Cable Cars, Kitties and Crabby Christmas: Holidays in San Francisco

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This article originally ran on Wander With Wonder in 2017. All dates and information have been updated for Holiday Season 2018.

San Franciscans are known for being different and the holidays are no exception. Instead of riding on a one-horse open sleigh they sing jingle bells on cable cars decked out with wreaths and red bows. A traditional ham dinner is replaced with fresh Dungeness crab. The favorite department store window displays are kittens and puppies looking for a new home. Start packing now to spend the holidays in San Francisco—but leave your ear muffs and long underwear at home—the temperatures are usually in the 60s.

Celebrating the Holidays in Union Square

Union Square is the center of the festivities for the holidays in San Francisco, with a massive Christmas tree and a giant Menorah. In 1975 it was the first public one, now copied around the world.

The best view of the decorations is from the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink. The ice rink is open 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily from November 7, 2018 until January 21, 2019. 90-minute sessions start on every even hour. General admission including skate rental is $18; children 8 and under are $13. You can also rent lockers and a skate helper. You can book your tickets online, but same-day tickets are available at the ice rink beginning at 9:45 a.m.

holidays in San Francisco

The hub of activity for the holidays in San Francisco is Union Square. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Known for it’s annual Drag Queens on Ice show, most days the ice rink is filled with kids of all ages admiring the Macy’s windows filled with wreaths.

Drag Queens on Ice - holidays in San Francisco

Drag Queens on Ice. Photo by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

The most popular display in this shopping mecca is the playful puppies and kitties cavorting in the windows at Macy’s. When your child asks, “How much is that doggie in the window?” you can say it’s free! The SPCA is there ready to help you adopt them. The window unveiling this year is on November 16, 2018, at 5 p.m. Macy’s Union Square is located at the corner of Stockton and O’Farrell Street. Not looking to adopt? For a $10 donation to SF SPCA, you will get 10 minutes of cuddles.

The 29th Annual Macy’s Great Tree Lighting Ceremony takes place in Union Square on November 23, 2018. The 83-foot tree is lit with more than 33,000 twinkling lights and 1,100 shining ornaments. You can enjoy performances by American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s Mary Poppins, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, plus a visit from Santa.

Each season the surrounding two blocks are closed off to traffic for Winter Walk SF. This pop-up plaza has food trucks, motorized reindeer scooters, complimentary makeup applications, and the perfect backdrop for #awkwardfamilyphotos.

holidays in San Francisco

Skating in San Francisco’s Union Square. Photo by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

Celebrate your wise shopping decisions at Cityscape, on the top floor of the Hilton, Union Square, where you can view the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge from your comfy couch. The Hotel also offers another chance to take home a furry buddy…they partnered with Muttville, a non-profit for senior rescue dogs.

San Francisco hotels

View from Cityscape at dusk. Photo courtesy Hilton Hotels

For a closer look at holiday decorations hop onto a cable car…but, not just any cable car. Classic Cable Cars motorizes old trolleys so they can go off the tracks and into neighborhoods. While the conductor tells you interesting tidbits about San Francisco, (did you know that Union Square was once a giant sand dune?), you don your free Santa hat and sing Christmas songs as you admire the holiday lights in Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach/Little Italy, and Chinatown.

Take a Holiday Detour to Alcatraz

Naughty boys and girls may be sent to Alcatraz (if they are lucky) on a visit for the holidays in San Francisco.

holidays in San Francisco

Alcatraz sits just off the coast of San Francisco. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Luckily, the Rock is no longer a prison but one of the top tourist attractions in the nation. The audio tour features conversations with former inmates and guards and the ferry ride alone is worth the ticket price.

holidays in San Francisco

Once prisoners at Alcatraz had a view back at San Francisco. Photo by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

If you leave your heart in San Francisco be sure and visit the Fairmont at 950 Mason Street, where Tony Bennet first performed his infamous song. Walk past the new statue of Tony to the lobby and admire a life-sized gingerbread house. This year, Fairmont San Francisco features its biggest gingerbread house ever, featuring thousands of house-made gingerbread bricks and gallons of royal icing adorned by hundreds of pounds of candy. The opening this year is on November 24, 2018, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can see the gingerbread house, take photos with Santa, marvel at the 23-foot Christmas tree in the lobby and find something bubbly at the Moët & Chandon Champagne Bar. If you want something warm, be sure to stop by the Gift and Hot Cocoa Pop-Up Shop.

holidays in San Francisco

Giant Gingerbread inside Fairmont San Francisco. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels

San Francisco holiday traditions are not the norm but we like to think they’re better. My fortune cookie predicts you are lucky and will soon visit The City by the Bay. The holidays in San Francisco are sure to steal your heart. You can also read more about San Francisco on Wander.

Written by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

Ruth Wertzberger Carlson has been writing international luxury travel articles for two decades and still has not found a better place to live than San Francisco. A native of Iowa, she has nine siblings, and loves taking visitors to explore San Francisco. Her articles have appeared in American Way, Bon Appetit, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and several anthologies.

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