We don’t need snow. In California our recipe for holiday cheer is a tad different—and warmer.
Instead of heading far away to ring in the New Year, spend your holidays by the Bay, basking in the sparkling city lights. Here, giant gingerbread houses, sugarplum fairies, and an 80-foot-tall Christmas tree bring all the magic you need this holiday season.
For many, no Christmas is complete without toys that come to life, a clockwork castle, and a giant mouse king. On December 13, the beloved The Nutcracker reopens at SF Ballet, a tradition that kicked off in 1944 when the American premiere of the timeless tale was enjoyed in San Francisco on Christmas Eve at the War Memorial Opera House (where it is still performed today). Performances run through December 30 with showings Tuesday-Sunday. (SFBallet.org, 301 Van Ness Ave.)
The Fairmont Gingerbread House
Every year the Fairmont in San Francisco reconstructs its two-story, life-size gingerbread house in the ornate hotel lobby. The gorgeous candy home promises to be even bigger than 2016’s masterpiece as the hotel’s culinary and engineering teams combine forces to create the magical, walk-through attraction. Once complete, the edible abode will stand more than 22 feet high and 23 feet wide with a whopping 7,500 homemade gingerbread bricks used in its construction, along with hundreds of pounds of candy and more than a ton of royal icing.
On most days guests can roam into the grand lobby (which is completely transformed for the holiday season) for a glimpse of the gingerbread castle, but for guaranteed access you’ll have to stay at the hotel. Starting November 24, gingerbread holiday tea will also be served at the Fairmont, (950 Mason St.)
Stay in Santa Style
Want to really take advantage of the Fairmont’s holiday offerings? The hotel boasts a Santa Suite—a transformed guest’s room available for stays throughout the holiday season. The two-bedroom suite is expertly decorated with holiday décor and access to a candy and hot chocolate bar, gingerbread house kit, the hotel’s full library of classic holiday movies and breakfast delivered to your suite, (not to mention free parking—a must have in San Francisco).
Ice Skate in Union Square
If you love ice skating, there’s no place more picturesque to enjoy the sport than in San Francisco’s Union Square (333 Post St.) Flanked by holiday decorations galore, including that infamous 80-foot tree, it’s an easy stop-off for holiday shoppers. Those interested in getting on the ice can go around and around the city rink for 90 minutes, and skate rentals are available for adults and kids.
8th annual Drag Queens on Ice
December 7. It doesn’t get much more San Francisco than this. Guests are invited to watch the Bay Area’s best drag queens lip-sync and skate on the Union Square rink for one night only!
December 8, January 12. Go back in time to the 1980s when iHeart80s @ 103.7 takes over the sound waves at the ice rink. Radio DJs are on-site spinning the best hits of the decade while skaters enjoy the rink. Don’t forget your legwarmers! All skaters are encouraged to dress for the occasion.
Silent Skate Party
December 14. Talk about a throwback Thursday! Union Square transports skaters back in time with a disco-themed skate with a twist—the event is completely silent. Pick up a pair of headphones, choose a station, and dance the night away.
Polar Bear Skate
January 1. Want to skate California style? Once a year San Francisco gives its own special twist to the infamous polar bear plunge (a practice of dunking into ice cold water in the middle of winter) by inviting skaters to strip down to their bathing suits as they circle around the ice. Don’t forget your sunglasses!
Visit the St. Francis
When celebrating the holidays in the city, a place to stay may be in order. The Westin St. Francis is in the middle of all the action, just steps from the Westfield Mall and famed Union Square. Inside the hotel, the holidays are just as cheery. Every year, St. Francis’ team of pastry chefs build architectural masterpieces in the lobby, including a castle made entirely of sugar cubes.
While you’re there sneak into the Sweet Boutique for holiday-themed goodies—pssst there’s Parisian macarons. The decorations have already gone up so families can start enjoying the holiday display immediately. (Through Jan. 2, 335 Powell St.)
Holiday Tea at St. Francis
Through December 17, holiday tea will be served at the St. Francis on Saturdays and Sundays. The afternoon includes fine, artisan teas, English tea sandwiches, and an assortment of pastries. Step it up a notch with an accompanying glass of sparkling wine.
Hours: 12-4 PM. Reservations are required.
There’s something magical about heading to the city to complete your holiday shopping. The Westfield mall, the shops surrounding picturesque union square, and the 10-story Macy’s are just a few of the reasons shopping in San Francisco brings an element of joy and light to the experience. Everywhere shoppers turn, jolly men in red suits fulfill childhood wishes, towering Christmas trees loom ahead, and every tree and streetlight are adorned with oversized jingle bells and sprigs of holly.
While you’re roaming the decorative city streets, don’t forget to stop and peek in the windows of Macy’s Union Square (170 O’Farrell St.) Every year the unveiling of the holiday-themed windows are much-anticipated, and this year’s display is nothing short of spectacular. Originally unveiled on Nov. 18, adoptable cats and dogs filled the most popular windows in the city and through Jan. 1, an SPCA adoption pop-up takes up shop on Macy’s main floor.
Touring the City
Sure, there’s Ubers, taxi-cabs, BART, and Muni available to every San Francisco traveler, but where’s the fun in that? Every person who visits San Francisco should hop on a traditional cable car at least once in his or her life. If you haven’t done it yet, the holidays are the best time to check that item off of your bucket list. Throughout the season cable cars are decorated in giant Christmas wreaths and strings of garland, adding some holiday cheer to your ride across town.
Through Dec. 30 you can up the ante on that cable car ride by booking tickets to the Holiday Nights & Sights City Tour. Travel by classic cable car through Fisherman’s Wharf, Little Italy, Chinatown, Union Square, the Financial District, The Embarcadero and Pier 39. It’s the only time of year those bay bridge lights shine brighter! Not only will the tour give you time to learn about the city by the bay, talented guides lead holiday carols and every rider takes home a complimentary Santa hat. (ClassicCableCar.com)
A Christmas Carol
The Nutcracker isn’t the only holiday stage show worth seeing. Through Dec. 24, A Christmas Carol plays at the A.C.T. Geary Theatre. It’s the ideal story for adults and kids—teaching the true meaning of Christmas since 1843. And the lively San Francisco performance is known for its rendition, a music-infused production of the classic Dickens tale.
Pick up tickets to a matinee or evening performance before they sell out! (Act-SF.org)
You’ll have to leave the kids at home for this boozy holiday tradition—it’s not quite the type of Santa they want to see.
Every year, Union Square plays host to a hoard of Santa-clad bar goers during one of the largest pub crawls of the year. Dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, elves, reindeer, and a slew of other holiday-themed characters, it truly might be the most wonderful time of the year.
To participate, put on your favorite red suit and hit the city streets beginning at noon on Dec. 9.
In addition to the well-known Union Square Christmas tree, check out these other four notable showstoppers in the city.
Neiman Marcus, Unions Square
Located inside of the store’s rotunda, the Neiman Marcus holiday tree stands four stories high.
Next to that crazy cool gingerbread house stands one of the city’s most ornate Christmas trees.
The Palace Hotel
The tree isn’t the only showstopper inside of this San Francisco hotel. It’s known for overflowing with holiday decorations this time of year.
Many visits to San Francisco culminate in a trip to the famed pier. Don’t forget to stop and take in the 60-foot tree before visiting the rest of the attractions. Don’t forget to check out those sea lions, too! January is a known time for the creatures to visit in droves.
Holiday High Tea
Around December, holiday-themed teas become all the rage. In San Francisco, several hotels play host to these upscale gatherings. We’ve already visited the Fairmont and St. Francis, which both offer their own renditions of the classic, but there’s plenty more places to sip in style in SF.
At the palace, tea is not a rare occurrence, with a signature tea service available year round. For children ages 5-12, a Prince and Princess Tea is available. In addition to tea, pastries and small sandwiches are served—with a jeweled crown and a candy scepter. (2 New Montgomery St.)
The Ritz Carlton
The Teddy Bear Tea is perhaps one of the most well-known tea experiences in the city. It’s known for mixing its upscale design with kid-friendly extras. Stretchy the Elf, his sidekick, and a cuddy Ritz Carlton teddy bear host the afternoon. In addition to tea, cookies, and snacks, there are holiday stories, sing a longs, and teddy bear photo ops. Plus, there’s champagne for parents—cheers! (600 Stockton St.)
Top of the Mark
The Top of the Mark is a famous stop for those who frequent the city. With high-end cocktails and gorgeous views of the city, it’s a nice place to stop and enjoy each other’s company. During the holiday season, the Top of the Mark transforms for afternoon tea with a twist! It’s really a fun, family free-for-all complete with face painting, cookie decorating, and plenty of food (there’s a separate kids menu, too). Some days, Santa stands guard in the lobby. (999 California St.)