Best Christmas Traditions in San Francisco - 510 Families
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Best Christmas Traditions in San Francisco

Many of our favorite annual traditions for Christmas in San Francisco have returned for the 2021 holiday season. Here’s our go-to list of events and activities that add a little extra sparkle to your family memories.

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.

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. 26 through Dec. 24 on the lower level of Macy’s. Reservations open November 21 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. >

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 like Harry Potter or 80s Flashback. 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

High Tea in the City. High Tea at Christmastime is a lovely, albeit pricey, tradition for some families of mostly-well-behaved children. Here are a few places to try out your best outfits and shiny shoes for a morning or afternoon of goodies: Crown & Crumpet (Japantown), 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. >

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

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.

Holidays at Cal Academy. Visiting California Academy of Sciences is always a joy, and during the holidays the museum puts on some special events that are extra fun. It’s the only place in SF where snow falls regularly; twirl in the (non-allergenic, biodegradable, non-toxic, and non-staining) snow in the museum’s Piazza twice every hour. Or, reserve tickets to the new Science Under the Sea Stars event on December 15. Visitors can enjoy holiday themed-puppet and magic shows, cookie decorating, snow science experiments and more.

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 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

Ticket alert: San Francisco dance, music, and theater performances

A Campy silly show stuffed with fabulous costumes and over-the-top humor (some pretty rude)
Presidio Theatre presents The Magic Lamp
Where: Main Stage, Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco
When: Dec. 1 – 31 at 2 pm or 7:30 pm (27 shows in all)
Find tickets here >

ODC presents The Velveteen Rabbit
Where: Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
When: Showtimes from Dec. 4 – 12 at 2 pm
Find tickets here >

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Mark Foehringer presents Nutcracker Sweets
Great for children because it is only 50 minutes long.
Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason
When: Showtimes from Dec. 4 – 19 (times vary)
Find tickets here >

San Francisco Ballet presents The Nutcracker
Where: War Memorial Opera House
When: Dec. 10 – 30 (times vary)
Find tickets here >

SMUIN Contemporary Ballet presents The Christmas Ballet
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street
When: Showtimes from Dec. 16 – 26 (times vary)
Find tickets here >

San Francisco Symphony presents Home Alone with Live Orchestra
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue
When: Dec. 16 @ 7:30 pm and Dec. 18 @ 2 pm
Find tickets here >

San Francisco Symphony presents Deck the Hall at the Drive-In
Where: Fort Mason Flix, 2 Marina Boulevard
When: Sunday, Dec. 5 @ 4 pm or 6:30 pm
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. 
Where: Grace Cathedral
When: Showtimes from Dec. 11 – 23 (times vary)
Find tickets here >

Macy's holiday window display
In 2021, Macy’s holiday window display features videos of pets you can adopt! | Photo: Sally Mason

Christmas 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.

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, Macy’s at Union Square, Pier 39, McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park, Ghirardelli Square, and Grace Cathedral. 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 >

Holiday windows! Macy’s annual holiday window displays are always a delight. This year’s theme centers around “Tiptoe,” a lovable reindeer who is afraid to fly. The store will also showcase videos of shelter animals as part of its 35-year collaboration with the San Francisco SPCA. Visit November 23 through January 2 for some adorable, heart-warming fun.

Christmas Tree stroll. Ghirardelli Square is hosting a self-guided Christmas tree stroll with trees decorated by the students at the Academy of Art University. It begins on November 26.

tree walk sf
Stroll through the trees. | Photo: Academy of Art University

Neighborhood lights. In the past, several neighborhoods and city landmarks were lit up in their holiday best. Walk or drive by to take in those festive feels. Check out City Hall, Market Street, Union Square District, Presidio, Nob Hill, The Castro, or Embarcadero Center.

Decorated Boat Parade. Watch boats decorated with holiday lights parade between Chrissy Field and Marina Green on December 17 at 6 pm. Find top-notch viewing spots at Pier 39. Learn about other Lighted Yacht and Boat Parades in the Bay Area >

A festival of light. Throughout San Francisco from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, you can find more than 40 extraordinary light art and sculptures in 17 of San Francisco’s neighborhoods for FREE. Check out where and what at Illuminate SF >

Let it glow. Journey through the city to spot holiday light projections from local and international artists. The displays are on view December 3-12, 5:30 – 10 pm nightly. See the map >

Lights throughout Golden Gate Park. The illuminated Entwine exhibit returns to light up Golden Gate Park’s Peacock Meadow with twinkling lights and giant iridescent sculptures. Lighted trees range from 12 to 20 feet tall. This free exhibit runs from December 2 through February 1. Read more about the Golden Gate Park light experience >

entwine
Rendering courtesy San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department

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

Find lots of Nutcracker and holiday performances >

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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