Looking to get into the Christmas spirit? We planned one magical day in San Francisco to find all the holiday magic we could with our kids. From hotels and department stores to chatting with Santa, we’ve created a one-day itinerary to explore Christmas in San Francisco with kids.
We’ve included the best of the decorations and festivities updated for 2023. We’ve also covered all the traditional places to visit, holiday events to watch for, the best tours of San Francisco Christmas lights, and the best ways to get around San Francisco.
Our kids were 4 and 7 when we first spent the day exploring the best of the San Francisco Christmas decorations. They are used to Christmas on the East Coast and were a little bummed to be missing the snow, so we thought we’d head into San Francisco to find as much holiday magic and sparkle as possible.
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San Francisco Weather in December
San Francisco weather is very changeable, so watch the forecast before your visit. We moved our trip back one day to have a clear day, with sunshine and highs in the low 50s.
There were several days of rain before and after our visit. We all wore jackets (the kids took theirs on and off), and winter hats to keep us warm in the cool December breeze.
Itinerary: One Day of Christmas in San Francisco with Kids
We first explored the holiday displays of San Francisco in 2021, which was a strange year. Quite a few of the traditional holiday displays that were canceled for 2020 were back, yet the city is not quite ready to fully embrace the holiday season. We’ve updated all the events and tours below for 2023 with the best information available.
Waker grew up calling San Francisco “the city” (which will always be New York to me), so we love showing our kids part of this city that he grew up with.
San Francisco is also a stop on our cross-country road trip.
We’ll assume your one-day San Francisco itinerary will start and end at the Ferry Building.
The Ferry Building
The ferry will disembark behind the famed Ferry Building.
The Ferry Building is a great place for gourmet snacks and last-minute holiday shopping. Since you’ll be departing from here, it’s best to head out into the city and leave this for the end of the day.
On the day we arrived the electricity was out at the Ferry Building, so didn’t have the option of stopping here in the morning.
Traveling with kids can be stressful- don’t miss our top tips for traveling with kids.
The Ferry Building is part of a larger area called the Embarcadero, which includes the Embarcadero Plaza across the street from the Ferry Building, and all the waterfront up to Fisherman’s Wharf.
There were lights outlining the larger office buildings, but little else happening in the Embarcadero Plaza. We saw a handful of vendors, but not a full Christmas market- 2023 should see more family-friendly games and photo ops. The lights come on November 18th this year.
In the past, an ice rink has been set up here as well as a full Christmas market of vendors celebrating the season. It is still unclear whether this ice rink will reopen for 2023.
As night falls, there will be light displays, so plan to stop back here in the evening.
Additional Stop: Philz Coffee
As you exit the Ferry Building and head up Market Street, stop for a coffee and pastry at Philz Coffee to fuel up for your day. Located at 5 Embarcadero Center.
For a classic celebration of San Francisco, hop on a cable car on California Street, just across from the Hyatt Regency to head up to your next stop.
Cable Cars cost $8 per ride, payable by Clipper Card. If you plan to ride more than once per person, consider a $13 One-Day Pass from MuniMobile.
Get off the Cable Car at Powell Street and walk up the hill one block to the Fairmont Hotel. You’ll see it on the corner, the entrance is on Mason Street.
As you approach the entrance to the Fairmont, you’ll see a statue of Tony Bennett. The Venetian Room in the Fairmont is the first place where Tony Bennet performed his now-famous tune “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. The statue was installed in 2016 in celebration of Bennett’s 90th birthday.
Inside the Fairmont, you’ll find a large Christmas tree, lots of Christmas lights, and a stunning gingerbread house! Made of actual gingerbread and candy, this two-story Victorian gingerbread house is 22 feet high.
You can walk through the archway of the house into the Laurel Court. Keep your eyes peeled, there are lots of animatronic bits moving around, including Santa’s boots kicking out of the chimney.
You can reserve the side room of the gingerbread house to dine in for a maximum of eight people or enjoy Holiday Tea in Laural Court.
Located at 980 Mason Street.
Additional Stop: Intercontinental Hotel
Across the street from the Fairmont on the corner of California and Mason, is the Intercontinental Hotel. This hotel is known for the Top of the Mark bar on the 19th floor with its astounding views.
Check out the holiday decorations in their lobby- when we visited they had a special chair waiting for Santa’s arrival the next day!
They also have a special Children’s Magical Tea on Saturdays and Sundays in December. The tea includes face painting, a balloon artist, a cookie decorating station, and Santa in the lobby.
Located at 1 Nob Hill.
Walk one block up California to Grace Cathedral. This Gothic-style cathedral is Episcopal and welcomes all. It is absolutely beautiful- the inside is just covered in stained glass windows.
Don’t miss the labyrinths based on the famous Chartres labyrinth. There is one inside (which may not always be available to walk), and one outside the church. The church hosts monthly candlelit labyrinth walks, check their event calendar.
As you enter the cathedral, to your right is the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel which features the NAMES quilt and a gold altar created by Keith Haring.
Located at 1100 California Street.
Additional Fun: Christmas Events at Grace Cathedral
There are special Christmas events at Grace Cathedral including a Family Sing-Along, Handel’s Messiah, and “A Cathedral Christmas” where the Choir of Men and Boys perform with a full orchestra and organ. Check the event calendar for details.
Additional Fun: Huntington Park Playground
Across the street from Grace Cathedral is Huntington Park and Playground. This is a great time for the kids to get some wiggles out. There are also some beautiful fountains to check out.
Located at California Street and Taylor Street.
Lunch at Sears Fine Foods
Head down Mason Street (it’s very steep, watch your step). Cut one block East to Powell Street. Just past the corner of Powell and Sutter, you’ll find Sears Fine Foods.
Stop here for lunch- this is a classic San Francisco landmark. They’ve been serving here since 1938. Sears was started by a retired circus clown. In the early days, they parked two pink Cadillacs out front with the heaters and the radios on to hold the waiting crowds.
You can usually book a table ahead of time, but around the holidays they stop taking reservations. We arrived just a bit after 11:30 on a Friday afternoon and did not have to wait long for a table.
Sears is known for their 18 Swedish Pancakes- which we highly recommend with the lingonberry jam. They serve breakfast until 2 pm, which is always a winner with kids! Both of our girls enjoyed the golden waffles with strawberries and real maple syrup.
Located at 439 Powell Street.
After a delightful meal at Sears Fine Foods, head down Powell Street to Union Square. This is Holiday Central in San Francisco- there is a large tree here that Macy’s sponsors.
There is normally a tree-lighting ceremony right after Thanksgiving. The tree stays up until January 1.
Check Union Square Shops for information on the tree lighting and other holiday events in Union Square.
Union Square is also the site of a large menorah and several Channukah candle lightings and celebrations. Check Union Square shops for details.
Ice Skating Rink
Union Square is the site of a popular holiday pop-up ice skating rink. The rink opens in early November and stays open until mid-January. You’ll need to book tickets online, there are no onsite tickets and no refunds. Each session is one hour long.
Admission with skate rental is $19. You can also rent a locker for $5. Check hours and book tickets here.
One of the most popular events at the ice rink is the annual Most Fabulous Drag Queens on Ice. This event takes place in early December, tickets are $40 per person. Scroll down the events page to buy tickets.
Additional Holiday Ice Skating Rinks
In the past, there have been additional ice skating rinks across the city. Check for rinks in the Embarcadero Plaza, as well as at Civic Center by City Hall. It looks like many of these rinks are aiming for 2024 reopenings.
Maiden Lane runs off the east end of Union Square. This pedestrian walkway is home to shops and boutiques. While it was quiet in 2021, in the past it has been transformed for the holidays into WinterWalkSF. This holiday family-friendly pop-up included food, beverage, and entertainment, Thursdays through Sundays. Looks like this even will not return in 2023, finger’s crossed for 2024!
On the Southeast corner of Union Square is Neiman Marcus. They are known for having a three-story Christmas tree just inside the door. It is strung with lights reaching up to the ceiling.
They also had one of our favorite family holiday experiences in San Francisco- The Snow Globe Experience! We almost missed it, as you had to spot a sign by the escalators.
Located on Level 3 by the railing, they created a life-size snow globe complete with nutcrackers and a Christmas tree for guests to play in! There was an employee who let us into the snow globe, closed the door, and turned on the air to create a magical wonderland! As the fake snow swirled around us we had wonderful “snow fights” inside the globe. It was so much fun!
Located at 150 Stockton Street.
On the west side of Union Square, pop into the Westin St. Francis to check out their holiday decorations. In the past, they have had sugar castles and even a pop-up sweet shop in the lobby. For 2021 they had a lovely tree and display of white poinsettias.
Also, if you need a snack, check out Cafe Rito in the back of the Westin. Serving Italian coffee and pastries.
Located at 335 Powell Street.
Macy’s Pop-Up Toy Shop
In 2021 Macys and FAO Schwartz created a pop-up toy shop next to the Macy’s entrance facing Union Square, labeled “Fun & Games”. Here you can take photos with the FAO Schwartz Bear, and shop for all sorts of holiday gifts for kids. This area does not connect with the rest of Macy’s.
From the main entrance of Macy’s, on the south side of Union Square, head to the lower level to visit Santaland. Santaland is small- in 2021 it consisted of one wall mural and a small stand to check in for your reservation.
Reservations for a visit with Santa at Santaland in San Francisco can be made online. Reservations for each day open up five days in advance. You’ll need to pick a specific time slot to enter Santaland.
Keep Your Expectations Low
If you’ve ever visited Macy’s Santaland in New York City, you know that it’s amazing. It’s an animatronic wonderland of Christmas joy that I will willingly stand in line for two hours to see. We’ve done it twice, and it’s kind of fun to wind through the back hallways of Macy’s and check out the employee credit union and other places you normally don’t get to go.
Macy’s in New York also has lots of very well-trained elves helping out with the crowds and keeping everyone merry. We chatted with an elf named Cherry, and the kids remember her well. Parents will also remember that Macy’s in New York has many Santas- you can even request that your Santa speak a specific language.
Santaland in San Francisco is nothing like New York- we literally entered Santaland, turned a corner, and there was Santa!
In 2021, Santa met his guests from behind his desk so we could all stay socially distanced. The distance and the masks made it a little hard for our shy kids to communicate, but the girls were thrilled to get to see Santa in person anyway.
Additional Stop: Boudin Sourdough
After you’ve visited with Santa, and browsed through the nearby toy display, grab some food at Boudin Sourdough on Macy’s Lower Level. They have a full menu of pizza, chili, salads, and sandwiches. They also have adorable sourdough bread shaped like Santa with a large beard.
Be sure to check out the holiday decorations in Macy’s Windows on the O’Farrell Street side of the store. Macy’s was the first to decorate their windows for Christmas in the 1870s and the first to bring the tradition of animated windows to San Francisco.
For the last few years, they have teamed up with the San Francisco SPCA to help promote adopting animals. You’ll find actual kittens and puppies in comfortable environments for you to ohh and ahh over.
Additional Fun: One 65 Patisserie
If you need a sweet treat while exploring Christmas in San Francisco, stop at One 65. This French bistro is the perfect place to stop for an espresso and a pastry. While they have a full-service upscale French restaurant, they also have a counter with pastries and patisseries. They also have a few tables out on the sidewalk.
Located at 165 O’Farrell St.
After you’ve explored all the magic of Union Square, head down Powell Street to the Westfield Centre on Market Street.
At the intersection of Powell and Market Streets, you’ll find a BART station, which is a great place to use a Clipper Card machine if you need to refill your card. You’ll also find a Public Transit Kiosk where you can ask questions or get a Muni card.
The Westfield Centre is a mall- inside you’ll find holiday decorations, as well as a fun curving escalator that winds up and around. Kids love taking this escalator higher and higher, looking down to the first floor.
On the lower level, there is a food court with a few mall-style food options.
Located at 865 Market Street.
Start walking back towards the waterfront on Market Street. Stop at the Palace Hotel to view their magnificent Garden Court.
When this hotel opened in 1875 it was billed as the most luxurious in the world, with a fireplace in every room. The side of the hotel is on Market, but you need to turn down New Montgomery to enter.
Located at 2 New Montgomery Street.
Additional Fun: Holiday Tea at the Palace Hotel
Put on your best holiday outfit for Sugar Plum Tea at the Palace Hotel. Available Monday through Saturday afternoons in December, with Santa joining on specific days. You’ll leave with a little goodie bag of cookies to remember the experience.
As you continue down Market Street toward the water, you’ll see the Hyatt Regency. traditionally, it is known for its thrilling train and holiday display.
In past years, the fountain at the center of the lobby was transformed into a winter wonderland with a miniature town and a train that runs around it. As a kid, as well as a teen, I remember being transfixed by all there was to see.
The Hyatt has confirmed there will not be a holiday train display for 2023.
Located at 5 Embaracdero Center.
You will then be back in Embarcadero, ready to check out the lights and the waterfront.
In 2021, a new light show called “Let’s Glow SF” included a projected light display on 4 large buildings in the Financial District. In 2023 this display will run from December 1- 10, so be sure to catch it!
These projections are created by digital artists and run every 15 minutes, each show lasting 5 minutes. Highlights include ice castles, polar bears, and galloping ice horses.
Look for displays on these buildings: 1 Bush Plaza, 345 Montgomery Street, Pacific Stock Exchange (301 Pine Street), and Hyatt Regency (5 Embarcadero Center)
The Ferry Building has been sponsoring a gingerbread decorating contest, be sure to look for the winners. This is a great place to shop and get a few bites to eat.
When we arrived at the end of the day, the electricity was just coming back on, and then the fire alarm started going off, so we weren’t able to do any browsing. Usually, this is one of our favorite places to spend a bit of time before heading out of the city.
Additional Fun: Hot Chocolate
Looking for a holiday sweet treat? Try the Hot Chocolate from Boulette’s Larder or Dandelion Chocolate in the Ferry Building. Dandelion serves take-away, Boulette’s is a sit-down experience.
Additional Holiday Stops
We found ourselves out of time with one kid who had bruised her ankle from an escalator, and one kid with a runny nose, so we called it a day and headed out on an early ferry. If you have more time (and more stamina), here are additional stops to add to your day of Christmas in San Francisco.
Ghiradelli Square is beautifully decorated all year round, so expect great things for the holidays! In 2021, they showcased a special color installation as well as eleven holiday trees designed by students from the Academy of Art University.
You can never go wrong with a stop for a Ghiradelli treat at the Original Ghiradelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. They have a great display there demonstrating how the chocolate is made.
In 2023 Santa will light up the square on Friday, November 24th will help from the SF Boys Chorus.
December 1st, 2023 is Peppermint Bark Day with activities hosted by Ghiradelli Chocolates from 4-8 pm.
Located at 900 North Point Street.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf decorates its iconic sign for the holidays, which makes a great photo backdrop. The boats in the harbor are also lit up with holiday lights. Head a few blocks down to Pier 39 for more family fun.
The 60-foot-high Christmas Treet at Pier 39 lights up with a dazzling light show synchronized to holiday music every half hour from 5 to 10 p.m. This season the show runs from late November until early January.
City Hall and Civic Center
City Hall is lit up for the holidays with red and green lights. Look for a winter wonderland of holiday lights and an ice skating rink.
Located at 1 Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Place.
Tom & Jerry’s Christmas Tree
3650 21st Street in the Castro neighborhood puts on a fantastic Christmas display. This Victorian home and the large tree out front are decorated to look like a large outdoor living room.
Located at3650 21st Street.
Best Tours of San Francisco Holiday Lights
There are some fantastic tours of San Francisco designed to show you the best of Christmas in San Francisco in fun and unique ways. These tours are a perfect way to take a unique holiday family photo for the year!
Love Tours Holiday Lights Tour
San Francisco Love Tours takes you around in a colorful 1970s VW bus. This is a 2-hour tour that starts at the waterfront and ends at Union Square.
Check Prices: San Francisco Love Holiday Lights Tour
Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour
San Francisco Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour takes you around in a vintage, open-air firetruck! This 1.5-hour tour of the San Francisco holiday lights gives you the option to wear firefighters’ gear to stay warm during the trip.
Check Prices: San Francisco Fire Engine Holiday Lights Tour
Holiday Events in San Francisco (updated 2023)
There are several special holiday events to consider adding to your itinerary for Christma in San Francisco. Some of these may require staying overnight to fit it all in!
The Nutcracker Ballet
Watching a live performance of The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition! The San Francisco Ballet performs The Nutcracker from mid-December through the end of the month. Located in the War Memorial Opera House, there are shows at 2 pm and 7 pm. Children under 3 are not allowed.
A Christmas Carol
While A Christmas Carol has historically been performed by The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), the traditional show is back in 2023, running the month of December.
BroadwaySF is offering a new interpretation of the show this year at the Golden Gate Theater.
San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony has some great holiday programming. Check their event calendar for details. In 2023 their programs included Handel’s Messiah, a Youth Orchestra performance of Peter and the Wolf, and a Cirque Nutcracker among others.
San Francisco Zoo Holiday Lights
Usually, the San Francisco Zoo is decked out in holiday lights. In 2021 they created an “Elf ‘n’ Go Seek” – try to spot elf hats and shoes as you move around the zoo. Look for the full holiday display in 2023.
Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade
Once a year in mid-December, the St. Francis Yacht Club sponsors the Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Christmas Boat Parade. 75-100 decorated boats will parade from Pier 39 to Marina Green and back.
Parol Lantern Festival and Parade
This Filipino-American festival features a parol lighting ceremony, as well as traditional Filipino music and food. Mid-December at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Located at 701 Mission Street.
Great Dickens Christmas Fair
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a large Victorian gathering complete with food and crafts. Running since 1970, it has embraced costumes, interactive theatre, and folk music. In 2023 it runs from November 18 to December 17th.
Holiday High Tea
There are many possibilities for special high tea around the holidays in San Francisco. Some of the top choices are the Holiday Tea at the Palace Hotel, the Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz-Carlton, and the Children’s Magical Tea at the Top of the Mark in the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
There are so many options for hotels in San Francisco. We love the Riu Plaza because it is an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf and a quick trolley ride to the Ferry Building. Our room even had a lovely view of the Golden Gate Bridge!
Check Prices: Riu Plaza San Francisco
Getting into San Francisco
Taking a ferry in and out of the city is a great way to see the city and its lights. We were coming from Santa Rosa, so as part of the holiday magic of the day, we decided to take the train and then the ferry into San Francisco rather than drive. Our girls love to take trains and boats, so this was a real treat.
We took SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, from the Sonoma County Airport to the end of the line in Larkspur. There we transferred to the Golden Gate Ferry which docks at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
There are currently twelve stops along this train route, check which one makes the most sense for you. (Not coming from Sonoma or Marin County? Not to worry, there are several other ferries you can take into the city. Skip ahead to Ferry Options below.)
The most cost-effective way to travel this route is with a flat rate $12 train+ ferry combo ticket from the SMART eTickets app that you buy online ahead of time. You add the tickets to your digital wallet, then activate them just before getting on the train.
Multiple tickets can be activated on one phone, so you can buy youth tickets as well, though there is no youth combo, so you’ll need to pay for the ferry separately for the kids using their Clipper Cards. Kids under 5 are free.
Parking at the SMART train lots is paid via the ParkMobile app, so best to download it ahead of time.
See “Getting Around San Francisco” below for more details about the various apps and systems to get around San Francisco.
Getting to the Ferry Terminal
Once you exit the train at Larkspur, there will be one path ahead of you that leads you across a white bridge, then turns right, and proceeds beside the road until you get to the ferry terminal.
Occasionally you’ll see green signs on the street posts directing you toward the ferry terminal. Once you see the terminal you can either cut across the parking lot or follow the walking path that takes you to the far left of the building, which is where you will board the ferry.
The time to walk between the train and the ferry is surprisingly tight. If you have slow walkers in your party, you’ll need to hustle. We arrived with just a few minutes to spare and needed to use the Clipper card machines before boarding.
As we entered the boarding area, we were told the ferry was delayed due to fog. We took this opportunity to use the bathroom and came out to find the ferry was already boarding and anxious to leave.
Riding the Golden Gate Ferry
The ferry moves pretty fast! We could feel the sway of the boat underneath us as the fog cleared and the boat picked up speed. By the time we approached San Francisco, we could see Alcatraz and the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge. As we docked, the sky was clear.
We rode the 8:50 am ferry, which had only a handful of other people on board. Masks are required on the ferry, there is no snack service available.
There are many other ferries running throughout the Bay Area that come into the Ferry Building. Check out this map for detailed routes and ticketing information.
Getting Around San Francisco
There are lots of ways to get around San Francisco to see all the holiday decorations and holiday events the city has to offer. It is best to plan your route ahead so you can pick the best way for you to get there.
The underground BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Metro system is great for getting into and around some parts of the city. However, most of the major tourist destinations are not reachable directly by BART.
The Muni is San Francisco’s bus and light rail system. This is a very easy and affordable way to get around the city with over a hundred stop locations. It is free for kids 18 and under, and an adult day pass is only $5 through the MuniMobile App, and includes busses, light rail, and historic streetcars, but not BART or cable cars.
Cable Car (Trolley)
The San Francisco Cable Cars are iconic and a really fun way to see the city in good weather. The cars are mostly open-air, so if you are going to ride when it’s cold or wet, be sure to dress appropriately.
A single cable car ride is $8 a person, for all ages. You can purchase this with the MuniMobile App, the Clipper Card, or cash (exact change only).
But if you plan to ride more than once, its best to purchase the 1-Day Visitor Passport for $13 per person. The Visitor Passport also covers all Muni buses, light rail, and streetcars.
You can purchase these passes through the MuniMobile App or in person at a kiosk. Check out this map for Cable Car and Historic Street Car Routes.
The San Francisco Historic Street Cars are part of the Muni system and great for going between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadaro as well as up and down Market Street. Check out this map for Historic Street Car and Cable Car routes.
Spot Hero Parking
If you plan to drive into the city and park, know that parking can be hard to find and hotel parking is rather expensive. Metered street parking is enforced from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday through Saturday, so any time outside of that is free.
For a more stress-free experience, check out SpotHero– you can compare prices, and pre-book parking by the hour. We hate circling around looking for parking, or worse, choosing a garage and then realizing you could have saved money by parking one block over.
Reserve Parking on SpotHero
The MuniMobile app is SFMTA’s official ticketing app, and lets you buy tickets instantly through a credit/debit card or PayPal account. You can also purchase 1, 3 or 7 Day Visitor Passports through the app.
The Clipper app is the all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area. Use your Clipper card on all Bay Area transit systems, including BART, Muni, Cable Cars, Ferries and SMART.
You can add funds to your Clipper Card digitally, but the funds will take several days to be added. To add value immediately, you need to use a Clipper machine at one of the transit stations.
The SMART Train app is an easy way to purchase fares directly from your smartphone, including half-priced fares for seniors (65+), youth (5-18), and passengers with disabilities. You can purchase up to 20 tickets in a single transaction.
When you’re ready to ride, activate your tickets in the ticket wallet to show to the conductor. You can also purchase a discounted SMART Train and ferry ride in one for $12 one way.
You may even find yourself riding on a SMART Holiday Express complete with twinkling lights and holiday decorations!
There You Have It: Christmas in San Francisco
All the magic of Christmas in San Francisco with kids in one full day, or even a magical weekend. We’re hoping to make it to a live performance of the Nutcracker next year.
The holidays are so much fun to experience as a family, we love checking out how the displays change each year. What’s your favorite part of San Francisco during the holidays?