Insider’s Guide: San Francisco Holidays

OK, I’m going to spill it: San Franciscans love their city during the holidays—any holidays, actually. As whatever big holiday approaches and many locals skip town, we city folk poke our heads out of our groundhog holes, note that parking is not quite so terrible as usual and begin enjoying parts of the city we normally avoid.

And no time is that more true than during the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And no place is that more true than Union Square and its environs.


Sure, tourists and residents from other Bay Area towns still come to enjoy Union Square shopping during the day, but the downtown area and other SF places have so much more to offer if you can stay a few days and surrender to the season.

maria vivi tree

That said, I offer you my completely biased, unscientific guide to family fun in San Francisco during the easier-to-find-street-parking winter holiday season.

See the Tree! Obvious? Yes. But Union Square remains a solid spot to start your evening holiday wander around the city. The Goddess of Victory is joined by the 33,000-LED-lights of the Macy’s Great Tree and the candles of the Bill Graham Menorah as they illuminate hundreds of merry couples, families, carolers and tourists who gather to bask in their glow. Dozens of wreaths shine from Macy’s windows, as does the sparkly reflection from the ice rink and the glow of the sleek Apple Store. A new addition to the celebration is the Winter Walk SF, a temporary winter party space above the current subway construction on Stockton Street between Geary and O’Farrell. Pay $5 and buy your child one of the lighted slingshot fliers or watch a man making giant bubbles as you get a snack from a food truck, enjoy a beverage at the beer garden, or just plop yourself on one of the lighted benches. (Check the calendar of events for a daily lineup of activities.) It is a great place for the kids to run off some steam after soooooo much hand holding in crowds and sooooo many photos before marveling at the four-story tree in the rotunda at Neiman Marcus, the two towering sugar castles in the lobby of the Westin Saint Francis or the best-dressed windows of the year on the department stores and high-fashion boutiques nearby.


Give a Forever Home? Warning: Give the Macy’s windows at the corner of O’Farrell and Stockton a wide birth if your kids have been haggling for a puppy or kitten. About a week before Thanksgiving, Macy’s unveils its holiday windows, cosponsored by the San Francisco SPCA and featuring a gaggle of adoptable pets doing their cute best among the holiday panoramas. Adoption experts will be waiting for you on Level 1. Santa and the best Christmas Tree ornament collection this side of the Mississippi are waiting in “Holiday Lane” on Level 7.


Get Your Glide On The “radically inclusive” Glide Memorial Church has been on the front lines of helping the most disenfranchised in San Francisco since the Rev. Cecil Williams took the helm in the 1960s. Known for its joyful, gospel music–filled celebrations, nothing will put you in the spirit like a visit to Glide. Glide feeds the hungry 364 days a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas—so it’s a perfect place to volunteer with your kids and help them (and you) remember the true spirit of the holidays.

And if you’re in the mood to dress up for a fancy holiday event, I can’t recommend the Glide Annual Holiday Jam fundraiser enough. Enjoy hors d’oeuvres and libations from some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants followed by a rousing concert; past special guest performers have included Sheila E., Joan Baez, Paula West, Tony, Toni, Toné! and Rita Moreno. Look for it the first Thursday in December at the Warfield Theatre.

Ride the Cable Car I’ve always been a fan of the California Street cable car, as opposed to the more crowded Powell Street car, and at no time is it better to take the California line from downtown to Nob Hill than during the holidays. Not only are the views of the city fantastic, the garland-festooned, clanging trolley goes right up to the Fairmont Hotel all done up for Christmas.

fairmont exterior

The Fairmont is home to an amazing two-story gingerbread house complete with fully functioning railway. It’s free to look, but if you really want to splurge, you can book holiday tea at the Fairmont—just make sure your kids can sit still for two hours; you won’t want to leave early at $74 per adult and $37 for kids under five.

fairmont collage

If your taste runs more to tiki than to tea, steer your kids to the Tonga Room instead. Opened in 1945, the Tonga Room was one of the first tiki bars ever built, and it features a lagoon with a floating band and a tropical rainstorm that roars to life every half hour. At last check, the Tonga Room was still taking dinner reservations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.


If your visit to the Fairmont has left you filled with a few too many of the 7 Deadly Sins, stop in at Grace Cathedral and take a look at the soaring nave or get introspective by walking the labyrinth. They also have a host of Christmas programs going on, including the children’s Christmas pageant and midnight mass.  

Get Crackin’ Did you know that the American premiere of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was at San Francisco’s very own War Memorial Opera House in 1944? It’s been a holiday tradition ever since, and you can enjoy it at it’s original venue during the last two weeks of December.

If you’re not sure that your kids are, well, mature enough for a full-length, fancy-pants ballet, consider the Nutcracker Sweets (a 50-minute “best of” version) at Fort Mason or the Dance-Along Nutcracker at the Yerba Buena Center, where kids are encouraged to get up out of their seats and twirl along. And if your kids still can’t get enough Nutcracker, check out Nutcracker Under the Dome, a series of free events with the SF Ballet at the Westfield Mall.

Sail On Look for the Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade in mid-December. Bundle up, load up the wine and Goldfish crackers, and find a good spot at Aquatic Park, Pier 39, the Marina Green or Crissy Field. Or, if being outside in December doesn’t appeal to you, make reservations at one of the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants with a view of the water and catch the show as you down oysters like a Rockefeller. (Just note that the best food in town isn’t likely to be found at Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39.)

Sing Out Although the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has a full dance card of shows all year long in the Bay Area and beyond, the group always comes home for Christmas. We make it a tradition to catch the Home for the Holidays show at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve. From Union Square, it’s a festive ride down Market Street on the classically restored F Train streetcar straight to the Castro.


Skate Away Each year throughout most of November and December the ice skating rink in Union Square is open. A session is 90 minutes and starts on even hours. The first skate of the day starts at 10 a.m. and the last skate is at 10 p.m., including Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For those who’ve skated it all, there’s the annual Drag Queens on Ice too. If you can’t get tickets at the iconic Union Square rink, walk down a few blocks to Justin Herman Plaza, where the Embarcadero Rink is open in the shadow of the holiday-lit Embarcadero towers and Hyatt.

Drive By There’s nothing easier than loading the kids in the car and cruising past the homes of the most festive SF Bay Area citizens. Check out the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of best-decorated homes to plan your route.

Go Union Union St. in Cow Hollow offers an “elfin’ good time” on the first Saturday of December, when the Victorian storefronts between Van Ness and Steiner streets light up in the “Fantasy of Lights.” It’s all a magical backdrop for pony rides, free carriage rides, ornament painting, live entertainment and more. The epicenter of the action is the Cudworth Mansion, where you’ll find Santa and his team of elves, who will be hanging out for photo ops with your kiddies.

Reindeer Play The California Academy of Sciences presents a special holiday exhibit from late November to early January featuring special exhibits with, among other topics, the science of reindeer antlers and reindeer UV vision, two live reindeer munching lichen out back, and indoor snow flurries released every 30 minutes to create a giant snow globe effect. Not to be outdone, the San Francisco Zoo puts on its own holiday program the week before Christmas, featuring a holiday light spectacle, a “silent disco,” Santa, reindeer and—you guessed it!—snow flurries under the stars. Bundle up!

reindeer sf academy

Better Watch Out San Francisco SantaCon, truly the mother of all SantaCons, began here in the city more than 20 years ago and traditionally departs from Union Square on a Saturday about two weeks before Christmas. The event has now spread to over 350 cities and towns around the world, but if you’ve somehow missed the revelry, be forewarned that it features thousands upon thousands of Santas, elves and the like running around the city from bar to bar. If you don’t wish to explain to your 5-year-old why Santa is heaving his stomach into the gutter by late afternoon, please take note of the SantaCon date and route when planning your activities.


Carve the Roast Beast It isn’t difficult to find fine restaurants that are open on Thanksgiving and Christmas in San Francisco, but you will pay for the privilege of a prix-fixe traditional meal, and reservations are a must. Check out listings on OpenTable and make reservations as far in advance as possible. Check for places that have special prix-fixe kids’ options—not only will your kids be welcome, but you can also save some serious pie dough by not having to pay adult prices for a kid appetite.

Also note that many landmark San Francisco restaurants will be booked solid for pretty much the month of December, so even if you’re not looking for Thanksgiving or Christmas Day reservations, book as far ahead as you can if you have a spot like this in mind. For example, my dad likes to take us to House of Prime Rib during the holidays, and so do a lot of other dads, apparently. The last time I checked OpenTable, I was looking at the Sunday after New Year’s for reservations. (Damn you, Anthony Bourdain!)

If the holidays mean Asian food to your family, I’d recommend checking out R&G Lounge in Chinatown or Yank Sing for dim sum downtown. Both can accommodate large groups and are on the upscale side for Chinese food (especially Yank Sing) and will definitely make you feel like you’re going somewhere special. Unfortunately, one of R&G Lounge’s specialties is salt and pepper crab, normally made with Dungeness crab. Unfortunately this local crab, whose season traditionally ushers in the holidays in San Francisco, is off many plates in 2015 because of a toxin due to El Nino. Luckily, R&G still has crab on the menu, though you may pay a little more for it than in past years. Alternatively, if Japanese is what floats your boat, I recommend Sushi Boat for an added level of fun right off Union Square.

Take the Train Just because street parking is better than average in many neighborhoods during the holidays, that doesn’t mean you should ever attempt it downtown. Walk or use public transportation to get around; in addition to the classic F Train and cable car lines, San Francisco has plenty of above-ground and underground lines via its Muni system. (Check out the 1-day, 3-day or 7-day visitor passes.) Of course, all manner of taxi app services are available here too, including the kid-friendly Shuddle, just as long as your kid no longer requires a car seat or booster.

Make It a Weekend! The only thing more merry than a holiday day in SF is two or three holiday days! If you stay the night, the already-mentioned Fairmont is a grand hotel with stunning holiday decorations and gasp-worthy views of the city, but it is pricey. You also can’t walk to it with armloads of shopping bags because it’s perched on top of Nob Hill—so you’ll be on and off the cable car or bus, or in and out of a taxi or car service, every time you go back to your hotel room.

One alternative is the Hotel St. Francis, which gives the Fairmont a run for its money in the winter wonderland department. (The lobby display boasts a rotating, 12-foot-high “enchanted castle.”). Plus, your kids will get a kick out of riding up and down the glass elevators, and the hotel is located right on Union Square, so you can book the “tree view package.”

If holiday decorations aren’t enough to keep your young ones enchanted, consider a Union Square hotel with a pool to burn off some of that extra energy. The Handlery has an outdoor heated pool, as does the Hilton. Sure, it’s cold outside, but it’s still California.

by Maria de la O, December 2016

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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, holidays in san francisco, christmas in san francisco, san francisco getaway, san francisco weekend, thanksgiving in san francisco, hanukkah in san francisco


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