California’s coastline may not be known for winter snow, or even freezing temperatures, during the holiday season. But what the beach towns lack in snowflakes they make up for in twinkle lights—wrapped around palm trees, strewn across boats, and reflecting in the waters of the Pacific.
From San Diego up to northern California, the advent of the holiday season brings a festive lineup of evening boat parades: a mix of yachts, sailboats, rowboats and sometimes even canoes, all decked out in lights and colorful displays. Don your winter California fashion (a scarf, light jacket, and maybe a hat) and watch them from key vantage points on the shore, where you’ll often find hot cocoa vendors, music, and occasional Santa sightings.
Some towns also offer experiences where you board a boat yourself and see the lit-up vessels and decorated waterfront homes from out on the water. Make your way to one of these cities during the holiday season to see the delightful Golden State-style parades, listed chronologically below:
32nd Annual Lighted Boat Parade, Santa Cruz
December 2, 5:30 p.m.
Santa Cruz Harbor is festive any time of year, but early December takes it up a notch, when 50 decorated sailboats and powerboats cruise around the south harbor, under the banner of the local yacht club. Get some hot drinks and snacks and watch from the Murray Street bridge, along the East Harbor launch ramp, or from any of the harbor’s pathways.
Delta Reflections Lighted Boat Parade, Stockton
December 2, 5–8 p.m.
One great California boat parade is actually 70 miles from the ocean. The Central Valley city of Stockton is a deep-water port city, and its illuminated parade of boats and yachts does a loop including the city’s Buckley Cove, the downtown Stockton Waterfront, and McCloud Lake. The best viewing locations include perches along the north shore—like behind the marina and Banner Island Ballpark—and from the south shore near Weber Point and the waterfront warehouse.
43rd Annual Boat Parade, Dana Point
December 8, 9, 15, and 16, 4:30 pm
The southern Orange County town of Dana Point holds its parade four times over two weekends. Come as early as 4:30 for Dana Point’s Holiday on the Harbor events (including meet-and-greets with the man in the red suit) then see which boats win the awards like Best Theme, Best Use of Lights, Best Animation, and Most Colorful.
Marina Del Rey Boat Parade
December 9, 6 p.m.
This L.A. County holiday parade starts with fireworks at 6 p.m., after which the decorated boats made their way through the the channel in Marina Del Rey; watch from Burton Chace Park or Fisherman’s Village. Come during the afternoon for the Snow Wonder event at Burton Chace Park, where kids can sled in 60 tons of actual snow that’s been created for the day.
Lighted Boat Parade & Fireworks, Sausalito
December 9, 6–9 p.m.
People love Sausalito year round for its views of San Francisco, but at this annual light-fest hosted by the Sausalito Yacht Club, the views also include dozens of yachts and boats on the water, along with a colorful finale in the sky. Best places to watch are along Sausalito Waterfront, from Clipper Yacht Harbor thru downtown.
Huntington Harbor Boat Parade
December 9–10, 5:15 p.m.
The surfing-friendly Orange County city first held this boat parade in the 1960s with just 12 boats, and today there are more than 75—watch them from Seabridge Park or the Huntington Harbor bridges. On the following two weekends (Dec. 15–18 and 21–23), take the Cruise of Lights, a narrated boat ride through the town’s waterways to see more decorated boats, docks, and waterfront homes.
Santa Barbara Parade of Lights
December 10, 5:30 p.m.
First launched in 1985, the Santa Barbara parade usually consists of about 30 boats—some with motors, others with sails or just paddles—making their way along the waterfront. Watch the action from Stearns Wharf, where judges award cash and other prizes in five categories. Festivities kick off at 3 p.m. with St. Nick sightings at the Santa’s Village on the City Pier, and ends with post-parade fireworks.
San Diego Bay Parade of Lights
December 10 and 17, 5 p.m.
This annual boat parade of 80 vessels floats past a number of banner sights near downtown San Diego: It starts at Shelter Island, then progresses past Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, and then the Ferry Landing on Coronado island. Not only do you have a broad choice of places to anchor yourself for watching it, but you get two days to choose from—both Sunday evenings.
Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade
December 13–17, 5:30 p.m.
With hundreds of boats and a long history (it started in the early 1900s) the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade may be the king of holiday boat parades. It runs for five nights and can be seen from various spots along its route, which begins at the tip of the town’s Lido Isle and wends its way around Balboa Island and the town’s other small islands and bridges. You can also take dinner cruises through most of the month, which navigate past more lit boats and homes.
Fisherman's Wharf Holiday Boat Parade, San Francisco
December 15, 6–8 p.m.
Between 75 and 100 yachts and boats do a colorful round trip for this waterfront parade, floating past Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason, the St. Francis Yacht Club, and Crissy Field. Primo viewing spots are on the walkway along the Aquatic Park, PIER 39 Marina Green, and Crissy Field Beach, as well as the post-parade boat views at Sportfishing Harbor on Jefferson Street. If you can’t make the actual parade day, stroll through the Fisherman's Wharf, where the Fishing Fleet’s boats stay lit up until January.