Despite being a famous summer destination, spending Christmas in California is a memorable experience. While most travelers head to the ski slopes in Colorado or escape to warmer weather in Arizona, California offers a bit of both. You can enjoy snowy and mild temperatures depending on your destination. Skiing is a must in Lake Tahoe while conditions are perfect for snowshoeing at Yosemite National Park. There are also numerous Christmas attractions and things to do in Southern California like going to Disneyland. Nonetheless, California makes one of the best places to visit in December.
If you’re brainstorming for ideas on what to do this Christmas, we’ve got a list of the best Christmas towns to go to during the festive season.
What Is the Weather Like During Christmas in California?
Since it is a huge state, the weather during winter in California highly depends on where you plan on staying.
In Northern California, the weather in December is relatively colder and you can experience snowfall. It’s one of the coolest months, with sunny days and scattered rain showers that don’t last long. If you’re looking for a snowy getaway, head to Lake Tahoe or Mammoth Mountain.
On the other hand, if you want a warm holiday with sunshine or if you miss the beach, Southern California is the place for you. There are rare instances of snow in the city and you have to head to places like Big Bear Lake or higher elevations for your dose of snow. Coastal areas can get gloomy and rainy, so you’ll have to bring an umbrella and jackets for the mild weather.
Whether you want a white or a mildly sunny Christmas in California, you can enjoy the best of both worlds in California!
Best Places to Spend Christmas in Northern California
1. Lake Tahoe
Located between the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to spend Christmas in California. It offers dreamy lakeside views, charming towns, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. If you want a relaxing holiday vacation, there are plenty of cabins, chalets, villas, and luxury hotels for your staycation.
Head up north to Lake Tahoe and enjoy a multitude of Christmas activities. Enjoy different winter sports at the best Lake Tahoe ski resorts and go skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and more. Embark on a sightseeing cruise around the lake and cruise past snow-capped forests and mountain peaks as you enjoy lunch or dinner. You can also visit the small towns around the lake and join festive gatherings, watch fireworks shows, and go outdoor ice skating.
2. San Francisco
From its iconic cable cars to shopping mall windows, San Francisco is decked with the most fabulous decorations in winter. You’ll truly feel the Christmas spirit as you explore its lively streets and the eminent Golden Gate Bridge. Furthermore, the city comes to life with several Christmas events, festivals, and performances that are sure to delight everyone.
Visit Union Square, the heart of the city, and find the giant Christmas tree embellished with thousands of colorful lights. Lace up your skates and go ice skating surrounded by the city lights reminiscent of skating around Rockefeller Park. If you have more time to spare, go house-hunting around San Francisco and check out the over-the-top and whimsical decorations around the residential areas.
3. Nevada City
If you’re looking for a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in California, head to Nevada City! The small city in Northern California features several historic buildings, some of which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. As such, downtown Nevada City is the perfect setting for old-timey holiday celebrations.
In December, join the Nevada City Victorian Christmas Fair festivities and feel as if you’re transported to a different era. Find locals dressed in period clothing, horse-drawn carriages roaming around, and take in the scent of mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the merry Christmas markets in Germany and other cities in Europe. Looking for last-minute Christmas gifts? You’ll find various hand-made trinkets and souvenirs to take home.
4. Napa Valley
Christmas in Napa Valley? Why not! While it isn’t your usual idea of spending Christmas in California, you’ll be surprised at what the wine region has to offer. There aren’t that many tourists exploring so this is perfect if you want to go somewhere low-key. Best of all, hotels and lodging are inexpensive and you don’t have to book months before to get a room.
Napa Valley’s iconic vineyards may be dormant in winter, but Cabernet Sauvignon wines take over the season. Partake in a tasting session at a winery and sip on the finest California wines. If you’re there on 4th December, make sure to check out the colorful Calistoga Tractor Parade where tractors and trucks adorned with Christmas lights parade around the city.
Sacramento isn’t the most popular place to spend Christmas in California, but you’ll be surprised at what it has to offer. It may have little snowfall as compared to other cities, but you can still feel the holiday spirit as you explore Old Sacramento and the Christmas markets. You can also celebrate the 12 Days of Midtown, watch tree lighting ceremonies, and watch productions at the City Theatre.
But out of all these events, the Theatre of Lights at Old Sacramento is the city’s must-see Christmas show. Free and held outdoors, the lights show includes familiar Christmas characters and performers acting out classic Christmas tales. The twinkling lights and decorations bring out a different charm to the old-timey buildings around Old Sacramento. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see Jack Frost and Father Christmas!
6. Yosemite National Park
Hailed as one of the most important places on Earth, Yosemite National Park is an iconic American destination. The UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts magical landscapes and postcard-perfect scenery. While most tourists visit it during summer and autumn, spending Christmas in Yosemite brings out another side of this iconic park.
Experience skating at an outdoor ice skating rink in Curry Village or take a scenic sleigh ride and enjoy the views. Although most roads and trails are closed due to snow, places like the Badger Pass Ski Area have become a popular tourist hotspot. Hotels and restaurants also offer a special Christmas menu featuring the finest seasonal ingredients. If you’re spending Christmas at Yosemite, don’t miss the annual Christmas Bracebridge Dinner!
7. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz in wintertime offers amazing things to do and fun Christmas events for everyone in the family to enjoy. Weather-wise, it can get rainy, but the overall temperature is mild and you can comfortably enjoy your Christmas vacation here. Drop by Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and enjoy the arcade games, ice skating rink, and other holiday events.
Christmas in Santa Cruz is also the perfect time to visit for wildlife enthusiasts as it is the time when monarch butterflies migrate to the eucalyptus groves of Natural Bridges State Park. In addition, elephant seals also return to the beaches for mating season and you can spot whales in Monterey Bay. Aside from whales, you can also get a chance to see sea lions, otters, and many bird species.
Best Places to Spend Christmas in Southern California
If you’re looking for a slice of Europe in California, don’t miss Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley. The small town looks straight out of a storybook with its thatch-roofed houses, windmills, and cobblestone streets. And during the holidays, Solvang transforms into a romantic destination that makes you feel as if you’re actually spending Christmas in Europe.
Explore the illuminated streets of Solvang and discover seasonal Danish pastries and admire the holiday decor. Join candlelit tours, caroling events, and fun parades. On select nights, get a chance to meet the Jule Nisse, the Danish version of a Christmas elf. Stroll around Alisal Road and Solvang Park and soak up all the merry vibes and joyful atmosphere.
9. Newport Beach
Christmas in California’s Newport Beach is a memorable vacation even without the snow. This city is famous for its scenic harbor, old-school amusement park, and stunning beaches. If you’re looking for Christmas destinations minus the freezing cold, visit Newport Beach!
Newport Beach put a holiday twist to its reputation as a harbor city and came up with one of the most unique Christmas festivals: the Newport Boat Parade. This four-day event showcases the people of Newport Beach’s creativity in glamming up their yachts and ships. Watch as hundreds of lavish boats decked in their best holiday getup parade through Newport Bay. You can even book a cruise and see these extravagant boats from a closer perspective!
10. San Diego
San Diego isn’t your usual place to spend Christmas in California, especially if you’re a fan of white Christmases. However, it is the best destination if you want to spend time on the beach and enjoy warmer temperatures. Not only is it one of the best places to visit in November in the US, but you can still enjoy San Diego even in December.
Even with the warm weather, feel the holiday atmosphere in San Diego! Be in awe of the 25-feet tall Christmas tree in Seaport Village made of bright red poinsettias. Go ice skating by the beach at Hotel Del Coronado and enjoy the coastal views. Drop by Balboa Park’s December Nights and enjoy seasonal entertainment, food, and thousands of wonderful illuminations scattered around the park. At San Diego Bay, watch the Parade of Lights, a procession where lavishly decorated boats and yachts take center stage.
11. RMS Queen Mary, Long Beach
Docked along the shores of Long Beach, RMS Queen Mary is an imposing landmark in South California. A former ocean liner, the ship is now a hotel, museum, and events facility in the area. It also serves as a popular tourist attraction and even a site for ghost hunting due to the alleged ghost sightings in the ship. In December though, the iconic ship transforms into a winter wonderland, decked with the most elaborate Christmas decor and lights.
Hop on the RMS Queen Mary and go ice skating, ice tubing, and see the tall Christmas tree that overlooks the Long Beach coast. You can also find larger-than-life ice sculptures, light displays, and a North Pole Village where you can meet Santa Claus. The RMS Queen Mary Christmas celebrations also include musical performances and a special dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
12. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is one of the quintessential places for Christmas in California. It has miles of drive-thru Christmas lights and plenty of fun things to do for everyone. For starters, skating at Pershing Square is one of the classic ways of enjoying your California vacation. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Pershing Square is the perfect location for outdoor ice skating. Surrounded by buildings and skyscrapers, skating here almost feels like you’re skating in New York!
From ice skating, hop in your car and discover the best drive thru lights display in LA. Find miles of cedar trees dressed up with Christmas lights at the Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena. In Woodland Hills, Candy Cane Lane is an eight-block residential area decked with lights and decorations. Additionally, you can enjoy the gorgeous lights at Mission Inn from the comforts of your car.
13. Palm Springs
In summer, the desert landscapes of Palm Springs are an iconic sight. However, it becomes even more gorgeous when colorful lights surround it. This is the perfect place to have a chill Yuletide celebration, sipping drinks on the poolside while enjoying the warm December weather. Moreover, the Christmas season brings a new side of Palm Springs you wouldn’t want to miss.
Enjoy different things to do in Palm Springs in the winter! Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and see the snow-dusted trees as you ascend to lower temperatures. See the magical light displays at WildLights at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. If you’re in Palm Springs by the first weekend of December, don’t miss the Festival of Lights Parade to kickstart the Christmas month. If you’re looking for drive-thru Christmas lights, head to Candy Cane Lane.
14. Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, Riverside
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is perhaps one of Riverside’s most iconic hotels. It combines a variety of architectural styles from Spanish Gothic, Moorish Revival, Renaissance Revival, and Mediterranean Revival. With its picturesque patios, castle towers, and dramatic halls, the hotel becomes a must-see tourist destination during the holidays.
Mission Inn Festival of Lights attracts nearly half a million spectators and is one of the largest celebrations of Christmas in California. See millions of sparkling lights and hundreds of animated figures as you walk around the hotel premises for free. The hotel’s eclectic interiors combined with the whimsical colorful lights create an ethereal atmosphere perfect for photos. On the grounds, enjoy live performances, horse-drawn carriages, seasonal snacks, and many more merry experiences.
15. Big Bear Lake
If you’re looking for snow in Southern California, Big Bear Lake is one of the best winter getaways in California. It is surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest’s alpine forests and snow-capped peaks. A playground for outdoor lovers, it also has ski slopes and an amazing terrain for snowmobiling, sledding, and other winter sports.
But after all that fun and action, the best way to end your day is by relaxing by the fireplace! Big Bear Lake has plenty of rental cabins and even luxurious villas for your staycation. Spacious and near most of the lake’s top attractions, these are the perfect stays to cap off your holiday adventure. Some cabins also come with extras like outdoor hot tubs, heated pools, and docking areas for boats.
16. Santa Monica
From downtown Los Angeles, visit Santa Monica and its beaches. The beach town has shores that stretch for miles, offering a warm place to stay and relax at. Moreover, the iconic Santa Monica Pier becomes the city’s top attraction, hosting several events and activities to get everyone in the holiday spirit.
Find holiday art installations and have a fun time ice skating in downtown Santa Monica. All over the city, be amazed as thousands of lights illuminate the shops, trees, streets, and various spaces. Then, visit places like Santa Monica Place and Pacific Park for their larger-than-life Christmas trees perfect for your family photo. Cap off your day with a ride on the Pacific Wheel and admire the city lights from a different perspective.
17. Amusement Parks
Celebrate the holiday season at the happiest places on Earth—amusement parks! There’s something about amusement parks that spark joy in everyone. All rides are bedazzled with thousands of colorful lights and the streets are lit up with festive decorations. Then at the end of the day, a grand fireworks show takes place.
In Southern California, don’t forget to visit amusement parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios in winter. The parks feature holiday-themed rides, attractions, and even snacks! In Disneyland, the famous Haunted Mansion gets a Yuletide makeover while Hogwarts in Universal Studios Hollywood showcases a breathtaking lights-and-music show. Regardless of which amusement park you visit, there’s no doubt that you’ll be having a fun time.
Have an Unforgettable Christmas in California!
Because of its vast terrain, you can either experience a snowy or a sunny Christmas in California!
In North California, temperatures are lower and perfect if you want to go cross-country skiing, snowboarding, or other winter sports. This is also the best time to discover a different side of places like Napa Valley or Yosemite National Park which are usually spring or summer destinations. On the other hand, Christmas in South California will be milder and is thus better suited if you want to escape colder temperatures.
If you want to get the best of both worlds, go on a multi-day trip and the most out of your stay. Regardless of which city you’ll spend Christmas in, you’re bound for one of the best winter vacations!