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November 30, 2016

Things to Do in San Francisco This December

In this season of gratitude and gaiety, here’s our gift to you: 31 ideas, one for every day of the month, to experience this season of seasons in San Francisco. And if you can’t squeeze all of them in this month, don’t worry — some of these experiences will be just as rewarding in January or February.  

Calling All Rail Fans

California has a number of legendary train routes and vintage railroad companies. The holidays are the perfect time to take a train ride and create some special memories or, in one instance, share a moment at The Walt Disney Family Museum with one of the greatest train lovers of all: Walt Disney.

Cold Play

No, not the British pop-rock group Coldplay (which actually is performing at Levi’s Stadium in October 2017). We’re talking about some outdoor adventures or a few twirls around the outdoor ice rinks at Embarcadero Center and Union Square. Located at the foot of Market Street, the Embarcadero Center rink is open until Jan. 8 and Union Square is open until Jan. 16. 

Off the Grid Returns to Justin Herman Plaza

In between the errands, the shopping and sightseeing, visitors can fortify themselves with food from Off the Grid, which will return to Justin Herman Plaza, adjacent to the Holiday Ice Rink at the Embarcadero Center, through Jan. 8, 2017. Five food trucks, rotating on a biweekly schedule, will feature everything from Chinese menu items at WoKitchen to Mexican fare from Judie’s Tacos Locos. Hours are noon to 4 p.m.

The King and I

The memorable and sometimes haunting music of one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest works, “The King and I”, fills the Golden Gate Theatre through Dec. 11, 2016. Set in 1860s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. New York Magazine pronounced it, “too beautiful to miss.” Don’t.

Home Land Security

Through Dec. 18, 2016, “Home Land Security,” a new FOR-SITE exhibition, brings together works by contemporary artists and collectives from around the world to reflect on the increasing complexity of national security. Occupying a suite of former military structures at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio overlooking San Francisco Bay, the exhibition includes 16 featured artists and extends FOR-SITE’s focus on provocative art about place, inviting viewers into decommissioned batteries, an administrative building and a chapel – some of which are open to the public for the first time.

The Lion King

Giraffes strut. Birds swoop. Gazelles leap. The entire Serengeti comes to life as never before in Disney's"The Lion King" now on stage at San Francisco's SHN Orpheum Theater, through Dec. 31, 2016. People around the world have experienced the awe-inspiring visual artistry, unforgettable music and unique storytelling of this Broadway spectacular.

Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Europa

Head over to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and wander through Tom Sachs’ “Space Program: Europa.” This expansive sculpture exhibition fills the YBCA through Jan. 15, 2017 with everything needed for astronauts to successfully complete their voyage to Jupiter's distant moon, including the “Mobile Quarantine Facility,” “Mission Control,” the Apollo-era “Landing Excursion Module” and special equipment for conducting scientific experiments.

Cirque du Soleil's Luzia

Making its U.S. premiere in the San Francisco Bay Area, "Luzia" is Cirque du Soleil's new Big Top production near AT&T Park. Inspired by Mexico, "Luzia" has been described as a waking dream where light ("luz" in Spanish) quenches the spirit and rain ("lluvia") soothes the soul. Featuring a cast of 44 performers from diverse artistic backgrounds, "Luzia" closes on Jan. 29, 2016 before moving to San Jose from Feb. 9 to March 19, 2017.

Butterflies & Blooms at the Conservatory of Flowers

Through June 30, 2017, get eye-to-eye with a butterfly in the exhibit “Butterflies & Blooms” at the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. The city’s beloved Victorian greenhouse will transform its Special Exhibit gallery into a cottage garden aflutter with hundreds of butterflies including magnificent monarchs, western swallowtails, painted ladies and more.

‘Tis the Season for Science

Revel in the wonder of the California Academy of Sciences annual holiday exhibit, “‘Tis the Season for Science.” Live reindeer, indoor snow, festive experiences and more continue through Jan. 8, 2017. On Dec. 11, Dec. 17-Jan. 2, 2017 there will also be holiday performances at noon and 2 p.m. in the Academy’s Piazza stage.

Whiskers and Puppy Dog Tails

The San Francisco SPCA is once again teaming up with Macy's for their annual event where adoptable cats and dogs are showcased in Macy's windows in Union Square. More than 8,500 cats and dogs have been adopted through this program. Get that warm fuzzy feeling through Jan. 1, 2017. While you’re there, check out the Winter Walk SF, a holiday pop-up plaza on lower Stockton Street. There will be food vendors, live performances and other surprises Nov. 25, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017.

Reindeer Romp and Lights at the Zoo

Through Jan. 1, 2017, three reindeer will be romping at the San Francisco Zoo’s Playfield Lawn near the playground. Visit the animals and learn what they eat and see what they look like up close. The 100-acre park will also be lit up from Dec. 16-30 (closed Dec. 25-25). ZooLights will include Santa and a holiday marketplace with food and seasonal fare and music from carolers will fill the air.

Illuminate SF Festival of Light

Now in its fourth year, the Illuminate SF Festival of Light revolves around 35 dramatic, eco-friendly light art installations — nine more than last year and more than four times the number of the inaugural celebration in 2013 — accessible by public transport and free for all. Through New Year’s Day 2017, art lovers are invited to embrace the power of light and tour San Francisco’s art installations by a diverse range of local and world renowned light artists. Intimate artist talks, museum tours and a myriad of other light art activations will be offered throughout the festival.

SFO Holiday Cheer

More than 150 miles of wiring and more than 3.3 million LEDs will illuminate the exterior of SFO throughout the holidays. One of the largest public displays of lights in the Bay Area, the switch goes on Nov. 29, 2016 at 5 p.m. and includes a rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge. Prepare to be bedazzled.

PAC-12 Football Championship Game

Presented by 76, the 2016 Football Championship Game will be played on Dec. 2, 2016 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara between the winners of the Pac-12 North and Pac-12 South. Kick-off time is 6 p.m.

Holiday Art Shop

Every year, Creativity Explored hosts a Holiday Art Shop featuring artwork by more than 135 talented artists, all of whom have developmental disabilities. This year, the gallery and studio are filled with affordable gifts for everyone including original drawings and paintings, textiles, ceramics, mixed media, and art products such as Modify watches, t-shirts, notecard packs, pencil pouches and pencils, wrapping paper, and journals all featuring artwork by Creativity Explored artists.

MoAD Honors Food Justice Activism

Join the Museum of the African Diaspora Chef-in-Residence Bryant Terry on Dec. 3, 2016 to celebrate  the Free Breakfast for Children program started by the Black Panther Party in 1969, and the contemporary food justice work inspired by that program.  Admission includes Red Bay Coffee; a gourmet boxed breakfast; a short musical set by DJ Cavem Motivation along with a screening of “From Gangs to Gardens,” and speakers.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival's A Day of Silents

On Dec. 3, 2016, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's "A Day of Silents” offers six silent film programs with live musical accompaniment at the Castro Theater including Gloria Swanson as a San Francisco prostitute in "Sadie Thompson" and Emil Janning, who won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of an exiled Russian general turned Hollywood extra, in "The Last Command."

Swingin’ Little Christmas

Award-winning singer, actress and comedian Jane Lynch will ring in the holidays with her brand-new show, “Swingin’ Little Christmas” at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, Dec. 8-10. Not your typical holiday show, Lynch, accompanied by a five-piece band, will be joined by some special guests, including Kate Flannery of “The Office” and Tim Davis, vocal arranger for "Glee."

Nifty Gifties

For those who like to plan ahead (and get their shopping for the holidays done early), December offerings include SF Bazaar’s holiday market, featuring 40 local vendors at Nightlife, the California Academy of Sciences’ weekly after-hours event on Dec. 8, 2016; RAM Pop-Up Bookstore at the Minnesota Street project, Dec. 8-17, 2016; Maverick Holiday Market in the Crocker Galleria on Dec. 13, 2016, and the SFMade Gift Show on Dec. 18, 2016. And if you’re a “lefty,” check out The Left Hand Store at PIER 39 – the store even sells left-handed guitars.

Now That’s the Spirit

Opening Dec. 10, 2016, “Vintage: Wine, Beer and Spirits Labels” at the California Historical Society features hundreds of colorfully illustrated wine, beer and spirits labels. Produced during the Great Depression, the labels invoke fantasies of peace, plenty and the life of the swells.

Celebrations at Sea

Bring the whole family to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park on Dec. 10, 2016 for “Celebrations at Sea,” which will launch in the Lewis Ark houseboat at 1 p.m. and continue aboard the 1886 historic sailing ship Balclutha until 4:45 p.m. The program will include live music, refreshments, ornament-making, story time, a ranger talk on historic seagoing holiday traditions, and a visit from a nautical Santa Claus.

White Christmas

The stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” returns to San Francisco, Dec. 14-24, 2016. “White Christmas” tells the tale of two showbiz buddies putting on a show at a quaint Vermont inn. Full of dancing, romance and some of the greatest holiday tunes ever written, the show promises to be merry and bright.

Small Theatres, Big Performances

“Sons of the Prophet” is onstage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through Dec. 18, 2016. Winner of numerous awards and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, this drama is a refreshing look at how people cope with wounds that just won’t heal. The Strand,  A.C.T.’s new Central Market venue, is the home of @TheStrand, a series of events showcasing original theatrical events. For the holiday season, The Skivvies, billed as an “undie”-rock, comedy-pop duo will make their San Francisco debut with “Holiday Roadkill” for three performances only, Dec. 22-23, 2016.

Just for Giggles

Make your reservations now for one of the most irreverent holiday traditions in San Francisco: Kung Pao Kosher Comedy on Dec. 23-25 at New Asia Restaurant. Headliners include Elayne Boosler, Eddie Sarfaty, Alex Edelman and emcee Lisa Geduldig.

Chanukah in Union Square

From Dec. 24, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017, the Bill Graham Menorah will be lit in Union Square. Inaugurated in 1975, this annual tradition was one of the first big public menorah and celebrations of Chanukah outside of Israel.

Free Community Day at CJM on Dec. 25

There will be special art activities and performances for kids at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Christmas Day. For adults there is a powerful exhibit, “From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art” featuring the work of 24 international contemporary artists.

Bowl Bound

Wrap up the year with championship football at Levi’s Stadium. The 2016 Foster Farms Bowl will kick off on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2016. The third selection from the Pac-12 conference (outside of the college football playoff group) will play a top team from the Big Ten conference. Game time is 5:30 p.m. (PST).


Featuring a new picnic area (yes, you can picnic in December in San Francisco), seating, bike parking and interpretive signage, the new Battery East Vista (above Fort Point National Historic Site) in the Presidio offers postcard-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The revamped area also offers enhanced visitor connections to two of the most breathtaking trails in the Presidio: San Francisco Bay Trail and the California Coastal Trail.

Literary Wonderland

San Francisco is known for a thriving independent bookstore culture. Located in the Haight-Ashbury, the Booksmith will soon open in a new space directly opposite its store at 1727 Haight St. called the Bindery. A full array of offbeat, artistic gifts for children and adults will be available. And, of course, a whole lot of books.

The Unseen World of the Tenderloin

Called “… a fantastic examination and celebration of all things Tenderloin” by Tom Molanphy of “USA Today,” the Tenderloin Museum has quickly become a striking destination for those seeking to learn about the real and gritty history of San Francisco. Now the museum has just opened its first temporary exhibition, “The Unseen World of the Tenderloin,” highlighting both historic neighborhood scenes and intimate spaces familiar to residents.

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