Best Christmas Traditions in San Francisco - 510 Families

Best Christmas Traditions in San Francisco

Thank you to the San Francisco Symphony for sponsoring our guide to family-friendly holiday outings in San Francisco. Join the San Francisco Symphony to ring in the holidays with festive family concerts throughout December.

Many of our favorite annual traditions for Christmas in San Francisco have returned for the 2022 holiday season. Here’s our go-to list of events and activities that add a little extra sparkle to your family memories.

mother and child at symphony
Get dressed up for an SF Symphony holiday performance | Photo: ©️2018 Stefan Cohen

Traditions and Lights | Shows and Performances | Activities to Do

Holiday and seasonal traditions for families in San Francisco

Planning a Christmas visit to San Francisco to take in some extra holiday cheer? We got you! Whether you BART, ferry, or drive, there are so many ways to make a day of it by celebrating Christmas in the City.

Macy's holiday window display
Macy’s holiday window display features real pets you can adopt! | Photo: Sally Mason

Holiday windows! Did you know that Macy’s holiday window displays include live animals that can be adopted? The SPCA and San Francisco Animal Care team up to from Nov. 18 to Jan. 1 (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) to bring adorable kittens and puppies available to adopt from Macy’s the same day.  Find out more or watch the live cam >

Cable car and cocoa. Wear a scarf and this classic mode of transportation feels extra Christmasy. From Union Square (or Powell & Market), hop on either the Powell/Hyde or Powell/Mason lines and take them to the end of the line. Refuel at Starbucks with hot chocolate right at the turnaround.
Pro tip: for really little ones, I always get child-size cocoas and an extra cup to split the drink and cut them further with cool milk.

sugar castle at the st. francis westin
Look but don’t touch the enormous sugar castle at the Westin St. Francis | Photo: The Westin St. Francis

Enormous sugar castle, beginning November 23 at 11 am. Right off Union Square, the Westin St. Francis features a 12-feet rotating holiday sugar castle in the Landmark Lobby of the hotel.

Ticket alert: San Francisco holiday performances

Spotlight on the San Francisco Symphony

Enter the winter wonderland of a decked-out Davies Symphony Hall and ring in the holidays with festive family concerts throughout December. Enjoy the classic storybook fable of Peter and the Wolf performed by the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra with guest narrator (& East Bay parent!), W. Kamau Bell; holiday films like Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas with live orchestra; ballet dancers, holiday characters, and carols at the Symphony’s beloved annual favorite, Deck the Hall; and more. Explore family holiday concerts below!

child's view of the symphony
Watching and feeling the beautiful music at Davies Symphony Hall | Photo: Maureen Burke

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra presents Deck the Hall
Treat your family to a concert of holiday favorites and sing-alongs led by conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser with members of the San Francisco Symphony, guest artists, and beloved costumed characters.
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
When: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 11 am or 3 pm
Tickets are here >

San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra presents Peter and the Wolf
Sergei Prokofiev’s timeless tale of a boy and his animal friends’ bravery is brought to life with guest narrator W. Kamau Bell!
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
When: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 2 pm
Tickets are here >

San Francisco Symphony presents How the Grinch Stole Christmas with live orchestra
Enjoy the vibrant Jim Carey live-action adaptation on the big screen like never before as the San Francisco Symphony performs the score LIVE to picture. Rated: PG
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
When: Dec. 16 and 17 (times vary)
Tickets are here >

San Francisco Symphony presents Elf in Concert with live orchestra
Buddy (Will Ferrell) was accidentally left in the North Pole in a heartwarming holiday classic on a giant screen as John Debney’s wonderful score is played live to picture in: Elf™ in Concert! Rated: PG
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
When: Dec. 21 and 22 (times vary)
Tickets are here >

More Nutcrackers and holiday shows in San Francisco

ODC presents The Velveteen Rabbit
This 65- minute performance has one intermission.
Where: Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
When: Showtimes from Nov. 26 – Dec. 11 at 11 am or 3 pm
Find tickets here >

A.C.T. presents A Christmas Carol
Sensory-friendly showing on December 18
Where: Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco
When: Nov. 30 – Dec. 24 with evening and matinee shows
Tickets are here >
Discounted tickets on Goldstar >

Presidio Theatre presents Sleeping Beauty
Panto rendition of Sleeping Beauty includes wild costumes and funny musical mashups with renditions of popular songs thrown in the mix. Recommended for 10+
Where: Presidio Theater in San Francisco
When: Dec. 1-30 with performances at 1 pm and 6 pm
Ticket link >
Discounted ticket link >

SF Girls Chorus & Amateur Music Network presents Family Sing: A Holiday Sing Along
Great for children 10+ sing holiday favorites en masse.
Where: Kanbar Center for the Performing Arts, 44 Page Street, San Francisco
When: Friday, December 2 at 6:30 pm
Find tickets here >

San Francisco Youth Ballet presents Nutcracker
Where: Chinese American International School, San Francisco
When: Dec. 3 – 4 with matinee and evening shows
Find tickets here >
Discounted tickets here >

Mark Foehringer presents Nutcracker Sweets
Great for children and is only 50 minutes long.
Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco
When: Weekends from Dec. 3 – 18
Find tickets here >

mother holding child at concert
San Francisco Symphony Music For Families at Davies Symphony Hall | Photo: ©️2018 Stefan Cohen

San Francisco Ballet presents A Nutcracker Spectacle
This show has a 2-hour run time with one intermission.
Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
When: Dec. 8 – 27 (times vary)
Tickets are here >

Grace Cathedral presents Sing You a Merry Christmas
A family-friendly sing-a-long about the toys of St. Nick’s workshop. 60 minutes with no intermission.Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco
When: Showtimes from Dec. 10, 17, 21, 22 (times vary)
Find tickets here >

SF Girls Chorus presents SFGC at Davies
Annual holiday concert that showcases all ages of performers in the chorus.
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco
When: Monday, December 12 at 7 pm
Find tickets here >

SMUIN Contemporary Ballet presents The Christmas Ballet
This show has a 2-hour run time with one intermission.
Where:
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street, San Francisco
When: Showtimes from Dec. 14 – 24
Find tickets here >

San Francisco Lesbian Gay Freedom Band presents Dance-Along Nutcracker: Snowbound
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street
When: Saturday Dec. 17 @ 3 pm & 7 pm; Sunday Dec. 18 @ 11 am & 3 pm
Box office tickets are here >

San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus presents Holiday Spectacular: Home for the Holidays
Where: Castro Theatre
When:
Dec. 24 with 3 performance times
Buy tickets in advance >

Find lots of Nutcracker and holiday performances >

Book ahead for special visits & activities

The best Santa Claus is at Macy’s Union Square. Our sources say that the best Santa Claus experience in SF is Santaland at Macy’s from Nov. 25 through Dec. 24 on the 6th floor of Macy’s. Reservations open November 20 at 5:30 am. If in-person visits aren’t your speed, register for a virtual meet & greet with Santa. Looking for a Santa experience closer to home? Check out our Where to Get Photos with Santa in the East Bay Guide. >

Meet reindeer at Cal Academy. At the new Welcome Winter Night event on December 6, families will have a chance to meet two visiting reindeer, decorate cookies, make crafts, enjoy holiday magic and musical performances, and take part in other wintery fun. Learn more and reserve tickets >

Ice skating in the City. Lots of special outdoor ice rinks appear throughout the Bay Area, and San Francisco is no exception. Glide around the rink at Union Square. The rink is open daily, plus there are special skating events scheduled throughout the season with fun themes. Find more places to ice skate in the Bay Area over the holidays >

Union Square San Francisco all lit up
Union Square San Francisco all lit up | Photo courtesy of Red Apple Photography

Christmas High Tea in the City

High Tea at the holidays is a lovely, albeit pricey, tradition for some families of mostly well-behaved children. There are a few places to try out your best outfits and shiny shoes for a morning or afternoon of goodies: The Fairmont Hotel (Nob Hill), Lovejoy’s Tea Room (Noe Valley), Children’s Magical Tea at Top of the Mark (Nob Hill), Teddy Bear Tea at The Ritz-Carlton (Nob Hill), Dollie + Me Holiday Tea at The Westin St. Francis (Union Square), and Sip Tea Room (Sunset District). Read about other charming Bay Area Christmastime tea services. >

Christmas Tea at Sir Francis Drake
You’ll want to book Christmas High Tea in advance (shown at Sir Francis Drake) | Photo: Heather Flett

Holiday lights and festive decorations to see and love

Whether you plan a stroll or stay cozy in the car for a drive-by, we love holiday lights to get in the Christmas spirit. Add hot chocolate and a twinkling tree, and I’m happy.

Lights throughout Golden Gate Park. The illuminated Entwined exhibit lights up with twinkling lights and giant iridescent sculptures with sparkling trees ranging from 12 to 20 feet tall. It is a magical and free walk in the park.
Where: Golden Gate Park’s Peacock Meadow
When: Dec. 1 through March 12, 2023.

Tree lighting celebrations. Watch trees more than 50 feet tall light up across the city. Tree lightings and events traditionally take place at Civic Center, Pier 39, Golden Gate Park, and Grace Cathedral. Union Square plans to have a tree, but skip the grand lighting fuss. Many events include music and other family-friendly festivities. Others are casual and allow for visiting on your own schedule. Find more Bay Area tree lighting ceremonies here >

Friday, December 16, 2022, Lighted boat parade. From 6 – 8 pm, Fisherman’s Wharf presents the oldest and largest lighted holiday boat parade on San Francisco Bay. Spectators can see it from Aquatic Park, PIER 39, Marina Green, and Crissy Field. Find details here. There are more Bay Area lighted yacht parades, too.

Giant gingerbread house. Atop Nob Hill, Fairmont San Francisco’s two-story, life-sized gingerbread house in the hotel’s grand lobby is a wonderful holiday attraction. Debuting November 27 at 11 am, the gingerbread house is up through the entire holiday season. There’s an impressive moving train and a giant Christmas tree, too.

Giant Gingerbread house at the fairmont hotel
Yours would not be the first children to sneak a little nibble of the giant gingerbread house at the Fairmont Hotel | Photo: Sally Mason

Winter Wanderland. Union Square comes alive with lights, skating, and all the hotel attractions (see below!) but also with its community performances, food trucks, family-friendly holiday activities, and all-around merriment of Winter Wanderland from Nov. 25 to Dec. 31. No reservations are needed.

These holiday light displays in the East Bay (and beyond) are worth the drive >

Davies Symphony Hall Lobby
Davies Hall lobby is perfect for twirling before or after a show | Photo: Maureen

Thank you to the San Francisco Symphony for sponsoring our guide to family-friendly holiday experiences in San Francisco. Join them for festive family concerts throughout December.

SF Symphony Logo

What do you like to do in SF for the holidays? Find our East Bay Christmas bucket list over here >

xxx

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