Christmas in San Francisco 

Things to do in San Francisco for Christmas 2017!

Christmas is a beautiful time to be in San Francisco! The shops are decked out, the Christmas lights are sparkling, and holiday favorites like the Nutcracker ballet, Dickens' Christmas Carol and Handel's Messiah are playing.

Wooden nutcracker in front of decorated Christmas tree

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San Francisco Christmas Shows

Every year, there's another opportunity to see these Christmas favorites in world-class productions in the city.

The Nutcracker

The San Francisco Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker is the ultimate SF Christmas experience.

The American premier of the Nutcracker was took place in San Francisco, in the War Memorial Opera House, performed by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve in 1944. This event launched an American Christmas tradition, and you can still see the SF Ballet do the Nutcracker every year at the SF Opera House.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, Nutcracker Ballet, three ballerinas

Join young Clara and the sugar plum fairies this year in one of our most delightful holiday traditions.

Dates: Dec 13-30, 2017. 

Get tickets: for more info and to book tickets, see the SF Ballet website.


Dickens' Christmas Carol

Dickens' beloved story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim is performed every year in San Francisco by the American Conservatory Theater, at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street. This year's show runs from Dec 3 through Dec 24, 2017.

If you act quickly, you may be able to get the steeply-discounted tickets for ACT's Christmas Carol through Goldstar.com (60%-75% off this year). It's free to sign up with Goldstar, then check to see what they have. See Goldstar Christmas Carol.

If Goldstar is sold out, you can get more info and book tickets here:


Handel's Messiah

Not surprisingly, there are a number of venues in San Francisco offering the Messiah for Christmas 2017.

You can enjoy this beloved work in the SF Symphony's grand Davies Hall, in the gorgeous Herbst Theater, or in Grace Cathedral.

San Francisco Symphony - Messiah

See the Messiah performed by the SF Symphony and 100-member Symphony Chorus in Davies Hall. Always a great show.

Dates: Thursday,Dec 14 & Friday, Dec 15, 2017.

Get tickets: from the SF Symphony directly, at Davies Hall Messiah.

Sold out, or can't get seats together? Check ticketliquidators.com:


Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale - Messiah

The Philharmonia is a well-respected, local orchestra and chorus that performs on period instruments, for which the piece was originally created. Gives it an added beauty and authenticity.

As an extra treat, this year's Messiah is being sung in one of the prettiest concert halls in San Francisco, and one of my favorites: Herbst Theater, in the War Memorial Building next door to the SF Opera. It's a little smaller than the opera house, and decorated with large Art Deco paintings, and carved and painted wooden ceilings.

Herbst Theater, Messiah 2017, San FranciscoHerbst Theater

This is the Messiah I'm seeing this year; I've enjoyed their other concerts and I love going to Herbst Theater.

Dates: Friday, Dec 8 (also Dec 9, Berkeley; Dec 10, Rohnert Park) 2017.

Get tickets: from the Philharmonia website, at Messiah tickets.


Grace Cathedral - Messiah

One long-standing San Francisco tradition is the performance of Handel's Messiah in the beautiful Grace Cathedral, on Nob Hill.

Also performed on period instruments, and sung by the American Bach Choir, this has been a very popular event for past 20 years.

Book early for this one.

Dates: December 13, 14 & 15, 2017. 

Tickets range from $35 to $125. For more info and booking tickets, go to their website, Grace Cathedral Messiah.


A Charlie Brown Christmas

The San Francisco Symphony performs Christmas classics, while the Peanuts characters sing and dance against a backdrop of the animated favorite on screen. Dec 21-24, 2017. 


Christmas Activities in San Francisco

Christmas time is San Francisco has all sorts of visual treats for visitors. The major shops and hotels have their Christmas decorations out, and it's fun to check them out. Here are some more ideas for things to do in San Francisco for Christmas.

Macy's Believe Meter, San FranciscoMacy's Believe Meter

Kittens & Puppies in Macy's Windows

One of San Francisco's most loved Christmas activities is going downtown to see the adorable puppies and kittens available for adoption, in the windows of Macy's Union Square store.

The SPCA brings a selection of kittens and puppies needing homes to the downtown Macy's every holiday season, a 30-year tradition.  So far, around 8,800 pets have found forever homes through this program.

Even if you're not looking for a pet, it's still a heart-warming thing to see; how much cuter can it get? Pretty irresistible! I used to take my son down there when he was little; he loved it, and so did I. We still love to go down there and see them.

As of December 1, 2017, 55 kittens and 10 puppies had been adopted! 

Kittens for adoption, Macy's window, San Francisco

They set up the exhibit November 17, and it runs through Jan 1, 2018.

Take a peek at the kittens via their webcam: Macy's SPCA Kittens.


Dickens Christmas Faire

Get in the Christmas spirit, sample the roasted chestnuts and ale, and pick up some gifts. Wander through the lamp-lit streets of Victorian London in this extremely popular recreation of another time and place.

The entire Cow Palace arena is converted into street after street of vintage shops and pubs, with costumed actors selling food and Christmas items. A San Francisco tradition since 1970.

It's lots of fun: plays, music, pantomimes, Punch and Judy, Christmas carols, and more. Check their website for the schedule and list of entertainments. 

Dates: open weekends, Nov 18 through Dec 17, 2017, 10 am -7 pm, at the Cow Palace, in San Francisco.

Get tickets: for more info and booking tickets on their website, see Dickens Faire. Adults (13+) $30, Kids 5-12 $14.


Ice Skating in Union Square

Ice skating rink, Union Square, San FranciscoIce Skating in Union Square

An ice skating rink is set up in Union Square over the holiday season every year. It opened November 1,  2017, and continues through January 15, 2018. 

Open 10 am to 11:30 pm daily. Closes 9:30 pm on New Year's Eve.

Admission and skate rental: $18; kids under 9: $13. Lockers available. For more info, see Union Square ice rink.  

More ice rinks in San Francisco: 

  • Holiday Ice Rink, on the Embarcadero. A 30-year holiday tradition, open Nov 3, 2017, through Jan 7, 2018. Outside of Embarcadero Center 4, by Justin Herman Plaza, across from the Ferry Building. See ice rink for more info.
  • Yerba Buena Gardens. Open year round, indoor rink at Yerba Buena Gardens. Holiday decorations. $12. See ice skating for more info.

Huge Christmas Trees in the City

Several locations in San Francisco have massive Christmas trees set up outside to enjoy.

There is an enormous Christmas tree in Union Square; it's very pretty all lit up at night, also.

Christmas tree, Union Square, San FranciscoChristmas in Union Square

Other "big tree" outdoor locations:

  • Pier 39 has a 60 foot tree.
  • Ghirardelli Square has a big one, as well.

More Pretty Christmas Trees

The Fairmont Hotel's lobby is gorgeous any time of year, but especially so during the Christmas season. 

Christmas tree in the Fairmont Hotel lobby, San FranciscoFairmont Hotel Lobby

In addition to a beautiful tree, the Fairmont sets up a life-size, gingerbread house each year, that you can walk through (but not nibble on - it's really made of gingerbread, candy and icing, but it's not edible), and watch the toy train running along the track. A delight for kids.

Gingerbread House at the Fairmont Hotel, San FranciscoThe Fairmont's Gingerbread House

Getting there: the Fairmont Hotel is on Nob Hill, walking distance from Union Square: go up Powell Street, then left on California (up a very steep hill).

Or take the cable car that runs up Powell Street, and get off at California Street.

If you're in Union Square over the holidays, be sure to check out the beautiful tree in the entrance of Neiman Marcus. Their entry way is already gorgeous, with its Art Deco, stained glass ceiling.

Christmas Tree at Neiman Marcus, San FranciscoNeiman Marcus Atrium

Tip: they have really nice bathrooms, too. Downstairs in the men's department.

The Palace Hotel also has a beautiful tree every year. At 2 New Montgomery Street, downtown.

The Westfield Shopping Centre (downtown SF, 865 Market Street)  has a huge, upside-down hanging tree again this year, same as last year. Apparently, it's started an international trend, which some like and some don't. Decide for yourself ;-) 


Tell Santa What You Want

Santa is waiting to hear what you want for Christmas, at a number of locations around San Francisco.

Santa at Union Square Macy's, San FranciscoSanta at Macy's, Union Square

You can visit Santa at Holiday Lane, on the 6th floor of the Union Square Macy's store.

Santa's also at Westfield Shopping Centre downtown, and Stonestown Galleria in the Sunset, as well as Japantown.


Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz

For a special treat, take the kids for a holiday season tea party at the Ritz-Carlton. They put on a holiday show for the kids, while they drink their hot chocolate and eat teddy-bear-shaped cookies. Nov 25 - Dec 23, 2017. Book early for this one. See Teddy Bear Tea.


Christmas Brunch at the Palace Hotel

A lovely Christmas tradition is having Christmas brunch at the elegant Palace Hotel. This sells out fast, so book way ahead. See Palace brunch.

Another holiday treat at the Palace: Santa Claus Tea in the amazing Garden Court. Each Thursday in December, plus Christmas Eve. More info.

The Palace Hotel is at 2 New Montgomery Street, just off Market, downtown.


What's Open Christmas Day?

The following are open on Christmas Day:


Tours on Christmas Day

Here are some of the more popular tours available on Christmas Day:

  • Bay Cruise. Take a 60 minute ferry ride around the bay, past Alcatraz and out under the Golden Gate Bridge. 7 Christmas Day sailings from Pier 39 between 10:15 and 4:30. Save $3 if booked online. For more info and booking, click here.
  • Self-guided Bike Tours. Rent bikes and ride around the city, or even better, over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito. More info and booking, click here.
  • Go Car Tours. Do-it-yourself tour of the city in the GPS guided cars. Drive the little yellow cars all over SF, and hear interesting info as you pass the attractions. Save $2 if booked online (book here). Or read an account of our experience on the tour (our tips, and some don't do's!).
  • Hop On Hop Off Tours. Choose 1, 2 or 3-day tickets, and take the guided tour on the double decker buses around the city or over to Sausalito. See HOHO bus tour for details and booking. Runs on Christmas.
  • Hornblower Yachts Dinner Cruises. Hornblower has some special Christmas Day (and Christmas Eve) dinner cruises. Choose either a lavish buffet or a 4-course, sit-down dinner, with dancing and entertainment, in a festive holiday setting. See Hornblower for more info and booking. For my experience on one of their dinner cruises, plus photos, see SF dinner cruise.

Parking Downtown for the Holidays

Parking is especially challenging in San Francisco around Christmas. Here are some tips to make it less painful:

Parking Garages.

The main parking garages for Union Square shopping are:

  • Union Square Garage on Geary (under the square)
  • Sutter-Stockton Garage,  corner of Stockton & Sutter Streets. 

They are pretty expensive by the hour and they fill up fast in December. Sutter-Stockton is a little cheaper ($3 to $4.50 per hour) and is larger; if you get there early (before 10 am), you should get a spot.

Another option is to use one of the parking apps to find a spot. You can get some good deals sometimes on these sites, especially if you book ahead. See ParkingPanda.com or SpotHero.com.

Embarcadero Parking. If you are heading for Alcatraz, the Ferry Building, the Exploratorium, or any other places along the Embarcadero, check out my suggestions for the best places to park on the Embarcadero.


San Francisco Christmas Lights

In addition to the big outdoor trees mentioned above, there are some very pretty Christmas lights and displays to be seen around town.

  • Union Street. Decorated and lit up between Van Ness and Steiner St., See Union Street Christmas for activities. November and December, 2017.
  • Tom & Jerry's house. Decorated doesn't begin to describe this house in the Castro! 3650 21st Street. Santa shows up every evening, too, with candy canes for the kids (through Dec 24). Dec 1 - Jan 1.
  • SF Zoo. All lit up, the last 3 weekends in December; Santa and the reindeer are there, too. See Zoo Lights.
  • City Hall. San Francisco's City Hall is lit up in red and green for the holidays. Dec 11-30, 2017.
  • The Embarcadero Center buildings. All four Embarcaderos are lighted to look like giant Christmas presents. Right near the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.
  • The Conservatory of Flowers has a pretty light display over its entire surface for the holiday season...new! 
Holiday Lights on Conservatory of Flowers, San FranciscoHoliday Lights, Conservatory of Flowers

Let someone else take you around...

Christmas Lights Tour: you can see San Francisco's Christmas lights from a double decker bus, drink hot chocolate, sing carols, and let someone else drive you around the city. Dec 3 - Dec 30, 2017. $39.99

Santa and double decker bus, Christmas Lights Tour SFChristmas Lights Tour

Admire the lights at Pier 39, Union Square, City Hall, the Embarcadero Center  buildings, and see the whole city from Treasure Island. Book it at Christmas Lights Tour.

Tip: use the promo code NOWREZ10 and get 25% off.


Holiday Nights and Sights Tour: ride a motorized cable car and get a city tour plus see the Christmas lights, and sing carols all the way, wrapped in a blanket. Wearing the Santa hat is optional. 80 minutes. $39. See holiday tour for more info and booking.


Or see the lights from the Bay... 

Silver Bells Holiday Cruise. Hornblower Yachts has a festive dinner/dance holiday cruise that sails around the bay, past the city skyline and Embarcadero Center lights, under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz. Then on to the spectacular light show on the Bay Bridge. Meanwhile, there's a four-course, gourmet dinner and live entertainment and dancing to enjoy.

I've been on their dinner cruise; a great four-course meal and gorgeous views! See holiday dinner cruise for more info and booking, or see my page on our Hornblower dinner cruise experience this summer, with photos.

City Lights Bay Cruise. Sail with the Blue and Gold Ferry around the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz,  Sausalito, and then see the Bay Bridge Light Show up close. 90 minutes.  See bay cruise.


More to explore...