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By Lee Foster

The December Holidays/Christmas in San Francisco is a magical and festive time. It can be enjoyed with an abundance of no-cost or low-cost celebration at three main venues—Union Square, Embarcadero/Market Street, and Pier 39.

Holiday Sugar Castle for 2016 at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square
Holiday Sugar Castle at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square

Beyond the shopping opportunities and commercial attractions, there are these three free ambiances that a visitor or local can enjoy, especially with kids in tow, as the magic of the season unfolds.

The Holidays in Union Square

Union Square is an inspiring place to be during the Holiday/Christmas time in San Francisco. It is the physical and spiritual heart of The City. At the center is a huge tree sparkling with thousands of lights.

Facing the Square, the Westin St. Francis Hotel boasts in its lobby the Sugar Castle, a mammoth confection, free to all to observe, that symbolizes colorful, nostalgic recollections of Christmases Past. The Sugar Castle may be an Enchanted Castle, a white confection with its 500 pounds of sugar. Or it may be gingerbread, depending on what the pastry chef decides. Each year is different.

Around the Square, the major stores decorate their windows with holiday themes. The depictions may be commercial, reindeer with purchasable diamonds. Or they may be more religious, nostalgic, or whimsical displays, such as Father Christmas or Dickens’ echoes. The multi-story wreathed windows at Macy’s are a major presence on the Square. Macy’s also has one street-level window on Stockton with SPCA cats and dogs on display. Another Macy window has the Charles Shulz characters, with Lucy offering Charlie Brown some 5 cent psychiatric help to comprehend what Christmas is all about. The Neiman Marcus store on the south east corner of the Square has in its atrium one of the larger Christmas trees you are likely to see.

The large Holiday Christmas Tree at Union Square in San Francisco
The large Holiday Christmas Tree at Union Square in San Francisco

An enterprising street vendor with a hibachi may be selling roasted chestnuts with their definitive Christmas aroma and distinctive flavor.

An ice skating rink in the Square offers a more northerly holiday interlude without the wind chill factor. Commercial tour buses leave from the Square for a look at Holiday Lights in the City.

An innovation in recent years is the winterwalksf  “pop-up” festive scene on Stockton adjacent to Macy’s. Here you can stroll on green artificial turf or sit on illuminated ice-cube benches and enjoy food-truck snacks while music plays and various multimedia projections illuminate the walls of the stores.

Possibly the loftiest perspective on the holidays in Union Square is from the seventh floor of Macy’s on the outdoor deck of the Cheesecake Factory Restaurant, with its indoor and outdoor dining. You look down at the Square, the ice skating rink, and the enormous outdoor tree, while holiday music and Cable Car chimes rise towards you. Kids will be comfortable at this restaurant as they munch on pasta and pizza.

A view of the Holiday Christmas scene in Union Square in San Francisco from the 7th floor Cheesecake Factory Restaurant at Macy's
A view of the Holiday Christmas scene in Union Square in San Francisco from the 7th floor Cheesecake Factory Restaurant at Macy’s

For adults, the 46th floor bar known as Cityscape at the Hilton, 333 O’Farrell, a short walk from Union Square, allows you to peer down at Union Square and survey the entire light-show pageant of San Francisco, with a cocktail in hand.

The Holidays at the Embarcadero

The Embarcadero, where Market Street meets the Embarcadero, is another festive locale. This is the densest cluster of craft sellers in The City, out on the street, showing their holiday wares.

The largest ice skating rink in San Francisco is located here, with the Ferry Building in the background.

The Ferry Building is lit up like Santa’s workshop with vendors in their shops selling just about all imaginable items, especially for everyone on your culinary gift list.

Go out on the public pier east of the Ferry Building, Pier 14,  and look back at the Embarcadero Buildings, and you will see the structures lit up like giant boxy gifts. From this same pier, you will be able to see again the Bay Bridge west span permanently lit up in a “light art” display.

The Holidays at Pier 39

Throughout the year, Pier 39 delights visitors with its free entertainment, including its off-budget performers, the sea lions, who are self-sustaining fish eaters residing on boat slips, requiring from Pier 39 only some benches and bleachers for enthusiastic fans. A Sea Lion Center close to the elevated lookout above the water tells their story.

During the holiday season, Pier 39 goes all out for seasonal decorations, starting with a huge tree at the entrance, and entertainer presentations, such as carolers.

The Holidays San Francisco



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The holiday season is a complicated time of multi-cultural rejoicing in San Francisco and elsewhere. It is not only Christmas, but also Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah, or simply “the Holidays” for citizens who prefer to avoid any overlay of religion.

All citizens can agree, however, that December 21, the day of the winter solstice, is the darkest day of the year. Some welcome relief with some kind of cheerful illumination on some level is uplifting and entertaining.

In fact, Light Art Sculptures are a big holiday (and all year) theme now in San Francisco. See my report on Light Art Sculptures elsewhere on this website.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in Independent Bookstores

San Francisco and the Bay Area is the entire subject of my new ebook titled SF Travel & Photo Guide: The Top 100 Travel Experiences in the San Francisco/Bay Area. San Francisco also figures prominently in my other books/ebooks, such as The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.

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