The City by the Bay offers merry fun that will revive your holiday spirit.
The lead-up to the holidays can be an especially exhausting time for parents. It’s a special time, yes, but – let’s be honest here – it is difficult to embrace the magic of the season when you’re face-planting into bed every night. Perhaps it’s time to hit the pause button, pack up the kids and some warm sweaters and escape north, where your holiday spirit can be revived by a ginormous Christmas tree. In fact, not one towering tree but dozens of festive trees, all festooned with colorful lights and garlands and sparkly baubles, light up San Francisco’s parks and plazas at this most wonderful time of the year. And it’s not just decked-out trees that draw visitors in December, but a dizzying number of merry activities, performances and decorations – along with low hotel rates – that promise ho-ho-holiday fun. Because sometimes the best way to get in the holiday spirit is to get away, here are four steps to help you do just that.
Step 1. Choose your home base
Would your family rather stay at the swirling epicenter of holiday fun or find a peaceful spot within striking distance of the action? If your family wants full-on festivities, consider staying at The Westin St. Francis Union Square, right across the street from the square’s giant Christmas tree and outdoor skating rink. This historic hotel offers family-friendly rooms (request a room with a view for non-stop entertainment) and amenities (think kids’ welcome packs, cribs and potties). In the lobby you’ll find two handcrafted confectionary castles, the St. Francis Sugar Castle resembling a French Chateau set in a medieval French village and the 12-foot tall Enchanted Castle with colorfully wrapped gift boxes, gingerbread trees and mischievous elves climbing the walls. If you’d prefer an oasis of calm, the Inn at the Presidio is an inspired choice.
The Presidio, a former army post at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, is now a national park with historic buildings, celebrated restaurants, the Walt Disney Family Museum and the award-winning Inn. Most of the Inn’s 22 rooms offer a king-size bed (parents cheer) and separate sitting room with a fireplace and pullout sofa bed for the kids (parents cheer even more). December activities at the Presidio include wreath- and lantern-making workshops and holly-jolly sing-alongs. Plan on a forest or bayside walk and, if there are “Star Wars” fans in your family, a visit to the Lucasfilm offices to see the Yoda water fountain and lobby filled with film artifacts.
When (or if) you’re ready to explore beyond the park, board the free shuttle bus to downtown. San Francisco has oodles of other accommodation options, from the fancy-schmancy Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill with its prince- and princess-worthy gingerbread house and holiday teas to funky Hotel del Sol, a 1950s motor inn turned kid-friendly boutique hotel in the Marina District. Reserve a room, then get on with planning the fun stuff.
Step 2. Book your theater tickets
There’s something about live theater – stepping in to an opulent lobby, sitting in plush seats, getting swept up in a story performed by costumed actors on elaborate stages – that stays with children. Make precious memories by attending one of the dozen or so child-friendly productions on offer this month. Here’s a small sampling: Watch your children’s faces light up as snowflakes twirl, flowers waltz and mice duel during the San Francisco Ballet’s sumptuous production of “Nutcracker.” Neat fact: it was on Christmas Eve 1944, in the San Francisco Opera House where the ballet is still performed, that the American premier of this much-loved holiday tradition took place. If a comical holiday production staring Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang is more to your liking, choose San Francisco Symphony’s Christmas Spectacular featuring “A Charlie Brown Christmas—Live!” Other symphony productions include “The Snowman” with live orchestra and “A Merri-achi Christmas,” a high-energy, dance-in-the-aisles tribute to Mexican Christmas traditions.
Check your humbug at the door if you attend The American Conservatory Theater’s lively musical production of “A Christmas Carol.” If you have small children, do consider whether they are ready for, as the theater’s website describes them, “deliciously spooky ghosts.” Your savvy pre-teens and teenagers, meanwhile, might be ready for the zany, pop-culture satire that is “Beach Blanket Babylon,” performed at Club Fugazi in North Beach. Reserve tickets for a Sunday matinee (the only performance to which the under-21 set is admitted) and laugh along with your kids to over-the-top musical numbers, dancing Christmas trees, outrageously gigantic hats and a wee bit of naughty humor.
Step 3. Map out more fun
Make a list (and check it twice) of everything your family would like to experience during your San Francisco getaway. Then, in order to reduce the amount of time you spend to-ing and fro-ing across the city, sort those activities into geographic areas. You’ll likely be visiting these tempting neighborhoods: Union Square, with its giant Christmas tree, outdoor skating rink and surrounding stores, is a magnet for holiday goers. The must-see displays in this ‘hood are The Westin St. Francis’ sugary castles and (get ready to have your hearts melted) the Macy’s holiday windows with sweet, squirming kittens and puppies ready for adoption from the SPCA. Nearby, at the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets, admire the Market Street snowflakes affixed to light poles for blocks, then board a festively adorned cable car (operators are proud of their homespun decorations) for a ride up and over Nob Hill.
Consider hopping off your cable car mid-ride to visit North America’s oldest Chinatown. Admire the pagoda roofs, dragon lampposts and exotic food shops (oh the smells!) then wander down tiny Ross Alley to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where staff pinch golden discs into crispy cookies with fortunes inside. Delight your children by giving each $10 to spend on whatever they wish – delicate tea cups, paper fans, bamboo backscratchers or other exotic trinkets – in the kitschy gift stores on Grant Avenue. Hop back on the Powell-Mason cable car line to reach equally kitschy Fisherman’s Wharf and neighboring Pier 39, where souvenir shops, restaurants, steaming street-side pots of crab, the Aquarium of the Bay, street entertainers and an enormous Christmas tree make for an entertaining, if chaotic, port of call. Or, from Chinatown, take the Powell-Hyde line to pass wildly crooked Lombard Street and finish near Ghirardelli Square, a chocolate-crazy complex that hosts Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremonies.
If crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is on your list, this northeastern area of downtown is the place to make it happen by bus, rental bikes or, for a goofy fun time, by taking a San Francisco Fire Engine Tour. The well-amplified singing of the tour guide may mortify older children but there’s no denying the pleasure of an open-air ride across the bridge in a shiny red 1955 Mack fire engine. Like many tour companies, the fire engine folks also offer an early evening holiday lights tour.
From here the pier numbers count down and the Embarcadero begins. If Alcatraz Island, the infamous former prison, is on your itinerary (and really, it should be if your school-aged children have not yet visited the Rock) book early and head for Pier 31-33 to catch your ferry. Further along the historic seaport is Pier 15, home to Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception where parents and kids can spend hours pulling, pushing and pondering more than 600 hands-on exhibits. Don’t miss the shadow room where a powerful flash freezes bodies on the wall, the pitch-black tactile dome and the “Sip of Conflict, ” a water fountain fashioned from a never-been-used toilet. Do you dare to drink from it?
When you reach Pier 1 you’ll find the historic Ferry Building with its myriad food offerings and, just across the street, the Bay Area’s largest outdoor skating venue, the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Centre. Why not pull on rental skates and give ice skating a whirl? No doubt there will be other areas and attractions – Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – that demand your family’s attention. Plan accordingly.
Step 4. Go where the (holiday) spirit moves you
Although a plan is important, it’s equally vital to be ready to ignore it. When your daughter hears Christmas carols being sung in the distance, follow the fa-la-las. If your son is too tired to walk the whole Embarcadero, hop a ride on the historic F-Market streetcar. Or if your family decides that cuddling up on the hotel bed, ordering room service and watching a Christmas movie would be a perfect evening, go for it. Because there are hundreds of ways – and no single right way – to make holiday memories in the City by the Bay.
Getaway Details Stay
• The Westin St. Francis Union Square: www.westinstfrancis.com
• Inn at the Presidio: www.innatthepresidio.com
• San Francisco Ballet “Nutcracker”: www.sfballet.org/nutcracker
• San Francisco Symphony holiday concerts: www.sfsymphony.org
• American Conservatory Theater “A Christmas Carol”: www.act-sf.org/carol
• Beach Blanket Babylon: www.beachblanketbabylon.com
• San Francisco Fire Engine Tours: www.sanfranciscofireenginetours.com
• Alcatraz Island: www.nps.gov/alca
• Exploratorium: www.exploratorium.edu
• San Francisco Travel: sftravel.com
Ann Britton Campbell is an award-winning travel writer and mother of two. Find her on Instagram and Twitter:@DearAnnTravels.