Favorite ways to enjoy holiday festivities in San Francisco

Each year it seems we barely have time to take a deep breath after Thanksgiving before the holiday season is upon us. This year many of our beloved holiday traditions are back after being put on pause due to Covid. Whether you prefer something outside or warm and cozy inside, there are so many wonderful activities to enjoy around the city that can help anyone, no matter your age, feel festive. The key, especially with children, is finding something age appropriate and not over scheduling, which can lead to over-tired children and frustrated parents. Whether you are looking for some inspiration or just to mix it up a bit, here are a few of our family favorites:


Even before Thanksgiving it was already starting to feel festive in Union Square, home to fabulous window decorations, the city’s most popular ice-skating rink, and a beautiful Christmas tree that is sure to be the backdrop of many family photos. After last year’s viral videos of mass looting at stores in Union Square, there is an increased police presence designed to make everyone feel safe. The ice-skating rink is already open with lots of special events. Families might like the early morning (8–9 a.m.) sessions on Saturdays and Sundays where beginning skaters can get lessons from professional instructors for free. There is also “Let it Go” Wednesdays when you can skate to songs from Frozen and those in costume have a chance to win prizes. Sessions are 60 minutes and begin every 90 minutes from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily. Tickets are $20 and $15 for children 8 and under. 

From Dec. 18–25, a 25-foot menorah will light up Union Square every night of Hanukah. The lighting ceremony starts at 5 p.m., but there will be kids crafts, food, music, and other activities for all to enjoy. 


Now that JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park is permanently car-free, expect there to be even more festive programming this year. Starting Dec. 1 when the tree lighting at McLaren Lodge took place, there will be public pianos and lighted attractions. One of the park’s most popular light attractions, “Entwined,” is returning for a second year to Peacock Meadow. This year’s exhibition is expected to be bigger and better with new and more interactive light displays. The show runs nightly starting at 5 p.m. 

Also in Golden Gate Park just a short walk away is the Sky Star, which is a great way to get a full view of the park and the city on a clear night. After riding the wheel you can check out the bandshell for free, family-friendly concerts nightly through Dec. 10. The bandshell was brought to life during the pandemic with a new stage, new lighting, and a state-of-the-art sound system.


Other favorites around town include the Fairmont Hotel’s two-story gingerbread house. This masterpiece stands 22-feet tall and contains nearly 2,000 pounds of candy. The house is open to the public for viewing, but if you are looking for an especially unique experience that comes with a pretty price, you can enjoy a private dining experience inside the famed gingerbread structure. Heading to the Fairmont for a Christmas picture in front of the beautiful tree in the lobby, a walk through the gingerbread house, and brunch is a great way for our family to get into the holiday spirit. 

Another family tradition is going to the Nutcracker. When we were growing up, my husband and I both went every December with our families and now this is a fun family tradition we have passed down to our children. The Nutcracker is a classic story and an amazing experience performed by the super talented San Francisco Ballet. There are performances daily through December but purchase tickets early. I recommend this event for children 5 years and older, not just because the tickets are pricey but it is a long time to ask someone younger to sit still. 

There are so many ways to experience the holidays in San Francisco, but no holiday celebration is complete without remembering the reason for the season. It is never too soon to include in your holiday traditions the importance of giving back. There are so many nonprofits helping the underserved. Organizations such as St. Anthony’s or the San Francisco Fire Department’s toy drive are always happy to receive new toys or clothes for those in need. 

I wish you all a happy holiday season and hope you can take time to remember the truly important thing this season, which is being together with family and friends.  Happy Holidays! 

Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]

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