The Best Christmas and Winter Markets in California

The millions of LED lights at Cambria Christmas Market will illuminate your festive celebrations
The millions of LED lights at Cambria Christmas Market will illuminate your festive celebrations | © George Rose / Getty
Lilly Graves

Christmas markets might make you think of European festivities in cities such as Berlin, Strasbourg and Paris. But sunny California has many traditional Christmas markets, too, welcoming Santa Claus and vendors of mulled wine and festive treats – with proceeds often going to charity.

The setting might not be as historic as the Christmas markets in Europe, but in California there’s a growing number of festive holiday markets, thanks to the growing popularity of these events globally. Many are themed after Germany, Sweden and even Dickensian London, with costumed actors and speciality foods keeping things real. These fun, yet educational events sell unique gift ideas, food and drink, and are often raising money for a good cause. And the best part? You won’t need a hat and gloves to participate. Don’t worry – there’s still mulled wine to keep you cozy.

1. Cambria Christmas Market

Market, German

decorations at the Christmas Market, Cambria Nursery and Florist, Cambria, California
© Chuck Place / Alamy
This pretty seaside town along Highway 1 (just north of San Luis Obispo) doesn’t get the large tourist crowds or chain names that flock to other coastal towns. What it does have is an authentic, German-style Christmas market, which lasts nearly a month up to Christmas. Depending on the day, there may be open-air stalls selling handcrafted items from local artisans or imported German goods (ornaments, nutcrackers, smoking incense men), as well as a traditional German biergarten (beer garden), live music, fire pits and plenty of festive grub. It all takes place under a few million LED Christmas lights, which stretch onwards for 30mi (48km).

2. Alpine Village Torrance


This year-round, Bavarian-style village opened in 1968 and offers up a slice of Germany for anytime you’re in the Los Angeles area. Its own Alpine Market sells an impressive assortment of European groceries, including award-winning sausages (there’s a master sausage maker in house), bakery goods and German beer. But during the four weeks leading up to Christmas (closed on Christmas Day), the village goes one step further by putting on a free Christmas Faire modeled after the traditional markets found in Bavaria. This indoor-outdoor festival boasts plenty of decorations and festive events for the whole family, along with vendors selling souvenirs and traditional German snacks and beverages.

3. December Nights Balboa Park


Dec. 3, 2010 - San Diego, California, USA - December 3, 2010, San Diego Calfornia, USA_December Nights at Balboa Park- View of Christmas lights above the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Photo Credit: CHARLIE NEUMAN/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press. (Credit I
© ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

Further south is the annual December Nights event, located in San Diego’s sprawling Balboa Park. For a few days each year, the event draws big crowds, evolving from an original, smaller event that was held along El Prado walkway in 1978. Nowadays, the park is transformed into a winter wonderland with an enormous Christmas tree brought in from the Cuyamaca Mountains. There’s free entry into the museums and live concerts in the open-air Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Come hungry, as there are more vendors than you can count, serving international food and tipples.

4. The Great Dickens Christmas Fair


Nov. 25, 2012 - San Francisco, California - The Great Dickens Christmas Fair - a Bay Area tradition since 1970 at the San Francisco Cow Palace. The exhibition halls are converted as bustling streets of London, immortalized for all time by the mighty pen
© ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy
Held in the Bay Area since 1970, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair is an indoor holiday market and celebration harkening back to the age of Victorian London. The old-fashioned picture comes complete with costumed characters (costumes are encouraged for attendees, too), musicians and performances depicting 19th-century life. The event takes place at the Cow Palace for five weekends during the winter holidays and hosts a range of vendors, from British Empire cuisine and a handful of pubs to an area to sit down, put your pinky up and take high tea.

5. Calistoga Christmas Faire


In the heart of Napa Valley is the town of Calistoga, which holds a weekend Christmas Faire every first weekend of December. A myriad of events and activities takes place in this short time frame, including an old-fashioned tree lighting ceremony, trolley rides, holiday movie screenings and a tractor parade. You’ll also be able to shop from artisan vendors, decorate gingerbread houses and cupcakes, and sing your socks off caroling. And that’s before you turn your attention to the beautiful range of delicious food items and local wines (this is Napa, after all). Admission is free.

6. German Christmas Market Huntington Beach


Bavaria may not come to mind when you think of Huntington Beach in Los Angeles, but this community has a secret spot called Old World with 45 retail spaces in traditional Bavarian style. Year-round there’s a German market, deli, bakery and 10,000sqft (929sqm) beer garden, which is especially popular during Oktoberfest (unsurprisingly). For one Saturday during the holiday season, there are festive additions on the calendar: Santa Claus visits, face painting, live music and dozens of vendors congregating to sell arts and crafts, perfect for perusing in the Southern Californian sunshine. Proceeds from the small entrance fee go to Child Rights and You America.

7. German Holiday Market Weihnachtsmarkt


Thanks to volunteers from the German International School of Silicon Valley, the city of Mountain View puts on a one-day German Holiday Market every year at the Mountain View City Hall Plaza. Taking up a two-block area, this family event offers kiddie rides, music and dance performances, a petting zoo, holiday crafts and Santa Claus visits. Fuel up on giant pretzels, mulled wine and beer before shopping for traditional holiday gifts handcrafted in Germany. 100 percent of purchases benefit the bilingual school, which has two locations in Mountain View and San Francisco.

8. Sacramento Christkindlmarkt


Sacramento Christkindlmarkt. Rustic nativity scene. The hayloft and statues with Christmas characters
© Konoplytska / Getty

California’s capital offers a two-day Christmas market every year that imitates the outdoor Christmas markets around Germany. At the Sacramento Turn Verein Hall, there’s live Christmas music and a few dozen booths selling everything you’d find at a German market: traditional arts and crafts, toasted almonds, gluhwein (mulled wine), stollen (a traditional fruit cake) and little figurines made out of dried plums. Tuck into a Nuremberg sausage dinner and pay a visit to Santa Claus and the German Christkind (traditional gift bearer). The event benefits multiple charities in the Sacramento area – you can enter for free with a coat donation, or pay a small fee.

9. Swedish Christmas Fair Old World Huntington Beach


In addition to the German-themed festival in Huntington Beach, the SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association) puts on a one-day festival and fundraiser at the same location during the holiday season. The Swedish Christmas Fair welcomes local vendors who display their beautiful handmade crafts, clothing, gifts and decorations, baked goods, sweet treats and artwork for Christmas gift browsing. There’s also traditional music and dance, and plenty of tasty eats to slurp down with traditional Nordic mulled wine, glögg. Keep an eye out for the Swedish version of Santa Claus, called St. Lucia.

10. The Swedish Christmas Fair Torrance


This one-day indoor event at the Torrance Cultural Art Center is another Swedish market in the LA area, organized by a separate chapter of SWEA. This is where you get your Christmas shop on, browsing the great selection of genuine Swedish handicrafts including Christmas souvenirs, jewelry, fine art and toys. Watch (or partake) in traditional folk dancing and see St. Lucia and her choir perform twice during the day (there’s also a Santa Claus). Sip on some glögg while you select which baked goods to take home with you, in the knowledge that the Christmas Fair is non-profit and for a good cause. It’s organized by volunteers, and entrance fees and proceeds go towards educational scholarships.

From budget-friendly stays in Morro Bay to immersive nature retreats in Sequoia National Park, we know just the hotel for you to book for a peaceful night of California Dreamin’. Whichever end of the Golden State you find yourself, be inspired by our northern and southern highlights. Follow your nose and discover the foods you must try when in San Francisco.

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