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25 Ways to Celebrate the Season in San Diego

Our holiday checklist includes ice skating by the sea, crooked Christmas trees, cultural traditions, and much more

By Erica Nichols and Marie Tutko with Roxana Becerril, Ron Donoho, Jeanette Giovanniello, Helen I. Hwang, Kai Oliver-Kurtin, Christine Pasalo, and Hoa Sanchez

Ultimate Holiday checklist main

Ice skating rink at Hotel del Coronado

Where we lack in snow days and white Christmases, we make up for with ice skating rinks by the sand and winter beach bonfires—holidays in San Diego are truly like no other. Read up on how San Diegans celebrate the season in all parts of the county, including longstanding traditions, exciting newcomers, and multicultural customs. Think of it as a guide to checking off your typical holiday must-dos around town, while learning about some new ones to try out, too. ’Tis the season!

Ultimate Holiday Checklist - beach bonfire

Ultimate Holiday Checklist – beach bonfire


Beach Bonfires

A decade ago, Josh Kennedy was sitting around with his friends, contemplating what kind of business he should get into. The idea struck him to set up beach bonfires for vacationers and families who didn’t have the accessories required to participate in that quintessential San Diego tradition. He “borrowed” chairs from his neighbor, dragged a fire pit onto Mission Beach, and voilà, Kennedy became the Beach Fire Guy. He brings everything and takes it all away after you’re finished, keeping your party hassle-free. Besides a fire pit and logs, you can order chairs, tiki torches, and glow-in-the-dark bocce balls.

Ultimate Holiday Checklist - Menorah

Ultimate Holiday Checklist – Menorah

November 18-December 11

Seasons Greetings at Liberty Station

Liberty Station has multiple events for the holiday season: On November 26, their annual Christmas Tree Lighting features live music, fire truck rides, photo ops with Santa, and more. The Menorah Lighting is tentatively scheduled for November 28. On December 11, the San Diego Ballet will begin its show, Nutcracker Tea, with a ballet tutorial for kids and a hot cocoa bar. And of course, Rady Children’s Ice Rink will be open through January 9; proceeds from the rink go directly to the hospital’s Thriving After Cancer program.

November 22-January 2

Home for the Holidays at the Hotel Del Coronado

There are very few places in the world where you can lace up a pair of ice skates in 70-degree weather, glide outdoors to the sound of rolling waves, and then sun yourself in a swimsuit on a beach cabana with a cocktail in hand. That’s the kind of unseasonal day to be had at The Del (pictured on opening spread); a juxtaposition of winter and summer pursuits that can be accomplished all in one day. Surrounding the Skating by the Sea ice rink is Frostbite, where you can reserve private lounges with fire pits for cocktails and appetizers. Also: festive s’mores on the beach, holiday movies on the beach, gingerbread houses in the Ocean Ballroom, Santa photos, and the iconic two-story Christmas tree in the newly reimagined lobby.

Ultimate Holiday Checklist - Cocktail pop-up

Ultimate Holiday Checklist – Cocktail pop-up

November 22-December 31

Holiday Cocktail Pop-Ups

You can sip your way through the season again—Miracle and Sippin’ Santa are returning to our local cocktail bars this year. These holiday pop-ups have been a local favorite for their festive themed drinks and over-the-top decor. At Polite Provisions (4696 30th Street, North Park), Miracle on 30th is offering a mix of past classics (spiked egg nog) and new cocktails, like the Elfing Around, made with prosecco, mulled wine, grapefruit, and bitters. You can also try out the menu at Miracle on the 101 at The Roxy Encinitas (517 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas). At The Grass Skirt (910 Grand Avenue, Pacific Beach), Sippin’ Santa is taking over with tiki-themed holiday drinks, including a spicy twist on a White Russian.

Ultimate Holiday Checklist - Boat Parade

Ultimate Holiday Checklist – Boat Parade

December 12 and 19

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

Head to the waterfront for the iconic holiday boat parade, which is celebrating its 50th year with a “Twelve Days of Christmas” theme. The procession includes about 80 boats decked out in Yuletide decor, and prizes and awards are given to those best demonstrating the theme. The two-hour procession begins at 5:30 p.m.; it typically draws about 100,000 spectators along the parade route from Shelter Island toward Harbor Island, across the embarcadero and Seaport Village, and past the Coronado Ferry Landing to the finish line.

December 16-23

Golden State Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Every December, the sugar plum fairy dances across San Diego. The Nutcracker is a time-honored tradition among many ballet companies, and you can take your pick from a number of performances around the county. This year, Golden State Ballet is performing their rendition at San Diego Civic Theatre as part of their inaugural season. Experience the magical tale of Clara and the Mouse King, as the San Diego Symphony plays Tchaikovsky’s classic score.


Joy Lights at the Hilton Mission Valley

Every year, holiday joy has reached San Diegans in the places you’d expect (ice skating rinks, Christmas tree lightings, neighborhood lights) and the places you might not expect—like off of I-8 and the 163 near Hotel Circle. For over 30 years, the Hilton Mission Valley has brightened the season by spelling out the word “joy” in the windows of their hotel. It takes 83 guest rooms (and 83 willing guests!) to make the lights happen each year, when staff place standing lamps in the center of the windows to connect the dots and form the letters. It’s a special treat unique to this Hilton location. And while the guests get blackout curtains to ensure they still get some shuteye, commuters can get a little slice of holiday cheer as they pass by on the freeway.

December 31

New Year’s Eve Fireworks

Ring in 2022 downtown, where the bay’s big firework displays set off right at midnight. You can watch the light show from a number of places, including Seaport Village, the embarcadero, and across the bay on Coronado. Wherever you post up, you’ll want to get there early to stake out a spot and bring hot cocoa to keep you warm while you wait for the new year!

Holiday checklist - OB xmas tree

Holiday checklist – OB xmas tree

Beginning December 1

The OB Christmas Tree

Step aside, Charlie Brown. Ocean Beach’s Christmas Tree reigns as the season’s most charming. The lax beach community has planted its leaning holiday tree right on the beach every December for the past 40 years. They source local trees that are a little left of center and scheduled to be removed by the owners anyway—no tree is too crooked or out of place! Once situated in the sand, the tree is then spruced up with decorations by elementary school students and a signature star topper. And in true OB fashion, several brewers have even come together to create an IPA as an ode to the tree. Check out this year’s OB Christmas tree beginning December 1.

December 3-5

Taste of December Nights

Balboa Park’s biggest event is back for its 44th year and this time, it’s all about the food. In 2020, the beloved festival took place as a drive- through dining experience, and this year’s will look the same, only with more dining options to choose from. Starting the first weekend of December, you can drive your car along their dazzling light displays and live entertainment before making your selections from over a dozen local food vendors. No matter the circumstances, the tradition lives on—so be prepared to feast and cheer from the back seat!

December 4

Little Italy Tree Lighting and Christmas Village

Watch as India Street is transformed into a holiday destination, replete with twinkly lights strung throughout the streets of Little Italy. This festive, kid-friendly event will showcase two Christmas trees—a dazzling 25-foot tree sculpture in the center of Piazza Basilone (designed by a California artist), and a permanent 20- foot live tree in Piazza della Famiglia that will be lit during a special ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Between West Cedar and West Grape Streets, a Christmas Village will have select vendors from the Little Italy Mercato as well as other seasonal vendors, plus holiday treats, unique stocking stuffers, and a visit from Santa. Buon Natale!

Holiday Checklist - Makers Fair

Holiday Checklist – Makers Fair

December 10-11

Makers Arcade Holiday Fair

Bring your shopping list to Broadway Pier for the fifth annual Makers Arcade Holiday Fair, where more than 100 local makers sell creative handmade goods. The lively event will also have photo ops, live music, food trucks, beer and cocktail bars, an art installation, and a children’s area. Admission is $6, which includes a free make-and-take holiday wreath. The first 100 guests in line will receive a complimentary gift bag upon entry. The fair is open Friday from 1 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Holiday Checklist - RB Gingerbread house

Holiday Checklist – RB Gingerbread house

Beginning December 14

Gingerbread house at Rancho Bernardo Inn

Made with over 4,000 pounds of ingredients, the larger-than-life gingerbread house at Rancho Bernardo Inn is the sweetest way to greet the holiday season. Each year, the hotel invites its guests and visitors to join the celebrations by displaying the baked masterpiece in the lobby. The gingerbread house takes months of baking and preparation, using 750 pounds of granulated sugar, 750 pounds of cake flour, one ton of powdered sugar, over 2,000 eggs, and more. All of this is topped with the signature scent of gingerbread and decorative gumdrops, sugar icicles, and other sweet treats that make the scene a perfect setting for fun photos.

Holiday Checklist - Grinch

Holiday Checklist – Grinch

November 10-December 31

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at The Old Globe

December in San Diego would not be complete without the annual production of the beloved children’s story Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. Last year, the theater put on a radio-only performance. This year, they’re welcoming back live audiences to sing along to songs like “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and “Welcome, Christmas (Fah Who Doraze).” A few steps from the theater, be sure to visit the snow-covered Who- ville tree that takes center stage in the courtyard. It’s guaranteed to cheer up even the grinchiest of grinches.

December 28

The Holiday Bowl

Played since 1978 at the former stadium in Mission Valley, the Holiday Bowl college football game— sacked in 2020—gets a new home field this year. Sponsored by San Diego County Credit Union, the December 28 matchup will be the first-ever football game played at Petco Park. Historically a high-scoring nail-biter, the gridiron action will feature a postseason pairing of two top teams from the Pac-12 and the ACC. Bonus: The game also signals the return of the Port of San Diego Bowl Parade—one of the country’s largest balloon parades.

December 11

Poway’s Christmas in the Park

They don’t call Poway the “City in the Country” for nothing. Poway’s decades-old Christmas in the Park allows visitors to step into what feels like the old countryside for a timeless holiday celebration. The event, which takes place at Old Poway Park, features carolers, warm food and drinks, and an appearance from Saint Nick himself, who arrives in the park’s antique locomotive. Guests can also hop onto a horse-drawn hayride, shop for gifts at the craft boutique, and watch the annual tree lighting ceremony.

Holiday Checklist - Fairmont Smores

Holiday Checklist – Fairmont Smores


Fairmont Grand Del Mar’s Holidays at Del Mar Social Club

In the sleepy suburbs, it might seem like there’s not a soul stirring, not even a mouse. But when Holidays at Del Mar Social Club arrives, the resort transforms into the North Pole in an endearing new tradition that nearby residents have started looking forward to each year. The festivities include an outdoor skating rink, gingerbread houses, carolers, and fire pits for roasting s’mores. Modeled after a European Christmas fair and set against the backdrop of a luxury hotel that looks like an Italian villa, the celebration feels like a portal to the Old World. It’s a charming carnival that pops up out of nowhere—a treat almost as magical as Santa himself.

December 4-5

Queen Bee Market

Described as “Etsy come to life,” this urban-style market brings together more than 100 local and national vendors selling handmade home decor, accessories, clothing, paper arts, vintage items, furniture, and more. Shoppers can also watch demonstrations, listen to live music, grab lunch, and join craft workshops. It’s held in Bing Crosby Hall at Del Mar Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is $3. Children 12 and under as well as military members with valid ID receive free entry.

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