Christmas in San Francisco 

Things to do in San Francisco for Christmas!

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.

Note: Due to Covid, many of the SF Christmas programs won't be scheduled for 2020.

The SF Symphony and SF Ballet won't be performing again until 2021.

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.

2019 was the 75th anniversary of San Francisco's first Nutcracker performance.

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.

But not in 2020 due to Covid, unfortunately.

Handel's Messiah

In most years, 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

Due to Covid, the SF Symphony won't be performing until January, 2021.

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

Grace Cathedral - Messiah

Due to Covid, this event won't be happening in 2020.

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.

Grace Cathedral Carols

Grace Cathedral does Christmas carol programs as well, both sing-along, and performances by their Choir of Men and Boys.

Sing-Along Messiah

The Golden Gate Symphony usually does a Sing it Yourself! Messiah each year, at Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave. 

Bur not 2020 because of Covid.

More Christmas Events with the Symphony

Christmas Movies with the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony often does the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Watch the movie while the symphony orchestra plays the music. .

Sing Holiday Tunes with the SF Symphony

Get in the Christmas spirit with the SF Symphony's holiday sing-a-long, a kid and family-oriented show, Deck the Hall.

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.

Previous 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 usually runs from the last week in November through Jan 1.

Dickens Christmas Faire

The 2020 Dickens Christmas Faire is canceled due to Covid.

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. 

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. For 2019, the rink was open was open from November 6  through January 20. 

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 rinkUnknown if this will happen in 2020.

More ice rinks in San Francisco: 

  • Holiday Ice Rink, on the Embarcadero. A 30-year holiday tradition, opens Nov 6, 2019. 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. Adults: $12. Kids under 8: $7. Skate rental: $5. See Holiday Ice Rink for more info. (Holiday Ice Rink is canceled for 2020.)
  • Yerba Buena Gardens. Open year round, indoor rink at Yerba Buena Gardens. Holiday decorations. $12.  Public skating not happening now, but could change.

Winter Park at Civic Center 

San Francisco added a new ice-skating venue on a grand scale in 2018, and it's back for 2019.

A large area in front of San Francisco's City Hall is turned into a skating rink for the holidays.

Last year (2019) skating was from November 22, 2019 through Jan 5, 2020. 

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

See Winter Park for more info and booking.

2020 status unknown at this point.

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 2019 will be November 29, starting at 5:30 pm, with the tree lights going on around 6:50 pm.  

Last year, the ceremony included 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.

Currently, they're doing a tree-lighting show on the hour from 5 to 10 pm, every night through Jan 1, 2020. Synchronized Christmas music and lights.

This year, they have a Pier 39 parking garage deal through Jan 1: $10 for 4 pm till midnight. 

Christmas tree at Pier 39, San FranciscoPier 39 Christmas Tree

More info on Pier 39.

Ghirardelli Square Christmas Tree

Ghirardelli Square has a big tree every year as well. Tree lighting is on November 29, 2019, 4-9 pm. Music and crafts, also.

Enjoy some hot cocoa and other goodies during the festivities! Santa will be there, too.

More on Ghirardelli Square.

The Presidio Tree

Lighting the big tree on the Main Post of the Presidio will be December 6, 2019, 5:30 - 7 pm.

Sing Christmas carols and enjoy the refreshments, then do a walk in the forest with lanterns at 6 pm. See Presidio ceremony for more info.

More Pretty Christmas Trees

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

The Fairmont Hotel is open for guests again, but it's unknown if the gingerbread house and Christmas teas are happening in 2020.

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.

Fun thing to do: book a Gingerbread Holiday Tea at the Fairmont. See Fairmont tea. Runs Nov 30 - Dec 31, 2019.

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.

And the Ritz Carlton Hotel will have a pretty, 40-foot tree. The tree-lighting is Dec 2, 2019 at 5:30 and Santa will be there. 600 Stockton St.

The Westfield Shopping Centre (downtown SF, 865 Market Street)  has had a huge, upside-down, hanging tree the past two years, we'll see if it's happening again this year. Apparently, it's started an international trend, which some like and some don't. Decide for yourself ;-) 

The tree lighting this year is Dec 6, 2019. 

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 7th floor of the Union Square Macy's store.

Santa's also comes to the Westfield Shopping Centre downtown, and the Stonestown Galleria shopping mall in the Sunset District, as well as the Japantown East Mall.

Santa's appearances for 2019

  • Macy's Union Square. Nov 23 - Dec 24, 2019. 7th Floor. See Santa's schedule
  • Westfield Shopping Centre. Dec 7 - 21, 2019. See their events calendar.
  • Stonestown Galleria. Nov 16 - Dec 24, 2019, for photos with kids. I used to take my son to see Santa here;) And photos with pets (!) Nov 18 - Dec 16, 2019. 3251 20th Ave. See Stonestown Santa for schedule. 
  • Japantown. Dec 14, 15, 21 & 22, 2019, 12 - 4 pm. Plus crafts for kids to make. Japan Center East Mall, 1737 Post St. See Japantown Santa for more info, or info about Japantown itself.

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. Book early for this one. See Teddy Bear Tea for info and booking. Dates Nov 30 - Dec 23, 2019.

Grown-ups: a holiday tea for you, too. Dec 1- Dec 28, 2019. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, as well. 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. 

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. 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 or 2-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.

Last minute gift!

Stumped for an original gift? Want something San Francisco-ish?

There's a new board game called Alarm 22, Escape from Alcatraz.

Play as one of Alcatraz's inmates and see if you can escape the island without getting captured (or worse). It's based on real escape attempts and was designed by Jimmy Treehorn, the man who built the big scale model of Alcatraz at Pier 33. 

Inmate card from Escape from Alcatraz board game, Machine Gun KellyOne of the inmate cards

Fun game with just the right amount of strategy. 

It's for sale in the Alcatraz Gift Shop at Pier 39 (upstairs), as well as a number of other local shops (and online). 

See for more details and store locations.

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.

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.
  • 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, between 6:30 and 10 pm through Dec 24, 2019. Decorations up through Dec 31. 
  • SF Zoo. Christmas usually brings reindeer to the zoo. Enjoy holiday treats, carolers and decorate cookies. Santa's at Tinsel Town (the Pachyderm Building), the Zoo's winter wonderland. 
  • City Hall. San Francisco's City Hall is lit up in red and green for the holidays every year.
  • The Embarcadero Center buildings. All four Embarcadero Center buildings are lighted to look like giant Christmas presents, starting mid-November. Right near the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
  • The Conservatory of Flowers has a special light and sound exhibit amongst the flowers for the holiday season, Night Bloom. Outside lighting is cool, too.
Holiday Lights on Conservatory of Flowers, San FranciscoHoliday Lights 2017, Conservatory of Flowers

Christmas Lights Tours

Let someone else take you around...

Go caroling while you view the Christmas lights.

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

Something a little different:

  • Do Christmas carol karaoke on a city tour, checking out the lights of the city. See Christmas karaoke tour for more info and booking.
  • Christmas and city lights tour and caroling with a small group on a little tuk tuk vehicle (motorized rickshaw). See Tuk tuk Christmas tour for 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 one of their dinner cruises; 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, with photos.

Red, White and Green Cruise. Christmas festivities (and Santa), with holiday refreshments and games for the kids, on the Bay 2 Bay Cruise, when the Red & White Ferry turns into a Christmas cruise. Various dates from Dec 7 - Dec 25, 2019. 90 minutes. See Red, White & Green cruise.

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.

Santa's Train to the North Pole

If you're going up to the Napa Valley over the holidays, the Napa Wine Train has a special excursion to the North Pole for kids (and their staff).

Santa and his elves will be on the train and travelers can enjoy holiday singing, games, hot chocolate and other goodies during the 1.5 hour train trip to the North Pole.

Daily Nov 19-27 and Nov 29-Dec 23, 2019. Departures at 5 pm and 7 pm. $59.99. See Santa Train for more info and booking.

A San Francisco Tradition

Anchor Steam Christmas Ale for 2019

Our local beer-maker, Anchor Steam Brewery, creates a special beer every year, just for the holidays. This is their 45th year of creating their Christmas Ale.

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! 

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.

More to explore...

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