If you’re looking for a festive city break brimming with holiday spirit, it’s hard to beat Christmas in San Francisco. From delightful winter displays to enchanting traditional performances and a host of unique seasonal events, it’s hard to beat the festive wonder of the Bay Area at the holidays.


Festive Displays

Christmas ornament in the shape of San Francisco cable car

Union Square

No area is quite so quintessential to Christmas in San Francisco as Union Square. This teeming commercial hub transforms throughout the holiday season into the beating heart of all things Christmas in the Bay Area.

The San Francisco holiday season kicks off with the lighting of the Macy’s Christmas Tree in late November, traditionally taking place on the first Friday after Thanksgiving. Hundreds of locals and visitors alike come out to watch the event and embrace the festive spirit, as Union Square becomes a veritable winter wonderland brimming with seasonal spirit.

Running in parallel to the early Christmas festivities, Union Square is also host each year to the Bill Graham Menorah in celebration of Hanukkah. Each night of the Jewish festival of lights is marked by the lighting of a candle atop the giant candelabra, accompanied by a hearty gathering filled with live music and a great deal of merriment.  

You’ll find all manner of ways to get into the holiday spirit around Union Square, whether it’s taking the kids to Macy’s to visit Santa Claus and awe at the frolicking, adoptable animals in the SPCA’s Holiday Window or showing off your moves on the Union Square Ice Skating Rink before grabbing some holiday deals at Westfield Shopping Center.


Fisherman’s Wharf

One of the Bay Area’s top attractions becomes ever more exciting throughout the holidays, hosting a number of festive events throughout the season.

Rivaling the main display on Union Square, Pier 39 goes a step further by lighting its Christmas tree multiple times an evening from late November to early January, synchronized to a fanfare of holiday music. In much the same way, the Pier also celebrates Hanukkah with its own giant menorah at the Entrance Plaza, lit up each night of the Jewish festival.

At the opposite end of Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square hosts its own diverse program of holiday celebrations, complete with the obligatory Christmas Tree display and Hanukkah festivities. In years past, the square has also been known to put on an outdoor cinema showcasing a number of popular holiday movies throughout the season.

Always a popular sight on the waterfront is the Fisherman’s Wharf Decorated Boat Parade, held each year in partnership with the St. Francis Yacht Club. Usually falling in mid-December, the parade sees local boats of all shapes and sizes adorned in festive lights and decor as they sail along the bay. Those who are particularly keen can pay to watch from the official starting line while enjoying a special holiday buffet.


Fairmont Hotel

If magical holiday displays and an exuberant seasonal atmosphere are what you’re looking for, be sure to visit the Fairmont Hotel at the top of Nob Hill. Each year, this luxury hotel goes all out on its holiday display, erecting a life-sized gingerbread house right in its main lobby. Large enough for adults to walk through, the charming display is made all the more enchanting by the miniature railway encircling the house.


Seasonal Events 

Man dressed in Santa suit and sombrero for SantaCon


You’d better watch out, as Santa Claus is coming to town in his masses! For a day each December, Union Square and its surrounding streets, bars and venues get overtaken by a colossal procession of Christmas characters, most of which end up in quite the drunken state as the day rolls on.

This Santa-themed celebration comes complete with caroling, costume contests and stockingfuls of merriment. Though entirely free to enter, SantaCon asks that visitors bring unwrapped toy donations of any size and value to help local charity drives aimed at disadvantaged families across the city. And, of course, festive fancy dress is highly encouraged!


The Great Dickens Fair

For a series of weekends throughout the holiday season, the city hosts The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, complete with festive market stalls among an impressive replica of Victorian London. Visitors can enjoy various Victorian-themed events and pick up some treasures while exploring the world which so inspired the famous nineteenth-century writer.


New Year’s Eve

Seeing out the holiday season, the Bay Area is considered to be among the top five destinations in the United States to spend New Year’s Eve, and that certainly isn’t without merit. Like many cities, San Fran veritably lights up with activity for the twilight hours of the year, with many of its top restaurants, bars and venues filled to the brim with jovial revelers.

Throughout the night, the city hosts a number of popular live events and concerts to beckon in the turn of the new year. As the night reaches its peak, many flock to the waterside to watch as barges 1,000 feet out in the bay set off a magnificent firework display, illuminating their surroundings in a blaze of vibrant color. The most popular site to catch the show is typically just south of the Ferry Building near Pier 14.


Holiday Performances

San Francisco theater decorated for Nutcracker ballet

Known for its incredible entertainment scene, it should come as no surprise that San Francisco also hosts a variety of limited-time performances throughout the holiday season, many of which have become a staple of local holiday tradition. Tickets to any of these performances typically sell out fast, so you’ll want to keep a keen eye out when they become available.


Nutcracker Ballet

Step into the magical wonderland of toy soldiers in this classic ballet performance of the Nutcracker, performed by a kaleidoscope of over 150 dancers as they battle the King of Mice and dance through the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Accompanied by a fantastic live orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, this is a truly enchanting performance to catch during the holiday season.


A Christmas Carol

Perhaps one of the most popular Bay Area holiday traditions is to bag a ticket to a theater performance of Charles Dickens’ festive classic, A Christmas Carol. Each year, the American Conservatory Theater puts on their own delightful adaptation of the classic tale, with a bubbly cast, vibrant costumes and a host of spooky ghosts.