A Holiday Season Guide to San Diego Christmas Activities 2023

Create lasting memories & yearly traditions at 19 of San Diego’s best Christmas and winter holiday celebrations, from light shows to Santa story times & more!
Todd Sarouhan
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Prepare for the 2023 Holiday Season in San Diego

Santa's Sleigh at December Nights in Balboa ParkChristmas Tree with Lights

San Diego is well-known as a premier vacation destination featuring year-round warm and sunny weather. Don’t let the lack of snow fool you though!

The holiday season in the city and surrounding neighborhoods goes into full swing in and around the Thanksgiving holiday, and this year in 2023 is no exception! Dozens of businesses across the city hold themed events and attractions meant to heighten the holiday cheer as you celebrate the season.

The Start of the Santa Run in Pacific Beach
The Start of the Santa Run in Pacific Beach

Fun Themed Events

These events range from family-friendly parades and visits from Santa to markets and even thousands of Santa’s running a marathon! Feel the Christmas spirit as you watch holiday plays, take the kids to listen to storybook readings, and walk through stunning light displays in various neighborhoods.

From big events in Downtown San Diego and nearby Balboa Park to traditional showings of live music and holiday performances at local landmarks like the Hotel del Coronado, there’s nothing quite like Christmas in San Diego!

We’ve curated a list of the 19 best things to do in the lead-up to the 2023 winter holidays. We’ve included options for family-friendly activities, romantic holiday things to do for couples, special events at premier San Diego attractions, totally free San Diego fun, the best holiday shopping opportunities and much more!

The 19 Best Christmas & Holiday Things to Do in San Diego

If you’re looking to plan the perfect tour through San Diego’s best holiday attractions and activities in the lead-up to Christmas, we’ve got you covered!

Check out our 19 fun activities that are a blast for the whole family.

Posing in Front of the Christmas Tree at How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Old Globe
Posing in Front of the Christmas Tree at How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Old Globe

1) See Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park

Neighborhood: Balboa Park
San Diego Theaters & Venues: Old Globe Theatre San Diego
1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego, CA 92101
Dates: Nov 8th to Dec 31st

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of the most famous holiday tales. See a lively stage play adaptation that brings this classic to life at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. The production incorporates songs from the 1966 TV special plus original music to provide a unique experience that’s fun for the whole family.

As a family-friendly holiday favorite among locals and tourists alike, this play ranks highly among Christmastime activities highlighted in our Complete Guide to All the Holidays in San Diego.

Shows run from Nov. 8th - Dec. 31st with varying show times. See the official website to see all the show times and to buy tickets. Tickets cost from $32 to $88 per Adult and $26 to $72 per Child (3 - 17 yrs old), depending on what section you are in.

Catch this play early in the season to usher in the holiday mood, or make it an annual tradition for your whole family when you enjoy a performance closer to Christmas Day!

Rady Children's Ice Rink at Liberty Station
Rady Children's Ice Rink at Liberty Station

2) Go Ice Skating at Liberty Station

Neighborhood: Liberty Station
2875 Dewey Rd, San Diego, CA 92106
Dates: Nov 16th to Jan 7th 2024, closed Thanksgiving Day & Christmas Day

Ice skate under the stars and glittering Christmas lights at Liberty Station. The Rady Children’s Ice Rink, located at 2641 Truxtun Rd. in San Diego, is open from 10 am to 10 pm between Nov. 16th 2023 to Jan. 7th 2024. Proceeds benefit the Rady Children’s Hospital’s Thriving After Cancer program, so you can have fun while also supporting local charity. This is a great activity to enjoy on Christmas Eve with your whole family!

Tickets are $20 per adult, $15 per child, and $15 for Rady Children’s staff or military (with ID). Tickets include skate and helmet rentals, and you can also purchase admission through a 5- or 10-session punch card. Tickets are only available for purchase at the onsite ticket window or online at Rady Children's Ice Rink website.

Skate times for the 2023 season are as follows:

  • Session 1: 10 am to 5 pm
  • Session 2: 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm
  • Session 3: 8 pm to 10 pm
  • Zamboni breaks at 5 to 5:30 pm and 7:30 to 8 pm

Santas Running at the San Diego Santa Run
Santas Running at the San Diego Santa Run

3) Participate in San Diego Santa Run 2023

Neighborhood: Pacific Beach
912 Garnet Ave. San Diego, CA 92109
Dates: Dec 9th from 8:30 am to 12 pm

Of San Diego’s many holiday activities listed in our Complete Guide to All the Holidays in San Diego, the San Diego Santa Run is among the most beloved annual events! A truly unique San Diego experience, watch the streets fill with runners in Santa Claus costumes as thousands of participants run a 5K marathon through the streets of Pacific Beach.

The 2023 Santa Run will take place on December 9th from 8:30 am to 12 pm, with a starting line at 912 Garnet Ave. San Diego, CA 92109.

If you’re interested in running or walking in the event, you must register on the official website in advance, and make sure to arrive in a festive costume!

Alternatively, you can bring the family to watch the race, participate in the shorter 1 mile runs for kids or dogs, and enjoy fun Christmas themed games at the post-race celebration.

Event Start Times:

  • 5K Run: 8:30 am
  • Kids 1 Mile: 10:30 am
  • Dog 1 Mile: 11:00 am
  • PB Holiday Parade: 12:00 pm

Pacific Beach Christmas Parade
Pacific Beach Christmas Parade

4) Pacific Beach Holiday Parade

Neighborhood: Pacific Beach
Garnet Ave and Haines St. End: Garnet Ave and Bayard St.
Dates: Dec 9th. Start time: 12pm

The 2023 Pacific Beach Holiday Parade is held right after the conclusion of the San Diego Santa Run on December 9th, and serves as an afterparty for the event. Starts at 12 pm at Garnet Ave and Haines St. End: Garnet Ave and Bayard St.

The parade is a yearly tradition that draws crowds from all over the city. Floats are Christmas themed and all parts of the event are family friendly. Attending the parade is completely free!

If you’re looking for more ways to celebrate the holidays in San Diego and save, consider picking up a Go City San Diego pass using our discount code (GVSD5OFF). The pass lets you save big on admission to many of the best attractions in town!

Visit nearby kid-friendly attractions to see their holiday decorations. Some of our favorites include SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, the San Diego Zoo and the always festive Belmont Park!

Nutcracker with Clara in the Nutcracker Ballet
Nutcracker with Clara in the Nutcracker Ballet

5) Watch the Nutcracker Ballet

Neighborhood: Core-Columbia
340 N Escondido Blvd, Escondido, CA 92025
Dates: Dec 21st to Dec 23rd

The Nutcracker Ballet is among the most well-known holiday plays of all time. Attending a stunning performance of this Christmas Classic in Escondido & Core-Columbia San Diego in the Concert Hall at California Center for the Arts (340 N Escondido Blvd) is an event you won’t want to miss this holiday season!

Get swept away by a magical story of toys coming to life and small-scale battles with larger than life consequences. The performance includes music by the City Ballet Orchestra, skillful dancers, and a tale that captivates viewers of all ages. It received the Tommy Award for the "Best Nutcracker" in San Diego, and the yearly shows have become a tradition for many local families.

Performances run from Dec. 21st to Dec. 23rd, and tickets cost between $39 to $119 per Adult and $35 to $107 for Students, Seniors & Military depending on your selected seat location.

Beautiful Atmosphere at the Little Italy Food Hall
Beautiful Atmosphere at the Little Italy Food Hall

6) Little Italy's Annual Tree Lighting and Christmas Village

Neighborhood: Little Italy San Diego

On Saturday, December 3rd, San Diego's Little Italy will come alive with festive joy as it hosts its cherished annual Tree Lighting and Christmas Village event, scheduled from 4:00pm to 8:00pm.

This vibrant urban neighborhood, a cornerstone of San Diego's cultural scene, will transform into a winter wonderland adorned with striking 10-foot nutcrackers, shimmering lights, and an undeniable spirit of holiday cheer.

Visitors will be treated to not just one, but two beautifully decorated Christmas trees, while being serenaded with delightful holiday music.

There will be an array of scrumptious treats to savor, and the event promises the magical presence of Santa Claus himself, eager to grant wishes to those who've been good this year.

For those seeking unique holiday gifts, the Christmas Village is the perfect destination.

The evening's pièce de résistance, the tree lighting ceremony, is set to captivate all at 6:30pm in the heart of Piazza della Famiglia. It's an event that encapsulates the essence of the holiday spirit.

Hotel Del Coronado Ice Rink
Hotel Del Coronado Ice Rink

7) Skating by the Sea at the Hotel Del Coronado

Neighborhood: Coronado Island
Hotel: Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton
1500 Orange Ave Coronado, CA 92118
Dates: Nov 17th to Jan 7th, 2024

The Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado Island is one of the city’s oldest hotels and a great example of living San Diego history. The property gets a full winter makeover in the months leading up to Christmas, during its Frosted by the Sea event. See twinkling holiday lights strung up on palm trees and look out over the Pacific Ocean as you ice skate on the beautiful property.

Skating by the Sea starts on Nov. 17 and runs until Jan. 7, 2024. Hours vary throughout the season, so check the official website for the most up to date information. The hotel and outdoor rink are located at 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92118.

Westgate Santa Story Time Tea
Westgate Santa Story Time Tea

8) Attend Santa Story Time Tea

Hotel: The Westgate Hotel
1055 2nd Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
Dates: Dec 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23 from 12 pm to 2 pm

Listen to a holiday story and enjoy tea and small bites in a cozy and historic hotel lounge. The Westgate Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter, located at 1055 2nd Ave, San Diego, CA 92101, offers guests and visitors alike plenty of ways to celebrate the holidays. At Santa Story Time Tea, kids can listen to a storybook read aloud by Santa Claus while also sampling warm drinks and finger foods.

This event fills up fast, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance. Be aware that you must buy 4 or more tickets.

Santa Story Time Tea runs on the following dates: Dec 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23 from 12:00 - 2:00 pm. Check directly with the Westgate Hotel to reserve the best times and dates for 2023.

Surfin Santa in Seaport Village on Police Boat - <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisinphilly5448/15910433355/' target='_blank' rel='nofollow'>Photo Credit</a>
Surfin Santa in Seaport Village on Police Boat - Photo Credit

9) See Surfin' Santa in Seaport Village

Shopping in San Diego: Seaport Village
849 West Harbor Drive San Diego, CA 92101
Dates: Saturday Nov 25th from 1 pm to 5 pm

Given San Diego’s dominant surfing culture, it should come as no surprise that even Santa likes to hang ten every now and then! Bring the kids to meet Surfin’ Santa in Seaport Village and snap some photos perfect for your Christmas cards. Enjoy other fun holiday activities like a parade down the boardwalk, live music, a magic show, and other entertainment.

Surfin’ Santa will visit the south end of Tuna Harbor Pier along the Embarcadero boardwalk on Saturday Nov. 25th from 1 pm to 5 pm. Celebrate the occasion with a Go City San Diego pass and take advantage of its discounts on surfboard rentals and surfing lessons for a full day of seaside fun!

Christmas Decorations on House at Night
Christmas Decorations on House at Night

10) Check out Christmas Light Displays at Christmas Circle & Throughout San Diego

Dates: All December!

Huge Christmas light displays can be found all around San Diego during November and December. Drive through neighborhoods at night to see how residents spread the holiday cheer, or check out dozens of professional Christmas light shows.

In Carlsbad, send a letter to Santa and attend a community party on Dec at 6646 Elegant Tern Place, or see The Carlsbad Christmas House at 7607 Romeria St.. Notable stops in Chula Vista include Jackie & Jose’s Christmas House and A Christmas in CandyLand, as well as the decorated homes around Chula Vista’s Christmas Circle on Whitney St.!

Some San Diegans have made a yearly tradition of putting up huge light displays including giant led Christmas trees. They include the Spence Family Light House at 1835 Sunny Slope Terrace in Escondido, The Clairemont Christmas Park at Jamar Dr. and Lana Dr., and Fairway Village in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

Enchanted Village in Spring Valley, San Diego
Enchanted Village in Spring Valley, San Diego

11) See One Million Lights at the Enchanted Village

12526 Campo Road Spring Valley, CA 91978
Dates: Dec 15th to 22nd from 5 pm to 8 pm

At the Enchanted Village, guests can stroll through an 8-acre holiday wonderland! The property is adorned with lighted trees and decor, a light tunnel and more! Guests can take photos with Santa, interact with holiday celebrities like Buddy the Elf, and enjoy food from local vendors!

For guests who prefer to experience the Enchanted Village by daylight, the event will open at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 19, for a special Lights Before Dusk hour, geared toward seniors and those with special needs, disabilities, or sensory sensitivity.

Early-bird tickets are available until Nov. 27 ($19.99 for adults and $11.99 for children). Prices will go up to $24.99 for adults and $14.99 for children after Nov. 27.

All proceeds from this event benefit nonprofit Noah Homes.

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Santa's Sleigh at December Nights in Balboa Park
Santa's Sleigh at December Nights in Balboa Park

12) Attend Balboa Park December Nights

Neighborhood: Balboa Park
Dates: Dec 1st & 2nd till 11 pm

Balboa Park's December Nights is one of the biggest events of the season in San Diego! It features a huge holiday themed light show you can walk through and dozens of vendors selling gifts, themed items, food and drinks, decorations, and more.

Attending December Nights truly feels like being in a winter wonderland, all without leaving San Diego.

Entry to December Nights is completely free. In 2023, it will take place on Dec. 1st from 3 pm - 11 pm and Dec. 2nd from 11 am - 11 pm. This is a can’t-miss activity if you’re in the area, especially if you’re also interested in Balboa Park’s many museums. Enjoy discounted admission to kid-friendly museums in the park like the Natural History Museum (theNat) and The Fleet Science Center with the Go City San Diego pass.

Christmas Lights at the Liberty Station Rady Children's Ice Rink
Christmas Lights at the Liberty Station Rady Children's Ice Rink

13) Attend the Liberty Station Tree Lighting

Neighborhood: Liberty Station
2875 Dewey Rd, San Diego, CA 92106
Dates: Nov 24th from 5 pm to 9 pm

Tree lightings are the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit early in the season. The tree lighting at the North Promenade of Liberty Station is an annual tradition that takes place on the day after Thanksgiving every year. In 2023, the tree lighting celebration will be on Nov. 24th from 5 pm to 9 pm. The event will take place rain or shine.

Other holiday festivities in Liberty Station include live entertainment, themed music such as Christmas carols and other holiday songs, photos with Santa, rides on a firetruck, and a showing of a children’s Christmas film. This is a free event that’s open to all families in San Diego!

Gaslamp Pet Parade San Diego
Gaslamp Pet Parade San Diego

14) Walk in the Gaslamp Pet Parade 2023

Neighborhood: Gaslamp Quarter
Fifth Avenue, between Broadway and Harbor Drive, San Diego, 92101
Dates: Dec 16th at 1 pm

Is your love of the holidays only rivaled by your love of dogs? If so, the 2023 Pet Parade in the Gaslamp Quarter is the place to be on Saturday Dec. 16th! The parade starts at 702 Market St. and lasts from 1 pm.

If you’d like to walk in the parade with your own furry friend, make sure to register in advance and pay the $25 registration fee. If you’d simply like to attend, watching the parade is free!

Adults are invited to attend the Pups at the Pub Paw-ty after the parade, which has a holiday costume contest and live music plus beer tasting. Purchase a $25 ticket for 6 different samples of locally brewed craft beer.

San Marcos Holiday Market
San Marcos Holiday Market

15) Shop at San Marcos Holiday Market

251 North City Drive, San Marcos, CA 92078
Dates: Sunday Dec 3rd from 10 am to 4 pm

Pick up some early Christmas presents for friends and family, or buy festive handcrafted ornaments and decorations, at the San Marcos Holiday Market. This market spans multiple blocks down North City Drive and Campus Way in San Marcos. You can shop from 10 am to 4 pm on Sunday December 3rd, making this a great way to get a jumpstart on the holidays.

Vendors sell gifts, handcrafted goods, clothing, decorative items, farm fresh produce, natural beauty products, toys, and more. There’s live music and Rescue Row, where animal shelters run adoption and awareness events. The San Marcos Holiday Market also has food and drink stalls where you can pick up holiday favorites like shortbread and hot chocolate.

Jungle Bells Lights San Diego Zoo
Jungle Bells Lights San Diego Zoo

16) See Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Attractions: San Diego Zoo
Dates: Dec 8th to Jan 1st, 2024

There’s never a bad time to visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, especially when you get in with discounted admission when you have an all-inclusive Go City San Diego pass purchased in advance with our exclusive discount code (GVSD5OFF)! If you’re looking for a truly unique way to celebrate Christmas that appeals to animal lovers, head to the zoo for their annual Jungle Bells event.

For the 2023 season, Jungle Bells runs in the evenings from Dec. 8th - Jan. 1st, 2024. During this time, the zoo is transformed into a winter wonderland. Attractions and events include light shows, live music, an acrobatics elf show, Christmas stories, photo ops, and Reindeer Games.

The highlight of each night is Aurora, an immersive audio and visual lightshow you won’t want to miss!

Remember that Jungle Bells is included with all admission tickets to the zoo.

Sand Snowman San Diego Beach
Sand Snowman San Diego Beach

17) Build a Sandy Snowman on the Beach

Neighborhood: Mission Beach
Dates: All Winter Season!

San Diego’s sunny weather throughout the year means it’s pretty rare to see snow along the coast. However, what Southern California does have in spades is sand - and it’s just as easy and fun to make a sand snowman as it is to make one with snow! Be sure to bring along buckets, shovels, and plenty of decorating materials.

You can make a sandy snowman on just about any beach in San Diego aside from the rockiest ones, as all you need is sand and water. Many of the shores in Mission Bay are perfect for it, including wide and sandy sections of coast like Mission Beach. This activity is a great opportunity to spend time outdoors with the kids, and it’s totally free!

Lifesize Snow Globe at UTC Mall at Christmas Time
Lifesize Snow Globe at UTC Mall at Christmas Time

18) Visit Santa at the UTC Mall

Shopping in San Diego: Westfield UTC Mall San Diego
Dates: Nov 15th to Dec 24th; Closed on Thanksgiving Day

Sitting on Santa’s lap is a time-honored tradition for young kids, and parents will love the festive photos that go great on a holiday greeting card. The Westfield UTC Mall in University City is one of Santa’s favorite stops on his pre-Christmas tour of Southern California. The large tree decorated with lights and ornaments inside the mall also makes for the perfect backdrop.

Santa will be at the UTC Mall between Nov. 14th and Dec. 24th, excluding Thanksgiving Day. If you want to skip the line, be sure to make a reservation on the mall’s website, especially if you’re planning on visiting during the weekend or close to Christmas.

San Diego has incredible shopping opportunities throughout town that are perfect for picking up gifts and getting into the holiday spirit. Check out our complete guide to the best malls in San Diego for even more options for shopping during the 2023 holiday season!

Many Boats at the San Diego Parade of Lights
Many Boats at the San Diego Parade of Lights

19) Watch the San Diego Parade of Lights

Neighborhood: San Diego Bay
Dates: Dec 10th & 17th from 5:30 pm to 7:45 pm

Watch the San Diego Parade of Lights from the harborside as decorated boats sail through the San Diego Bay. This is a free event that starts at Shelter Island and continues all the way to Ferry Landing Coronado. More than 80 boats are included in the procession, which also takes a detour toward the pier of Cesar Chavez Park for another waterfront viewing opportunity.

Each year has its own theme for participating boaters. The theme of 2023’s parade is FantaSEA on the Bay. This year, the Parade of Lights will take place on Dec. 10th and Dec. 17th from 5:30 pm to 7:45 pm.

Arrive early to get one of the best viewing locations and watch the sky turn an array of bold colors at one of the best places to watch the sunset in San Diego.

Approximate Parade Arrival Times:

  • Shelter Island (start of parade) - 5:30 pm
  • Harbor Island - 6:15 pm
  • The Embarcadero - 6:45 pm
  • Seaport Village - 7:15 p.m
  • The Pier at Cesar Chavez Park - 7:30 pm
  • Ferry Landing on Coronado - 7:45 pm

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The Best Tips for Ringing in the 2023 Holiday Season in San Diego

Celebrate the 2023 holidays in sunny San Diego with these helpful tips and important things to know.

Take Advantage of Cheap and Free Activities

Many of San Diego’s best holiday themed events are totally free to attend. These include parades, the Santa Run, pictures with Surfin’ Santa, making sand snowmen on the beach, and driving around neighborhoods to see Christmas light displays.

Many of the most popular attractions in town like the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND California, decorate their parks for the holidays. When you pick up a Go City San Diego pass in advance and use our discount code (GVSD5OFF), you can save on gear rentals and admission for these attractions and many more!

Pre-Register When Available

Many holiday events are very popular but only run for a few days, or offer limited tickets. When possible, it’s best to register for events at least a month in advance so you can plan your celebration schedule with confidence.

Also keep in mind that most activities only get more popular as it gets closer to Christmas. Consider visits in November or early December (when possible) to avoid the crowds.

Start New Traditions

The holiday season is the best time to try something new and start a tradition that continues for years to come! Many local events like the Nutcracker performances and walking through the light show in Downtown San Diego are held annually. Bring the whole family to make some memories and create new traditions that will last for years to come.

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