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50+ Fun Things to Do in California During the 2023 Holidays

50+ Fun Things to Do in California During the 2023 Holidays

Put these festive events, experiences, and performances on your bucket list this season

Posted 11 days ago

There’s enough going on in California during the holidays to fill up your calendar from now through the new year. To help you find the best bets for your crew, we’ve gathered more than 50 things we’re excited to do and see this season. From spectacular boat parades and themed train rides to Santa skiing adventures and over-the-top light displays, here are some merry ways to spend the holidays in the Golden State.

1. Watch a holiday boat parade

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

California’s coastline lights up this time of year with evening boat parades—fancifully illuminated yachts, sailboats, and even rowboats that have helped create local holiday traditions. Plan a trip around events such as the Winterfest Sausalito parade in Sausalito (Dec. 9–10), the Santa Barbara Parade of Lights (Dec. 10) on Santa Barbara Harbor, and the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade (Dec. 13–17) in Newport Beach. You can often see the docked ships lit up on many other December evenings, too.

2. Visit a small town with Christmas spirit 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations 

From Gold Rush towns that look like they came straight out of a Charles Dickens novel to mountain villages covered in snow, these 15 towns deliver plenty of holiday charm

3. See America’s tallest living Christmas tree come to light

Dec. 3, Ferndale 

This little town on California’s North Coast pulls out all the stops come Christmas time. Join this tight-knit community as it watches the lighting of a 160-plus-foot-tall fir tree—the tallest living Christmas tree in the United States—complete with complimentary cookies and hot cocoa. Afterward, stroll down the Victorian-style historic downtown that’s lined by garland-wrapped streetlights. 

4. Stroll through decorated coastal inns 

Dec. 5, Pacific Grove

During the Christmas at the Inns event in Monterey County, you can visit seven bed-and-breakfasts and inns decorated for the holidays. Bring the whole family to enjoy live music and holiday treats as you wander through the picturesque properties. Tickets are $25 per person (free for kids under 12). 

During the first four weekends in December, the neighboring city of Monterey celebrates the 7th Annual Christmas on the Wharf with live entertainment from choirs, youth dancers, and singers, as well as Santa sightings at his little house on the Wharf.

5. Experience a winter wonderland with a German twist 

Dec. 16–17, Big Bear Lake 

The two-day Big Bear Christkindlmarkt features live German entertainment, carolers, holiday vendors, free arts and crafts, and a giant Wishing Tree. Kids can enjoy visits with the Christkind Angel and St. Nicholas while adults indulge in traditional German foods and libations. 

6. Go ice skating, California-style 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

The Golden State offers numerous seasonal skating rinks for the holidays. By Thanksgiving, rinks open at Mammoth LakesSan Francisco’s Union Square, and the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego County, to name but a few. For extra-majestic natural scenery, go to the Shasta Cascade region, where the NHL regulation–sized Siskiyou Ice Rink in Mt. Shasta offers views of Mount Shasta and boasts of being the biggest outdoor ice rink on the West Coast.

7. Visit a zoo after dark 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

Discover family-friendly holiday magic at one of the many zoos and wildlife parks in California. San Diego Zoo Jungle Bells hosts the light show “Aurora,” plus musical performances and polar bear photo ops. Walk through animal-shaped, silk-covered lanterns at the Oakland Zoo’s Glowfari and Santa Barbara ZooLights. WildLights at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert has been rated among the country’s best zoo lights for a reason, with more than one million sparkling lights and model trains running along 3,300 feet of track. Find more festive displays at Fresno Chaffee Zoo Illuminature, L.A. Zoo Lights: Animals Aglow, and Winter Wonderland at the Santa Ana Zoo

8. Meet Surfing Santa in San Diego

Nov. 25, San Diego

The man famous for his red suit and sleigh shows up on a watercraft and wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the annual Surfin’ Santa parade and meet-and-greet in Seaport Village, just outside downtown San Diego

9. Enjoy holiday cheer on the San Francisco Peninsula

Dec. 1–3, Pacifica

The San Francisco Peninsula town of Pacifica hosts a free-admission Holiday Extravaganza the first weekend of December with food trucks, Santa visits, free pony rides, a tree lighting, and a parade. Come for the nearby Rockaway Tree Lighting Festival (Dec. 3) too.

10. Enter a dazzling world of color at California gardens 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

Across the Golden State, botanical gardens feature immersive light displays throughout their lush grounds. Watch as the flora at Descanso Garden’s Enchanted Forest of Light, Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s Redding Garden of Lights, and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ Festival of Lights twinkle brilliantly on an evening stroll. The popular Lightscape display, a display of one million lights, tunnels, and art installations, will also return this holiday season to the San Diego Botanic Garden and Los Angeles Arboretum.

11. Plan a theme park holiday

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

All of California’s theme parks celebrate in their own ways: In AnaheimDisneyland Resort decks out classic rides (including It’s a Small World) and observes a variety of cultural traditions at its Festival of Holidays.Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park morphs into Knott’s Merry Farm. In Los Angeles, Universal Studios Hollywood makes the most of Grinchmas and a magical yuletide within The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Down in San Diego County, choose from holiday parties at LEGOLAND CaliforniaSeaWorld San Diego, and Sesame Place San Diego.

Santa Cruz’s Beach Boardwalk offers a Winter Wonderland (Nov. 23–Dec. 31) including a three-story tall Christmas tree and photo ops with Santa. Each week features its own activities too, such as a Mini Nutcracker performance, a movie or brunch with Santa, or roaming Carolers. Boost your cheer by renting a fire pit table for holiday s’mores.

For even more theme park festivities, check out holidays at the theme parks.

12. Bask in the lights at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa

Nov. 18–Jan. 7, Riverside

This grand dame hotel in Riverside boasts a whopping 5 million lights as part of its annual Festival of Lights. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to stroll the grounds that are also dotted with 200 animated figures, decorated trees, and the world’s largest mistletoe.

Downtown Riverside offers more holiday cheers at the Festival of Trees (Nov. 24–25) at the city’s convention center featuring more decorated trees, a holiday marketplace, and seasonal food-and-drink stalls.

13. Glimpse famed holiday streets 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations 

Drive through Fresno’s famous Christmas Tree Lane (Dec. 1–25) to experience two miles of elaborately decorated homes, a tradition that goes back more than a century. For more decked-out roads, check out Visalia’s Candy Cane Lane Parade (Nov. 27), Calabasas’ epic new Holiday Road (select dates, Nov. 24–Dec. 27), showcasing larger-than-life light and sculpture installations, and Torrance’s long-running Sleepy Hollow Christmas Lights Extravaganza (Dec. 1–Jan. 1).

14. Try a Christmas tamale

Dec. 2–3, Indio and Oxnard

Christmas tamales are a beloved holiday tradition in many cultures. For all your masa cravings, look no further than the Indio Tamale Festival, which takes place in Greater Palm Springs. A tradition for more than 30 years, the festival offers live mariachi music, the world’s biggest bounce house, and a sprawling night market.

Oxnard throws its own masa-wrapped party at its 16th Annual Tamale Festival (Dec. 2), offering both sweet and savory tamales along with a holiday crafts fair, kids activities, and live music in Plaza Park.

15. Wander the Illuminate SF Festival of Lights 

Nov. 9–Jan. 31, San Francisco

Public art and holiday spirit converge to create the incredible Illuminate SF Festival of Lights. The event features more than 60 glowing light installations placed throughout 17 San Francisco neighborhoods. 

16. See “The Nutcracker” ballet

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

Do visions of sugar plums dance in your head? Book tickets to the Tchaikovsky holiday favorite. See the San Francisco Ballet’s rendition at the stunning San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center or head across the bay to watch the Oakland Ballet at the Paramount Theatre. The Los Angeles Ballet delivers a California twist, setting the production in turn-of-the-century L.A. In San Diego, enjoy a two-fold performance where the Golden State Ballet is accompanied by the San Diego Symphony. San Jose, Sacramento, and San Luis Obispo also put on high-quality renditions. 

17. Watch a candy cane demo

Throughout the season, Ontario

Opened in 1933, Logan’s Candies in Ontario is known for its unforgettable candy-cane-making demonstration. Watch as owner (and now-TikTok star) Jerry Rowley creates the store’s most iconic item. Try sweet samples as he walks you through the mesmerizing process of forming this iconic red-and-white-striped treat. The demo ends with the bending of your very own warm candy cane. 

18. Celebrate Julefest on the Central Coast 

Nov. 24–Jan. 6, Solvang

The Danish-themed town of Solvang looks like the set of a Hallmark movie year-round, but during the holidays it really shines. Celebrate Julefest, starting after Thanksgiving, which features a tree-lighting ceremony, parade, the Solvang Nativity Spectacular, and more. Get in the spirit by purchasing a gingerbread house–making kit at the Solvang Bakery (order ahead to pick up in person).

19. Shop and dine on Pier 39

Nov. 21–Jan. 7

In San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 becomes a winter wonderland with decorated stores and restaurants during HapPIER Holidays. The Pier’s 60-foot Christmas tree, harvested from Siskiyou County, transforms into a light show set to holiday music every half hour from 5–10 p.m., and many stores are open on Christmas Day.

20. Do a wine country winter weekend

Dec. 3–5, Healdsburg 

Head to Sonoma County for a Merry Weekend in Healdsburg. The three-day celebration kicks off with a tree lighting and continues with live music from Healdsburg Chorus and a very merry sidewalk sale. Tuck into Hotel Healdsburg for a holiday tea service, served Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 2–23. 

21. Pay homage to the Nation's Christmas Tree 

Dec. 10, Kings Canyon National Park

In 1925, the town of Sanger held a holiday celebration under the branches of the General Sherman Tree. Today the tradition lives on, always on the second Sunday of December: Head to Kings Canyon National Park where you’ll trek to the awe-inspiring sequoia President Calvin Coolidge named the Nation’s Christmas Tree

22. Ski in a Santa suit 

Dec. 18 and 20, South Lake Tahoe and Wrightwood 

Hit the slopes in your best Mr. Claus attire. On Dec. 20, Mountain High Resort in Wrightwood is getting in the holiday spirit by offering free skiing and snowboarding to anyone in a full Santa suit. In South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Resort is throwing its own Santa bash on Dec. 18 with an après-ski party for all suit-wearers. 

23. Ride a tram, hang out with Santa 

Dec. 2, 9, Palm Springs

Climb 6,000 feet on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and be greeted by expansive mountain views and a breakfast with Santa on Dec. 2. On Dec. 9, Santa will make an appearance at the Tramway’s Mountain Station.

24. Take part in a snowman-lighting tradition

Dec. 2, Sonoma

Visit Cornerstone, a cluster of shops and tasting rooms in the town of Sonoma, for the tradition of illuminating snowmen—accompanied by music, food trucks, and signature cocktails.

25. See the Capistrano Lights 

Dec. 2–30, San Juan Capistrano

On select evenings in December, Mission San Juan Capistrano comes alive under colorful lights. The 10-foot wreath, large-scale nativity scene, and Dickens-era carolers make for excellent family photo backdrops. 

26. Cruise through a drive-thru event 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations 

Stay cozy in your car and enjoy the lights and displays at attractions all over the state—perhaps parking to get some food-truck cuisine or hot cocoa. Check out these drive-thru holiday experiences, like Christmas in the Park in downtown San Jose or Christmas Tree Lane in Oxnard.

27. Cheer for The Grinch at the Old Globe Theatre

Nov. 8–Dec. 31, San Diego

Soak up the ambience of Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theatre—modeled after Shakespeare’s London landmark—in this musical version of Dr. Seuss’s holiday tale. (Dr. Seuss was a longtime resident of La Jolla.) On Dec. 1–2, check out another beloved holiday tradition in San Diego’s city parkDecember Nights, a two-evening open-air celebration of lights, music, and food vendors.

28. Celebrate an old-fashioned Christmas in Coloma

Dec. 9–10, Coloma 

Year round, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park offers a window back in time to Gold Rush–era California—and the holidays are no exception. At Christmas in Coloma, you can try your hand at wreath-making, ride a horse-drawn wagon, and share carols around the campfire. 

29. Experience a Victorian holiday

Dec. 3–17, Nevada City

You might feel like you’ve stepped into a holiday time machine in this Gold Country town, where the downtown streets come to life with strolling carolers in full period garb, roasting chestnuts, and vendors offering charming little gifts during the Nevada City Victorian Christmas. Runs on Wednesdays and Sundays.

30. Get into the spirit at the Eureka Trucker’s Parade

Dec. 9, Eureka

Gaze at glittering Mack trucks and incandescent 18-wheelers during Eureka’s annual Trucker’s Parade. Some trucks require three generators just to support their 40,000-plus adorned lights. Festivities will also include bandstand platforms, dancing reindeer, and flying fish.

31. Immerse yourself in a themed village 

Nov. 16–Jan. 7, Santa’s Village

Year-round you can hike, bike, and ride ziplines at SkyPark at Santa’s Village, located near Lake Arrowhead. But during the holiday season it transforms into the North Pole, with ice skating, mini train rides, Christmas-themed puppet shows, and breakfasts with Santa. There’s even an adorable gingerbread house bakery that serves cookies and cinnamon rolls. 

32. Listen to the Sacramento Men's Gay Chorus sing holiday hits 

Dec. 9, Sacramento

Ring in the season with family-friendly fun at Holiday Hits with a Splash of Sass. Hear popular holiday songs with hilarious twists at this concert extravaganza held at the Crest Theatre

33. Stay at a festive hotel

Throughout the season, multiple destinations 

Find that home-away-from-home magic at a hotel that does all the cooking, decorating, and sometimes even the shopping for you. Step inside a gingerbread mansion at the Fairmont San Francisco or skate on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island. Check out our list of more California holiday hotels that pull out all the stops.

34. Go on a candlelit walk through the redwoods 

Dec. 2–3, Orick 

Stroll under the candlelit canopy of ancient redwoods at Prairie Creek Redwood State Park in the Northern California town of Orick. Enjoy an evening in the sequoias at this half-mile round-trip walk on an ADA-friendly path, with 500 luminaria lighting your way, complemented with refreshments, music, and storytellers.

35. Travel back in time at Columbia State Historic Park 

Dec. 9–10 & 16–17, Columbia 

Step back into the 1850s at Columbia State Historic Park to experience what Christmas in a California Gold Rush town may have looked like nearly 200 years ago. At Miner’s Christmas, families and friends can listen to prospectors tell holiday stories, actually indulge in chestnuts roasted over an open fire, and make old-timey arts and crafts. 

36. Take a twilight tour at Hearst Castle 

Nov. 25–Dec. 30, San Simeon

Get a glimpse of how mogul William Randolph Hearst used to celebrate the holidays on this guided seasonal tour of the legendary estate in San Simeon. The experience takes visitors through decorated grounds, the guest house, and the social rooms at Casa Grande, complete with giant Christmas trees.

37. Run a race in a Santa suit

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

Trade your wicking t-shirt and athletic visor for a Santa suit and bright red hat. With nearly 20,000 jolly elves annually, the San Diego Santa Run 5K (Dec. 9) might be the largest, but it’s not the only California-based race where festive garb comes with your registration. Holiday racers can also get their jollies at Run for a Claus 5K(Costa Mesa, Dec. 16); Santa Runs Griffith Park (Dec. 10, Los Angeles); Stockton Santa Dash (Dec. 2); Holiday Half Marathon (Dec. 9–10, Pomona); Santa Run Silicon Valley (Dec 17., San Jose); Santa Hustle Half Marathon(Dec 10, Roseville); Visalia Jingle Bell Run (Dec. 10); Santa to Sea Half Marathon (Oxnard, Dec. 10); Santa Claus for a Cause 5K and 10K (Huntington Beach, Dec. 16); Santa Paws 5K (Dec. 16, Palm Springs); and Auburn Santa Run/Walk 5K (Dec. 16). Sausalito’s Jingle Bell 5K (Dec. 10) offers the extra motivation of an official brunch afterward.

38. Stuff your stocking in El Dorado Hills 

Dec. 2, El Dorado Hills 

Kids get to combine the fun of trick-or-treating with the magic of the holidays in El Dorado Hills, located east of Sacramento. Typically the first 300 children who attend the Christmas Tree Lighting can fill up their stockings with special gifts from local businesses. Get a pic with Santa on Wednesdays through Sunday during the holiday season at the nearby California Welcome Center.

39. Step into Victorian London 

Nov. 18–Dec. 17, Daly City

Don your finest capelet or tailcoat and immerse yourself in a holiday fair filled with Dickens-inspired characters, live music, sweet treats, and shopping at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in Daly City (located inSan Mateo County).

40. Sing along at a Merry-achi Christmas 

Dec. 9, Bakersfield

Head to Bakersfield’s historic Fox Theater for a multicultural holiday show performed by the acclaimed band Mariachi Sol de México, led by José Hernández.

41. Hop on a holiday train 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations 

All across California, vintage trains decked in holiday lights offer nostalgia-filled adventures. Step aboard the Magical Christmas Train in West Sacramento, Irvine Park Railroad’s annual Christmas Train, or the Polar Express Train Ride in Sacramento to chug through local scenery on your way toward a Santa meet-and-greet. The historic Skunk Train’s redwood-lined route in Willits is infused with Christmas magic in Mendocino County. Roll through the Santa Cruz streets as you belt out Christmas carols on the Holiday Lights Train. For a more adult-focused excursion, book a ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train’s Very Merry Vista Dome with 360-degree views of wine country and a three-course dinner paired with sips. 

42. Enter a gingerbread competition 

Nov. 18–Jan. 7, Santa Ana and Los Angeles 

Tap into your creativity and enter the Science of Gingerbread Competition at Discovery Cube Orange Countyand Discovery Cube Los Angeles. Entries are due Dec. 3, but guests can browse the constructions and learn about the science behind winter weather through Jan. 7. 

43. Celebrate a Cornish Christmas 

Select dates Nov. 24–Dec. 22, Grass Valley

Grab a glass of mulled wine and head to Downtown Grass Valley for an old-fashioned Cornish Christmas. Browse sparkling window displays, listen to carolers, and keep your eyes peeled for Santa and Mrs. Claus. 

44. Walk through historic adobes decked in lights

Dec. 8–9, Monterey

Enjoy an Alta California–inspired holiday celebration at the 39th Annual Christmas in the Adobes. Follow candle-lit luminarias to Monterey’s historic adobes. 

45. Snowshoe to a chalet for dinner 

Throughout the season, Olympic Valley

This winter, join a guided snowshoe tour at Palisades Tahoe, where a local will lead you to a cozy chalet for a four-course Bavarian-inspired meal with optional wine pairings, starting with Champagne upon arrival. (21-plus only.)

46. Attend the Festival of Trees 

Dec. 2–3 Lodi 

Admire more than 60 Christmas trees trimmed with original designs at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum’s annual event. Docents dressed in Victorian and pioneer attire add to the event’s fun and historic flair. 

47. Shop local 

Throughout the season, multiple destinations

Looking for unique gifts that also support a local community? Start your browsing at one of the 18 Places to Shop Local across California, including a surf shop, a honey farm, and a whimsical toy store.

48. Experience holiday performances at the Rady Shell 

Throughout the season, San Diego 

The San Diego Symphony’s classic “Noel Noel” features holiday songs with appearances by the San Diego Master Chorale and San Diego Children’s Choir, highlighted by a spectacular light show (Dec. 15–17). For fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas, get tickets to watch the movie accompanied by the symphony playing the score in real-time. 

49. See Christmas Around the World at the Ronald Reagan Museum

Nov. 11–Jan. 8, Simi Valley

Admire 26 decorated Christmas trees from 26 countries at this special exhibit at the presidential museum inSimi Valley. Don’t miss the Gold Star Family Memorial Tree, which welcomes ornaments from Gold Star families.

50. Travel to Sonora Christmas Town 

Throughout the season, Sonora

Feel like you’ve entered a real-life snow globe in the historic Gold Rush destination of Sonora, which transforms into a festive Christmas Town every year. Enjoy holiday installations, parades, and wagon rides, starting Nov. 24.

51. Stroll a decked-out Union Square

Throughout the season, San Francisco

During the holiday season, San Francisco’s Union Square offers a charmingly throwback holiday with its Winter Wander-Land. Browse the ornaments and decor at Gump's Holiday Pop-Up, check out the Bill Graham Menorah (Dec. 7–15), the Larger-Than-Life Ornament Trail on Powell, and The Westin St. Francis Sugar Castle, then take a spin on the ice at The Safeway Holiday Ice Rink. Be sure to explore Stockton Street between Ellis and Geary Streets for the Winter Walk (Dec. 15–24), a two-block street fair with food trucks, bar gardens, entertainment, and family-friendly activities.

52. See the Grinch by the Beach

Dec. 1–2, Pismo Beach

Kick off the holiday season at Pismo Beach’s Dolphin Bay Resort, which hosts a few fun public events. On Dec. 1, watch a free screening of How the Grinch Stole Christmas on the hotel’s oceanfront lawn while enjoying Grinch-themed snacks and drinks for purchase at the concession stand. On Dec. 2, browse local artisans’ wares from the small businesses that set up shop at the Dolphin Bay Holiday Cheer Market (Dec. 2) on the resort’s north lawn, paired with holiday-themed goodies and a story time with Santa.

53. Shop among Carolers in Benicia

Dec. 1, 9, Benicia

Shop downtown Benicia among roving costumed carolers during the annual Holiday Open House (Dec. 1), a day that also includes the town’s holiday tree lighting. On Dec. 9, the 28th Annual Christmas Parade & Holiday Market features lots of handcrafted arts and crafts, gourmet goodies, and Saint Nick leading a parade of local marching bands and dancers.

54. Judge a Gingerbread House Contest

Dec. 8–31, Sausalito

Stroll past the elaborate gingerbread houses on display outside Sausalito businesses, and then vote for your favorite all month in the Marin County town.

55. Experience Temecula’s Wine Country Holiday

Throughout the season, Temecula

Enjoy Temecula’s cowboy culture-meets-wine country ambience during its Holiday Taste of Old Town event (Dec. 6), where your ticket (buy it online) grants you admission to a street fair with holiday lights, live music, and free goodies and discounts at participating restaurants and businesses. Check out the calendar for more Temecula Holiday Chilled events including the Holiday Boutique at Europa Village and the Grape Drop on New Year’s Eve.

56. Get a Head Start on Movie Award Season

Dec. 28–30, Half Moon Bay

The Beach Break Film Festival in Half Moon Bay features compelling documentaries such as Common Ground, a surprisingly star-studded look at regenerative environmentally friendly farming, It Ain’t Over, a documentary about the ever-quotable Yogi Berra, and The Birth of the Endless Summer about California surf pioneer Dick Metz.