Flying reindeer, houses made of gingerbread—there are so many things that make this season magical. And traveling back in time can be another one with a visit to the beloved Great Dickens Christmas Fair, which has turned South San Francisco’s Cow Palace into 19th century London. From candle making shops, to stands selling meat pies and figgy pudding, to period-perfect tea shops serving up finger sandwiches, the fair is a holiday feast for the senses, and day of dress up your family will never forget!

_yee0287-copy-2 So Much to See in London Town
While walking up to the hulking Cow Palace in an industrial part of town is another world of its own, once you step through the doors you and your family will be instantly transported. It’s all sawdust-covered floors and period-perfect storefronts as far as the eye can see. Be sure to grab a newspaper/map of the town from the friendly newsboy at the entrance. While you could spend a few moments studying the map and getting your bearings, we suggest starting out by just wandering. The first section you will pass through is the “proper” part of town, filled with hat shops, workshops making everything from letter press, wheat weavings, candles and fiddles, champagne bars and elegant dance halls populated by well-heeled (and exquisitely dressed) locals. (Fizzywig’s Dance Party will be in full swing just steps from the entrance, as well as the Victoria and Albert Music Hall). You might even see the queen and her courts strolling through town. Don’t forget to courtesy!

dickens fairPhoto: Erin Feher

But eventually you will make it to the docks, a dark and unseemly stretch where little kids train to be pick pockets and chimney dust covers everything. This area divides the proper town from the “other side of the docks” where a more wild sort of fun can be found. Tarot card readers, corsetry shops, men’s haberdasheries and plenty of taverns and pubs fill this side of town. Stop by Mad Sal’s for a pint of ale and live stage performances, from singing to comedy. Theaters abound, and even even in the darkest corners of town, where tipsy wenches and street urchins fill the streets, the fair is nothing but family friendly. So just wander freely and see where you end up!

crafts_img_5614-copy Don’t Forget to Dress Up
If you have never been to the fair before, be prepared to be amazed at the elaborate costumes all around. It is impossible to tell who works at the fair and who is just an enthusiastic attendee, as everyone seems to be in character. Don’t have a hoop skirt and whale bone corset in your closet? Don’t fret, and get creative. We went with our flounciest skirts and raggediest sweaters and fit right in at the docks. There was a gaggle of girls in their best Disney princess wear, and they were the belles of the ball. It’s certainly allowable to come in modern clothes, but be warned you will stand out like a time traveler who got off at the wrong stop! If you are ready to commit (or want to stock up for next year) there are plenty of shops that sell period appropriate clothing.

2014 Great Dickens Christmas Fair - The Adventure Carousel A Kids’ Corner Fit for Tiny Tim
Don’t miss a stop off at the children’s area, which includes the Father Christmas stage (although Saint Nick himself is an elusive figure—we saw him for a fleeting few moments at a tea party at Charles Dickens house), the adventure carousel, plenty of carnival games and two craft stations where families can create their own ceramic ornament or fairy house. The numerous stages are constantly putting on shows, from Punch and Judy puppet shows to Alice in Wonderland excerpts. There’s enough to entrain your crew for a full weekend here, and many folks to attend on multiple days in order to experience it all.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
Cow Palace
2600 Geneva Ave.
Daly City, Ca
When: Weekends through Dec. 18
Cost: $30/Adults (13 and up); $14/Children (5-12); Free/4 and under
Online: dickensfair.com

Have you been to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair? Tell us about it in the comments below! 

–Erin Feher

All photos courtesy of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair unless otherwise noted.