I never fail to find the holiday season completely magical, and revel in the fact that the San Francisco Bay Area offers so many opportunities for families and others to experience that magic. Many of my family’s warmest memories are holiday memories–and many of those are low-cost or free, offering experiences as an antidote or addition to gifts and holiday shopping.
The best things in life are often free–like family time decorating for the holidays, setting the dinner table, making cookies for holiday guests, or enjoying the Bay Area’s special light and other displays. We cherish these holiday #EveryDayMoments that add up to profound memories and traditions.
Holiday Light Displays
Winter holidays call for glorious lights brightening the long nights, just as candles and bonfires did for centuries before the invention of Christmas lights. Here are some of the best Bay Area light displays.
The San Francisco Peninsula is a hotbed of holiday light activity. Whole neighborhoods get into the spirit, with holiday characters, musically synchronized lights and more on Eucalyptus Avenue in San Carlos, Fulton Avenue in Palo Alto, and Dewey Street in Redwood City, among other individual spectacular houses.
Marin County is home to some fabulous light displays, including the Rombeiro House, a 25-year tradition, which features stunning holiday decorations, outside the home as well as in multiple rooms inside! The Rombeiros graciously and cheerily greet all visitors throughout the season. See my walk-through of the Rombeiro House and learn about other great Marin County light displays. A horse-drawn Holiday Light carriage ride through Novato features the Rombeiro and other decorated homes.
In the East Bay, Widmer World in Pleasanton has been going, and growing, since 1980. Widmer World, a home Santa visits, will be featured on The Great Christmas Light Fight in December. While you’re in the area, check out the other “must see” houses in Pleasanton and Livermore, according to California Christmas Lights, or take in the glow of Thompson Street in Alameda.
A traditional holiday highlight in San Francisco is the Tom and Jerry Christmas Tree in Noe Valley, which features a 65-foot decorated tree and Santa visits. The Chestnut Christmas Lit Houses in South San Francisco are another fan favorite.
California Christmas Lights is a fantastic resource for holiday light displays all around California. Search by county and city, or narrow your search to “must see” houses or houses that have been verified for 2015, and then create a driving map to view your picks.
Not in the San Francisco Bay Area? This is a terrific resource for the best Christmas lights around the U.S.
San Francisco Zoo Lights offers reindeer visits, nightly shows, and rides on the Little Puffer steam train. Don’t forget to bundle up–rumor has it there are snow flurries, too.
Oakland ZooLights features a Candy Cane Lane with themed rides, a light show, and rides on the Outback Express train, which will be lit up with thousands of lights.
At Gilroy Gardens, the sweet nature-themed park dons thousands of holiday lights to become a winter wonderland, featuring multiple holiday shows and attractions, including a Candy Cane Lane and a laser light show over Coyote Lake.
Want to enjoy lights on an urbane shopping street? San Francisco’s Union Street hosts a Festival of Lights Celebration December 5th, in addition to a week-long elf hunt, and lighted decorations all season.
Enjoy these other lighted trees and menorahs around the Bay Area, including festive Union and Ghirardelli Squares.
Take a ride on one of these other Bay Area lighted holiday trains.
This is a great list of tree lightings and holiday light events in San Francisco and Marin County.
Whether on land or sea, by vehicle or foot, holiday light parades are especially delightful–and usually free! Bundle up, grab a mug of hot cocoa, and enjoy one of the Bay Area’s upcoming light parades.
Lighted yachts will sail in the 39th annual Alameda Lighted Yacht Parade, December 5.
The Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting in Morgan Hill features an indoor show and a visit from Santa’s magic ship, December 5.
At San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, you can see the sights, including the lighted trees at Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square, and then enjoy the San Francisco Lighted Boat Parade, the largest lighted holiday boat parade on San Francisco Bay, with more than 75 boats, December 11.
Sausalito’s waterfront is home to the Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade, featuring fireworks and more than 40 decorated boats, December 12.
The Parol Lantern Festival and Parade, hosted by San Francisco’s Filipino-American Development Foundation, starts at Yerba Buena Gardens and features lighted parol lanterns, the Filipino symbol of hope, blessings, luck, peace, and light, December 12.
The San Rafael Lighted Boat Parade lights up the San Rafael Canal with cheery decorated boats from four local yacht clubs, December 19.
Holiday Ice Skating
Ice skating is particularly delightful at holiday time, when some of the Bay Area’s public parks and workaday spaces transform for the season. Perfect your double salchows and triple toe loops at these frosty spots. Check the web sites for schedules, fees and details.
A 25+ year tradition, Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center in San Francisco provides a large outdoor rink conveniently located near the Ferry Building. After skating, hop on a cable car and head to Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf. Or let San Francisco’s Union Square Ice Rink be the center of a fun holiday outing. See various Union Square activities, above.
In the East Bay, The Little Ice Rink is a sweet rink at Alameda’s South Shore Center. Popular Walnut Creek on Ice is back for a festive run in a smaller, festively decorated rink. New kid on the block, Downtown Holiday Ice in Martinez, offers lessons on Saturdays.
San José’s Downtown Ice boasts the South Bay’s largest outdoor rink, which is ringed by lighted palm trees. Head to San Mateo’s Central Park for the large San Mateo on Ice rink. Families will especially enjoy Winter Lodge in Palo Alto, a small three-season rink (September – April) that is perfect for beginners.
In the North Bay, Marin on Ice in San Rafael features a large outdoor rink next to the Northgate Mall.
The Bay Area is home to some beautiful year-round indoor rinks, too. Redwood Empire Ice Arena, or Snoopy’s Home Ice, in Santa Rosa, is a gorgeous Swiss-chalet style rink that was built by cartoonist Charles Schulz in 1969. While you’re there, visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Snoopy’s Gift Shop. Oakland Ice Center and Sharks Ice at San José offer large, well-equipped rinks. Still more skating can be found at Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center (conveniently located by the Children’s Creativity Museum).
Still seeking more holiday lights, sights and decorations? See these from San Francisco Travel Magazine.
Read: Experience the Magic of the Holidays in the San Francisco Bay Area, Part 2: Holiday Events, Performances, Gingerbread Houses and Teas.
Between holiday experiences and entertaining, and buying gifts, your wallet definitely feels the pinch. On the upside, if you use the right credit card, you can earn rewards points to get something back for all that spending. I use the the Amex EveryDay Credit Card, which earns Membership Rewards points for every dollar I spend –and for no annual fee. That will really help when enjoying our #EverydayMoments now and next year.
Enjoy your magical San Francisco holiday!
This post was sponsored by the Amex EveryDay Credit Card, which rewards multi-tasking parents so we can take a step back and appreciate the #EveryDayMoments that make the holidays so special.
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman
Other Slow Family posts you might like:
Winter Inspiration: Photos and Poetry
Make this a Slow, Joyful Holiday Season
Mill Valley’s Life-Size Gingerbread House