It’s getting to be that time of year! The Bay Area is an absolutely beautiful place to celebrate the holidays. We don’t get snow here so most of us have never seen a “white Christmas,” but in exchange, we get to enjoy a ton of indoor and outdoor activities this time of year. It’s nippy enough to appreciate a cup of hot apple cider while strolling through a holiday lights display, but not so frozen that you have to dress like an arctic explorer to venture outside your house. I love it.
Some of the special events are very well-known, such as San Jose’s Christmas in the Park, and some are more obscure but just as delightful. Some are a little pricey and others are free to everyone. Whether you’re hosting out-of-town guests who need something to do over the holidays, or just a local trying to get in the spirit of the season, take a look at these special holiday experiences.
We’ve seen many, but not all, of these celebrations. If there’s something else you think should be on the list, please let us know!
San Jose & the South Bay
WinterFest at CA Great America – special winter-themed events and decorations throughout the park, plus some of the usual year-round rides and attractions. (Tip: Goldstar, Groupon, TravelZoo, and other sites linked on our Resources page often have discount tickets or coupons for this event. Great America’s website sometimes offers deals directly too, so you usually don’t have to pay full-price. Admission is also free for Gold Pass annual passholders, or discounted for regular season passholders.)
Gilroy Gardens Holiday – special holiday lights and live shows, plus some of the usual year-round rides, and an optional holiday feast dinner event. (Same tip: Goldstar, Groupon, TravelZoo, and other sites linked on my Resources page often have discount tickets or coupons for this event. The Gilroy Gardens website sometimes offers deals directly too, so you usually don’t have to pay full-price. Admission is also included free in the Premium-level annual membership.)
Holiday Lights Displays
Fantasy of Lights at Vasona Park in Los Gatos – This drive-through or walk-through holiday lights display has gotten so popular that you need to buy a ticket online ahead of time, and they usually do sell out, at least for the more popular dates/times. The lights are also partly visible from Vasona’s little train, known as the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad.
Christmas in the Park in San Jose – This local tradition that dates back to before I was born. This playful walk-through display of trees and other decorations, a little train, carolers, popcorn and hot cocoa, Christmas music, and just generally happy people is one of my holiday highlights every year. It’s also free! Donations are appreciated to keep the tradition going each year. It’s open during the day but, of course, is more festive at night when everything is lit up. Local schools, clubs, businesses, and community organizations sponsor and decorate the trees. There are also nearby rides and ice skating (which are not free but are reasonably-priced) and there are many local restaurants adjacent to the park. I highly recommend taking public transit here if you can because parking gets tricky downtown and can be expensive.
The Los Altos Festival of Lights Parade usually happens the Sunday after Thanksgiving to help the community kick off the holiday season together. They have floats, marching bands, and of course, Santa!
In the past, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose does a delightful holiday tour in which the house is stunningly decorated for Christmas as it would have been around the turn of the century. The docents take you through the house as if you’re a guest coming to visit in that era and Sarah Winchester has just stepped out for a moment. There are usually little tasting tables along the way and hot apple cider included in your ticket. If you don’t see the ticket options for this tour online, you can call (408) 247-2000 to see if it’s being offered this year.
Filoli Historic House and Garden goes all-out in their historical holiday decorating as well. The beautiful decorations all over the home and grounds contain almost 160,000 light bulbs! Read more about their holiday festivities in this Mercury News article, or see Filoli’s website for tickets before they sell out.
Santa Clara First Baptist Church hosts Bethlehem, which is like a live Nativity scene but has evolved into a whole walk-through experience with the re-created city of Bethlehem and a live drama/performance of the Nativity story. This is free and open to the public, but usually has limited dates, so plan ahead.
The increasingly famous Christmas Creche exhibit in Palo Alto has collected more than 350 Nativity scenes from around the world. These are displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints every year, again with free admission but limited hours, so plan ahead here too.
The Museum of American Heritage has a big space in the back that often partners with local LEGO groups and events. Their holiday tradition is to build an elaborate LEGO holiday city, complete with trains, for the community to enjoy. Admission is $3.
Also check out this blog for more options, including a thorough list of many of the holiday parades and one-time events throughout the season.
Downtown Ice is an outdoor ice rink in San Jose that opens from November to January. It’s adjacent to Christmas in the Park downtown, right outside the San Jose Museum of Art. For several years now, it’s been sponsored by Kristi Yamaguchi, an Olympic champion figure skater who was born in the Bay Area and has stayed very involved here. For a pop-up ice rink (i.e. one that’s not there year-round), it’s very nicely done and people have a lot of fun. It’s built around some of the large palm trees that are downtown, so your out-of-town guests will especially enjoy the unique California experience of ice skating under palm trees!
Find more holiday ice rinks throughout the Bay Area by scrolling to the very bottom of this list.
Roaring Camp Railroads up in the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains has multiple holiday events: a holiday tree walk, a Chanukah train, and their famous Holiday Lights Train. I’ve seen these tickets sell out so plan ahead.
The Niles Canyon Railway also has a holiday train, which they call their Train of Lights. (This is located just south of Pleasanton, about as far north of San Jose as Roaring Camp is south.) Please note that some of the train cars are wheelchair-accessible, but others are not because they are antique train cars with narrower doors. Their website requests that you contact the station agent ahead of time if you have any special needs so they can work out the accessibility for you.
The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad is the sweet little train that’s open year-round in Vasona Park in Los Gatos. At the holidays, it’s decked out with lights and runs through part of the Fantasy of Lights display mentioned above. (The train is a short loop, so you only see the first third of the Fantasy of Lights, but it’s still fun.)
If you’re a big train enthusiast, here’s a list of more holiday trains, including some much farther away in other parts of California. All aboard!
Gift Boutiques & Craft Faires
The Harvest Festival: The Original Art & Craft Show is a traveling show that comes to the Bay Area every year and is always a delight. It consistently comes to San Jose on Thanksgiving weekend, and usually to San Mateo a few weeks before and often to Pleasanton in either spring or early fall. (It also goes to other California cities and Las Vegas.) Their website lists this year’s show dates and cities. Here you’ll find hand-made crafts, jewelry, home decor and holiday items, chocolates, special vinegars and sauces and dips, textiles, pet accessories, purses and wallets, and loads more. It’s worth waking up early to be there close to opening time because it does tend to get very busy by afternoon, at least at the San Jose show. You can save time when you get there by buying tickets online ahead of time. (Go to their website, then click on the show you’re attending to find the ticket link.)
Santa Teresa High School in San Jose has an annual Holiday Boutique fundraiser the first weekend in November. (Search here for this year’s event listings on Eventbrite and Facebook.) This is a huge event that’s been a tradition for more than 25 years. They often fill the gym and the multipurpose room with craft vendors. They also have a silent auction, raffle, and more. It’s a great way to find unique gifts and support the high school’s programs at the same time.
A cute little studio called The Alameda Artworks in San Jose has an annual holiday craft fair they call “Fall Open Studios.” They sell gifts, original art, handmade cards, and more. A portion of every sale supports the nonprofit Sacred Heart Community Service!
Holy Family Parish hosts an annual Holiday Boutique, usually in mid-November. It’s a smaller event but lots of fun, filled with very talented people selling their creations. You’ll find knitted/crocheted scarves and hats, jewelry and accessories, pet gifts, home decor, and more. We often find more gifts for people on our list here than at the larger shows, so especially for free parking and free admission, this one is well worth your time.
Santana Row hosts a monthly free “Makers Market in the Park” event featuring local artists’ handmade goods including jewelry, ceramics, handbags, candles, and more. Around the holidays, of course, it becomes a holiday gift-focused boutique event. Makers Market also operates similar events in other Bay Area cities, sometimes including downtown San Jose, Los Gatos, Mill Valley, Napa, and others. See what’s close by to add some pizzaz to your weekend!
SJMade in San Jose is an annual holiday craft marketplace for locally-made crafts and goods. (It’s like a smaller version of the Harvest Festival with only local people selling their creations.) The crafts are beautiful and admission is free. It’s usually one weekend in mid-December, so check the event website to see when (or if) it’s happening this year.
There is a German Holiday Market (“Weihnachtsmarkt”) in Mountain View every year, hosted by the German International School of Silicon Valley. It’s held at City Hall Plaza on Castro Street in Mountain View on the second Saturday of December. Enjoy food, drinks, entertainment, rides, petting zoo, and general festive atmosphere while supporting the nonprofit school.
If you’re in the East Bay, the Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios invites you to visit many different artists’ studios and shops on a special weekend.
San Francisco is a hub of tourist opportunities throughout the year, and the holiday season is no different. To avoid just wholesale mooching other bloggers’ content, here are links to some great ideas of things to do in San Francisco at the holidays. My personal favorites would be the decorations at Union Square and ‘Tis the Season for Science at CalAcademy.
- Here’s a good list of things to do in San Francisco at Christmas
- Another list of things to do in San Francisco at Christmas and a YouTube video from the same source.
- This list is specific to families with children.
- This one also includes which places are open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day if you need to get out of the house those days.
The annual Etsy Holiday Emporium is in San Francisco, usually over Thanksgiving weekend. Last year they had over 200 vendors selling hand-made treasures for yourself or for gift-giving. Check out this link to follow the group that sponsored it so you can learn next year’s dates in time to join in!
However your family celebrates, we wish you a holiday season filled with smiles!