San Francisco Holiday Sights & Lights

The city by the bay puts its own lively spin on celebrating the holiday season.

The last Christmas snowfall in San Francisco was in 1856, so don’t expect a traditional White Christmas if you visit for the holidays. But do count on a swirl of colors between Thanksgiving and New Year’s—from miniature lights on the king-sized trees and menorahs at many city landmarks to a magical nightly light show on the Bay Bridge.

Union Square Lights

Nowhere in San Francisco is the holiday season brighter than at this 1850's park and plaza. The big luxury department stores that surround Union Square—Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus—are gussied up for the holidays indoors and out. Holiday shoppers range from Financial District executives on a one-hour break to European tourists on a one-month U.S. tour. Lighting up the square itself are an 86-foot-tall Christmas tree and a 25-foot-tall menorah, both lit in well-attended ceremonies. Other longstanding holiday traditions are the ice-skating rink in the square and the elaborate (and edible) sugar castle and enchanted castle in the lobby of the historic Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square.

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SOMA Seasonal Sights

The pumping heart of the city used to lie North of Market Street (NOMA), but “no mo.” The mushrooming completions of new museums and skyscrapers—most recently the brand-new 61-story Salesforce Tower that now dominates the skyline—has shifted the city’s nerve center to the South of Market (SOMA) district. The holiday spirit is found there in the form of 330 “snowflake” lights on vintage lampposts along Market Street, 37 Illuminate SF Festival of Light art installations. 

Down by the Bay

Along the San Francisco waterfront are more holiday delights: a 60-foot lit tree and daily holiday merriment at Pier 39, an outdoor ice rink near the Ferry Building Marketplace, the nightly Bay Lights show on the four western spans of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (visible for miles from the waterfront), and on December 15 at Fisherman’s Wharf—strolling distance from the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel—the oldest and largest lit boat parade on San Francisco Bay.

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Lions, Tigers & Reindeer

The San Francisco Zoo celebrates the holidays by hosting ZooLights, a zoo-touring path lit by twinkling holiday lights that meanders past animals, including a real reindeer. The experience ends with a visit to Santa and a holiday marketplace filled with the singing carolers. ZooLights happens nightly from 5 to 8 p.m. for the price of zoo admission throughout late December (closed only on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).

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Holiday Performances

After a flurry of tree and menorah lightings on Thanksgiving weekend are a succession of holiday-themed events and performances throughout the city. Among these are the Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace (a walk-through re-creation of Christmas in Victorian London), Tshaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” performed by the San Francisco Ballet at the Opera House, and Handel’s “Messiah” performed by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall.

New Year’s Fireworks

An estimated 200,000 people stay up late on New Year’s Eve to watch the fireworks show that commences at midnight over San Francisco Bay. The pyrotechnics are launched from a pier at the foot of Mission Street, but you can see them (if it isn’t too cloudy) from all along the waterfront and from most Bay Area hills. Make your way over to lavish parties with multiple DJs and dance floors at hotels such as the W San Francisco.

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