Photo: Nickolay Stanev/Shutterstock

10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in San Francisco

San Francisco Holidays
by Julia Kitlinski-Hong Dec 9, 2019

San Francisco is not the winter wonderland most envision when they daydream about the holidays. It’s simply not snowy enough. Yet anyone lucky enough to have spent a December in San Francisco can attest to the magic that sweeps the city come Christmastime. From giant gingerbread houses and twinkling trees to holiday shows that locals anticipate all year long, here are 10 ways to celebrate the holidays in San Francisco that prove the City by the Bay is a veritable winter wonderland, even without a dusting of snow.

1. Ice skate in the Embarcadero.

Sure, ice skating in Union Square next to San Francisco’s giant Christmas tree is something you have to do at least once, but let’s be honest: The holiday crowds and lack of parking are not ideal. The Holiday Ice Rink at the Embarcadero Center is much less chaotic, and there is actually good food nearby (hello Ferry Building).

2. Attend the “Home for the Holidays” concert.

This uber-popular concert put on by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is always sold out on Christmas Eve. A mix of traditional Christmas carols and modern cheeky twists on old holiday favorites, it is a show that will definitely put you in the holiday spirit. Every year the show is different and always includes dance numbers and special guest appearances.

3. Stop by the Macy’s Holiday Windows.

This is the one event that is worth braving the downtown holiday crowds for. Not only are Macy’s storefront windows elaborately decorated, but they also feature adoptable pups and kittens from the SF SPCA. It is impossible not to have your heart softened by these little furballs. Since you are already downtown, it does not hurt to take a peek at the illuminated Christmas Tree in Union Square as well — a sight that never gets old.

4. Visit the Zoo.

San Franciscans flock to the SF Zoo as it is transformed into a winter wonderland with twinkling lights, snow flurries, and plenty of hot cocoa to keep you warm. The highlight for little ones is always spotting Santa and his reindeer.

5. Educate yourself at the “‘Tis the Season for Science” exhibit.

Science has never been this festive and fun. The California Academy of Science features an exhibit that is all about the science behind the holidays, from facts about reindeer adaptation to learning about the northern lights. Make sure to pay a visit to the pair of live reindeer — and stay for the snow flurries.

6. Drool over a giant gingerbread house.

Photo: Fairmont San Francisco/Facebook

The holiday decorations at the Fairmont SF never cease to impress and include a life-sized, two-story gingerbread house. The sweet smell of sugar greets you the moment you enter the lobby, and it is hard not to have your mouth water as you take in all the edible details. If you want to get the full holiday experience, there is the option to splurge on the Gingerbread Holiday Tea as well.

7. Watch A Christmas Carol.

The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco’s theater district brings this classic holiday tale to life every year. Superb acting and beautiful Victorian costumes and sets help transport the audience right into the heart of 19th-century London.

8. Cheer on the decorated boat parade.

It is not officially the holiday season until the Lighted Boat Parade lights up the Fisherman’s Wharf harbor. As the oldest and largest lighted holiday boat parade on the San Francisco Bay, there is no shortage of decked-out boats that are very Instagram-worthy.

9. Watch The Nutcracker.

Getting dressed up and going to the War Memorial Opera House to watch the San Francisco Ballet put on a holiday classic is something San Franciscans look forward to immensely during the holiday season. The beautiful sets and elaborate dance numbers always captivate no matter what age you are.

10. Time Travel to The Great Dickens Christmas Fair.

There is nothing more magical than transporting yourself back to 19th-century Victorian London during the holidays. Housed in the Cow Palace in Daly City, this unique twist on a Christmas fair is a long-standing tradition for many San Franciscans. There is a never-ending list of things to do including indulging in traditional English comfort foods and draft ales, shopping among the many gift booths, and watching the various theatrical performances unfold.

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