Whether you’re planning a getaway for a weekend or just an afternoon, California has a lot to offer during the holiday season. We found some of the best activities, festivals, and sights to see this holiday season. Check out our top seven picks of must-see holiday sights so you can add them to your list to visit this winter.
1. The General Grant Tree
Want to get away from the normal hustle and bustle of the holiday season and spend time in nature? Make the trip out to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to visit the General Grant Tree. Known as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree,” this giant sequoia is the largest in the General Grant Grove area of the park.
Every year a Christmas ceremony is held at the General Grant. National Park rangers place a decorative wreath at the base of the tree to commemorate the event. The trail to the tree is short and paved, making it accessible. Be sure to check the weather and local tire chain laws before you go in wintertime. You may be required to carry tire chains or have snow tires to make the drive through the park.
2. Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade
If you don’t like the idea of snow and cold weather in winter, the Newport Beach Christmas boat parade might be the perfect solution. Hosted each year from the middle to late December, the parade often features over 100 boats — all decorated with festive lights and displays.
Owners of water vessels from large yachts to kayaks cruise around Newport Harbor each night to show off their decorations. You can catch the parade from many free, public locations around the harbor, including Balboa Village. For a more exclusive experience, consider booking a private boat tour from one of several cruise companies. You’ll enjoy a front-row view of the parade from the harbor.
3. Union Square in San Francisco
You can enjoy a variety of festive, winter activities in Union Square in San Francisco. The square itself features a large, lighted tree display. The shops and buildings surrounding the square get into the spirit by lighting up their historic structures with elaborate lights displays.
Spend a day or a couple of nights at the Square and enjoy the many things to do. Macy’s and Neiman Marcus department stores provide excellent window browsing with holiday displays throughout their stores. Part of Macy’s is turned into a Christmas wonderland with holiday-themed souvenirs. Across the street next door, Neiman Marcus puts up a four-story-tall tree. You can venture up each floor to get a different view of the tree.
On the street between Macy’s and Neiman Marcus is the Winterwalk SF. The street is shut down to vehicle traffic and becomes a pedestrian walkway. Astroturf is set on top of the pavement and food trucks park along the street, offering delicious snacks while you browse the window displays or enjoy a meal on the lighted benches.
4. Winter in Mammoth Lakes
If you prefer a white Christmas and snowy holiday season, heading to Mammoth Lakes might be the perfect getaway. The small mountain community is located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Nestled in pine trees, the town is a perfect mountain retreat for holiday trips.
Nearby Mammoth Mountain resort features world-class skiing and snowboarding that’s known as some of the best in the country. Or, consider a trek through the woods on the area’s cross-country ski trails. For an even more unique experience, book a dog-sledding tour or rent snowmobiles to tour the Inyo National Forest. No matter what you decide to do, Mammoth Lakes is the perfect California destination for snow lovers.
5. Winter at Hotel Del Coronado
Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego offers a variety of exciting wintertime activities for you to enjoy. Go ice skating while overlooking the beach and ocean during Skating by the Sea. The Windsor lawn turns into a Winter Wonderland from late November to the end of the year. Walk around and enjoy holiday lights, decorated trees and plenty of photo opportunities.
You can sign up to enjoy the Jingle Roast, an evening meal on the beach surrounding a private bonfire pit. Snack on s’mores and order off of the special holiday menu for a festive meal that you’re sure to remember for years to come.
6. The Mission Inn Festival of Lights
Take a trip to Riverside for the annual Festival of Lights at the Mission Inn. The historic hotel lights up on three sides with millions of lights for an elaborate holiday display. Animated characters and traditional holiday décor make this a must-see in Southern California.
The interior lobby of the hotel also features a 19-foot lighted tree and a life-size gingerbread house. Book a reservation to stay a night or have a meal at the hotel to get a glimpse of these indoor attractions — the hotel doesn’t let outside visitors in without one.
7. Winter Fest OC
Take your holiday experience to the extreme at Winter Fest OC. Located at the Orange County Fair and Event Center, this large festival is completely dedicated to winter and the holiday season. The festival includes activities for all ages — from Southern California’s largest snow play area to Winter Fest after dark for holiday libations and live music.
Go ice tubing on the Snowflake Summit slide where you can slide down 150 feet of real ice on a tube. Take a picture with winter-themed characters strolling the festival or snap a selfie at the interactive selfie stations throughout the center. Skate on the frozen pond ice rink and catch up on your holiday shopping at the holiday market.
Before you leave home, be sure to check on the status of holiday events as certain gatherings may be limited or cancelled this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. But fear not…finding fun and making memories with friends and family is still possible. Just head for your nearest beach, forest, or snowy wonderland for some safe, masked, and socially distanced fun.