As we countdown to the jolliest day of the year, there are plenty of ways to get into the holiday spirit. In San Joaquin County—and beyond—these tidings are sure to bring joy to you and yours. We’ve rounded up some of the most magical experiences December has to offer, bringing cheer to everyone around. Want to make the most of your holiday season? We’ve got you covered with 12 spectacular experiences that are sure to become annual traditions.
See The Nutcracker
The story of the nutcracker and the Mouse King comes alive around the world every December, and there are plenty of opportunities to see the holiday ballet, which usually features a mix of professional and novice dancers.
Our favorite way to enjoy the show is in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Ballet has been bringing it to life since 1944. The Nutcracker reigns as SF Ballet’s largest show with 193 dancers taking the stage during the two-hour performance that follows Clara through wonderlands of toy soldiers, a blizzard of snowflakes, and the land of the sugar plum fairies.
The coveted experience welcomes guests ages five and up (recommended) to the War Memorial Opera House in the heart of the city with performances scheduled for December 8-27.
While a trip to the city this season should be a can’t miss, there are closer performances you can run to. At Gallo Center for the Arts’ Mary Stuart Rogers Theatre, The Nutcracker will take the stage on seven dates between December 7 and 18. For two days only, December 2-3, the ballet will be performed at Grand Theatre in Tracy.
Visit The North Pole
A train ride that transports you from California to the North Pole and back in a matter of hours? Sounds like magic. In Sacramento, a replica of The Polar Express brings the experience from the book (and movie) to locals. Kids of all ages can climb aboard and make their way to the infamous North Pole, enjoying cups of hot cocoa and other sweets along the way. Upon pulling into the final destination, Santa Claus will join the fun, gifting each child a silver sleigh bell. The fun starts at The California State Railroad Museum.
The River Fox Train has a similar but different experience, also in Sacramento. The Magical Christmas Train is a one-hour ride that includes festive activities, a visit with Santa, delicious goodies, and hot chocolate. Pajamas are encouraged, as is singing as loud as you can with the elves on board.
Sacramento may be the closet location to get a ride, but it isn’t the only North Pole experience in Northern California. The famous Napa Valley Wine Train has a collection of Jolly Journeys, including Santa’s Cookie Car featuring a visit with Santa, a holiday cookie, and hot cocoa; the Gourmet Holiday Express with a kid-friendly, three-course meal, a tableside visit from Santa, a photo keepsake, and dessert; and the Very Merry Vista Dome with the same extras as the gourmet option but a different train car and surroundings.
Roaring Camp Railroads in Santa Cruz also offers holiday train rides with two options—one that celebrates the spirit of Christmas and another dedicated to Chanukah festivities. Both take off from the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
Spend Christmas on the Farm
Apple Hill may be most known for their fall activities, but even after the last pumpkin is picked, there’s still plenty to do on the farm. You can start by chopping down your own pine tree. There are north of ten farms that grow and sell trees, including Hacienda Orchards, Hillside Tree Farm, and Apple Country Christmas Trees. Most provide a “cut-your-own” package and a smattering of other holiday offerings like train rides, artisan gifts, and homemade wreaths.
Not sure who is still open? Rainbow Orchards calls it quits on December 4, Apple Ridge Farms is open through December 5, O’Halloran’s Apple Trail Ranch doesn’t close until December 11, Fudge Factory Farm ends its season December 17, Abel’s Apple Acres and Bodhaine’s Ranch stay open through December 23, and High Hill Ranch and Harris Family Farm are open through Christmas Eve.
Additional farm information is available at AppleHill.com
Attend Cambria’s Christmas Market
More than a market, this holiday spectacle boasts over two million twinkling lights, plus artisan vendors, visits from Santa Claus, live music, comfort food and drinks, a train, and more. The Cambria Christmas Market has built up a reputation for being the best, which brings people to the Central Coast just to enjoy the temporary winter wonderland located steps from California’s rugged coastline.
Through December 23, anyone is welcome to join in the holiday fun. Many use the trip to complete their Christmas shopping, picking up unique gifts for everyone on their shopping list. Others clamor to Cambria for the fresh pastries and steaming cups of German hot spiced wine.
The event relies on a European style of “open-air markets” popular in Germany and Austria called “Weihnachtsmarkt.” The seasonal events were typically held near town squares and featured a variety of food, drink, music, and dance—the same main ingredients used to pull off Cambria’s annual affair.
If you’re making a weekend of it, you can book a Cambria Christmas Market package at Cambria Pines Lodge, Sea Otter Inn, or The J. Patrick House & Inn.
Take in the Lights at the Zoo
Zoos across California get into the holiday spirit with light shows created with the whole family in mind. At Oakland Zoo, the team transitioned from a more traditional holiday light show to one that highlights glowing lanterns in the shape of various animals. Dubbed Glowfari, the Zoo has added new attractions for 2022, including larger-than-life Australian animals, icons from the California Coast (otters, jellyfish, whales, etc.) exotic animals found in the tropical rainforest, and prehistoric favorites such as a towering t-rex.
Train rides add another element of fantasy to the day. Illuminated for night rides, guests will experience a wonderland of fabled creatures such as unicorns, fairies, and mythical beasts. December 1-23, Santa will be stationed in the rides area for visits.
Nearby, Folsom Zoo Sanctuary hosts its own holiday lights event on December 2-3, 9-11, and 16-22 from 5-8:30 PM, including nightly train rides.
Stay in Santa Claus’ San Francisco Home
San Francisco transforms during the holiday season. The historic cable cars don over-sized wreaths and Union Square takes on a new energy as holiday shoppers flock to the city to fulfill their family’s Christmas wishes.
If you’re coming to the city to make the most of your holiday season, there’s no better place to stay than Mr. and Mrs. Claus’ San Francisco home. As their personal guests, families will sleep in a luxury suite at The Fairmont (dubbed the Santa Suite), decked out for the holidays. Stay includes breakfast for four, hot chocolate, a DIY gingerbread house, complimentary holiday movie, and parking and are available for the entire month of December.
There’s also a life-sized gingerbread house in the hotel’s lobby. Made from real gingerbread and pounds of See’s chocolates, families can wander into the candy haven or even dine inside (reservation required).
If you don’t want to end the holiday fun there, make a reservation for holiday tea. Steaming pots of loose-leaf tea are the centerpiece to this luxe experience housed in Lauren Court. To eat, there will be a selection of scones, tea sandwiches, pastries, and sweets.
Enjoy the Holidays in Victorian London
No need to buy a plane ticket—The Great Dickens Christmas Fair brings Victorian London to Daly City. For five weekends between November 19 and December 18, Cow Palace transforms itself into an immersive Dickens’-inspired world.
Costumed actors bring authenticity to the experience, dressed in period costumes and available to interact with guests as they traipse through music halls, dance floors, decorated shops, and more. Every single sense will be ignited by the charming details, which include aromas of roasted chestnuts and 140,000 square feet of winding lanes and twinkling lights.
A tradition since 1970, the fair goes above and beyond for guests who want to spend an afternoon in Charles Dickens’ London town.
If that’s not enough Dickens for one day, you can extend the tradition by attending a performance of A Christmas Carol from the American Conservatory Theater. Through December 24, A.C.T. will put on a long-awaited and traditional performance of this holiday classic at The Toni Rembe Theater in San Francisco.
Marvel at the Lights at Deacon Dave’s
A long-standing tradition in Livermore, Deacon Dave’s Christmas Display is an unsuspecting tourist attraction located in a residential neighborhood. While plenty of houses go over the top annually to turn out some impressive attractions, the nostalgia Deacon Dave’s brings helps it to stand out from the rest. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its opening.
Every year the display changes, and construction starts as early as Labor Day. In the end, hundreds of thousands of lights are strung across the home, new buildings are resurrected, and other festive decorations take up space on the property, located at 352 Hillcrest Ave.
You will have to wait in line to enjoy the display, but it’s worth it for the free attraction. Kids eyes light up as they pass the towering nutcrackers at the front entrance to enjoy a walk-thru event.
Deacon Dave’s is open nightly, 6-9 PM Sunday-Thursday and 6-10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, starting on December 2.
Go to the Circus
This isn’t just any circus. Away from the traditional snowflakes and elves that most holiday shows bring, this cultural phenomenon embraces the French tradition of 1920s events. Created in 2008 by French artist Michel Michelis, Le Cirque de Boheme offers a holiday tradition unlike any other.
Housed under an old-fashioned tent, guests enjoy an intimate show (limited to 100 seats) of magic, acrobatics, danger, and more. From fire-wielding performers to costume-clad unicycle riders, the 2022 theme is Gypsy, a bright yet haunting wink at culture in the South of France. With elaborate sets and inspired storytelling, the French American show performed in November and December is nothing short of a spectacle.
The performances, scheduled through Christmas Day, are hosted at CornerstoneSonoma, a high-end marketplace, with three showings per day (1 PM, 3 PM, and 5 PM).
Step Back in Time with a Cornish Christmas
Downtown Grass Valley turns into a celebration of yesteryear with its Cornish event. Pour a glass of mulled wine and wander down Main Street where shops stay open to accommodate late-night shoppers and additional craft vendors take up space. A winter festival of holiday murals will delight your eyes as your ears take in the music of the Cornish Carol Choir.
Warm your hands by the firepit as you enjoy the live music and keep an eye out for favorite holiday characters like Mrs. Claus, the Snow Queen, and Santa himself. It all compliments the already charming décor lighting Main Street while restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants keep their doors open for extended hours. Drink booths will serve up holiday classics and you may even have the chance to grab photos with Santa.
The event takes place on select dates in December, ending on December 23.
Revel in Royal Views at Hearst Castle
A visit to Hearst Castle is always a spirited affair but visiting during Christmas time brings a new allure to the guided tours. Built between 1919 and 1947, the San Simeon property spans 127 acres. Now an active museum, guided tours are available year-round, including a special Holiday Twilight Tour from November-January.
Guests back in the day were politicians and celebrities, and Mr. Hearst often delighted his guests with holiday parties. A tour take visitors back in time to what it might have been like to attend one of those lavish affairs.
A couple of towering Christmas trees, as well as other holiday decorations, make the holiday event stand out from the rest as you traipse across the expansive grounds, visit the Casa del Sol-guest house, and step into the grand social rooms.
Catch Thrills at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom’s Holidays in the Park
For 15 years, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo has brought the holidays to life without ditching the high-adrenaline thrills and animal encounters that make the park a beloved attraction year-round. One of the coolest perks—if you ask us—is getting your photo taken with a live penguin (Santa is there, too, of course).
There’s also a Merry Marketplace, a throwback to the Victorian markets, with characters dressed in period costumes plus food, décor, and items for sale. The holiday flair added to the rides makes hurtling to the ground and flipping upside down even more exciting. Expert Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for Santa’s reindeer while whipping around on Medusa.
The rest of the park gets in the spirit with holiday-inspired food and drinks and themed shows, including Dazzle, a display of choreographed lights, holiday tunes, and animal appearances around the 65-foot tree.