There’s nothing like a holiday light display to bring joy to a child’s face! Add a cup of hot cocoa and you’ve created a holiday tradition that they’ll never forget. These are 12 of our favorites so flip through to find one near you. Or, tune your radio to a station playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and hit the road to check out one you haven’t seen before.
Classic Cable Car Holiday Lights
What’s more San Francisco than a classic cable car ride? For a unique holiday spin, take it up a notch by riding a bedecked, motorized cable car through Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach/Little Italy, Chinatown, Union Square, Financial District, The Embarcadero and Pier 39. You'll view landmarks that are beautifully lit up for the holidays. Each tour comes with a (free) Santa hat. This jolly tour lasts 80 minutes and departs from Fisherman’s Wharf. What not to forget: blankets and a camera.
190 Napoleon St.
San Francisco, CA
Dates: Nov. 24-Dec. 30 (except Dec. 25). Nightly tours at 6, 7 & 8 p.m.
Illuminate SF Festival of Lights
Now in its fifth year, this urban lights festival offers 38 eco-friendly displays that are all accessible by public transportation within San Francisco's 49 square miles. Pick a neighborhood to explore and take the free guided tour to learn more about the artists that have brought these installations to life. Traveling over the holidays via SFO? Check out the six permanent light installations at the airport. Light-related events will be posted here.
Throughout San Francisco
Dates: Nov. 23-Jan. 1 starting at dusk
Cost: The majority of installations are free to view.
Fantasy of Lights, Los Gatos
There are three ways to enjoy this lights display that has been delighting (get it, de-lighting?) South Bay families for almost two decades.
Walk-through: See the lights up close! Free 3-D glasses, shuttle service from Netflix (no parking on site) and food from Moveable Feast available for purchase will make this great fun for the whole family. Dec. 2-3, 4-9 p.m. $10 ages 13+, $5 ages 4-12 and under 4 are free.
Drive-through: Buy your ticket in advance (required) and enjoy your slow cruise through 1.5 miles of lights. Dinosaurs, pirate ships and all sorts of animals join Santa and his crew in the many light displays. Dec. 5-30 (except Dec. 25), 6-10 p.m. $20/car, $50/large vehicle with 12+ people.
Train ride: Your third option is to ride through the Fantasy of Lights aboard the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad. Tickets are $6/person (age three and up) and that gets you one train ride and unlimited carousel rides. You can find the train at Oak Meadow Park which adjoins Vasona. Dec. 7-10 & 14-23. 6-9 p.m.
Holiday Circle of Lights, Oakland
Don't let the fact this display is in a cemetery spook you, though it will take your breath away in a good way! Thousands of lights adorn the main buildings at Mountain View Cemetery. This year's show also includes a train full of toys, giant nutcracker and a beautiful arch of lights.
5000 Piedmont Ave
Dates: Dec. 1-Jan. 1, 5-9 p.m.
Tom & Jerry’s Christmas Display
You need to see it to believe it: a 65-foot tree in front of a Noe Valley Victorian, covered in lights and ginormous ornaments. Owner's Tom and Jerome (Jerry) have been delighting visitors with their big, bold and bright display for more than twenty years now. Santa makes a nightly appearance for the kiddos December 1 through Christmas Eve, 6:30–9:30 p.m.
3650 21st St.
Noe Valley, San Francisco
When: Dec. 1-Jan. 1
Online: Tom and Jerry Christmas Tree
Widmer World, Pleasanton
This local display is so popular, it has been featured in a nationally-televised show! Because of this, lights started going up in October and they'll probably offer a sneak peek around Thanksgiving. The tradition started in 1980 with a plastic Santa and some other run-of-the-mill decorations, but has since exploded into almost an acre of glittering lights which includes a mini Christmas village, computer animated displays and over a dozen scenes. No two years are alike and this year promises plenty of new additions.
3671 Chelsea Court
When: Dec. 1–31, from 6– 9 p.m.
Marinwood’s Mickey Mouse Christmas House
When you take the most wonderful time of the year and combine it with the happiest place on Earth, you get this: The Mickey Mouse Christmas House. The Mize family started collecting Disney memorabilia in the 70's and since then their collection has grown and grown. More than 10,000 visitors stop by their San Rafael home to gaze at the brilliant lights, beautiful decorations and unique displays.
417 Blackstone Dr.
San Rafael, CA
Online: Mickey Mouse House
Christmas Tree Lane, Alameda
The Christmas spirit comes to life on this lively, lit-up block in Alameda that has the whole package: beautiful lights, friendly neighbors and people strolling galore—and it's been going on since 1938! Decades later, the street is now known as Christmas Tree Lane and draws people from all over the Bay Area with its extravagant light displays and loads of holiday spirit.
3200 block of Thompson Ave.
Between High & Fernside
Dates: Dec. 1-31. 5:30-10 p.m.
The animals are on parade at this light spectacular put on by the Oakland Zoo. Thousands of LED lights adorn trees, create flocks of flamingos and cover the Outback Express train. New for 2017: soar over the Oakland hills aboard festively-lit gondolas and then enjoy the brand-new laser light show.
9777 Golf Links Road
Dates: Dec. 1-3, 8-23, 26-31 & Jan. 1. 5:30-9 p.m. Free member nights - Dec. 4-7 (pre-registration required).
Cost: Not included with regular zoo admission. Adults/$10, Kids 2-14 and seniors 65-79/$8. Children under 2 and adults 80 and older are free.
Caltrain Holiday Train - San Francisco to the South Bay
For two nights in December, the Caltrain holiday train will make stops in San Francisco and along the Peninsula to the South Bay to delight light-viewers of all ages. Unless your name is "Santa" you can't ride this train, it's all about the lights for the crowds that gather. Check the online schedule to find the stop closest to you and head over. There will be entertainment at each stop as you wait for the train's arrival. The train stays at each station for 20 minutes and Santa, Mrs. Claus and crew will disembark to greet the awaiting crowd.
Caltrain Holiday Train
Dates: Dec. 2-3
Christmas Tree Lane, Palo Alto
Christmas Tree Lane (or Fulton Street in the off-season) has been putting visitors in the Christmas spirit with their holiday lights display since the 1940s. For the two weeks leading up to Christmas you can drive or walk through this display to see carolers, vintage lawn displays and lights, lights and more lights.
Fulton Street between Embarcadero Ave. and Seale Rd.
Palo Alto, CA
Dates: Dec. 11-25. 5-11 p.m.
Union Street Fantasy of Lights
December 2 is the kick off for this month-long celebration of holiday cheer on Union Street in San Francisco's historic Cow Hollow neighborhood. Opening night includes holiday lights adorning the Victorian homes and shops, face painters, jugglers, live entertainment and photos with Santa. All month long you can enjoy special holiday happenings like store open houses and evening shopping under the lights.
Union Street between Van Ness & Steiner, Fillmore Street from Union to Lombard
San Francisco, CA
Dates: Through Dec. 31
Where do you go to see sensational lights? Let us know below!
—Kate Loweth, Melissa Bouse, Mae Respicio & Erin Feher