Seven Great Ideas of Where to Spend your Christmas in California

PC190671
The view of San Francisco’s city center from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

December is around the corner and Christmas lights and decorations just can’t wait to be up everywhere. One time, when I was in San Francisco, we drove across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on our 49 Scenic Mile Drive. We had the radio on KOIT 96.5 and it was playing Russ Lorenson’s “Christmas in San Francisco”…. Christmas… in San Francisco, What a lovely place to be. San Francisco doesn’t snow that much, but at that moment, what I saw and heard really put me in the mood. As the sun goes down, the city still gets cold and I could see smoke coming out from among the buildings. At night, the entire city is all lit; and the Transamerica Pyramid is just like the “diamond Christmas tree” (in the song), and the surrounding buildings are like wrapped gifts ready to be opened. That’s why I had a very dear memory of Christmas in California. What is a tradition that you have to do during Christmas? Go to the Nutcracker ballet. According to German legend, nutcrackers bring good luck and protection to a family and its home.

To see the show in San Francisco, go to War Memorial Opera House next to City Hall.

In case you are looking for a short getaway in California to spend your Christmas, I have reached out to my fellow bloggers for ideas and there’re a few awesome locations that may interest you!

The Christmas tree in Union Square. There is an ice skating ranch under the tree in front of Macy’s!

Napa Valley

Napa Valley Wine Train.

The development of Napa Valley began in the late 19th century during the great silver rush when miners flocked to the eastern hills. It was the center of silver and quicksilver mining, apart from the gold rush in San Francisco. Quicksilver mines operated on a large scale at that period in many places in the valley.

By the end of the 1900s, farmers had planted over 500,000 fruit and nut trees in the county. Wine-related businesses are established after World War II, Tourism and agriculture began to rise. Today, it’s a well-known wine region in California; The wineries here favor varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir, and Chardonnay.

The best thing to do in Napa Valley is to go on a wine tour. While the winter is a comparatively quieter season, visitors enjoy a lower price and less crowded environment for a getaway from the city during Christmas. These vineyards offer something more than wine tasting. Like Sterling Vineyards, it is one of the most popular attractions in Napa Valley located right by the Napa River. It was founded in 1964 by a British international paper broker, Peter Newton, with a passion for shaping Napa Valley into a prestigious wine region. It gained international recognition since winning first place in the Ottawa Wine Tasting of 1981.

The vineyard covers a total of 1,200 acres in various sites in the Napa Valley – but it’s not just a winery, it’s an architectural landmark. The main structure is designed by Martin Waterfield in the style of an Aegean monastery. The simplicity of the architecture makes exploring Sterling an intimate and leisure experience; Walk along with the historic building and learn about their wine-making techniques with a glass of their own label white wine in hand. Finally, don’t forget to hop on their gondola lift to the top of a volcanic hill, which offers a panoramic view of the entire valley.

California’s Great America Winterfest


Priyadarshini from Glorious Sunrise

Winterfest at California’s Great America, an amusement park in Santa Clara, starts at the end of November for a month-long Christmas festivities and fun activities for the season.

The whole amusement park is transformed into a winter wonderland. There are eye-popping decorations, Santa’s meet and greet, Mrs. Claus’s Kitchen, and a lot of photo props to take beautiful memories home. The lake at the entrance is transformed into a cool ice-skating rink. Families spend a wonderful time gliding across the rink amidst all the glowing decorations around the area. Right next to its famous, double-decker carousel that you must not miss, they put up a huge Christmas tree that is decked with shiny ornaments.

And it snows. That is they spray foam-kind of snow at regular intervals in some spots of the park, especially beautiful at the main park square next to the Celebration Swings.

Gingerbread houses are decorated and you can walk through that lane too! There are events throughout the evening to add more festive cheer to Winterfest. Download California’s Great America’s app on your app store and check event schedules, ride wait times, park maps, and more. The app helps a lot if you are visiting for the first time.

Check  Great America’s hours before you plan to go. Hours differ on different days, and the Winterfest is open only for that one month in winter. They have a parking fee for vehicles. It is best if you buy the Winterfest tickets and parking tickets online as it saves money over the walk-in prices. Note that the park is closed on Christmas eve and Christmas day!

Santa Cruz


Rasika from Bae Area and Beyond

Looking for a beachy Christmas? Head to Santa Cruz this year. First, visit the Winter Wonderland at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Apart from the Boardwalk’s rides, arcades, and games, the place is filled with festive Christmas lights and decorations. We highly recommend visiting to check out the 3-story tall Christmas tree decorated with beach balls and flip-flops as ornaments!

You can also take photos with Santa and make smores at their ocean-view fire pits. Make sure to hang out until evening when they play your favorite holiday movies! Second, grab a ride on the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train. These vintage trains are decorated with holiday lights and travel through streets with decorated Santa Cruz homes. Third, take a drive through the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds for bright holiday displays including Christmas trees and lighted tunnels. For dining, the Boardwalk has tons of restaurants but you can also check out the Santa Cruz Wharf for amazing seafood options. The best time to visit is from late November onward since you can always come back for more! Winter in Santa Cruz is special with the fog rolling in and the redwood trees sparkling with frost. The air is crisp and clear, and the weather is perfect for taking long walks along the beach or sipping hot cocoa by a fire. Santa Cruz offers a unique blend of natural attractions and fun activities for families. It’s got all the ingredients to make your Christmas a success.

Descanso Gardens, La Canada Flintridge


Constance from The Adventures of Panda Bear

Located near the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles county lies Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. During the winter months between November and January, Descanso Gardens’ Enchanted Forest of Light illuminates the botanical garden in various colors and light displays.

It’s a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and enjoy the lights with your family and friends, young and old. The different sections of the garden, including the Ancient Forest, California Natives, Japanese Garden, and more, will be decorated according to a theme every year.

Some of the most famous exhibits include Flower Power and Starlight Garden. Flower Power consists of a light-up technicolor display of a tulip field and is the most popular and Instagrammable of all. Starlight Garden is a tunneled pathway of star sculpture lights for a perfect festive photo opportunity. Occasionally artists and sculptors with unique pieces showing a play on light and dark are featured as part of the Enchanted Forest of Light.

The garden is easily accessible via the Glendale Freeway (CA-2) and Interstate 210. Don’t forget to bring a jacket when visiting Descanso Gardens at night, it can get pretty chilly in the foothills especially during the winter months.

The Queen Mary


Michelle from That Texas Couple

We have some awesome small towns in Texas that go all out for Christmas, but I must admit that none compared to the Christmas getaway in California that we experienced.

One of our favorite Christmas trips to California was when we spent several days aboard the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach.  The minute we approached the ship I knew that we were in for a treat.  Christmas music was blaring from the speakers and there were decorations everywhere.

Once we boarded the ship, I instantly felt like a kid again.  Everywhere I turned, there were Christmas activities!  During the holiday season, the Queen Mary transforms the boat into a holiday wonderland.  There is an ice skating rink on the upper deck, live performers singing and dancing on board, gingerbread house making, and festive meals for you to enjoy.

The kids loved that Santa was on board as well. They were able to tell Santa exactly what they wanted for Christmas and snap a memorable photo.  Another popular activity was storytime with Mrs. Clause.  Kids (and kids at heart) gathered in the ship’s main salon to eat cookies and listen to a Christmas story read by Mrs. Clause.

We stayed entertained on the Queen Mary for several days thanks to all of their great holiday events!

Mammoth Lakes


Jessica from Uprooted Traveler

Mammoth Lakes, California is a small ski town, tucked away in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and bursting with charm and natural beauty- is it any surprise it’s a wonderful place to have a white Christmas? Mammoth Lakes is renowned for its world-class ski resorts, like Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain- the ski conditions here are incredible throughout December and the Sierra Nevadas provide a breathtaking backdrop for skiing or snowboarding down the untouched powder. If you’re looking for more winter wonderland activities besides downhill skiing, there’s plenty of opportunities, like exploring the more than 140 miles of snowshoeing trails in the nearby Inyo National Forest. After all that skiing and snowboarding, one of the biggest draws here is the picturesque natural hot springs in Mammoth Lakes, where you can relax, soothe your aching muscles, and take in the snow-capped mountains. While Mammoth Lakes is primarily known for its snowy mountaintops, the charming town itself is still bursting with Christmas cheer. For example, The Village at Mammoth Lakes, an outdoor shopping area with ski apparel stores, craft distilleries, and bustling restaurants, is festooned with countless Christmas lights throughout the season. There’s also a huge kickoff celebration for the beginning of the holiday season (usually the weekend after Thanksgiving), featuring a tree lighting ceremony and even a visit from Santa himself! So whether you’re wanting to experience Christmas taking in California’s natural beauty or a magical holiday town straight out of a Hallmark movie, Mammoth Lakes has you covered.

Lake Tahoe


Trijit from Budget Travel Buff

Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to spend Christmas Eve in California. From ice carving decorations, twinkling lights glowing off the snow to fireworks shows, ice skating, sleigh rides, and skiing this winter wonderland is definitely made for Christmas magic. Lake Tahoe is located at a height of 625 feet, at the border of California and Nevada. Reno Tahoe International Airport is the closest airport to Lake Tahoe. It is about 3.5 hours drive from the Bay Area. Lake Tahoe can be visited at any time of the year but for winter adventure activities and Christmas lights, you have to visit Lake Tahoe in November-December.

North Lake Tahoe is more popular than South Lake Tahoe to celebrate holidays in this area. From the stunning icy lake to the snow-capped mountains in the distance, scenic landscapes, twinkling lights, cozy fireplaces, and Christmas feasts will make your holiday memorable.

Heavenly is one of the most beautiful ski resorts in California. It offers a mesmerizing view of Lake Tahoe and surrounding snow-covered mountains. If you like adventure activities, go ice skating with your kids at the base of Heavenly Village. You can also enjoy snowshoeing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing on the well-groomed trails. Couples can visit David Walley’s Resort to enjoy the hot spring-fed hot tubs to soothe their muscle.

Find your holiday-inspired dish at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort. Visitors can choose from an a la carte meal, or buffet. Lone Eagle Grill is another excellent restaurant that offers holiday theme special dishes.

15 comments

  1. I know Lake Tahoe and the Queen Mary (because of The Parent Trap). I have to send this to family who live in Cali as they might enjoy a trip to these places.

  2. My BF is from Bae Area and has told me some pretty epic tales that took place on Christmas. I’m pretty excited to experience it myself!

  3. Wow! The amusement park in Santa Clara sounds fun. It is definitely a great way to create wonderful Christmas memories. Love that they have a meet and greet with Santa. We would love to experience the double decker carousel as well.

Leave a Reply