20 Ways To Enjoy Christmas in California

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California is not a destination usually associated with stereotypical Christmas attractions. A sun-soaked paradise for the vast majority of the year, it is a far cry from the snow and cold synonymous with a traditional winter wonderland. But don’t be too quick to write off the Golden State for the festive season, as there are hidden gems to discover.

As the most populous and third-largest state in the USA, spending Christmas in California offers plenty of festivities. From traditional snowy settings in the mountains to Christmas lights in the cities to Californian Christmas traditions on the beach and desert, California has an array of Christmas options for all tastes and interests. Here are 20 festive things to do in California at Christmas.

A California Christmas

20 Ways To Celebrate Christmas In California

1- Visit The Nation’s Christmas Tree

where to spend Christmas in california General Grant Tree
General Grant Tree in Sequoia National Park is a wonder of nature to see at Christmas.

Named after President Ulysses S. Grant, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park is over 1,650 years old and is the second-largest giant sequoia in the world.

Officially named “The Nation’s Christmas Tree” by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926, the sequoia is decorated with a wreath each December.

Combined with its picturesque snowy surroundings, this is a must-see for anyone spending Christmas in California.

General Grant Tree is at General Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park, 93628.

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2- Attend The Hollywood Christmas Parade

Christmas events in california Hollywood Christmas Parade
Watching the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade has become a tradition.

A Los Angeles Christmas tradition since 1928, the Hollywood Christmas Parade is held on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Running along both Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, the parade sees numerous celebrities and iconic characters take to the streets.

It ends with the spectacular arrival of Santa Claus, which signals the official start of the Christmas season in the city.

Hollywood Christmas Parade is at 7046-7048 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 90028.

3- Visit The Fairmont Gingerbread House

A unique San Francisco Christmas attraction, the Fairmont Hotel erects a giant gingerbread house inside the hotel each year, standing 22 feet (6.7 m) high and 23 feet (7 m) wide.

Made from real gingerbread bricks, with candy and royal icing decorations, you can actually walk inside this festive wonderland.

You’ll be wowed with features like a giant nutcracker, a Christmas tree, a toy train circling a snowy model village, and even a fresh plate of cookies hot from the oven.

Fairmont Gingerbread House is at Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco, 94108.

4- Explore The Cambria Christmas Market

Christmas markets in california
Gingerbread tree at a Christmas market.

The Cambria Christmas Market is the most authentic German Christmas market in California.

Traditional German foods, drinks, and handcrafted products are complemented by millions of twinkling Christmas lights, nutcrackers, and a visit from Santa himself, to turn this into a true winter wonderland in the sun.

Cambria Christmas Market is at 2905 Burton Drive, Cambria, 93428.

5- Experience Christmas On The Water 

Get into the nautical spirit during Christmastime on the water in San Diego.

First started in the early ’70s, the San Diego Bay Parade Of Lights has become an annual Christmas tradition on two consecutive Sundays in December.

Around 80 boats sail through the bay, beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and ornaments, providing a free attraction designed to bring the whole community together using the spirit of Christmas.

San Diego Bay Parade Of Lights is on Shelter Island, San Diego, 92106.

6- Enjoy A Traditional Christmas In Yosemite National Park

Christmas in California weather Yosemite National Park in winter
A stunning California Christmas scene in Yosemite National Park in winter.

As one of the USA’s most stunning natural locations, Yosemite National Park is a perfect place to enjoy a picturesque Christmas experience.

A magical wonderland capable of providing the sort of white Christmas rarely seen in California, take part in winter activities like sleigh rides, ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoe hiking in stunning surroundings, before settling down to enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner at Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Yosemite National Park is in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

7- Discover Bavarian Delights 

Christmas time in california gluhwein and cookies
Christmas mulled wine and cookies are some of the Bavarian delights to sample while experiencing Christmas in California.

The Alpine Village in Torrance is a year-round Bavarian village that truly comes into its own around Christmas.

First opened in the late 60s, its yearly Christmas fair features German beers, foods, and gl├╝hwein, festive music and entertainment, beautiful stalls selling handicrafts.

The village’s very own Santa Claus makes it a destination that offers festive fun for the whole family.

Alpine Village is at 833 West Torrance Boulevard, Torrance, 90502

8- Discover A Winter Wonderland 

places to go for Christmas in California Lake Tahoe
Relaxing in a winter wonderland in Lake Tahoe is a Californian Christmas experience to remember.

Due to its position at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, South Lake Tahoe transforms into a winter wonderland for the entire Christmas season.

The town is decorated in beautiful Christmas lights, and you can enjoy sleigh and gondola rides, skiing, ice skating and more, providing the stereotypical Christmas vacation in California.

9- Take The Kids To Macy’s Santaland

Christmas activities in southern california Santa Claus
Meet Santa Claus and get into the spirit of Christmas in one of the department stores.

Macy’s is known across the United States for its Christmas parades and attractions, and their San Francisco location is no different.

While there is no official California Santa Claus, this is as close as you will get.

With a beautiful Christmas tree, decorations, and his assignment of elves, take the kids to see Santa and receive a present, photo, and memories that will last a lifetime.

Macy’s Santaland is at Macy’s, 170 O’Farrell St, San Francisco, 94102.

10- Enjoy European Christmas Traditions In Huntington Beach

Christmas in California on the beach
Enjoy a typical Christmas in California on the beach.

While German Christmas markets are becoming more popular in America, Huntington Beach allows you to experience multiple cultures that have deep Christmas traditions.

Not only do you have a German market that dubs itself the “best Christmas market in California”, but you also have a Swedish Christmas Fair, selling festive favourites like gifts, clothes, handcrafted goods, and traditional Swedish foods and drinks, giving you double value for your time.

Biergarten @ Old World HB is at 7561 Center Avenue #49, Huntington Beach, 92647.

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11- Drink Christmas Cocktails

Christmas vacations in California Christmas eggnog cocktails
Christmas eggnog cocktails.

Los Angeles is a city of cocktails and the Christmas season is one of the most fun times to get out and try the city’s creations.

From elegant rooftop bars to cool pop-up bars, you’ll have a huge choice for your Christmas cocktail crawl.

Here & Now is a vibrant, brightly coloured bar at the best of times, but it really comes into its own around the holiday season.

A seasonal cocktail menu that offers festive drinks like the Gin-gle All The Way is the perfect opportunity for grown-ups to celebrate without the kids for an evening.

It even has ‘Santa’ in the address. What could possibly be any more Christmassy?

Here & Now is at 300 South Santa Fe Avenue Ste N, Los Angeles, 90013

12- Attend The Tree Lighting Ceremony In Union Square

Christmas in California Union Square
The Union Square Christmas tree is amazing to see.

The official Christmas tree of San Francisco is donated by Macy’s every year and is erected at the heart of the city in Union Square.

Its official lighting ceremony marks the start of Christmas in the city and takes place in mid to late November.

With music, lights, stalls, and a visit from Santa himself, there isn’t a better way to start the festive season with a bang.

Union Square is in San Francisco, 94108.

13- Enjoy Christmas In The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

Ever wanted to experience Christmas at Hogwarts? Well, now’s your chance.

Visit the Hogwarts castle when it is all lit up and decorated for Christmas, explore the streets of Hogsmeade and do a little Christmas shopping before sitting down to a Christmas dinner in the great hall to complete a truly magical Christmas experience.

The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter is at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 91608

14- See The San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Performance

On Christmas Eve 1944, the San Francisco Ballet performed the first complete rendition of this Christmas favourite ever seen in the United States.

Now, over 75 years later, it has become a Christmas institution in the city.

Take the opportunity to marvel at one of the very best versions of this Tchaikovsky classic that you are ever likely to see and embrace the Christmas spirit in a way that people have been doing for generations in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Ballet is at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, 94102.

15- Visit The Theater Of Lights In Old Sacramento

Christmas getaways in California American River in Old Sacramento
Another place to enjoy a Califonia Christmas event on the water is the American River in Old Sacramento.

The Theater Of Lights is a beautiful production in the Old Sacramento Waterfront district that takes place nightly from Thursday to Sunday between Thanksgiving Eve and Christmas Eve.

A live-action retelling of “Twas The Night Before Christmas”, actors fill the balconies above the street, giving their all in this free to view, 20-minute performance.

With special appearances by Jack Frost and Santa Claus, a lighting ceremony for the city’s 60 foot (18 m) Christmas tree, and stories about how the pilgrims celebrated Christmas in this historic location, it is an attraction you truly won’t experience anywhere else.

Theater Of Lights is 1002 2nd Street, Sacramento, 95814.

16- Have Fun At Christmas In The Park in San Jose

Held every year from the last week in November to the end of December, Christmas In The Park is the heart of San Jose’s Christmas attractions.

The park is decorated with over 500 Christmas trees, each decorated by children from the local schools.

With musical and animated exhibits, souvenir and treat shops, and the city’s central 55 foot (17 m) high Christmas tree, it is a fabulous place to embrace the real meaning of Christmas.

Christmas In The Park is at Plaza De Cesar Chavez, 1 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose, 95113.

17- Take A Seasonal Spin On The Pacific Wheel

best places in California at Christmas Santa Monica at night
Santa Monica is a fun place to go to enjoy the California Christmas feeling.

Santa Monica Pier is the perfect place for both kids and grown-ups to have a little fun and get into the Christmas spirit.

Enjoy a ride on the iconic Pacific Wheel Ferris Wheel and come face to face with a giant snowman.

Say hi to a surfing Santa on the beach, take the kids to a Christmas puppet show at Bob Baker’s Marionettes and have fun ice skating.

Soak up the beautiful decorations and lights around the park and pier, which include reindeer and icicles.

Pacific Park is at 380 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, 90401.

18- Experience A Wild West Christmas

Christmas towns in California Calico
Calico is a ghost town in San Bernardino County founded in 1881 as a silver mining town.

If you’ve ever wondered what Christmas was like in the old west, take a trip out into the desert to the Calico Ghost Town to see the old mining town decorated with bells, red velvet bows, and sprigs of evergreen, while the hills above it boast beautiful decorations, lights, and Christmas trees.

With carolling, readings of Christmas favourites, crafts, light shows, visits from Santa, and even festive gunfights, this truly is a Christmas experience you aren’t likely to find anywhere else.

Calico Ghost Town is at 36600 Ghost Town Rd, Yermo.

19- Take A Stroll Down Christmas Tree Lane

Christmas Tree Lane is a Fresno tradition that has been running for over a century, first taking place in 1920.

The two-mile (3.2 km) stretch of road is decorated with hundreds of beautiful Christmas trees, while the houses along either side of the street decked out with lights and ornaments.

Christmas Tree Lane becomes a one-way street each evening throughout the season, providing an extra lane for those who want to drive slowly and take it all in.

Then, on select nights, it becomes a pedestrian-only zone, allowing you to stroll down the road and soak in the festive spirit at your own pace.

Christmas Tree Lane is at 3204 North Van Ness Boulevard, Fresno, 93704.

20- Step Back In Time With A Victorian Christmas

Each year in December, Nevada City transforms itself into a traditional Christmas village on Wednesdays and Sundays.

The hilled streets are lined with authentic gas lamps surrounded by carollers in Victorian attire, while stalls selling roast chestnuts and traditional wares are run by vendors who keep in character with the period.

Combined with bagpipers, brass bands, Christmas trees, minstrels, music, a model village, and Santa Claus himself, it provides an opportunity to experience a truly traditional Christmas.

Those who want to get involved are invited to dress up for the occasion in Victorian costumes.

Victorian Christmas is at Nevada City, California, 95959. 

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Steve Burden is an avid traveller and experienced writer. As a former pro wrestler, Steve used to travel frequently for work throughout the USA and Europe. Having spent the last decade travelling all over the world in search of new sights and experiences, he has turned his love for travel into a new career helping others decide on the best places to visit, as well as what to see when they get there.