Things to Do in San Francisco This December
It's the merriest, jolliest, happiest month of the year, and there's no shortage of things to do in San Francisco this December. It's not just holiday festivities that are happening (although we do have plenty of that); we've got everything from awe-inspiring light art to mobile karaoke to adorable otters. There's no better time to visit San Francisco; hotel rates are historically low. So what are you waiting for?
Illuminate SF Festival of Light
The Illuminate SF Festival of Light revolves around 37 dramatic, eco-friendly light art installations, accessible by public transportation and free for all. Through New Year’s Day 2019, art lovers are invited to embrace the power of light and tour San Francisco’s art installations, created by a diverse range of local and world renowned light artists.
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.
Home for the Holidays at the Walt Disney Family Museum
See how one of the biggest kids-at-heart celebrated the holidays at the Walt Disney Family Museum's "Home for the Holidays at Carolwood" exhibit, on display through Jan. 7, 2019. A replica of the Disney home and Walt's personal steam locomotive, the "Lilly Belle", are among the items featured.
No, not the British pop-rock group. We’re talking about a few twirls around the outdoor ice rinks at Embarcadero Center, Union Square and Civic Center. Located at the foot of Market Street, the Embarcadero Center rink is open until Jan. 6 and the Union Square rink is open until Jan. 21. The city's newest ice rink addition at Civic Center will debut on Nov. 30 and remain through Jan 6, 2019.
Off the Grid Returns to Winter Walk
In between the errands, the shopping and sightseeing, visitors can fortify themselves with food from Off the Grid, which will return to Winter Walk on Stockton Street near Macy’s through Dec. 31, 2018.
Music for Families at San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony's Music for Families series kicks off on Dec. 1 with "Superheroes and Villains". Explore history's most heroic music from "Black Panther", "Superman", "The Avengers" and more.
A Bronx Tale
Experience "A Bronx Tale", the hit Broadway musical, now at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 23, 2018. Academy Award-winning producer Robert De Niro and Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks direct this thrilling new production that tells an unforgettable tale of loyalty and family.
‘Tis the Season for Science
Revel in the wonder of the California Academy of Sciences's annual holiday exhibit, “‘Tis the Season for Science: Life on Ice.” An ice rink, indoor snow, festive experiences and more continue through Jan. 6, 2019. On select days, there will also be live holiday performances in the Academy’s Piazza stage. The brand new holiday ice rink in the museum’s East Garden offers 55-minute skate sessions in the heart of Golden Gate Park.
You Otter Do It
Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco’s only waterfront aquarium, brings guests up-close-and-personal with North American river otters. Daily programs feature endearing river otters romping, swimming, sleeping, playing, and more. Guests can even join Aquarium naturalists for daily river otter feedings. On Dec. 31, the Aquarium creates a winter playground for its bevy of otters. Visit and watch them romp in the snow!
A Holly Jolly Holiday
Two-time Emmy Award and five-time Grammy Award nominee Michael Feinstein returns to San Francisco, the city where he launched his career, with "A Holly Jolly Holiday," Dec. 6 through Dec. 9. In this all new show celebrating the magic of the season, Feinstein will perform holiday favorites as well as classic standards from the Great American Songbook at Feinstein's at The Nikko.
See Holiday Lights with Big Bus
Beginning Dec. 8, Big Bus offers a special 90-minute Holiday Lights tour. See the city's many lights and decorations on one of two nightly departures, at 6:30 and 7 p.m.
Holidays at Hard Rock Cafe
Join Hard Rock Cafe for a night of music, fundraising, and celebration at their ugly sweater party on Dec. 15 from 8 p.m. to midnight. Tickets for this event include two drinks and $5 Tito's cocktails all night long. $5 of each ticket sold will be donated to Musicians on Call, a foundation that brings live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities. On Dec. 22, have Breakfast with Santa from 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Your little one(s) can write a letter to Santa, indluge in cookies and milk, and pose for pictures with Santa himself!
"Night Bloom" at the Conservatory of Flowers
Through Jan. 6, 2019, see the lights in the new exhibit “Night Bloom” at the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. The city’s beloved Victorian greenhouse will transform its Special Exhibit gallery into an illuminated conservatory. Five interactive experiences will feature colorful beams, glowing ponds and much more.
Visit the Museum of Ice Cream this month and celebrate "Pinkmas". This special holiday installation at the only museum of its kind will feature plenty of opportunities for the perfect selfie, and maybe a few delectable treats!
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, 2019.
San Francisco ZooLights
Visit the animals, learn what they eat, and see what they look like up close at the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. The 100-acre park will be lit up Dec. 14-16, 18-23, and 26-30, 2018. ZooLights will include an appearance by Santa and a holiday marketplace with food and seasonal fare. Music from carolers will fill the air.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival's A Day of Silents
On Dec. 1, 2018, 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 "7th Heaven" and "Exit Smiling", actress Beatrice Lillie's debut and only silent film.
Belt out your holiday spirit with Extranomical Tours's San Francisco Karaoke Xmas Tour. Specially equipped vehicles will be making the rounds through festive neighborhoods and special holiday displays. Enjoy hot cider, cookies and, of course, songs from your fellow passengers. Book now; tours are offered only on Dec. 22, 2018.
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. Through Dec. 31, 2018.
Find the Spirit of the Season at The PIER
From a winter wine pour to nightly tree lightings, with even more in between, PIER 39 is definitely the place to be this holiday season. Enjoy the decorations, live performances, exquisite dining, and unmatched views at San Francisco's most popular attraction.
MoAD: Recipes for Resistance
Join the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) Chef-in-Residence Bryant Terry on Dec. 8, 2018 for a not-to-be-missed interactive holiday party for children and their families. The party will include a cooking demo and tasting of plant-based foods to highlight the importance of sustainable food and healthy eating. Visiting from Denver, CO, DJ Cavem will wow the crowd with a performance using vegetables as a beat machine, in addition to spinning classic hip-hop, soul and jazz. There will be small bites and warm drinks, too. Cheers!
Wondering why there’s a gaggle of Santas marching en masse through Union Square or gathered around Grant Avenue’s Buddha Bar in the heart of Chinatown? It’s the annual SantaCon 2018 on Dec. 8, 2018. Get your elf or Santa suit out of the closet (t-shirts and a hat don’t count) and show up at noon in Union Square. Bring one new, unwrapped toy that can be donated to the Toys for Tots charity and practice your ho-ho-hos.
Chanukah at the Charles M. Schulz Museum
On Dec. 2, the Schulz Museum will host dreidel spinning contests, marshmallow-dreidel decorating, menorah crafting, and more. Just say "Hands-On Chanukah" at the front desk for free admission. In light of the Year of the Dog, make your own "Peanuts"-themed ornaments and take home a special howl-iday Snoopy button on Dec. 15.
Chanukah Around the City
From Dec. 2-9, 2018, the Bill Graham Menorah will be lit in Union Square. Inaugurated in 1975, this annual tradition was one of the first big public celebrations of Chanukah outside of Israel.Enjoy kids activities and musical performances throughout the week.
Longing for a little star-gazing? One of the most dazzling meteor showers, the Geminids, will peak on the night of Dec. 13 and morning of Dec. 14, 2018. Nearly 200 years old—the first recorded observation was in 1833 from a riverboat on the Mississippi River—the Geminids are one of the most famous meteor showers. And if you want to know more about the wonders of the skies, visit the California Academy of the Sciences, which features a planetarium.
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 held every Thursday, and the SFMade Gift Fair on Dec. 16, 2018 at California College of Arts, 1111 Eighth St. And if you’re a “lefty,” check out The Left Hand Store at PIER 39 – the store even sells left-handed guitars.
Shop Small in San Francisco
Whichever neighborhood you want to scour for holiday goodies, there will always be opportunities to support local businesses. An extension of Small Business Saturday, the Shop Small program sponsored by American Express celebrates and supports the businesses that help give places like San Francisco its unique character. Check out our ideas for how to shop small in San Francisco this season.
Just for Giggles
Tickets are on sale for the 26th annual “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant.” The shows are scheduled for Dec. 23-25, 2018 at the New Asia Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. Featured comedians this year include Carol Leifer, Joseph Nguyen and Jordon Ferber.
Free Community Day at CJM on Dec. 25
The Contemporary Jewish Museum's Community Day is an admission-free, fun-for-all extravaganza on Dec. 25 that has become an annual tradition for Bay Area families. Explore the galleries, create art, and move and groove to live music, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Night at the Jewseum: Shimmer
Thursday, Dec. 6 will be a night of shimmering delight at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Dance to the sounds of DJ CHLORA, indulge in La Cocina's latke and brisket bar, and tap into your inner artist on the fifth day of Hanukkah. Ticket includes museum admission.
Wrap up the year with championship football at Levi’s Stadium. The 2018 Foster Farms Bowl will kick off on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018 at 12:00 p.m. The 17th annual Bay Area bowl game features a matchup between top teams from the Pac-12 and the Big Ten conferences.
Meanwhile, Out West …
At the California Historical Society (CHS), see how San Francisco was captured on film through the ages. The series of photos on view, taken by anonymous and well-known photographers alike, represent the city's growth in development, industry and art since the 1850s. "Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco" is on view through March 10, 2019.
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: the San Francisco Bay Trail and the California Coastal Trail.
Japanese New Year’s Bell-Ringing Ceremony
Ring in the New Year at the Asian Art Museum on Dec. 30, 2018 by taking a swing at a 2,100-pound, 16th century Japanese bell. Rev. Gengo Akiba will begin the bell-ringing after a purification ritual and chanting of a Buddhist Heart Sutra. Participants may then take turns ringing the bell to leave behind any unfortunate experiences, regrettable deeds or ill luck from the previous year. The bell will be struck 108 times to usher in the New Year and curb the 108 mortal desires.