Christmas in San Francisco 

Things to do in San Francisco for Christmas 2018!

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 12-29, 2018. 

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 6 through Dec 29, 2017.

If you act quickly, you may be able to get the steeply-discounted tickets for ACT's Christmas Carol through (up to 40% 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 2018.

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: Friday, Dec 14 & Saturday, Dec 15, 2018.

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

Sold out, or can't get seats together? Check

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 12, 13 & 14, 2018. 

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

Sing-Along Messiah

The Golden Gate Symphony is performing a Sing it Yourself! Messiah on Dec 10, 2018, at 7:30 pm at Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave.

Choose the Chorus Section when booking if you want to be seated with the chorus and sing with your fellow sopranos (or other parts). This sing-along is followed by a pub crawl;-). See Sing it Yourself Messiah for more info and booking. Tickets are $25-$45.

More Christmas Events with the Symphony

Christmas Movies with the SF Symphony

This year the San Francisco Symphony does the Christmas classic, Home Alone. Watch the movie while the symphony orchestra plays the music. Dec 19-21, 2018. 

See Home Alone - SF Symphony for more info and tickets.

Sing Holiday Tunes with the SF Symphony

Get in the Christmas Spirit with the SF Symphony's holiday sing-a-long.

Sunday, Dec 23, at 7:30 pm. See Christmas program for more info.

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. 

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.

Go to their website to see the live web cams of all the cuteness.

Last year's kittens and puppies...

Kittens for adoption, Macy's window, San Francisco
Puppies in the window, adoption by the SPCA, Christmas in San Francisco.

The exhibit runs from November 16, 2018, through Jan 1, 2019.

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 17 through Dec 23, 2018, 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 's open from November 7,  2018, through January 21, 2019. 

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, opens Nov 5, 2018. Open daily, 10 am-9:30 pm (Fri & Sat till 11:30 pm). Outside of Four Embarcadero Center, 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.
  • California Academy of Sciences. The science museum in Golden Gate Park has set up an ice rink for the holidays. $12 to skate (plus museum admission), November 16, 2018, through Jan 6, 2019. See skating for more info.

Winter Park at Civic Center
New for 2018! 

San Francisco is adding a new ice-skating venue on a grand scale this year.

A large area in front of San Francisco's City Hall is being turned into a skating rink for the holidays, intended to become an annual event.

Come skate here starting November 30, 2018; runs through Jan 6, 2019. Opening ceremonies at 11:00 am include an appearance by Brian Boitano and several skating performances.

Admission (including skate rental): $20 for adults, $5-15 for kids.

See Winter Park for more info and booking.

Huge Christmas Trees in the City

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

Union Square Christmas Tree

Every year, Macy's contributes the enormous Christmas tree in Union Square. The tree lighting ceremony for 2018 will be November 23, starting at 5:30 pm, with the tree lights going on around 6:50 pm.  

The ceremony includes performances by the San Francisco Boys Choir and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and Santa and Snoopy will be making a visit.

Christmas tree, Union Square, San FranciscoChristmas in Union Square

Pier 39 Christmas Tree

Pier 39 puts up a 60-foot Christmas tree at the entrance to the pier every year. This year the lighting celebration will be November 21, 2018, from 5-9 pm.

Christmas tree at Pier 39, San FranciscoPier 39 Christmas Tree

New this year: there will a light show (synced to Christmas music) at the top of the tree every night from Nov 21, 2018 through Jan 1, 2019, on the hour, from 5-10 pm.

Bring a gift to donate and get a treat!

Ghirardelli Square Christmas Tree

Ghirardelli Square has a big tree every year as well. Tree lighting on November 23, 4-9 pm. Enjoy some hot cocoa and other goodies during the festivities!

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.

The house is going to be even bigger this year; it's scheduled to open November 23, 2018.

Fun thing to do: book a Gingerbread Holiday Tea at the Fairmont, Nov 23, 2018, through Jan 1, 2019. See Fairmont tea.

Gingerbread House at the Fairmont Hotel, San FranciscoThe Fairmont's Gingerbread House from 2017

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 ;-) 

The tree lighting is Dec 7, 2018, and you can meet Santa while drinking your hot chocolate. 

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 coming to the Westfield Shopping Centre downtown, and Stonestown Galleria in the Sunset, as well as Japantown.

  • Macy's Union Square schedule
  • Westfield Shopping Centre. 
  • Stonestown Galleria. 
  • Japantown, Dec 8 & 9, 2018, 11 am - 4 pm. More info.

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. Saturdays and Sundays, Dec 1 - Dec 23, 2018, at 10 am. Book early for this one. See Teddy Bear Tea for info and booking.

Grown-ups: a holiday tea for you, too. Dec 2 - Dec 28, 2018. See Ritz events for booking.

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. Nothing available for Dec 25, but other days around that may be available.

They have Holiday Lunches, Holiday Teas, Holiday Brunches, Holiday Dinners, and even Santa Claus Teas to choose from. See Palace brunch for more info and reservations.

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 to book a place in a garage or lot, or to try your luck at street parking.

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., November and December, 2018.
  • 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, 2018 - Jan 1, 2019.
  • SF Zoo. All lit up, the last 3 weekends in December 2018; 5-8 pm. 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.
  • The Embarcadero Center buildings. All four Embarcaderos are lighted to look like giant Christmas presents, starting Nov 16, 2018. Right near the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
  • The Conservatory of Flowers has a special light and sound exhibit amongst the flowers for the 2018 holiday season, Night Bloom. Dec 2, 2018 through Jan 6, 2019, 5-11 pm.
Holiday Lights on Conservatory of Flowers, San FranciscoHoliday Lights 2017, Conservatory of Flowers

Christmas Lights Tours

Let someone else take you around...

Pick a double-decker bus or a motorized cable car for a night ride through the city.

Guide on Holiday Lights Tour dressed as Santa, beside tour bus at Pier 39Santa's waiting...

Holiday Lights Double-Decker Tour: you can see San Francisco's Christmas lights from a double-decker bus and sing carols, while someone else drives you around the city and across the Bay Bridge. Several stops for photos. 2 hours. $36.99.

Climb the steep, cable-car route up to the ritzy Nob Hill hotels. Admire the lights at Pier 39, Union Square, City Hall, the Embarcadero Center buildings, and cross the Bay Bridge to see the whole city lit up from Treasure Island. Includes Santa hat and candy canes! More info and booking at Double-Decker Holiday Lights Tour.

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. 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.

A San Francisco Tradition

Our local beer-maker, Anchor Steam Brewery, has released their 2018 Christmas Ale, their 44th year of creating a special beer just for the holidays. 

The recipe is new every year (and a secret!) and it's only available from November to the middle of January, so get it while you can! Looks like a rich, dark beer.

Anchor Steam's brewmaster described some of the beer's flavors as "bruleed sugars, holiday spices and freshly baked banana bread". Who could resist that? 

If you want to explore the brewery, and taste some of their beers, they have a fun tour for $25 (including 7 good-sized "tastes"). Reservations required. For info on the brewery and the tour, see Anchor Steam Brewery.

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