15 Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas

SAN FRANCISCO, USA - SEPTEMBER 15: Little Italy street on September 15, 2015 in San Francisco, California, United States. San Francisco was founded on June 29, 1776.

While San Francisco is a wonderful place to visit any time of year, the City by the Bay sparkles a little brighter in December. From ice skating in Union Square to a life-size gingerbread house, festive holiday lights at Fisherman's Wharf, and the country's largest holiday light projection event, there are simply so many things to do in San Francisco this holiday season.

The Best Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas

California San Francisco
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I grew up an hour outside of San Francisco, and visiting the city at Christmas was always the highlight of the season. Now, as a San Francisco resident for the past 12 years, the magic still hasn't worn off. While my favorite activities are always wandering in and out of the beautifully decorated San Francisco hotels, the festive options in the city are endless. Here's my list of fun things to do in San Francisco at Christmas. Who knows? Something may catch your fancy and become a favorite San Francisco holiday tradition for years to come.

1. Go Ice Skating in Union Square

Things To Do in the Poconos in Winter - ice skating
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Union Square's beloved ice-skating rink is back to entertain the ages this holiday season. Hit the ice surrounded by festive lights, fun holiday music, and Union Square's 83-foot-tall Christmas tree and 25-foot-tall Menorah. A fun activity for novices and naturals alike, the rink is open until January 15, 2024. General admission, including skate rental, is $20.

2. Watch A Christmas Carol at the Toni Rembe Theater

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - city hall
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Charles Dickens's timeless story makes the perfect holiday tradition. Recall the true spirit of Christmas in a beautiful and historic setting. The costumes are gorgeous, the music is lively, and the cast is brilliant. A Christmas Carol runs from December 6, 2023, to December 24, 2023, at the Toni Rembe Theater.

3. Visit the Fairmont San Francisco

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - union square
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A visit to the Fairmont is one of the most festive things to do in San Francisco at Christmas. Nestled atop Nob Hill, the Fairmont San Francisco has a life-sized Gingerbread House in the lobby, a beautifully decorated floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree, and on November 24, the Moet Lobby Champagne Bar opens so guests can sip while soaking up the Fairmont's festive vibes. More holiday options at the Fairmont San Francisco include the Holiday Tea and Santa Suites. Two rooms, Santa's home away from home, are available to book and fully decked out with whimsical winter décor.

4. See the Christmas Tree at the Palace Hotel

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - port of san francisco
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The annual tree in the Garden Court will make your jaw drop. Plus, they have a “Lunch with Santa,” and their mailbox in the lobby with direct access to the North Pole is one of the best-kept secrets in San Francisco. Whether or not visitors choose to stay at the Palace Hotel, wandering inside is well worth it. A cocktail and the famous Green Goddess Salad at the Pied Piper Bay & Lounge is a welcome and relaxing escape from the holiday shoppers and busy streets of San Francisco.

5. Marvel at the Westin St. Francis

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - 21st St
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This classic San Francisco hotel has a French chateau that stands 12 feet high, rotates, and is created from sugar by the hotel's pastry chef. The annual masterpiece is worth visiting. Centrally located, the Westin St. Francis is elegantly decorated and just across the street from Union Square's ice-skating rink. It's also a prime location for visitors looking to holiday shop. 

6. Witness the Nutcracker

A stage production of The Nutcracker
Image Credit: Школа Балета, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Toy soldiers, Sugar Plum Fairy, and the King of the Mice! For an iconic San Francisco Christmas experience, check out the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. It's a winter wonderland with beautiful dancers accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Balcony seats start at $25.

7. Participate in SantaCon

Santa in Rise of the Guardians
Image Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Looking for a unique, fun, and festive thing to do in San Francisco this Christmas? SantaCon is on December 9th this year. Dress up as jolly Kris Kringle and meet all the other Santas at noon in Union Square. This event is free to attend but only for ages 21+. Lean into the giving season by bringing a toy for the San Francisco Fire Department's Toy Program.

8. Let's Glow SF 2023

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - city hall
Image Credit: Wiki Commons/Tom Hilton.

Let's Glow is the largest holiday projection event in the U.S. The free 10-day event, starting on December 1, 2023, will project large-scale artwork onto five iconic buildings throughout the Financial District between 5 pm and 10 pm. The Salesforce Tower will also showcase Let's Glow SF artwork on the LED panel atop the building, visible throughout the Bay Area. Complimentary hot chocolate and Let's Glow merchandise will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

9. Illuminate San Francisco

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - red and green lit doors
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With over 60 installations by over 40 artists in 17 San Francisco neighborhoods, Illuminate San Francisco lets visitors explore the city after hours to celebrate the holiday season with light. Installations will be on display throughout the season until the end of January. There's plenty of time to see them all! Popular highlights include Lantern Stories on Grant Street, Winter Lights in Golden Gate Park, and Point Cloud in SoMa.

10. Great Dickens Fair

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Image Credit: Wiki Commons/Michael Pardo.

A one-of-a-kind adventure, the Great Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace (until December 17, 2023) lets visitors step back in time to a lamp-lit Victorian London. Expect the scent of roasted chestnuts, the sound of lively music, and characters from Charles Dickens's famous imagination. The Great Dickens Fair is also excellent for picking up handmade holiday gifts. Ticket prices range from $45 (adult) to $25 (ages 5-12).

11. Sip Christmas Cocktails or Merry Mocktails

Woman drinking Christmas Cocktail at home
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Looking for a festive libation? There are so many places to go this year. For example, Scomas on the waterfront, which offers gorgeous ocean views and tasty, sustainable seafood, also makes a perfect Vintage Eggnog featuring a blend of rum, cognac, sherry, creme anglaise, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. It's for sale by the glass or bottle.

Alternatively, Cavaña offers Jingle Juice (spiced papaya and coconut Mai-Tai featuring Venezuela and Caribbean rums) in a Hawaiian Santa mug. The Vault Garden's Winter Wonderland also has a great mix of cocktails and mocktails. Some favorites include the Let's Get Jolly (Vodka, spiced cranberry, pomegranate, rosemary, winter sorbet snowball) and the Hot & Buttered (banana, roasted walnut butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla *optional add rum or whiskey). KAIYŌ offers a little something extra with a yuletide fire, heat lamps, blankets, and a festive atmosphere that guests will soak up while sipping a Peruvian Cacao topped with a homemade orange flan marshmallow in a Christmas mug.

12. The Ritz-Carlton Teddy Bear Tea

Festive Things To Do in San Francisco at Christmas - teddy bear tea
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One of the ultimate kid-friendly things to do in San Francisco, little ones will love this fun holiday event. The hotel's ballroom transforms into a winter wonderland with elves and plenty of eye candy. Guests are treated to a holiday show, a teddy bear, and a tea party. There's also hot chocolate, sweets, scones, and savory sandwiches.

13. Watch a Movie With the San Francisco Symphony

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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The Davies Symphony Hall has a full holiday schedule. While they host many events in December, the ultimate crowd-pleaser is the selection of Christmas movies accompanied by the beautiful sounds of live music. Films include Love Actually, Home Alone, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and more. Plus, the lobby bar is decked out in holiday décor, and the lobby bar serves festive cocktails!

14. Wander Around Fisherman's Wharf

Christmas tree, gifts, wrapped, presents, ornaments, decorations, lights
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Visiting Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco any time of year, but this tourist hotspot really sparkles around the holidays. With Christmas trees and festive lights, it's a fun place to wander in winter. Plus, visitors can participate in a Santa's Cable Car Ride Photoshoot, Santa Segway Tours, Holiday Light Tours via decorated open-air jeep, and more. Plus, visitors can enjoy a winter wonderland experience at nearby Ghirardelli Square, complete with outdoor Christmas movies, Santa, and a fun and festive atmosphere.

15. Nutcracker Tea at the Proper Hotel

Teapot and cup
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The Nutcracker Tea at the Proper Hotel features a traditional tea service with cookies, scones, bite-size sandwiches, and a special Nutcracker present. Kids (and adults!) will love the hot chocolate cart that invites guests to create their own hot chocolate tableside. Available Friday through Sundays, now through December 30th, the experience costs $65 per person ($35 for kids 12 and under). Plus, from December 2nd through December 22nd, bring an unwrapped, new toy for the San Francisco Fire Department and receive a complimentary glass of sparkling wine or cup of hot chocolate for kids.

Author: Nicole Findlay

Bio:

Nicole is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. As a former professional athlete, she gravitates toward active vacations, but also loves a great luxury hotel (The Palace Hotel in San Francisco is her favorite). In addition to travel writing, Nicole has published pieces about sports, parenting, entertainment, art, technology, and law. When she's not writing, she can be found reading a good book, hiking around the Bay Area with her son, trying to train their 70 lb. puppy, or watching reruns of I Love Lucy.