Between the snow falling in the mountains, cities buzzing with holiday events, and the desert kicking off its busy season, California really shines in the last month of the year. Theme parks offer lots of holiday cheer, as do the city parks and zoos. Boat parades and light displays twinkle up and down the state, but it’s also a good time to sit down for wine-infused feasts dinners, take part in beloved traditions, and get ready to usher in the New Year. Here are 15 excellent ways to cap off your 2019 in California:
Dec. 1–27: Napa Valley Santa Train
Most of the regular excursions on the Napa Valley Wine Train focus on the local Cabernets and Chardonnays, with plenty of Wine Country scenery on display. But this kid-focused, hour-plus ride to the “North Pole” features hot cocoa, cookies, and visits with Santa, along with games and sing-alongs.
All month: Joy at SF Zoo, San Francisco
Weekends during the holiday season bring special festivities to the city’s zoo—like the Sugar Plum Fairy Garden and a Pachyderm Building decorated as a Tinsel Town, and breakfasts with Santa. You can also meet wildlife VIPs—real visiting reindeer who will be staying in a special outdoor habitat in the Playground area from Nov. 23–Jan. 1.
Dec. 6–7: December Nights at Balboa Park, San Diego
Evenings get bright in this sprawling city park, with illuminated displays, live music, dancing, and puppet shows. Best of all, admission is free to several of the park’s museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and Fleet Science Center.
Dec. 6– Jan. 3: Solvang JuleFest
Every weekend through New Year’s offers something festive in this Central Coast town known for its Scandinavian flavor. The weekend of Dec. 6–7 features the annual Julefest tree lighting and parade, while Dec. 14–15 offers the Skål Wine & Stein Stroll, with tastings at more than a dozen local wineries and breweries, along with samples of traditional Gløgg.
Dec. 7–8: Indio International Tamale Festival
Tamales are a staple of Mexican-style holiday eating, and this festival south of Palm Springs has contests for both recipes and tamale-eating, as well as live music, kids activities, and a car show.
Dec. 7–19, select dates: Wine Dinners in Fresno County
Summer offers a bounty of fresh fruit in this Central Valley area, and winter is a good time to appreciate its great under-the-radar wines—like the Moravia Winemaker's Dinner (Dec. 7, 12), the Kings River Winery Holiday Market Sip and Shop (December 8), and the Ziveli Christmas Dinner (Dec.19), a lavish six-course meal served at the winery founded by a Croatian family.
Dec. 8: Snow Leopard Festival, Santa Barbara
See majestic white cats at the Santa Barbara Zoo’s annual festival, and take a spin on a sledding hill stocked with 80 tons of snow. This year’s special guests include visiting reindeer, who will be guests at the zoo through New Year’s Day.
Dec. 8–22, select dates: Nevada City Victorian Christmas
The quaint Gold Country town embraces its 19th-century architecture and ambience: twinkling lights and gaslamps line the streets, and carolers and bagpipers entertain while you peruse booths of crafts, dolls, jewelry, and food. Dickensian cosplay is encouraged, too: Check out tips for dressing Victorian. If you’re staying at either the Inn Town Campground or its sister property Outside Inn, join up with one of the scenic photo walks among the lights and decorations.
Dec. 11–21, select dates: Bracebridge Dinners, Yosemite National Park
The stone-and-timber Ahwahnee Hotel channels Christmas Past in grand style with its annual, 18th-century-style dinner show. The star, in theory, is “Lord Neville of Bracebridge,” a character originally created by Washington Irving, but the old-world menu (like duck liver mousse, burgundy beef tenderloin, plum pudding, and wassail) may steal the show.
Dec. 13: Walk of the Inns, Palm Springs
Fans of architecture and design will love this annual self-guided walking tour through boutique hotels and inns in Palm Springs, including Mediterranean-style villas, adobe inns, and mid-century modern gems. The tours begin at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Dec. 13–Jan. 5: Jungle Bells, San Diego
The San Diego Zoo finds new life in the evening at this annual after-dark event with light displays, 4-D movie screenings of The Polar Express, live performers, and a focus on winter-loving animals. Highlights include Dr. Zoolittle’s animal-themed telling of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Dec. 14–31: Holiday Events at Squaw Alpine
Snow season fun ramps up for the second half of December at this Lake Tahoe ski resort. Plan your days around horse-drawn sleigh rides, brunches with Santa, mini-train rides around an ice garden, or mountain outings with Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley. Or, eat with champions: Dec. 26’s Farm to Table Dinner with Olympians is a feast shared with some of the great athletes who train here, and is created in collaboration with local farmers.
Dec. 16–24: Las Posadas at Olvera Street, Los Angeles
This downtown L.A. tradition goes back to 1930: Over the course of nine evenings, Olvera Street holds a procession of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds in seek of shelter for the night. Enjoy pan dulce and cups of hot champurrado and watch as the procession begins and ends at the Avila Adobe, L.A.’s oldest house.
Dec. 28–31: Rose Parade Decorations and Equestfest, Pasadena
The days leading up to January 1’s Rose Parade and Rose Bowl are plenty festive in Pasadena. Watch horses perform at Dec. 29’s EquestFest or put your name in to actually help with the finishing touches on parade floats—a great way to get a behind-the-scenes experience at this legendary event.
Dec. 29–31: Snowglobe Music Festival, South Lake Tahoe
Ring in the new year with this cutting-edge music festival in South Lake Tahoe, where puffy jackets trump hippie-style festival fashion. This year’s headliners include Skrillex, Fisher, Zhu, and Tchami & Malaa.