When most people think of a California Christmas vacation, they think beaches and palm trees and never ending sunshine. And sometimes that’s true! But the snowy mountains, vineyards, redwoods, and mild, but chilly Decembers, also make for some of the best places to spend Christmas in California.
I have lived in California for decades and celebrated numerous Christmases here but haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy the holidays in every Christmas town in California, so I asked some fellow travel writers to chime in with their best tips!
Where is the best place to spend Christmas in California?
There are many beautiful places to spend Christmas in California? Are you looking for beaches or mountains? Cities with lots of festivities or charming small towns? Check out our list of favorites below.
- Sonoma Valley
- Lake Tahoe
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Yosemite National Park
Best Places to Spend Christmas in California
Christmas in Sonoma, California
Located just north of San Francisco, Sonoma County is one of the best places to spend Christmas in California, though I might be a bit biased since this is my hometown, I think you will agree! From outdoor sunny days to sparkling, lit up nights and tasty eats, there is always something for everyone.
Sonoma County goes back to its agricultural roots with a light-up Tractor Parade in Geyserville, annually the weekend after Thanksgiving to kick off the season. Nearby Calistoga offers another tractor parade a couple of weeks later in mid-December. Mild temperatures mean days are usually in the 50s but be sure to bundle up at night as lows tend to be in the 20s and 30s.
Wineries offer special events all months long to please your palate and complete your holiday shopping, while dressing to the nines in their holiday splendor. Francis Ford Coppola offers a Holiday show with wine tasting and carefully curated gift ideas while you also can tour the museum highlighting the famous director. Ram’s Gate offers cozy fireplaces and a festive Santa’s sleigh (i.e. 1954 MG Convertible).
You’ll definitely want to make time for a Holiday in Healdsburg walking tour for wine lovers and foodies around the charming Healdsburg Plaza with stops at restaurants, wineries, bakeries and boutiques. Stop by Costeaux Bakery and take in their nutcracker collection while you munch on cinnamon walnut bread or an immaculately decorated sugar cookie.
Remember your childhood and hit up Snoopy’s Home Ice Rink in honor of hometown legend, Charles M. Schulz. Circle the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the ice skating rink and then do yourself a favor and pick up a peppermint hot chocolate in the cozy Puppy Café.
Consider staying in Santa Rosa for a central location. Vintner’s Inn is our personal favorite-we can’t imagine you could ever be disappointed with a stay there with its charming grounds, walkable vineyard path, delicious on- site restaurants and in-room fireplace. No matter what you choose – the options are endless for things to do in Sonoma California for a wonderful Christmas in California vacation!
contributed by me, Sierra | Island + Alpine
A Christmas Vacation at Disneyland
What happens when you visit the happiest place on earth during the Christmas season? It becomes the most magical place on earth! Disneyland is a festive and fun choice for spending Christmas in California.
From festive holiday decor on every corner, Main Street’s 60 foot tree, the addition of the Holiday Fantasy Parade to the daily schedule, and the daily lighting of the trees on Buena Vista Street, holiday cheer is everywhere! The Haunted Mansion gets its holiday makeover, along with It’s a Small World and many other rides and attractions.
Mickey and Minnie will be in their holiday best leaving you with another reason to make sure you dress in yours for fun holiday photos. Don’t forget your sweet tooth! Sugarplum Candy Churros are available near the Haunted Mansion, and near Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the churros are made of gingerbread. If caramel apples are more your jam, check out Candy Place and Pooh’s Corner.
Millions of lights will bring holiday magic to Disneyland, but it will also bring millions of tourists (at least it feels like it!). We HIGHLY recommend visiting in early December when the holiday activities are in full swing, but the crowds aren’t yet. If you have no choice but to visit during the school Christmas break, then mentally prepare yourself for crowds, soak up the holiday spirit even while waiting in line, and check out this daily schedule by Disneyland Daily to make the most of your time on a crowded day!
Many hotels line the streets surrounding Disneyland, providing hotel options for every budget. Your trip to Disneyland at Christmas is sure to leave you with the sweetest of memories of your holiday destination in California.
contributed by me, Sierra | Island + Alpine
Christmas in Monterey
Spending the Christmas holiday in Monterey county and the surrounding area is quite special and unlike different parts of California. The coastal areas of Central California, especially Monterey, have mild winters and almost year round outdoor living conditions that make it very pleasant during the holiday season.
The festive activity of visiting Monterey, Pacific Grove and even Carmel in Monterey County, make it a wonderful place to enjoy Christmas in California with fantastic shopping and dining venues, Christmas parades, events and fairs that usher in the holidays for locals and visitors in the area looking for some beautiful indoor and outdoor activities.
There’s plenty to do in the city and Monterey county starting with exploring all the coastal communities, hiking and doing all sorts of adventure activities, enjoying the beaches, marine preserves and gorgeous coastal parks and scenic areas all around this photogenic county.
You can also explore many cool towns, historic California landmarks and cultural sites, and do some world class shopping, dining venues and even a fantastic wine country appellation that is coming up in wine circles and competitions with beautiful wineries to explore. Check out my post here on visiting Monterey County and Carmel by the Sea here for more inspiration of what to do and see in this gorgeous coastal region of Central California.
contributed by Noel | Travel Photo Discovery
Note from Island + Alpine: Consider booking an adorable bed and breakfast with an ocean view to make your holiday trip extra special!
Christmas Town in California: Lake Tahoe
Dreaming of a white Christmas in California? Pack your ski boots and head for Lake Tahoe. At Christmas time, the region is an enchanting white winter wonderland where you can rug up and revel in winter festivities. If you’re not planning on skiing or snowboarding, other things to do in Lake
Tahoe include snowshoeing, dog-sledding, sleigh rides and wandering around the ski villages.
Yuletide cheer fills the air, and the villages are festively decorated with lanterns, lights, Christmas trees and garlands. There are parades where Santa and his elves are sure to make an appearance.
Make sure to visit Northstar Holiday Resort’s picturesque Village Ice Rink. It’s the spot to go ice skating, sleigh riding and roast smores over a fire pit.
The closest International airport to Lake Tahoe is Sacramento, and there’s also an airport at Reno 30 miles away. If you’re driving, there are several routes to take from San Francisco, which is 200 miles away and about 3.5 hours.
The average winter snowfall in Lake Tahoe is 125 inches while up on the ski resorts they can get up to 500 inches of snow, while the temperatures are moderate, ranging between 20 to 40F.
Where to Stay: Northstar California Resort or at Heavenly Ski Resort but it doesn’t matter where you stay; you’ll find holiday celebrations everywhere. It’s a popular destination for families, and there are lots of New Year’s Eve parties suitable for kids.
A bonus? Lake Tahoe straddles both California and Nevada so you can celebrate the holiday season in two states!
contributed by Christina | Travel 2 Next
Christmas in San Diego, California
If you’re looking for one of the best places to spend Christmas in California, then San Diego should be at the top of your list. While it is most well known as a top vacation spot in the summer, there are also plenty of amazing things to do in San Diego in December!
Depending on the year, the weather here in December can be sunny and beautiful or cloudy/rainy and a bit cold. You’ll always want a jacket on hand at least for the evenings, but you can usually expect pretty mild weather throughout the day. And thanks to the San Diego winter weather, you’ll likely be treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets you’ve ever seen! So be sure to include sunset watching on your list of activities during Christmas in San Diego (and be sure to stop by Sunset Cliffs for some of the best sunset views).
Other enjoyable December activities include Christmas traditions like watching the Old Globe’s production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and going ice skating by the ocean at the Hotel del Coronado. And if you’re here earlier in December, you certainly won’t want to miss our San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, which is an excellent tradition where locals deck out their boats with Christmas decorations and lead a parade through the bay.
With plenty of Christmas sights to see and mild enough weather to enjoy the outdoors as well, you’re in for a treat spending Christmas vacation here. You can explore the city with public transportation but may find a car more ideal, especially if you plan to explore outside the downtown area. And be sure to consider staying at the legendary Hotel del Coronado to make your California Christmas vacation complete!
contributed by Abi | Happy Go Abi
Best City for Christmas in California: San Francisco
The city by the bay of San Francisco, California is one of the best places to spend Christmas. During the holiday season many parts of the city are done up in festive Christmas decor. Some of the best places to go are Union Square, Downtown, and Pier 39 for the beautiful Christmas trees and lights.
Every year Macy’s puts up a tall Christmas tree smack dab in the middle of Union Square. The Macy’s building is also usually decked out in decor, from wreaths adorning every upper story window, to the festive ground floor windows offering kittens and puppies for adoption.
If you’re visiting around Thanksgiving time, be sure to check out the Macy’s tree lighting ceremony, it usually occurs on Black Friday and you’ll get to see the tree lit up for the first time in the season. Kids will also love the ice skating rink under the tree at Union Square, this is a temporary rink and is only available during the holidays.
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are usually a tad touristy, but they will definitely be festive. There is also a giant Christmas tree at Pier 39 and you’ll get to see the famous crab Fisherman’s Wharf sign decked out in colorful holiday lights.
During the winter, the weather is usually mild but it can be a bit chilly with rain, wearing layers is best along with a windbreaker. San Francisco is an easy destination to get to by flying to San Francisco International Airport. Otherwise by car, Interstate 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway make San Francisco easily accessible. San Francisco is definitely one of the best places to spend your Christmas holiday.
contributed by Constance | The Adventures of Panda Bear
Island + Alpine’s Note: Consider staying at the Fairmont San Francisco in order to tour the LIFE-SIZE gingerbread house-it’s magical!
California at Christmas in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is well known in California as one of the state’s most iconic national parks and a must-visit destination for outdoor lovers and travelers in the United States. Yosemite is about a 4-hour drive East of San Francisco, making it an easy commute from one of California’s largest airports.
In the summer months, people from all over the world come to visit Yosemite and stare up at the tall granite walls in Yosemite Valley and hike some of Yosemite’s best hikes. However, what many people don’t know is that Yosemite is an equally magical destination to visit during the Winter and especially during Christmas time.
In the Winter, Yosemite National Park transforms into a snowy winter wonderland, and its most iconic features, like Half Dome and El Capitan, are dusted in snow and display another beautiful side to Yosemite that fewer people have the opportunity to witness.
While you’ll likely experience colder snowy weather at Christmas in Yosemite, you’ll also get to avoid the crowds and enjoy more moments of peace and solitude to yourself. Winter in Yosemite has a more relaxed, romantic, and slow-paced vibe, making an awesome place to unwind and spend quality time with loved ones over the holidays.
During Christmas time, The Awahnee Hotel (previously known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Yosemite Valley Lodge and Big Trees Lodge all hold Christmas festivities and big holiday dinners in celebration of the holiday season. There’s all kinds of activities, including gingerbread house decorating, ornament making gatherings, and much more. You can even go on day adventures into the park like snowshoeing, ice skating and skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area.
When you come to Yosemite during Christmas in California you will be pleasantly surprised by its charms and will leave wishing you had more time to explore this beautiful winter wonderland.
contributed by Allison | She Dreams of Alpine
Ready to book your Christmas in California getaway? Longing for beautiful beaches, light parades, winter wine tasting, or a festive getaway at the happiest place on earth? We got you!
Happy trip planning and a Merry Christmas to you and your family no matter where you end up in this beautiful state! The discovery opportunities are endless for a beautiful Christmas in California!