring months when the tulips and wildflowers were in full bloom. But visiting over the holiday period was another story completely.
Mr M and his parents organised a surprise trip to Filoli for their Holiday Tea event, to celebrate my birthday and it was a truly beautiful Christmassy experience.
We filed into a hall set with tables all ready for afternoon tea, complete with china teacups and lashings of jam and cream.
It was decorated with trees and a harpist sat centre stage and provided ambient background music.
Of course, the three tiered serving plates held some delicious treats – sandwiches with turkey and Camembert, smoked salmon, cucumber and chive cream cheese, and aged cheddar with Filoli pear butter.
But my absolute favourite were the apple cinnamon scones with clotted cream and heirloom apple butter (made from apples from Filoli’s orchards. Then there were cheesecake bites, mini chocolate eclairs and petite fours.
Afterwards we toured Filoli main house, which was set up for the Holidays and decorated with more themed Christmas trees than I could even count.
Even the copious gardens are covered in twinkle lights, wreaths and dotted with heaters.
You can book a private holiday tea (Mon-Thurs, 11AM or 1.30PM), or your own private fire pit (Mon-Thurs, 6PM-8PM) during 2020. These measures were put in place to follow CDC pandemic guidelines.
Address: 86 Canada Road, Woodside, CA, 94062
Details: Go to the official website
Get your tree or visit Santa
Santa’s Tree Farm, like many tree farms across the Bay Area, offers a little more than just a spot to find your family’s special Christmas Tree each year.
As the name suggests, you can visit Santa’s village on the same property for some extra Christmas cheer!
It’s a great place to take your kids for a visit to Santa and for a ride on the Christmas train.
The farm has been in Half Moon Bay since 1972, and allows families to drive in and cut down whichever tree they like most.
They have a range of different tree varieties at different stages of growth, so be careful not to trample any saplings while you’re looking for your tree.
We don’t have space for a real tree in our apartment so when I visited I bought a wreath from the gift shop. They have the cutest napkin rings and reindeer made out of offcuts of wood and pine sprigs.
This is unmissable if you’ve got young children. If you’re not keen on going to the effort of cutting down your own tree, the gift shop has an array of pre-cut trees.
Some of them have been flocked in different colours including red, blue and hot pink.
**Note: Masks are required for everyone except children under two, those with breathing issues, or those with a disability that does not allow them to wear a mask. Saws, counters, and activity locations are sanitized between customers.
Address: 78 Pilarcitos Creek Road (Hwy 92), Half Moon Bay.
Hours: November 21-December 23, weekends 8AM-5PM, weekdays 9AM-5PM
Details: Go to the official website
Visit a winter festival
Any Charlie Brown fans in the crowd? If you’re not up for the trip to the Charles Schulz Museum up in Santa Rosa, WinterFest is the next best thing.
It’s a far-sight newer than the some of the other festivities here, and is held at California’s Great America theme park.
The park is transformed into a winter wonderland complete with ice skating in front of the beautiful carousel Columbia. There are light displays to go with the rides, as well as live holiday shows, Santa’s workshop and Mrs Claus’ kitchen.
Don’t miss the Peanuts Guide to Christmas show, where you’re joined by Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy for a holiday singalong.
Dates: November 24-December 30
**Note: WinterFest has been cancelled for 2020 but will return in 2021.
Entry: Daily tickets start from $25
Address: 4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara
Details: Go to the official website
See Christmas Lights across San Francisco & Peninsula
There are lots of Christmas lights and decorations dotting the city and bay area. Starting with Illuminate SF, you can get a guided tour or just wander around San Francisco enjoying the work of some great local light artists.
If you prefer to drive around and experience the lights from the comfort of your heated vehicle, you could head out to Willow Glen. The residents of Willow Glen don’t hold back when it comes to Christmas lights. You get the impression that they’re in competition.
Use the map to find the best houses, or just stop off at one of the area’s great restaurants for dinner first and ask the locals where the best displays are!
Christmas in San Francisco shows
Get into the holiday spirit by seeing a holiday show. There are plenty to choose from and they are always a great excuse to dress up and spend a night out.
The Golden Girls: Christmas Episodes
If you’re a fan of 80s sitcom The Golden Girls, like I am, you’re going to love this. What would San Francisco be without Drag performances anyway? Boring! That’s what!
It’s a yearly tradition to get four talented local drag stars and put them into two new Christmas episodes of the beloved show.
Held at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission District (except for 2020), brace yourself for Blanche’s devastatingly beautiful Blanche, Dorothy’s dry wit, Sophia’s antics and Rose’s feather headed comments.
**Note: The 2020 performances will be going online as a measure to deal with the pandemic. You can sit in the comfort of your own home and watch the multi-camera performances!
I have my ticket already and can’t wait. I whiled away the pandemic by re-watching all of The Golden Girls episodes, so you could say I am a tragic.
Dates: December 17-20, 7PM
Buy Tickets: See website
The Nutcracker Ballet
Just to keep things a bit diverse we’re headed to the ballet for The Nutcracker.
We were mesmerised by the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House. It was a such a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and there were families and people of all ages settled in for the show.
Don’t be afraid to take your kids, the show is short and has an intermission for them to get up and run around in.
If you have really young children though, you might want to take them to San Jose for My Very First Nutcracker. It’s a special shortened performance that’s perfect for toddlers and is presented at a reduced price.
San Jose’s Hammer Theatre hosts the full length and shortened show, danced by The New Ballet Studio Company, students from The New Ballet School and professional guest artists.
The New Ballet Orchestra accompanies the performances live, except for the My Very First Nutcracker, which features a recorded score.
San Jose: http://sanjosenutcracker.com/#home
San Francisco: https://www.sfballet.org/season/nutcracker/nutcracker
Dates/Entry: Various dates and fees, please check websites.
San Francisco Symphony Christmas performances
The San Francisco Symphony is world-renowned, and they put together a few different Christmas shows each year.
During 2020 they are performing an online concert called Deck the Halls Virtual Celebration. The program will include special guests performing family-friendly festive favourites.
It’s the perfect way to get your family in the Christmas spirit.
Dates: December 5 & 19 at 3.30PM, and December 6 at 11.30AM.
Details: See website.
Grace Cathedral Christmas performance series
Each year Grace Cathedral runs it’s Christmas at Grace Cathedral program of events, which includes performances by its choir, family sing-alongs, and other great music-based events.
**Note: All 2020 events will be virtual, so you can tune in from your home for a front-row seat.
The cathedral’s Choir of Men & Boys has been performing Christmas concerts since 1947. In 2020 they won’t be able to perform as a large group, but there will be solos and quartet performances of classic Christmas carols instead.
If you’re into a funkier Christmas performance, try Soulful Joy @ Christmas instead, led by Destiny Muhammad and an ensemble of Bay Area jazz masters.
Otherwise, gather the family around for a holiday sing-along, led by the toys in Santa’s workshop.
Details: See website for dates and tickets.
**Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links you don’t pay a cent more, but I receive a small commission, that is put towards the running of this blog.