One of the prettiest features of winter and Christmas in San Francisco is the lighting—lights on buildings, on trees and in windows, which look even better as the nights get longer and colder. When the light displays switch on--starting the week before Thanksgiving--you know it's the onset of the holiday season.
Here are some of the most spectacular lighting ceremonies in the Bay Area--and they're free to attend. The holiday lights generally stay on until January, so if you don't catch the instant they're turned on, you'll still have time to admire them.
Embarcadero Center Winter Carnival & Building Lighting
Nov. 16, at 4-7 pm
Mickey Mouse, Santa, cookie decorating, arts and crafts, a petting zoo, games, music and face painters entertain the kids from 4-6 pm. Starting at 6 pm, characters from Disney on Ice twirl on the outdoor ice rink, followed by the lighting of 17,000 lights outlining the Embarcadero Center’s four buildings and a fireworks finale.
At the Embarcadero Holiday Ice Rink, Justin Herman Plaza, adjacent to 4 Embarcadero Center.
San Francisco SPCA Holiday Windows at Macy’s
Nov. 16, at 5 pm
Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and 49ers running back LaMichael James unveil the cutest holiday window display in town: Cuddly, adoptable kittens and puppies from the SPCA, in Macy's windows. They're hard to resist; in 2011, more than 320 fur-balls were adopted from the windows. P.S. The SPCA needs volunteers to greet and direct people and collect donations at Macy's through Jan. 1.
At Macy's Union Square, Stockton and O'Farrell streets.
Hyatt Regency's Tree and Lobby Lighting Ceremony
Nov. 16, at 7-8 pm
What do 300,000 lights look like? Come here to find out. Ribbons of lights swoop down the 17 floors of the Hyatt’s atrium lobby (and dwarf the 30-foot illuminated tree). Check out the miniature village and train. Music, dance performances and a light falling of "snow," too.
At 5 Embarcadero Center.
Pier 39 Tree Lighting Celebration
Nov. 18, at 12-6:30 pm
Meet Disney characters, listen to children’s choruses from around the Bay Area and write to Santa. At 6 pm, the decorated tree is lit.
At Pier 39.
Snowflakes on Market Lighting Ceremony
Nov. 20, at 6:30 pm
Market Street from Second to Sixth streets gets much cheerier when 140 giant snowflakes, each spanning five feet and perched on a light pole, are illuminated.
At the cable car turn=around, Powell and Market streets.
Ghirardelli Square Tree Lighting Ceremony
Nov. 23, at 5:30 pm
Choral and opera singers perform from 2 pm, followed by the lighting of the tree, caroling, small gifts for kids, and chocolate samples.
At 900 North Point St.
Macy’s Great Tree Lighting
Nov. 23, at 6 pm
Santa, performances by Chris Mann, musicians and dancers, and the turning on of 21,000 lights on a stately fir.
At Union Square Park, Geary and Powell streets.
Gingerbread Open House
Nov. 24, at 11 am-1 pm
The Fairmont’s 22-foot-tall house--made with thousands of gingerbread bricks and 2,000 pounds of royal icing and candy--officially opens. Take photos with Santa, or if you're shy, just write him a letter. Other treats: A Christmas tree reaching to the lobby ceiling, a collection of colorful nutcrackers, live music and refreshments.
At The Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason St.
Castro Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony
Nov. 26, at 6 pm
Carols and music, Santa and elves, and blessings by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
At Bank of America Plaza, 18th and Castro streets.
Union Street Fantasy of Lights Kick-Off
Dec. 1, at 3-7 pm
Reindeer (ponies in disguise), jugglers, balloon artists, singers, cupcake-decorating, hayrides, face-painters and photos with Santa, against a backdrop of illuminated Victorians. Bring new toys for the San Francisco Firefighters’ Toy Program.
On Union St. between Van Ness & Steiner, and Fillmore from Union to Lombard.
City Hall World Tree of Hope Celebration
Dec. 4, at 5:30-8 pm
A pillar of peace, love, and humanity, the tree has thousands of origami paper cranes bearing wishes from around the world, from the likes of President Obama and Jane Goodall to Rupaul and Danielle Steel to anonymous schoolkids. If you fold 1,000 cranes, Japanese legend says, you're granted a wish. The tree-lighting celebration features emcee Donna Sachet, Mayor Ed Lee, First Lady Anita Lee, the Consul General of Japan, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the San Francisco Boys Chorus and Veronica Klaus.
At the Rotunda, San Francisco City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.
Holiday Lights Tree-Lighting Ceremony
Dec. 7, at 5:30-6:30 pm
Sing-along carols, light refreshments, the tree-lighting, and beginning at 6:15 pm, a short forest walk (bring a flashlight).
At the Presidio's Main Post, Lincoln Blvd. and Funston Ave.
Bill Graham Menorah Lighting
Dec. 8, at 6:30 pm
Mark the first night of Hanukkah with the annual lighting of the first candle on the 25-foot-tall menorah. (One candle is lit each evening through Dec. 15). The mahogany menorah was first lit in 1975, which is said to be the first outdoor, public menorah lighting ceremony outside of Israel.
At Union Square, Geary and Powell streets.
Lighted Boat Parade
Dec. 14, at 6 pm
More than 60 boats decked out with lights and holiday decorations parade along the waterfront. They start off of Pier 39, go west past Fisherman's Wharf and Fort Mason, turn around at Crissy Field and head back.