Free Things to Do in San Francisco in December: Holiday Parties, Christmas Lights, Festivals, & More

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: November 30, 2021

The 25 top free things to do in San Francisco in December include a variety of holiday and Christmas events, parties and tree lighting ceremonies. You can also visit some of our top museums and attractions all month long for free.

Highlights include seeing City Hall lit up in the red and green Christmas colors and brightly lit trees in both Pier 39 and Union Square. Other top options include the Randall Museum, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Lombard Street.

Read on for the best ideas to stay within budget during your stay.

Free Things to Do in San Francisco in December

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

1. Free Museum Admission Days

Toward the beginning of the month, you will find several museums opening their doors to the public for free. These include the Asian Art Museum, the de Young, and the Legion of Honor.

In addition, you will find a few others that offer free admission days throughout the month of December. The Botanic Gardens has a couple of free days this month and it's a great time to visit. If you plan out your visit, you can most likely see more than one.

>> Find the December calendar here

2. 555 California Tree Lighting Ceremony (TBD for 2021)

One of my favorite free things to do in San Francisco in December during this season is the holiday party at 555 California. This event always brings in a big crowd with an internationally recognized singer that performs.

You can also watch the lighting of their tree and enjoy some goodies.

>> Full list of tree lighting events and holiday parties this year

3. Christmas Lights at City Hall

Christmas Lights on City Hall

Our gorgeous City Hall shines bright every night, but it's even more beautiful in December. This is when they turn on the red and green lights for the holidays. It's a quick stop to see it and worth the trip.

The lights turn on around sunset and stay on throughout the night, so you'll have a lot of time to see its beauty and enjoy the holidays.

>> Additional places to enjoy Christmas lights around SF

>> Guide to Christmas in SF

4. Bill Graham Menorah Lighting

Another one of the top free things to do in San Francisco in December is the Bill Graham Menorah Lighting ceremony. The menorah makes its home in Union Square every year and there are several celebrations throughout December. Make sure to check the schedule for this year's key lighting dates.

>> More things to do in Union Square

5. Cable Car Museum

See these powerful cables in action as they pull our historic cable cars all around town at this dedicated cable car museum. The museum also houses the history of these popular attractions that travel through the streets of San Francisco.

You can learn about when the first cable cars were put into action, how many lines ran at the time, and the changes that occurred to the system after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In the downstairs area, you can also step inside a cable car to learn more about its inner workings.

>> Tips to visit the museum

>> Best ways to experience the SF cable cars

6. Free Walking Tours

Discover some of SF's top attractions and districts on these free walking tours. These free things to do in San Francisco in December are given daily by SF City Guides. You will find 5 or 6 each weekday with a few more on the weekends.

Each walk is around 2 hours long and they often cover a mile or two of distance. Outside of the stairway tours, they are usually an easy walk. The first tours start around 10am and the final tours typically start around 2pm.

>> Info on the top tours and a schedule of upcoming walks

7. Lighted Boat Parade (TBD for 2021)

Head down to Fisherman's Wharf for the annual Lighted Boat Parade. This fun and free event is easy to see from the shores of The Wharf.

Dozens of local decorate their vessels to participate and take a lot of pride in doing their best every year. The parade starts around sunset and lasts for just under an hour.

>> More December events

8. New Year's Eve Fireworks

The city invites you to attend one of the largest events and free things to do in San Francisco this December. The NYE fireworks display near the Ferry Building always draws in a few hundred thousand people each year.

It's a gorgeous display that starts at 11:59 and brings you into the new year. Make sure to arrive early to get the best spot for the show.

>> Details on this year's display

>> More fun things to do in New Year's Eve

9. Parol Lantern Festival & Parade

Celebrate the Filipino-American community with this annual parade and festival in December. The event starts with the annual parol lantern making workshop. You can then show off your creations with the local community during their annual parade.

You can also just attend the parade to enjoy this fest and colorful event.

10. Presidio Tree Lighting (TBD for 2021)

The first Friday of the month is when you can enjoy another one of the top community free things to do in San Francisco in December. This Presidio Tree Lighting ceremony is held at the Main Post.

This event includes caroling and family activities. Make sure to bring along a flashlight as the event ends with a guided walk through the forest.

>> More things to do in the Presidio

11. Alamo Square Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies in Alamo Square

The Painted Ladies are historic Victorians built in the late 1800s that have been painted at least three or more colors, and the best place to see them is in the Alamo Square district. The most talked about ones include a group along Steiner Street called the "Seven Sisters."

Even those these are the most famous of the Victorians, they are not the only ones in the neighborhood. Use my guide to help you make the most out of your visit to the Seven Sisters and to find other colorful gems nearby.

>> Additional tips to visit and where to get the best photos

12. SantaCon

Break out your Santa gear and head to Union Square for the annual SantaCon event. Founded in SF, this event brings santas of all ages together to spread holiday cheer.

It begins with a gathering in Union Square where local organizations gather toys to distribute to children in need. The group then separates and begins an all-day long bar crawl in different districts around town. It's fun, but can get a little crazy, so don't forget your camera!

>> This year's event details

13. Union Street Fantasy of Lights (TBD for 2021)

Another one of the fun free things to do in San Francisco in December is the Union Street Fantasy of Lights. This shopping street in the Marina/Cow Hollow District is full of colorful lights that stay lit throughout the season.

The event kicks off with a celebration that includes costumed characters, balloon artists, ponies dressed as reindeers, shopping discounts and so much more!

>> More fun things to do in the Marina

14. Golden Gate Bridge

As you could probably guess, one of our top attractions and one of the best free things to do in San Francisco in December is to visit the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge towers high above the SF Bay and is a sight to see!

You can walk along its 1.7-mile eastern walkway, learn more about it in its outdoor museum, or grab come hot cocoa to warm up in their two eating establishments. If you do want to spend a few bucks, there is a nice souvenir shop there. Make sure to dress warm as it gets a bit chilly on the bridge this time of year.

>> Tips to visit

>> Where to get the best pics of the bridge

15. Mission Street Murals

You will find colorful murals all around the Mission District. Even though you will find murals and street art all around town, this district has the largest collection.

Some feature religious scenes, some tell stories about the locals that live here, and others have a definite political nature. Exploring them is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco in December as there is a surprise around almost every corner.

>> Top murals in the Mission

>> All of SF's best pieces

16. Lombard Street

Lombard Street is another one of the best free things to do in San Francisco in December. It's our most famous crooked street (yes, we have more than one) with 8 hairpin turns.

The street itself is made of brick which makes the street even more interesting. You can walk or drive down. You can also jump on a Segway and try your hand at making it down without falling off!

Lombard Street is open to visitors 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. However, it gets really packed during the day, so I suggest getting there as early as possible.

>> How to get here and what to expect

>> More about taking a ride on a Segway

17. Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral at Christmas

You have to step inside Grace Cathedral this holiday season. It's one of the most beautiful churches in San Francisco and has additional decorations this time of year. The best things to see inside include the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel, the murals that tell the story of some of the biggest events in San Francisco throughout history, and the Labyrinth.

Outside, make sure to spend some time admiring The Gates of Paradise. They are the golden doors on the eastern side of the church. They are a replica of the doors at the Baptistery of the Duomo in Florence, Italy.

>> What it's like inside and more visiting tips

18. Palace of Fine Arts

Another one of the must-see free things to do in San Francisco in December is the Palace of Fine Arts. It's stunning rose dome can be seen from many locations around town and it's a fun place to explore.

It won't take too long to check out. You can walk under its famous dome, walk on the sidewalks that take you under parts of it and get some great photos from the other side of the pond. If you like to take some time to sit back and relax during your vacations, this is one of the best places to do it. Bring along a picnic lunch too as there is plenty of room to spread out on the lawn as you soak in the views of this amazing structure.

>> History of the building and pictures

19. Pier 39 Christmas Tree

Each night in December, the Pier 39 Christmas Tree sparkles with holiday joy. The tree is lit all month long and Pier 39 invites everyone to come and enjoy its magic. You will find the tree at the entrance, but I find I get the best pictures from the second-floor walkways at Pier 39.

>> Additional things to do on Pier 39

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20. Union Square Christmas Tree

Another one of the fun holiday free things to do in San Francisco in December is to admire the Christmas Tree in Union Square. The 83-foot-tall tree is lit Thanksgiving Weekend in November, but stays bright through the end of the year.

The best time to see it a few hours after sunset when its lights are sparkling bright against the dark SF sky.

>> All about Union Square

21. Randall Museum

Grab the entire family and head over to the Randall Museum in Corona Heights Park. This gem features a small animal petting zoo with local animals that have been rescued. You can also spend time playing with the trains, learning about the ocean and more.

>> Additional kids museums in SF

22. Twin Peaks

Get the most spectacular view of the city from the top of Twin Peaks. It's not only one of the best free things to do in San Francisco in December, but it's also one of our most popular attractions.

There are several ways to get to the top. You can hike up, take a bus part way and then walk the rest of the way, or drive to the top. Once you are there, you can see everything including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and even as far as Oakland and beyond. It's definitely one of the best spots for Instagram pictures. Weather can be tough to gauge so make sure to layer your clothes to stay warm.

>> Tips to visit, tour options and pics from my most recent visit

23. Diego Rivera Frescos

One of my favorite free things to do in San Francisco in December is to take a close look at our three Diego Rivera frescos. All three were created by this politically controversial artist in the 1930s and 40s.

They are open to the public, but are indoors, so make sure to check the hours before you arrive. I could spend all day admiring his work and, if you love art or history, I'm sure you will enjoy them too!

>> Where to find all three and tips to enjoy them

24. Japanese Tea Gardens

Most of the time, you have to pay to visit #24 on my list of the top free things to do in San Francisco in December. But...I have a secret for you. You can visit this gem for free if you enter during the first hour it opens on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Even if you don't make it to the free entrance times, it's not too pricey to visit, but free is always better! Inside, you will find several different gardens, historic Japanese structures, and plenty of plants and flowers to keep your camera busy. You can stay until closing even though you didn't have to pay to enter.

>> Pictures of the garden and tips to visit

25. Chinese Temples

The final item on my list of the 25 best free things to do in San Francisco in December is our Chinese temples. You will find them all over Chinatown, but I've created a list of the three best ones to see.

Two of them have the most amazing ancient pieces inside. The final one is a more modern temple that is full of bright yellow, orange, and pink decorations.

When you visit, don't forget it's a place for locals to pray, so please be respectful of those that are there for religious devotion.

>> How to find them and visiting tips

>> More things to do in San Francisco's Chinatown district

Free Activities in SF in December

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