24 Actually Cool Things to Do in San Francisco This Winter

Don’t be a Grinch—get out there this holiday season.

Winter in San Francisco is pretty spectacular. While most of the country is hunkered down inside, we’ll still be dining al fresco, hiking in t-shirts, and forgetting how lucky we are that we can literally get fresh tracks in the morning, hop in the car for a few hours, and paddle board in the afternoon—even if you don’t ski, snowboard, or surf, it’s still an excellent metaphor for how great we have it on the west coast. What also makes it great is all of this fun stuff, some of which can be enjoyed year-round and some of which you’ll want to make sure you hit up while you can.

fair
Photo by Rich Yee, courtesy of The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

December 4–5, December 11–12, and December 18–19
$–$$
Cow Palace/Daly City
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair has pivoted for modern/pandemic times, so for three weekends in December this year, it is going to be a drive-thru affair where you can get a taste of everything that makes the fair so wonderful—hearty English fare and mulled wines (plus beers, ciders, etc, all of which must be consumed while parked), lots of handcrafted gifts, street scenes and tableaus full of costumed characters, and live performances, which you will be able to hear by tuning in on your FM radio. RVs and busses aren’t allowed, but there’s nary a word about horse-drawn carriages if you want to keep things authentic.

December 2–4, December 10–11, and December 16–18
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Dogpatch
Chef Mike Lahnham has experience in some pretty fancy kitchens (Auberge du Soleil, Solbar, Spruce), but we’re thrilled he’s ventured out on his own because now he can really showcase his talent, which he has in abundance. See for yourself at Anomaly, his pop-up restaurant (in the former Serpentine space), which offers a set tasting menu to a limited number of diners each evening. If we try to explain it, we’re going to have to use buzzwords like “molecular cookery,” and though we’re sure that is part of what makes the inventive dishes (see we just did it again) so delightful and delicious, none of it would matter if they weren’t all conceived and cooked with a heavy helping of passion. What we’re saying is: Make a reservation for this dinner. You’ll be impressed by the food, the friendly staff who walk you through each dish (and pairing if you opt-in, which you should), and also at how affordable it is for a fine dining situation in San Francisco.

The Art of the Brick
Photo courtesy of The Art of the Brick

Ongoing through February
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Union Square
If you’ve ever experienced that feeling of satisfaction after building what you thought was a LEGO masterpiece, you’ll probably reassess your entire childhood (adulthood, fine; no one’s judging) after seeing what contemporary artist Nathan Sawaya has done with the colorful interlocking plastic bricks. The collection features original pieces as well as reimagined versions of famous art masterpieces (if you’ve ever wanted to see “Starry Night” in LEGOS, now you can) and a 20-foot-long T-Rex dinosaur skeleton. Kids will like this, but it’s very much also for grown-up kids, and if you ever get frustrated with just how impressive it all is, take heart in the fact that no one makes LEGO art this amazing without stepping on more than his fair share.

Ongoing through December 26
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Golden Gate Theatre/Mid-Market
Even if you’ve seen this classic Christmas story on the stage, you haven’t seen it like this. Winner of five Tony Awards, this timeless and timely interpretation of A Christmas Carol is everything you could possibly want from an evening at the theater: ethereal scenery, wonderful costumes, enchanting holiday music, and a truly diverse cast, including a fabulous Ghost of Christmas Present who can’t help but make you smile, even as Scrooge grows more miserable by the second. There are delightful immersive elements both sprinkled and (literally) tossed throughout the second act so that ultimately the entire audience can’t help but be giddy with the feeling of joy embodied by our now beloved (former) curmudgeon. Whether you love the holidays or need to put a little fa-la-la in your step, you don’t want to miss this Broadway version of A Christmas Carol. (Oh, and be sure to bring a little cash as Compass Family Services, a non-profit that provides shelter, housing, childcare, and more to homeless and at-risk parents and children, is collecting donations at the end of each performance.)

nutcracker
Photo by Erik Tomasson

Go to all of the live holiday performances!

Various dates
$ to $$
Various locations
While the latest rendition of A Christmas Carol is not to be missed, it’s certainly not the only theatrical holiday experience in town worth getting tickets for. The San Francisco Ballet is performing the beloved “Nutcracker” (December 10–December 30), complete with toy soldiers, sword-wielding mice, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and more (fun fact: the American premiere of “Nutcracker” was by the SF Ballet in 1944). The San Francisco Symphony is offering holiday shows throughout December, including Handel’s Messiah (December 10 and 11), Home Alone with a live orchestra (December 16–December 18), “A Merry-Achi Christmas” (December 12), and more. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is back with its one-night-only “Home for the Holidays” show of “hilarious and heart-warming songs and merriment...okay, yes, and some mischief” at the Castro Theatre (December 24) and the “Holigays are Here..Again!” at the Sydney Goldstein Theater (December 10 and December 11). The girls are back! See Rose, Dorothy, Blanche, and Sophia in two classic Christmas episodes at “Golden Girls Live,” performed by some of SF’s favorite local drag stars at the Victoria Theatre (November 26–December 23).

Ongoing through March
$$
Feinstein’s at the Nikko/Union Square
Lucky you, “BratPack,” a totally tubular interactive concert experience featuring scenes and songs from the most bitchin’ ‘80s high school dramedies, like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, and Sixteen Candles, just extended its run through March. Go for the “Detention Hall” seating so that your table is reserved (close to the stage), but wherever you sit, just take joy in the fact that you can do something you could never do in detention: enjoy adult beverages.

January 7–January 23
$ to $$
Various locations
SF Sketchfest brings live comedy in the form of improv, stand-up, live podcasts, in-person tributes, game shows, and more to the city for the 20th year. Get your tickets now for the tribute to Cheech & Chong, Perfect Strangers 35th anniversary, David Cross stand-up, and more.

Score! Or strike out at a bowling alley

Ongoing
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Presidio and Mission
Listen, is bowling the most obvious activity suggestion ever? Maybe in 2019, but in 2021-2022, it feels novel! Had you asked us a year ago if we’d be hanging out in alleys and renting bowling shoes and balls, we would have said no, but life is too short, and bowling is too fun. Presidio Bowl has 12 lanes, an internet jukebox, 45 beers, 19 wines, a full bar, and a pretty typical bowling alley menu. Mission Bowling Club is a little fancier with legit food (a great burger) and cocktails, but only six lanes, so you’ll definitely need to plan ahead.

truffle
@acquerellosf

Ongoing through December 30
$$$
Acquerello/Nob Hill
If you can afford a $700 dinner ($495 for the meal and $195 for the optional wine pairing), then you should celebrate that by indulging in Aquerello’s decadent White Truffle Tasting Menu. The two-Michelin-starred Italian fine dining restaurant is offering an eight-course dinner with so much white truffle. All truffle is delicious, but white truffles, which are hand-foraged and imported from Alba, are probably the most delicious of them all. Or so we’ve heard, anyway…

Ongoing through February
$$
Asian Art Museum/Civic Center
You have to experience “teamLab: Continuity” to really understand it, but hopefully, this piques your interest. Inside the exhibit, you’ll find yourself in an ecosystem of 14 movement-sensitive artworks that are hyper-responsive to human activity. “Images of inky crows and fluorescent flowers, fluttering butterflies and darting fish propel you to wander, to pause, and to marvel” and will make you feel like you ate a gummy even if you didn’t. The exhibit closes in February, so don’t wait to reserve your time slot.

Play old school video games at a grown-up barcade

Ongoing
$
Various locations
Whatever your game—Ms. Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, pinball, pop-a-shot, or skee ball—you’ll likely find it at one of SF’s grown-up barcades. The newest one to open—Thriller Social Club in the Mission, is two stories of fun with all of the classics, including eight skee ball lanes, the most expensive golf simulator in the world, a couple of bars, and legit food—looking at you 13-inch hot dog. If you’re near Divisadero, check out Emporium, a huge bi-level movie-theater-turned-arcade, which also has pool tables, foosball, air hockey, and DJs spinning on the weekends. And on Market Street in the Castro, there’s The Detour, a cozier bar but still stocked with all of the greatest hits, plus lots of board games, Asian-inspired snacks, trivia nights, drag bingo, and more.

Merchant Roots
Merchant Roots

Ongoing through February
$$$
Merchant Roots/Fillmore
If you aren’t familiar with this traditional European folk tale, you will be by the end of the meal. We don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say it’s about selfishness and the good that can come from sharing. You’ll start the meal with other diners on the outdoor patio and then move inside, where the rest of the story will play out over nine courses. The experience runs through mid-February, at which time the creative folks at Merchant Roots will pivot and wow us once again with a dinner that is always much more than just a dinner.

banksy exhibit
Photo by Kyle Flubacker, courtesy of The Art of Banksy

Ongoing through Sunday, February 27
$$
Palace of Fine Arts/Marina
Sure, the original premise of legendary street artist Banksy was that you would spot his distinctive stencils in the wild, but for those who haven’t been able to do that, now you can see over 100 of his original works (worth $35 million) spread out across over 30,000-square-feet, including recognizable images like “Flower Thrower,” “Rude Copper,” and “Girl With Balloon”—as well as some of his lesser-known creations. If you’re reading this thinking, “OMG, I can’t believe Banksy would sell out like that,” don’t fret. He has nothing to do with this exhibit; rather, all pieces have been curated from private collections, which means if the nice rich people hadn’t offered to loan their pieces, we’d never be able to see them. We’ll take it.

Photo by Alexandre Galliez

Ongoing through March
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Club Fugazi/North Beach
San Francisco could use a little love right now, and it gets more than a little during “Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story,” an immersive performance/homage to this wild town told via how-do-they-do-that acrobatics, choreography, spoken word, video projections, shadow play, and original music. And though those things might sound like they’re for kids, this show is definitely more adult-friendly. “Dear San Francisco” was originally scheduled to run through December, but ticket sales have been extended through March, so you have zero excuses not to check it out.

Eirik Uhlen / Unsplash

Ongoing
$
Various locations
How lucky are we that San Francisco has 220 city parks (one every half-mile), more than any other city in the US AND mild weather year-round? If you weren’t taking advantage of them before COVID, you probably are now since they’re full of hiking trails, green spaces, gardens, and, our favorite: lots of places to unfurl a blanket and let the relaxation and indulgence (usually in the form of food and adult beverages—legal in most SF parks) begin.

Ongoing
Free
Golden Gate Park
In the spring of 2020, London Breed decided that the portion of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park closed to vehicles on Sundays would be closed seven days a week. Frankly, we think this is how it should be all of the time, and so do most people who live in SF, but there are a few meanies who cannot fathom the idea of losing parking spaces, so just how car-free it will remain in the future is still being debated—but the good news is it looks like it will never go back to the way things were before. Our favorite walk is from the Stayan entrance all the way to Ocean Beach, with stops at the Redwood Grove, the Prayer Cross, and the Bison Paddock along the way. Plus, a reward beer or two in Park Chalet’s garden. It’s about seven miles round-trip but mostly flat, so you won’t huff and puff too much.

San Francisco Ferry Building
San Francisco Ferry Building

$ to $$
Embarcadero
The historic Ferry Building is pretty to look at, but, more importantly, behind those good looks is a fantastic personality in the form of delicious artisan food. Enjoy lunch by the water at Hog Island Oyster Company or a delicious burger and milkshake on Gott’s Roadside’s patio. Grab a canned cocktail at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and a cupcake from Miette to enjoy while sitting on a bench with views of the Bay Bridge. The beloved farmers market operated by CUESA is still popping up on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, so you can also shop for high-quality products from small, sustainable growers and producers who will definitely appreciate your support.

Courtesy of Fort Point National Historic Site

Free
The Presidio
Crissy Field has beaches, tidal marshes, picnic areas, and also one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll find anywhere in SF. Start with a picnic and then take in that aforementioned amazing view as you walk or bike along the waterfront promenade to Fort Point. Take pics of the bridge, watch surfers narrowly miss jagged rocks, and high-five or high-10 Hoppers Hands before you turn around to head back (just make sure you use hand sanitizer before and after because that’s who we are now).

The Buena Vista
The Buena Vista

Ongoing
$
Fisherman’s Wharf
Stave off SF’s constant chill with the famous and delicious Irish coffee from Buena Vista, the first place to serve Irish coffee in the US. You can once again sidle up to the (usually fairly crowded) bar, which is our preferred method, but if bar sidling isn’t a thing you’re doing, you can also enjoy it at an outdoor table or, and this is a thing that brings us endless joy: get it to-go. Sure, you’ll have to enjoy it in a paper cup instead of the signature curved glass, but the fact that you can easily make it a double (they sell you the airplane bottles; you pour ‘em in), enjoy it outside with water views removes most of the distress that would usually come with sipping through a plastic lid. Plus, if you get it to-go, you can drink it while saying hi to the sea lions at Pier 39.

Free
Bayview to Outer Richmond
Put on your most comfortable sneakers and head out on the Crosstown Trail, a 17-mile urban hike that takes you through tons of SF neighborhoods, including McLaren Park, Glen Canyon, Golden Gate Park, and Seacliff. The trail is a mix of paved roads/paths and trails, is about 2,600 feet of elevation, and offers great views, cool tiled staircases, a chance to see SF in a whole new way, and satisfaction for having actually done it. 

San Francisco Botanical Garden
San Francisco Botanical Garden

Ongoing
Free for SF residents
Golden Gate Park
The 55-acre “urban oasis” with more than 9,000 plants from around the world is always a great place to go for a mini escape, even during the winter when way more plants and flowers are living their best life than you’d expect. Pack a picnic to enjoy on the grounds or wander through the gardens and visit flora from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and more, all in one afternoon. You’ll just have to pop open a plant app to see what you’re enjoying since we aren’t exactly certified botanists.

Free
Mission
While the cynical side of us may have some issues (13 to be exact) with Dolores Park, there’s no denying that this park is beloved for a reason. Abundant sunshine (yes, in San Francisco), fantastic people watching, gorgeous city views, towering palm trees, off-leash areas for dogs to play—and though alcohol technically isn’t allowed, all of those things add up to make it the perfect place to enjoy that aforementioned burrito, with a cold beer or three from Woods Cervecería. (Some rules, like no alcohol in the park are just meant to be—and are almost always—overlooked.) If you’re a rule follower, substitute the beer for an ice cream cone from Bi-Rite Creamery

$
Mission Bay
Learn the story of California’s Boom and Bust by playing miniature golf at SF’s only outdoor miniature golf course. Put the ball into a Barbary Coast Saloon, through a gold mine, and around “Golden Gate Park,” while reading cool factoids along the way. To help maintain a safe environment, you’ll have to make a reservation, which involves a little planning, but is definitely worth it. Especially because the course is also located within Parklab Gardens (a food truck park and beer garden) so you can celebrate your win (or lament your defeat) with some tasty treats and a cold one.

San Francisco Chinatown Gates 2015
San Francisco Chinatown Gates 2015 | Flickr/Chris Favero

Eat everything delicious in Chinatown

Ongoing
$ to $$
Chinatown
Businesses in Chinatown were the first to get hit last year, and many are still suffering. Help them out by playing tourist for a day and exploring the oldest Chinatown in the US on foot. Shop and snack as you go, a delicious way to support the community and get your steps in. Need suggestions? Check out our favorite restaurants and spots for holiday shopping.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who loves winter most of all, and not just because it gives her a chance to put every puffy jacket into heavy rotation. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where her next adventure takes her or if you need someone to go to that white truffle dinner with you.