The Best of Winter in The Bay: Snow Days, Holiday Lights & Ice Rinks
Winter is coming. Get into the holiday spirit by embracing the best of winter by gazing at dazzling holiday lighting displays, twirling around a pop-up outdoor ice rink, indulging in seasonal produce, playing in the snow,.
Or visit a Christmas tree farm, sniffing the magnificent magnolias in bloom, and sipping festive drinks in cozy bars with fireplaces.
Winter Blooms at SF’s Botanical Garden
You may not think to visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden in winter, but the Garden’s diverse collection of plants means something is always in bloom. In winter, you’ll want to head to the gorgeous Moon Viewing Garden to see the camellias. Plus, the South African, Succulent and the Rhododendron Gardens are in bloom too.
Plus, don’t miss one of the Garden’s main highlights. One of San Francisco’s most breathtaking natural marvels, the annual bloom of nearly 100 rare and historic magnolias with trees reaching 80 feet, is typically at its peak from mid-January through March. Plants aren’t the only thing you’ll see. Keep your eyes peeled for the resident hummingbirds who will be battling for the aloes in bloom.
We’re lucky in California for our abundance of crops and winter is no exception. Winter is the time to embrace root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and rutabaga, plus cruciferous crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, romanesco, broccoli, and collards, which thrive in the Californian winter. Leafy greens like chicory and arugula, which are milder in the winter, are bountiful too.
Later in the season, around mid-February, the asparagus crop will come in. For something sweet, look to citrus fruits like mandarins, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, kumquats, and lemons.
Cozy Bars with a Fireplace
When the nights grow longer, sometimes you just want to cozy up with a drink by a roaring fire.
Sunset District | Often described as one of San Francisco’s most charming and cozy bars, with a rustic atmosphere and original knotty pine walls, it’s reminiscent of a small town lodge. When you’re out by Ocean Beach, escape Karl The Fog and cruise into The Riptide for a nightcap by the roaring fire.
Mission Bay | Our Bay Area winters are not that chilly, so when the weather’s nice, head outside to Spark Social food truck park for a bite at one of the many food trucks. Be sure to grab a drink at the bar and then take up a chair by their four huge fire pits where you can roast some marshmallows over the open fire and make S’mores.
Golden Gate Park | The coastal beer garden at Park Chalet is a great place in the summer for a drink, but in the winter when the weather cools, head inside and warm up around the inviting stone fireplace, under the glass ceiling.
Nob Hill | Perched atop Nob Hill, climb the hill to the “friendliest bar in San Francisco.” Built just after the great San Francisco earthquake in 1909, the bar is a relic of the past, but its charm remains. With two brick fireplaces and dark wood interior, it’s a perfect winter retreat. Plus, they have trivia (Wednesdays at 8:30pm), board games and a pool table, so you’ll want to stay for another round. There’s also free bagels during NFL Sundays (10 am to 1 pm).
San Francisco | Known as “San Francisco’s living room,” The Grove has four locations in San Francisco, each with a fireplace. On a warmer evening, bundle up and head to The Grove – Design District which features an outdoor fireplace on their patio. If you can’t make it to the snow, but fancy a ski lodge vibe, head to The Grove’s Fillmore location and take a seat in one of the comfy couches by the stone fireplace. Alas, you won’t get warm though; the fireplace is just a realistic fake.
Bay Area Ice Skating
It’s time to strap on those skates and head outdoors. During the winter, there are tons of pop-up ice skating rinks in San Francisco and all throughout the Bay Area.
Union Square | November 6, 2019 to January 20, 2020 | One of San Francisco’s most iconic holiday traditions, glide around the ice, right in the heart of Union Square in the shadow of an 83-foot Christmas Tree. If you’re new to the ice, no worries. They offer free ice skating lessons (including free skate rentals), Saturday and Sunday mornings with advance registration. Plus, there’s fun theme nights including Drag Queens on Ice (12/5/19) and the Polar Bear Skate (Jan 1).
Civic Center | November 22, 2019 to January 5, 2020 | Back for its second year, modeled after the internationally-famed Wiener Eistraum ice-skating rink in Vienna, this ice rink also features a skating track, expanded for 2019, that weaves ice skating fun through a lighted tree forest.
Palo Alto | September 30, 2019 – April 11, 2020 | Twirl yourself around the rink and then warm up by the fireplace. A local favorite, Outside Magazine ranked Winter Lodge as one of the top 10 outdoor ice skating experiences in the US and it was also voted ‘Best of the Bay Area’ for a family-favorite destination by Bay Area Parent Magazine.
San Mateo | 2019 date not set yet | Get your skate on at the Bay Area’s largest outdoor ice skating rink featuring 9,000 square feet of real ice.
Santa Cruz | November 16, 2019 – January 5, 2020 | Bring the family to enjoy ice skating by the beach – on real ice with ocean view fire pits.
If you’re looking for more places to skate, check out our guide of the best ice rinks in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Christmas Tree Farms
Love the smell of pine and got a hankering for a real Christmas tree? Ditch the paved asphalt lot for a real Christmas tree farm with plenty of charm and festive activities to really get you into the holiday spirit.
Los Gatos | Head into the Santa Cruz mountains to breathe in the cool mountain air and pick out your own Christmas tree on the site of a famous ghost town turned Christmas Tree ranch. Pack a picnic and eat amongst the pine trees at their many picnic tables or enjoy your lunch by the pond. Plus, they have a daily bonfire at 4 pm, weather permitting, in addition to free hot mulled cider, free candy canes and photos with Santa (weekends only), free WiFi and free wine tasting every Friday afternoon.
They’ll provide the saws if you want to chop down your own tree, but they’re happy to cut it down for you for free if you like. They’ll also carry it, wrap it, put it on the stand and load it for you. Looking for a discounted tree (who isn’t)? Come on a weekday; some trees are discounted $5, and if you pay in cash, they’ll cover the sales tax.
Half Moon Bay | If you’re looking for a festive holiday day out for the family, Lemos Farm offers not only Christmas trees, but a mini amusement park experience with pony rides, train rides, Playtown, a Dig Zone, and a free petting zoo. When you’re ready to pick out your tree, hop on a hay ride to Christmas tree field where you cut down your own tree or select a pre-cut one. Don’t miss Ol’ Paint, the family’s big painted horse statue which is repainted to sport a new theme monthly to match the season. The farm is open year round, so you can enjoy their attractions or seasonal events like their Halloween pumpkin patch and haunted houses or their Easter Egg Hunt.
Sebastopol | Those looking for an Insta-worthy atmosphere will be overjoyed at Grandma Buddy’s Christmas Tree Farm which has hosted many professional photoshoots, including being featured on the cover of Pottery Barn. The family-owned farm features amazing backdrops like a picturesque Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch, a large whitewashed barn and a smaller redwood barn, plus an intermittent creek that runs throughout the property with bridges. There’s also a mini Christmas village with a train. Plus, you can enjoy free hot cocoa and candy canes, and of course pick out your own Christmas tree.
Pescadero | While you hunt for your favorite tree to take home at this quirky family-owned U-cut Christmas Tree Farm, be on the lookout for their swings including big swings, small swings, tire swings, rope swings, double swings, triple swings, and more hidden all over the farm. Pack a picnic and climb up the hill to take a ride on their giant swings, play their two large xylophones, and enjoy your picnic with gorgeous ocean views. Plus, they offer free tractor rides, fresh greens and boughs to take home, haystacks for the kids to climb, and all the free marshmallows you can roast over the warm fire, that’s always going. Also, bring some cash to make your fresh wreath (just purchase the ring; materials are free or bring embellishments from home). Heads up, it’s not open many days, so plan ahead.
Snow Days in The Bay
Dreaming of a White Christmas? It hasn’t snowed in downtown San Francisco since 1976 (see the awesome photos of classic SF snowstorms dating back to 1882) – and San Jose got a light dusting of snow in 2015 – but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little bit of winter fun, if only artificially.
Golden Gate Park | 2019 Date TBD | Bring the whole family for a fun mini winter carnival with many free activities including a snow play area, carnival rides, arts and crafts for kids, a cookie factory, a visit from Santa, plus there’s music and live entertainment.
Plus the official City Tree will be adorned with more than 550 multi-colored lights and surrounded by a decorated train. The tree is a more than 100 year-old Monterey Cypress planted by the city’s first park Superintendent, John McLaren.
San Rafael | November 29-30, 2019 | One of the largest holiday parades in the Bay Area, the annual festival features a Holiday Marketplace with arts and crafts, live entertainment, children’s activities, and snow sledding.
Berkeley | December 8, 2019 | Bring boots and mittens to play in the snow at the annual Snow Day in the Gourmet Ghetto. Visit with the Snow Queen as she listens to all of your holiday wishes, ride the live ponies, make free DIY crafts for kids, and shop for one-of-a-kind holiday gifts from local art, craft, and artisan food vendors.
Treasure Island | November 23-24, 2019 | The Bay Area’s largest monthly market featuring hundreds of local makers, local bands, seasonal cocktails, games & activities for all ages and great views of the bay, brings in tons of real snow for you to play in (literally.. it’s typically 10 tons a day), make snowmen, and even get in on an epic, massive snowball fight.
The Bay’s Best Holiday Lightings & Festivities
There’s no better way to get into the holiday spirit than with some of The Bay’s best holiday tree lighting ceremonies to kick off the holidays.
Union Square | November 29, 2019 | Every year on Black Friday, San Francisco’s most recognized Christmas tree, which stands more than 83-feet tall, is illuminated with more than 33,000 twinkling energy-efficient LED lights and 1,100 shining ornaments. In addition to the gorgeous tree lighting, there’s usually musical performances too. Previous performers have included Grammy-award winners.
Civic Center | 2019 Date TBD | Bundle up, and bring your family and friends to listen to music and kick-off the holiday season with the San Francisco Civic Center Plaza Tree Lighting. The annual festival usually features real snow, a toy giveaway for the kids, and holiday performances like the famous tap-dancing Christmas trees.
Union Square | December 22-30, 2019 | Celebrate Chanukah with the annual lighting of the 25-foot tall mahogany Bill Graham Menorah each night of Chanukah in Union Square. This San Francisco tradition, the brainchild of rock and roll concert promoter Bill Graham, begun in 1975.
Embarcadero | November 22, 2019 | Blasting off a fireworks display over the harbor, a full winter carnival, a sneak preview of “Disney on Ice,” and – of course – a massive lighting ceremony across the four Embarcadero buildings, this is the perfect way to kick off the SF holiday season.
Union Square | 2019 Dates TBD | A can’t miss star attraction during the holidays is Macy’s elaborately-decorated holiday window displays all along the outside of the building, featuring some adorable (and adoptable) cats and dogs to help benefit the SPCA and find these furry friends a new home.
Categories: **Annual Event**, *Top Pick*, Tree Lightings & Holiday Festivities