Christmas in California

Christmas in California: The Best Places to Spend the Holidays

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Maybe it’s a bit early to talk about Christmas, but even though the summer is now behind us, many people are already writing to us asking for advice and tips to spend the holidays in December.

For those who have decided to spend the winter in California, it might be useful to get ideas for ways to spend the end of December between the 25th and New Year’s Eve.

So I thought to prepare a short list of places to spend Christmas in California, selecting some special events that take place near the main cities, namely, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. We will also publish a guide for the Christmas holidays dedicated to each city in the near future.

So here are some things to do in California at Christmas:

Christmas in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco

Christmas in Los Angeles
Skating in Pershing Square during Christmas, Los Angeles

There are multiple Christmas events in cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Here, we would like to highlight one event in each city.

  • Pershing Square ice skating in Los Angeles: This is a classic pastime in big cities. From mid-November until at least mid-January, a large ice rink is open in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. This is a nice place where in addition to ice skating, you can take a walk, enjoy a concert and many other Christmas events.
  • San Francisco’s Big Christmas Tree: Many streets in San Francisco city are filled with lights during the Christmas season. The annual lighting of the tree in Union Square, the city’s version of the Rockefeller Center tree in New York City, launches the season. All the surrounding buildings (especially Macy’s department store) are also decorated for the holidays and adorn the skating rink.
  • Jungle Bells at San Diego Zoo: Jungle Bells spans over 3 weeks and during this event, the San Diego Zoo is transformed into a winter landscape with Christmas decorations. Here you can watch the tree lighting ceremony, animal shows, music and, of course, the arrival of Santa Claus. Activities end at 8:00 pm every night. You will have to pay admission to the zoo.

Christmas Lights in California

christmas events in california
Visit Solvang at Christmas time

All you need to do to feel the Christmas spirit is to go to the major cities to stroll through the illuminated streets. Even if this is the kind of atmosphere you are looking for to spend Christmas in California, there are some smaller towns worth considering. Here are two examples:

  • Mission Inn Festival of Lights in Riverside: The Mission Inn Festival of Lights in Riverside is a popular Christmas event in California, mainly because of the nearly 3 million lights and over 400 animated figures. Every year, the famous Mission Inn and surrounding streets are decorated extravagantly, so you can explore the interior of the hotel for free or stroll outside through the illuminated streets and the many booths serving snacks.
  • Christmas decorations in the Danish town of Solvang: It may sound strange, but in California, in Santa Barbara County, about 3 hours from Los Angeles, you will find Solvang, a historic Danish town, with charming houses and just over 5,000 inhabitants. Coming here during the holidays when this town is decorated can be a very special experience. You can take a walk and maybe stop in one of the many bakeries.

Two Californian Christmas Parades

Christmas Parades in california
Newport Christmas Boat Parade

There are plenty of Christmas parades in California, here are 2 quite well known and unique:

  • Newport Christmas Boat Parade: A hundred yachts parade through Newport Beach every year under Christmas, lit and decorated in the most incredible ways. It seems that people are willing to spend an arm and a leg to get noticed (even more than $50,000). This is one of the most amazing and unique boat parades in the United States. The Christmas Boat Parade can be watched for free from various points along Newport Beach’s harbor. The parade starts in the Bay Island Channel in the late afternoon and ends at the same place around 9:00 pm.
  • Calistoga Tractor Parade: The Calistoga Lighted Tractor Parade is one of the most famous attractions in Napa Valley. Vintage and modern tractors, trucks, propulsion vehicles, and various types of construction equipment are adorned for the occasion with bright lights and ride (so to speak) down Calistoga’s main street to celebrate Christmas and the area’s agricultural heritage.

Christmas at the Historic Queen Mary

christmas holiday in california

UPDATE: The event has not taken place since 2020.

The Queen Mary is still docked in the port of Long Beach. This historic ship was used from 1936 to 1967 to transport soldiers (as well as Winston Churchill) during World War II. Why should you be interested in this ship for your Christmas holidays in California?

The reason lies in the fact that every year the Queen Mary Christmas is held here. There is a winter wonderland with amazing life-size structures and sculptures made of 2 million pounds of white or colored ice. It’s kind of hard to describe. Watch the video below:

Catholic Masses on Christmas Day in California

Of course, masses are celebrated in all Catholic churches. Here we list the cathedrals of the 3 main cities:

  • Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles: A large modern building within walking distance of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Official website
  • Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco: A modern church with a distinctive shape near Jefferson Square Park. Official website.
  • St. Joseph’s Cathedral in San Diego: A historic church in Downtown San Diego, near Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. Official website.

Directions to the Various Destinations

Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

lorenzo puliti
lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

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