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.
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Every year, there's another opportunity to see these Christmas favorites in world-class productions in the city.
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.
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' 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.
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.
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.
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 does Christmas carol programs as well, both sing-along, and performances by their Choir of Men and Boys.
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.
The San Francisco Symphony often does the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Watch the movie while the symphony orchestra plays the music. .
Get in the Christmas spirit with the SF Symphony's holiday sing-a-long, a kid and family-oriented show, Deck the Hall.
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.
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.
The exhibit usually runs from the last week in November through Jan 1.
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.
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 rink. Unknown if this will happen in 2020.
More ice rinks in San Francisco:
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.
Several locations in San Francisco have massive Christmas trees set up outside to enjoy.
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.
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.
More info on Pier 39.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Santa is waiting to hear what you want for Christmas, at a number of locations around San Francisco.
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.
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.
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.
The following are open on Christmas Day:
Here are some of the more popular tours available on Christmas Day:
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.
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 alarm22.com for more details and store locations.
Parking is especially challenging in San Francisco around Christmas. Here are some tips to make it less painful:
The main parking garages for Union Square shopping are:
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 SpotHero.com 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.
In addition to the big outdoor trees mentioned above, there are some very pretty Christmas lights and displays to be seen around town.
Go caroling while you view the Christmas lights.
Something a little different:
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.
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.
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.