Things to do in San Francisco in the winter include both indoor and outdoor activities. While the weather in cool this time of year, you will find it pleasant one day and too cold outside the next.
My list will give you plenty of options, so you can select the right activities for your stay. They include top museums, cruises, and shows. You will also find some great ideas if you plan to be here during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, or NYE holidays.
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1. California Academy of Sciences or other Museums
A great way to escape the winter weather and spend the day indoors is by marveling at the wide range of cool exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences. SF's most visited museum contains a planetarium, an aquarium, a four-story living rainforest, and a natural history museum all in one. Plus, you'll get to meet Claude, the rare white alligator, and see the huge skeleton of a T-Rex.
The Cal Academy of Sciences is located on the eastern side of San Francisco's beautiful Golden Gate Park, right across from the de Young Fine Arts Museum. You can take the N-Judah or the 5-Fulton Muni bus to get here or stop by on your Hop-On/Hop-Off tour.
2. Theater Performances
When it's cold out, it's an especially nice treat to spend the evening at the theater. In San Francisco, you'll find several performances a month at different venues. Broadway musicals like Hamilton, The Lion King, and Finding Neverland are very popular, but you can also watch other stage plays and alternative dramatic productions. During the holidays, you may opt for a show like A Christmas Carol.
3. Christmas Lights & Tree Lighting Ceremonies
One of my favorite things to do in San Francisco in the winter is attend the various tree lighting ceremonies (many of which also offer refreshments and live entertainment) and admire the twinkling decorations all around town. This is the time of year when SF really comes alive with beautiful lights and holiday spirit, some public spaces bringing in Christmas trees that are several stories tall and others displaying life-size gingerbread houses.
Among the top spots to watch a tree lighting ceremony are: Union Square, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square. You'll also find lots more decorations throughout the city, including lights on the Embarcadero buildings, the boats and bridges, and in residential neighborhoods.
4. Chronicle Wine Tasting Event
One of the best things to do in San Francisco in the winter takes place every February and gives you the opportunity to sample over 800 award-winning wines. It's the annual Chronicle Wine Competition, which selects the very best American wines among some 5,000 entries to share at this public tasting.
You can attend this delicious event at the Fort Mason Center on the waterfront in the Marina District, not far from Fisherman's Wharf. The large festival pavilion is indoors, and the wine will be sure to warm up your Saturday afternoon.
5. Film Festivals
San Francisco is home to nearly 50 film festivals a year, each featuring a different theme, genre, or culture. The annual winter festivals include the American Indian Film Fest, the Transgender Film Fest, Save the Waves, Noir City, the SF Indie Fest, the Mostly British Film Festival, and more.
You'll find these film festivals all over SF, with screenings at the Roxie Theater in the Mission, the Castro Theater in the Castro, and other venues. Visit the individual festival pages to find out their scheduled films and locations for this year.
6. Whale Watching Tour
The coast of San Francisco offers fun, exhilarating whale-watching experiences all year long. During the winter months, from December to May, you have the chance to see gray, sperm, and killer whales migrating in these waters. You might also spot dolphins, leatherback turtles, and sea lions.
The whale-watching tours depart from Fisherman's Wharf on weekday mornings and afternoons. On your 2.5-hour tour, you'll cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the Pacific Ocean, where you may venture up to 8 miles out looking for whales.
7. New Year's Eve Fireworks Display
One of the most anticipated things to do in San Francisco in the winter is spending a night out on New Year's Eve watching the annual fireworks display. Bundle up and head toward the bay to see them light up the sky or check out my list of best restaurants with fireworks to watch the show as you enjoy a special meal.
The annual fireworks show launches over the water near the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge, and it's definitely worth making your way early to the waterfront along the Embarcadero to get a seat, taking a cruise on the bay to see them up close, or watching from one of my recommended restaurants. You can also view them from Treasure Island.
8. Nutcracker Ballet
One of the most classic things to do in San Francisco in the winter is to attend a special seasonal performance of The Nutcracker. The renowned SF Ballet was actually the first company in the US to produce this beloved Christmas story on stage, and it remains one of the most popular today.
The SF Ballet performs at the beautiful, historic War Memorial Opera House behind City Hall in the Civic Center District. You can easily get here by taking BART or Muni to the Civic Center station and walking west on Grove Street from Market.
9. Ice Skating
Each winter, San Francisco brings a little holiday magic right to the heart of Union Square, where you can strap on your skates and enjoy a wonderful time on ice, surrounded by a towering Christmas tree and decorated buildings. There is also another, larger outdoor rink at the Embarcadero Center, right across from the Ferry Building.
Both rinks will be open from early November to the first week of January, making for the perfect refreshing break from a long winter day of shopping or sightseeing. You can rent skates on the spot, and your admission ticket will get you a session for 1.5 hours.
10. Chinese New Year
A little later in the winter, around February of each year, San Francisco celebrates Chinese New Year with almost a month long of events, the biggest of which is the parade that brings colorful dragons, lion dancers, drums, and lanterns through the downtown streets.
In addition to the large parade, the Chinese community hosts a flower market fair, basketball jamboree, Miss Chinatown pageant, street fair, and a 5K-10K run to celebrate the new lunar new year. All events are based in Chinatown, which lies north of Union Square and south of North Beach.
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