Every year through November and December, San Francisco and the surrounding area glows with hundreds of thousands of glittering, colorful holiday decorations and light displays, bringing the season’s joyful spirit to residents and visitors alike. Here are the most jaw-dropping, glimmering, shimmering exhibits.
Macy’s Tree in Union Square
For many, it isn’t Christmas until they feast their eyes on Macy’s annual holiday gift to San Francisco — a behemoth tree with 33,000 twinkling, energy-efficient LED bulbs, set alongside 1,100 shimmering ornaments. This year marked the 26th annual lighting of the tree in Union Square — a 2.6-acre public plaza bordered by Geary, Powell, Post, and Stockton Streets and considered the heart of downtown San Francisco. The official lighting of the tree, held on November 26 this year, happened with a fanfare of entertainment, Santa sightings, charity drives, and, of course, frenzied holiday shopping. Until January 18, visitors can also enjoy a glide around the Union Square skating rink gleaming with the reflected colors of the season.
Union Square, 333 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA, USA
Lights from just a few of the decorated vessels along Fisherman’s Wharf reflect in the Bay. Photo courtesy of sanfrancisco.com
If you still haven’t had enough of shimmering lights on reflective surfaces, be sure to catch the 21st annual Holiday Boats display at Fisherman’s Wharf. Stand in awe of festive displays draped over the fishing fleet of more than 60 vessels. The armada held a parade from Fort Mason to the St. Francis Yacht Club to Crissy Field and back on December 11 to showcase the flotilla festooned with fluorescents. The Fisherman’s Wharf fishing fleet will remain lit throughout the holiday season. The best viewing of this display can be found at the Sport Fishing Harbor along Jefferson Street between Jones and Taylor.
Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA, USA
The famous Pier 39 Christmas tree stands vigil over the bayside tourist attraction. Photo courtesy of Pier 39
Not to be outdone by other exhibits, Pier 39 boasts a spectacular, 60-foot Christmas tree with thousands of lights, bows, and ornaments. During this year’s November 23 tree-lighting celebrations, kids got to rub elbows with their favorite Disneyland characters. The popular tourist attraction, which is more famous for its loud, barking seals throughout the rest of the year, also offers numerous other activities. After basking in the radiance of joyful revelry, pop into the Aquarium of the Bay, where visitors can walk through crystal clear tunnels underwater and encounter 20,000 sea creatures swimming overhead, including a sevengill shark, moon jellies, and a bat ray. For a more interactive outing, check out the 7D Experience, a combination roller-coaster ride and laser-blasting game set in a massive theater. Or try a mind-melting walk through endless halls of fun at the Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. Whatever your pace, Pier 39 offers fun for the season.
Beach Street & The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA, USA +1 415 705 5500
It seems fitting that the most delectable chocolate in the Bay Area is available alongside one of its sweetest holiday displays. Ghiradelli Square hosted its 51st annual Christmas tree–lighting event on November 27, offering a spectacle that included choral singers, delectable treats, and lights spanning every color on the spectrum. The tree is just one of the many items adorned; brick walls, archways, windows, a patio garden, a fountain, and even a large menorah in celebration of Chanukkah are all alight to add to the merriment. From afar, the sky above the square creates a dome of light that beckons one and all into the warmth of its friendly glow.
Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point St, San Francisco, CA, USA
Balloon entertainers brighten a little girl’s day during the Telegraph Avenue Street Fair in Berkley. Photo courtesy of Telegraph Fair
Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair
Check out the action-packed holiday fun of Berkeley’s 32nd Annual Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair, happening from 11am to 6pm on December 19, 20, 23, and 24. Entertainers walk the streets ready to thrill kids with balloon art, feats of juggling, music, and more. Be sure to stay until sunset to fully experience the creative brilliance of the lit-up baubles that adorn the street lamps, shops, buildings, and walkways. But there’s more to see than just lights. You can also pick up a few last-minute gifts from the 200 artists and craftsman along the way at guaranteed bargain prices. Choose from adorable puppets, wearable art, leather goods, wind chimes, jewelry, and more. The event is held between Dwight Way and Bancroft Way near the University of California campus in Berkeley.
Telegraph Ave Holiday Street Fair, Albany, CA, USA
There’s nowhere better to get into the holiday spirit than in South San Francisco’s Parkway Estates. The residents of this neighborhood go above and beyond your wildest holiday wishes with a light display that is truly spectacular. Every year, the three streets of approximately 100 residents in about 50 homes take on the task of creating outlandish, extravagant scenes that draw thousands of gob-smacked admirers from near and far. The best part about it is the unity of common purpose among residents. Where most neighborhoods offer a smattering of great decorative displays here and there, this is one massive show that allows you to park the vehicle and walk up and down streets taking in one over-the-top effort after another, and another, and another. Expect the soundtrack of your visit to include plenty of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s.
Parkway Estates, South San Francisco, CA, USA
Across the Bay Bridge, through the city of Oakland and onto Alameda Island, you will find homes reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings, many of which light up like the Christmas cards of your imagination.
Although seasonal displays can be found throughout the community, the highest concentration of impressive efforts is on the 3000 block of Thompson Avenue. Along this so-called Christmas Tree Lane, expect to see vast front yards covered in brilliant snowmen, nutcracker characters, candy cane lanes, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, reindeer and sleighs, and even Snoopy and Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.
Christmas Tree Lane, Thompson Avenue, Alameda, CA, USA
The buildings of Embarcadero Center in downtown San Francisco are outlined by thousands of lights throughout the holiday season. © Joe Parks
With more than 17,000 lights outlining the Embarcadero Center’s towers, the city scenery has become a backdrop for many filmmakers, photographers, and holiday revelers alike. Through January 4, don ice skates and take a spin around the rink for a traditional holiday activity. The nearby Hyatt Regency San Francisco at 5 Embarcadero Center gets into the spirit as some 300,000 lights virtually rain down on people from the top of its immense 17-story lobby atrium. That imagery becomes even more real four times a day on weekends as genuine snow cascades down around a giant Christmas tree and village dioramas that decorate the grand hotel entrance.
Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA, USA +1 415 772 0700
All sorts of Christmas characters came out to entertain kids during the Union Street Holiday Fantasy of Lights celebration on Dec. 5. Photo courtesy of Steven Restivo Productions
The Union Street Holiday Fantasy of Lights in the upscale Cow Hollow district of San Francisco offers a twinkling array of colors and decorations on everything from trees to parking meters, which are transformed into candy canes. Most impressive of all, however, is the neighborhood’s majestic Victorian architecture, dressed up as if for a fancy holiday ball. The entire scene creates a magical backdrop for a visit from Santa, his elves and even reindeer — actually live ponies made to look like reindeer. They were all joined by jugglers, face painters, balloon artists, costumed characters, singers, and live entertainment during the festival celebration on December 5. However visitors get another chance to indulge in seasonal celebration during another Union Street event — the San Francisco Firefighter’s Toy Program. On December 19 at 1pm, the public is invited to gather in the courtyard of the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin for an evening of caroling along Union Street between Van Ness and Steiner.
Union Street, San Francisco, CA, USA
The Fairmont Hotel San Francisco features a two-story house made of delectable gingerbread bricks, sweet and sticky icing, candy canes and more. Photo courtesy of the Fairmont Hotel
Fairmont Hotel San Francisco
Fairmont Hotel San Francisco
One of the most stunning hotel lobbies in San Francisco becomes a feat of holiday design every year with a man-sized gingerbread house to thrill kids and adults alike. The culinary team at The Fairmont San Francisco, located in the posh Nob Hill neighborhood, builds an enormous and mouthwatering house of gingerbread bricks, dripping icing, candy canes, Christmas Tree Peeps, and nearly every other holiday sweet imaginable. When complete, the two-story, Victorian-style building stands more than 22 feet tall and 23 feet wide, surrounded by a functioning railroad track, delighting train enthusiasts young and old. Designers have even included a gingerbread doghouse alongside a North Pole Nook where children can write letters to Santa. Remember, the temptation to nibble on a bit of the Christmas creation has been overwhelming for some, who end up looking foolish for it. The candy décor is not the only seasonal adornment to be found. Visitors can also find a sparkling holiday tree of lights atop its Tower Building that is visible throughout the city. Guests can enjoy an enchanting, 23-foot-tall Christmas tree that grazes the ceiling of the main lobby.
Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA, USA +1 866 540 4491