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A Surfboard-Toting Santa
Courtesy of Seaport Village

Cool California Santa Sightings

Cool California Santa Sightings
Skip the mall and find the man in red at these fun locations around the Golden State

If you’re spending any time in California with the kids during the holiday season, you need not rely on malls alone for meet-and-greets with Santa Claus. Across the Golden State, Saint Nick is known to make dramatic entrances as Surfing Santa—wearing board shorts and shades—or as Skiing Santa, zooming down the side of a mountain on skis or even a snowboard. Other Santa meet-and-greets connect you with local festivals, parades, and even an army of light-up snowmen in wine country. Check out these California-style Santas who bring an extra heaping of jolly to the holiday.


The Santa Train

Napa Valley Wine Train

November 18 through December 29

For most of the year, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers a scenic ride and tasting experience through this famous stretch of wine country. During the holidays, though, a seasonally-festooned train takes kids and their parents on daily rides to Santa’s workshop, to uncover some Teddy bears that Saint Nick apparently misplaced. Rather than Cabernets, the onboard tastings focus on cookies, hot cocoa, and other treats. Parents, meanwhile, might want to come back at the end of the season for the New Year’s Eve Train, which features a four-course dinner and plenty of local sparkling wine.


Surfin’ Santa Arrival

Seaport Village, San Diego

November 25

In a city where flip-flops are year-round footwear, Santa can’t be weighed down by his heavy black boots. So when he arrives on a watercraft at this annual event at San Diego’s Seaport Village, Surfing Santa is rocking board shorts, flip-flops, and an all-season Hawaiian shirt. Give him your wish list or just pose with him next to his surfboard. The afternoon party at this festive shopping zone near downtown also includes a parade, kids crafts, and live street performers.


Capitola Surfing Santa

November 25

In Santa Cruz County, flying reindeer may be hard to come by, so Santa gets his horsepower, as it were, from reindeer with good rowing arms. At this event, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, Saint Nicholas comes ashore at Capitola’s Main Beach on a well-staffed outrigger canoe. Then, he’ll hear kids’ wish lists while relaxing in his beach chair. A week later, Capitola Village hosts its tree lighting ceremony with cookie-decorating, face painting, and a window-display contest; look for Santa in the crowds here again, this time with his pal, the Christmas Fairy.


Solvang JuleFest

December 1–2 and 9–10

This charming Central Coast town embraces its Scandinavian heritage at the two-weekend-long JuleFest, which kicks off with a parade of Danish dancers, horses and carriages, and vintage cars. Afterward, the red-clad dude with his own Nordic heritage greets the kids at Solvang Park. The second weekend of festivities includes a Nativity Scene with live animals, along with the Solvang Wine and Beer Walk at 13 local tasting rooms. On either weekend, indulge your sugar cravings along Solvang’s Sweet Treats Trail: an array of bakeries, wine stores, coffeehouses, and sweet shops where you can find chocolates, wines, and plenty of local Danish kringle and stollen.


Lighting of the Snowmen

Cornerstone Gardens, Sonoma

December 2

In 2004, the owner of Cornerstone Gardens—a collection of boutique wineries, shops, and tasting rooms in the town of Sonoma—bought a small army of decorative snowmen from a soon-to-close factory in Boston. Once he’d brought them back to Sonoma, he created a funny display that made it appear as if they’d been thrown across a road into a vineyard. (No worries: The plastic snowmen were not injured.) A holiday tradition was born, and now each year, the lit-up snowmen get arranged in a creative new formation. This year, will they be stacked vertically, lined up along a ski jump, or in some other intriguing configuration? Come find out at this free festival, which also features live music, crafts, local cuisine, and wine and beer tastings. A live Santa reigns from his orange chair, listening to wishes and perhaps pardoning the embattled snowmen.


SantaCon Pub Crawl

Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, and Temecula 

December 9 and 16

This annual pub crawl—in which participants must dress as Santa—happens in select cities all over the world, but the versions in California promise to be some of the biggest (and perhaps balmiest). The Newport Beach crawl will occur on Dec. 9, while the next weekend will bring out the Santas in wine-tasting friendly Santa Barbara and Temecula.  If you decide to join in, just remember to adhere to the SantaCon code to be kind to kids, police, and bartenders.


Night of Lights


December 16

Just a few nights before the winter solstice, the high season at Mammoth kicks off with this annual (and free) evening at Canyon Lodge. Certainly, the risk of a dark sky runs very low: Besides the live music, kids’ activities, and snowmobile rides, there will be a torchlight parade and fireworks. Cap it off by letting the kids meet Santa as well as Wooly, Mammoth’s lovably prehistoric mascot.


Merry Days & Holly Nights

Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows

December 17-31

Santa doesn’t just sit on a big chair in Squaw Village—he likes to schuss down the mountain with the other skiers and snowboarders. During two weeks of festivities around Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, Santa makes regular appearances on the slopes; in between, there are horse-drawn carriage rides, ice sculpture demonstrations, even a Santa Brunch on Christmas Eve. For another holiday treat, go on one of the resort’s Dawn Patrol ski tours, hosted on a few days this year by Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley.


Santas Ski Free Day

Mountain High Ski resort

December 17 

Santas likely outnumber the elves at this now-annual event at Mountain High, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles and Orange County. You can ski for free on this day when you make a small donation (of at least $20) to the eco-minded Protect Our Winters organization, founded by Olympic snowboarder Jeremy Jones. The only hitch: You also have to don a full Santa suit with beard and hat. Even if you don’t go as Santa yourself, you’d be hard-pressed not to get in the holiday spirit surrounded by freestyling St. Nicks.


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Harriot Manley/ Sunset Publishing

Northern California

Discover the San Francisco Bay Area

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Average (°C)
June - Aug
Sept - Nov
June - Aug
Mar - May

A crimson bridge, cable cars, a sparkling bay, and streets lined with elegant Victorian homes—San Francisco is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. Located along the Northern California at the state’s distinctive bend in the coast, the region has an alluring magic that stretches beyond the bay to diverse cities with nightlife and trend-setting cuisine. 

"I left my heart in San Francisco, High on a hill, it calls to me."  –singer Tony Bennett

The Bay Area is also home to some of the world’s finest wine country, including Napa Valley and Sonoma, plus waterfront towns, dramatic beaches, and the tech-savvy southern end of the bay known as the Silicon Valley, where lunchtime ideas at Google, Facebook, and Apple, turn into the next brilliant innovation. 

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San Francisco's cable cars are the only mobile National Monuments.
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Thomas H. Story/ Sunset Publishing

Golden Gate Bridge

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Sand, water, and children-it’s a natural combination for easy family fun. These sandy beaches offer appealing, family friendly features, such as calm water for new swimmers, tide pools for...

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Sample ultra-fresh, hyper-local, and downright amazing

When you come to California, come hungry. This is a state that really knows how to cook. Amazing and innovative chefs sprinkled with Michelin stars work with local farms and artisanal food...

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Old-fashioned fun in the Golden State

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Check these amazing experiences off your bucket list

Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind the scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of actvities...

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