It’s beginning to look a lot like… summer? San Diego may not become a literal winter wonderland at Christmas-time, but our fine city pulls out all the stops for getting merry and bright with festive events brimming with holiday cheer. From Balboa Park’s December Nights and Holiday by the Bay to Surfin’ Santa and the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, read on for where to get into the sunny spirit of the season!

photo: Liberty Station Facebook

1. Salute the Season at Liberty Station Gather loved ones to celebrate one of the best tree lightings in the city. Shop local vendors, grab dinner and cozy up on the lawn with blankets to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas November 30, 2018 from 5-9 p.m. Also don’t miss some of the season’s best events like ice skating everyday until Jan. 6 with proceeds benefitting Rady Children’s Hospital and a beautiful menorah lighting on Dec 3.

2. San Diego’s favorite kick-off to the holiday season, Balboa Park’s December Nights will celebrate 41 years of bringing friends, families and the community together. In the spirit of the holidays, participating Balboa Park museums open their doors free of charge both evenings. The largest free community festival in San Diego, December Nights will bring more than 350,000 visitors to the park to revel and enjoy the season over two days, featuring dazzling lights, dancers, choirs, and bands incredible food and amazing attractions, December Nights is a treasured tradition that kicks off the holiday season for young and old alike. Take public transit to avoid parking hassles. Dec. 7 & 8.

3. Holiday by the Bay, dubbed San Diego’s only waterfront holiday adventure park, is full of festive fun for families. Hilton San Diego Bayfront’s newly re-imagined holiday tradition features Reindeer Run, an exhilarating two-story 100-foot ice tubing slide, the Iceberg Bumpers ride, plus Shine, an hourly interactive dynamic light show. Celebrate the season with stocking decorating at Santa’s Workshop, cookie decorating at Claus Kitchen and festive craft cocktail flights at Yule Lodge. Gather the family for sweet and savory treats from Elven Eatery and Kringle Bakery or sip cocoa and toast s’mores at a private Fireside Lounge. Holiday by the Bay runs on select dates from Nov. 21-Jan. 5.

photo: John Cocozza

4. Santa catches a wave into SoCal! While most of the country is getting ready to break out the scarves and mittens for the winter, San Diegans get to celebrate the holidays with sand and sunshine. Sporting board shorts and his favorite Hawaiian shirt, Santa will arrive at the San Diego Harbor via watercraft on Sat., Nov. 24th. Visitors and locals can enjoy the California sun as Santa arrives from the ocean to a festive parade and takes pictures with fans on his 6-foot wave and surfboard. Afterwards, see live street performances and do plenty of holiday shopping at Seaport Village.

5. Botanic Garden of Lights Witness the wonder of winter as the garden transforms into an even more magical setting. Sparkling lights, horse-drawn wagon rides, marshmallow roasting, visits with Santa and sno(on select evenings) make for a fantastical family night out. December 1–23 and 26–30 5–8:30 p.m.

photo: John Bryant

6. Ocean Beach Holiday Parade This year’s parade theme is “It’s a Wonderful Life in Ocean Beach.” Watch as this quaint surfing village comes to life for this holiday delight in its 39th year. Entries will be judged on an array of categories ranging from Best Kids Group to Best Live Music.  Dec 1, 5 p.m.

7. La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival Downtown La Jolla spreads some holiday fancy at its Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival. Grab your beach chairs or a seat at your favorite restaurant patios to check out school marching bands, cheerful floats, horses, vintage cars and Jolly St. Nick. December 2, 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.

8. Grab a date and enjoy an adult night out at the Dive in Theatre at The Pearl Hotel. Lounge around the pool and take in a fun holiday movie like Elf or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Sip on a ‘Winter’s Coming’ cocktail from the bar. Weds. nights throughout December. Movie starts at 8 p.m. Reservations recommended.

9. Julian’s Country Christmas Feel a true chill in the air in the mountains of Julian and celebrate an old-fashioned homestead holiday. Julian kicks off the holiday season with the annual lighting of the town’s huge living Christmas tree. This is a popular event, drawing hundreds of visitors who gather at Pioneer Park to watch the lighting and visit with Santa. Go enjoy the charm of this idyllic mountain town! Nov. 24, 2-7 p.m.

photo: San Diego Bay Parade of Lights 

10. San Diego Bay Parade of Lights It’s a ‘Tropical Island Christmas’ in San Diego! This beloved holiday boat parade begins at Shelter Island and ends at the Ferry Landing in Coronado. Kids will be dazzled by the twinkling lights of the boats gliding across the water at this free event. Two weekends: Dec 9 and 16, 5 p.m.

11. Bates Nut Farm Christmas in the Valley The farm puts a twist on holiday celebrations by including its own singing contest called “The Christmas Voice.” Come listen to some amazing local talent and take a Polar Express hayride to visit with Santa, make crafts and build gingerbread houses during this fun event. Dec 7, 3:30-8 p.m. and Dec. 8 , 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

12. Poway’s Christmas in the Park Take the family back in time with caroling, live music and horse-drawn hay rides. Do some holiday shopping at the craft boutique, or board the Poway Midland Railroad for a night-time ride around the park. Then marvel at the model trains and visit with Santa. Free parking shuttles. Dec 8, 3:30-8:30 p.m.

13. La Mesa Holiday in the Village Enjoy La Mesa’s vibe with lively, hip restaurants and entertainment. The night will be filled with glowing fire pits, craft vendors and a kids’ area with holiday movies and games. Dec. 7 & 8.

photo: Hotel Del Coronado

14. Skating by the Sea Gorgeous sunsets, stunning beachfront views and the iconic Hotel Del all lit up with its glorious white lights. Enjoy the ultimate in holiday magic ice skating at the Hotel Del’s ice rink. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Make-A-Wish San Diego. Reserve your spot. Open Nov. 22-Jan. 1.

15. Think your snow angel has what it takes to skate with Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski? To celebrate The Del’s 130th anniversary, the ice skating legend will skate to her custom playlist with 50 kids of all skill levels. After the skates come off, kids can enjoy hot cocoa and cookies and take photos with the figure skating champ. Dec. 15, 4-5 p.m.

16. Sail into the yuletide spirit as boat enthusiasts get creative with sparkling lights and fun music at the Oceanside Harbor Parade of Lights. Dec 8, 7-9 p.m.

17. Walk alongside Las Posadas: an Old Town Celebration, a San Diego tradition for 68 years. This procession features a reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to find shelter in Bethlehem. The event includes festive decorations, entertainment and holiday experiences for the whole family during the day. After the procession, keep warm with a cozy campfire and s’mores in the Plaza.  Dec. 15., procession begins at 5 p.m.

18. Maker’s Arcade Holiday Faire Shop local and buy one-of-a-kind, handcrafted gifts from more than 100 local Makers gathered at the Broadway Pier. Enjoy food trucks, crafts, music, games and a kids’ area. Dec 8 , 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

photo: Jim Cox

19. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without How The Grinch Stole ChristmasThe Old Globe’s performance is filled with music and whimsy and the stage is transformed into a delightful snow-covered Whoville. A sensory-friendly performance for children on the autism spectrum or kids with special needs is offered on Dec. 1st at 10:30 a.m. Show runs now through Dec. 29.

20. Mission Bay Christmas Boat Parade of Lights Powerboats and sailboats put on a show as they parade on a dazzling night, lights reflecting off the water. The parade begins at Quivira Basin. Best viewing is from Crown Point, the east side of Vacation Island or the west side of Fiesta Island. Dec 8,  6-9 p.m.

21. Head to the Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade to see local pups strut through the Gaslamp Quarter dressed in their cutest holiday costumes. The event also includes a Holiday Pet Market and an awards ceremony honoring the best-dressed pets. Register your pet to participate. Dec. 16, noon-5 p.m.

photo: Liberty Station

22. Go wild this holiday season at ‘Jungle Bells‘ at the San Diego Zoo. Find a seat next to Santa for that holiday photo op. Little revelers will love seeing the seasonal decorations, costumed characters, lighted displays and live entertainment including the Zoo’s zany Dr. Zoolittle and Santa himself. Kids can also watch as animals enjoy unique enrichment treats, while sampling delicious indulgences of their own from the Zoo’s many restaurants and food stands. Don’t miss out on holiday shopping at the Zoo’s retail locations, or the holiday happy hour at Albert’s Restaurant—Happy Holidays Happens—with discounted drinks and appetizers available from 3 to 5 p.m. each day of Jungle Bells. Dec. 14-Jan. 6

23. Celebrate the Holiday SEAson with Birch Aquarium at their Seas ‘n’ Greetings event. The magic of the holidays meets the magic of the underwater world at this month-long holiday celebration featuring SEAsonal activities for the whole family. Birch Aquarium is transformed into a holiday wonderland. Deck the Hall (of Fishes) and get into the holiday spirit every day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and check the schedule for special appearances by Scuba Santa as well as themed animal encounters, activities, and fun photo opportunities. All Seas ‘n’ Greetings activities are included with admission. Check the schedule of Seas ‘n’ Greetings events before your visit.

24. Need an excuse to bundle up in the cold? Take your crew to a Gulls game and enjoy hockey, San Diego style. A fun family-friendly Gulliver Nutcracker giveaway will get the kids cheering. Sat., Dec. 15, 7 p.m.

25. Did you know The Holiday Bowl Parade is the country’s largest balloon parade? Gaze up at the spectacle of the many balloons marching by and enjoy colorful floats and great, local talented bands along San Diego Bay downtown. Dec. 31, 10 a.m.

––Cherie Gough & Beth Shea


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