Best Things to Do in December in San Francisco

Keep Warm in San Francisco with these Hot Holiday Delights

When you think of holiday activities, you probably imagine sleighs whisking over snow-covered streets, or carolers belting out their best yuletide hymn, despite the chilly weather.

In San Francisco, however, the weather is usually within sight of fifty degrees year round. Day or night, Christmas or the summer equinox, the temperature gauge doesn't budge too much.

In fact, as Mark Twain famously noted, the real winter comes in the dead of July. That's when the Central Valley area just east of the Bay Area really heats up, which draws the cold Pacific fog right over San Francisco. It's amazing how cold that wet fog can make a person feel...!

If you feel like sticking with traditional entertainment, we've got your Christmas Carol and Dickens Fair all lined up. But if you're daring enough to think outside of that nicely gift-wrapped Christmas box, you can spend a wonderful day with the family both around and inside the Exploratorium, which always has some interesting, holiday-themed exhibits.

If you find yourself in San Francisco during the holidays, our list below will make sure it's a holiday to remember.


The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of togetherness in one day. Although the Exploratorium is a great choice any time of the year, it can be particularly wonderful during the holidays. Since the exhibits are interactive for both kids and adults, it's a great opportunity to get out of the mindless rush of the holidays and create some quality family time together.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The Exploratorium is a great holiday option for those traveling with kids.

Tom's expert tip: Even if you don't have time to visit the inside of the museum, the 1.5 acres of free exhibit space outside is worth the trip.

Read more about The Exploratorium →

What would the holiday season be without the beloved tales that are passed from generation to generation â€" the ones that never grow old? For San Franciscans, attending A Christmas Carol is a highlight of each December. Actors of all ages bring to life the wit, wisdom and nostalgia of Dickens' Christmas classic. A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) has been doing this show for years. Featuring a lively cast of dozens, gorgeous costumes, and those deliciously spooky ghosts, the Bay Area's favorite holiday tradition returns with a sparkling, music-infused production of A Christmas Carol. Bring your family, bring your friends, and check your "humbugs" at the door!

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: What would Christmas be without watching old Scrooge's heart finally melt?

Tom's expert tip: These performances sell out very fast, so plan well in advance.

Read more about A Christmas Carol

A holiday favorite, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is a classical ballet that brings fantasy to life. Dancers of all ages, cast as fairies, mice, soldiers and even flowers and candy canes, perform this show that never fails to delight children (and children at heart.). While many music lovers attend every year, first-timers are in for a special treat. And the stunning setting of the ballet in San Francisco's War Memorial makes the event a grand holiday event that you won't forget. Be sure to dress up and make the occasion special. If you want to experience Christmas like a true San Franciscan, get your tickets to the Nutcracker today.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The Nutcracker is the best way to experience a San Francisco Christmas like a local.

Tom's expert tip: A San Francisco tradition since 1944.

Read more about Nutcracker


Nothing quite symbolizes San Francisco as much as her famous beer, Anchor Steam. Locals always anticipate the brewery's "holiday brew," which includes secret ingredients that change every year. And both tourists and locals have made the tour of the brewery incredibly popular. Even if you don't like beer, the tour offers a fascinating local history dating back to the Gold Mining days when the beer got its name for the steam that came off the open vats that cooled naturally in the mild climate. The tour is fantastic, but you have to sign up at least two months in advance. No e-mail sign ups, only by phone: 415-863-8350, ext 0, Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm Pacific time.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: If you can schedule this tour around the holidays, you might get a taste of their infamous Holiday Ale, which is different every year.

Tom's expert tip: The tour of Anchor Steam is very popular - be sure to make reservations several months in advance.

Read more about Anchor Steam Brewery →

Ghirardelli Square
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Ghiradelli Square might just be the best example of an adult-friendly and a child-friendly San Francisco activity. For the adults, Ghirardelli Square is the place to go when you're seeking top-tier San Francisco malls. The open-air complex affords great views of Angel and Alcatraz Islands and features art galleries, clothing shops and specialty stores. Shoppers can enjoy a meal at savvy spots like McCormick and Kuleto's and Ana Mandara. Afterwards, dessert at Kara's Cupcakes or the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop provides the perfect finish. There's even a Wattle Creek Winery tasting room on-site. For the kids? Three words: chocolate, chocolate and chocolate. (The adults area allowed to eat the chocolate, too.)

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Nothing beats a hot chocolate on a foggy or rainy San Francisco holiday night.

Tom's expert tip: Walk off all that chocolate buzz with a fun stroll through nearby Fisherman's Wharf.

Read more about Ghirardelli Square →

Though the fifty foot fir is lit with great fanfare the Friday after Thanksgiving, its stately presence is ablaze with lights throughout December. Stroll by and see the spectacle of sparkle any night of the week. Festivities occur that lead up to tree lighting at 5:30pm, so be sure to check the website for the specific events. Either way, it's great to schedule an entire day around the tree-lighting for a true San Francisco holiday. You can walk the Embarcadero and warm your hands (and tummy) with a bowl of clam chowder beforehand, and then explore the rest of Pier 39 with your family afterwards.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Christmas is all about sweet gifts, and there's no gift sweeter than chocolate.

Tom's expert tip: Go for the lighting of the tree but stay for all the goodies at Ghirardelli.

Read more about Tree Lighting Ceremony at Ghirardelli Square →

As the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in America, Grace Cathedral is worth a visit at any time of the year. Located in the ritzy Nob Hill neighborhood, it's within walking distance of some of the city's fanciest (and priciest) cafes and restaurants. Grace Cathedral really outdoes itself during the holidays, however. With its dramatic Gothic arches and pitch perfect acoustics, holiday concerts will send chills up and down your spine. Grace Cathedral's resident Choir of Men and Boys carry on a centuries-old Anglican tradition, and recitalists play the Cathedral's beuatiful Æolian-Skinner organ. Guests have included the US Naval Academy Men's Glee Club, Chanticleer, and the Vienna Boys Choir, along with jazz legends Pharoah Sanders and Joshua Redman.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Grace is an impressive structure to visit any day of the year, but they really make the space special during the holidays.

Tom's expert tip: Take a meditative walk on the indoor labyrinth.

Read more about Grace Cathedral →

Spend a day preparing for the holidays and soaking up seasonal cheer in the streets of Victorian England. Actors dressed in period costume, authentic specialty stores, strolling musicians and other live entertainers make the Dickens Fair a holiday favorite year after year. Refreshments range from British standbys like fish and chips to fancier European fare, and local and imported beer is sold on site. To get the full benefit of the event, be prepared to spend a whole day at the fair. Sitting down and enjoying a few of the bawdy choruses will get you in a holiday mood in no time.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Due to pandemic restrictions, the Great Dickens Fair is a drive-thru affair this holiday. See their website for more details.

Tom's expert tip: Bring your appetite because the food selection is excellent.

Read more about The Great Dickens Christmas Fair →

This event has it all. You've got the traditional elements of the lighting of the Christmas Tree, as well as the familiar sight of an iceskating rink. And the sound of holiday music is wafting through the air, so it has all the makings of a traditional holiday scene. What is missing are frigid temperatures and any sign of snow. This rink is outdoors, and it take a lot of tech-savvy ingenuity to keep this thing cold for months. And, as they say in real estate, all that matters is location, location, location. Union Square is smack-dab in the middle of the best holiday shopping the Bay Area has to offer.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: When San Franciscans see the tree lit at Union Square and the ice skate rink set, they know it's time for the holidays.

Tom's expert tip: Union Square is also ground zero for holiday shopping in the Bay Area.

Read more about Iceskating at Union Square →

Emperor Norton's Holiday Bazaar Vendors
Photo courtesy of Off The Grid

Emperor Norton's Holiday Bazaar is the first major event to take place at the iconic Salesforce Transit Center and Salesforce Plaza. From November 29 to December 24, 2019 makers, artisans and food creators will transform the Salesforce Transit Center with delicious food and beverages, unique wares and gifts. Vendors include top names such as Paulcity Goods, Adelyn SF, Surreal Collective, Goyangii, Laloirelle, and Wen Wen Designs. Food vendors include local "Off the Grid" favorites such as 808 Poke Shack, Bacon Bacon, Bahn Mi Zon, Bowl'd Acai, and Curry Up Now. The market's namesake, Joshua Abraham Norton, was the self-proclaimed 'His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I', and a celebrated citizen of San Francisco. Today, Norton continues to be celebrated with monuments throughout San Francisco, one of which remains at Transbay Terminal, where the market is taking place.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: A visit to San Francisco's newest iconic structure, the Salesforce Transit Center, is a must-see for any visitor.

Tom's expert tip: A plaque honoring Emperor Norton originally sculpted in 1939 continues to serve as one of the earliest permanent physical memorial tributes to him.

Read more about Emperor Norton's Holiday Bazaar Vendors →


Meet Tom Molanphy

The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.

Tom has lived in the San...  More About Tom