These FREE Holiday Displays Are Lighting up The Bay With Cheer

Updated: Dec 07, 2022 18:15
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There is no debating it, it’s officially the holiday season, folks! The first weekend of December is when many of the best holiday spectaculars open up to the public. My favorites are always things that are over-the-top, absolutely adorable, and FREE or fairly cheap. 

Holiday displays and light shows I’m most excited to check out this year:

Plus, some extra adorable ways you can soak in the holidays in an attempt to beat any winter blues you might have. 

Fairmont Gingerbread House, made of real See’s Candy and gingerbread – more info here

The Fairmont’s GingerBread House

When: Now through December
Location: The lobby of The Fairmont at 950 Mason St, San Francisco
Cost: FREE

My friends know that I will make it a point to visit the life-sized Gingerbread House at The Fairmont every holiday season. You see it right inside the lobby of the hotel. There, right when you walk in, expect to immediately be hit with the smell of gingerbread and sugar.

It’s not your typical gingerbread house for sure – it’s created using pounds of See’s Candies and edible bricks of a delicious ginger cookie and is two stories tall. It is so big that it makes you feel like a pint-sized kiddo when you walk through it. You can also book a dinner inside the house for up to eight folks but that costs a pretty penny. I find visiting the gingerbread house for FREE suits me just fine.

It’s made of real candy and cookies, I promise. Last year, I might have touched the walls just to check and confirm.

“When it’s complete, each gingerbread brick gets placed by hand, and the pastry people pipe icing along every single grout line,” Walton says on the Fairmont website.

My Pro Tip: In my experience, you want to go mid-day to beat any crowds – avoid just before dinner or lunch since that’s when there is more traffic in the lobby. There’s never been a long line to walk through the sugary building but sometimes you’ll have to wait for a few people to pass through before you get your turn. Also – worth mentioning that the massive tree in the middle of the lobby is a prime selfie spot.

More Information: The Fairmont’s Gingerbread House

Entwined is back in Golden Gate Park – photo from SFRecPark

Illuminate SF – A self-guided art walk

When: Now through New Years
Location: All around San Francisco
Cost: FREE

Take yourself on a self-guided tour of illuminated art designed to brighten the darkest days of the year. The Illuminated Trail goes mostly down Market in SF and includes 62 temporary and permanent art installations designed to illuminate the space around them. One of my favorite temporary installations is Lantern Stories: San Francisco by Yu-Wen Wu. Beautiful lanterns with historic photographs honoring Chinese culture within the past, present, and future. “Entwined,” a glowing geometric forrest, is back in Gold Gate Park again this year as well in Peacock Meadow.

More Information:
Full list of Illuminated SF art installations here

children looking at Christmas light display

A full block of over-the-top holiday displays – Photo: Julie Herson from

Christmas Tree Lane

When: December 3rd, through Dec 31st
Address: 3200 block of Thompson Ave, Alameda
Cost: FREE

Although I’ve been in The East Bay for nearly 7 years, I hadn’t been to Alameda’s Christmas Tree Lane until last year. It’s now on my must-see list for the holiday season. For over 80 years, one entire block goes bananas for Christmas on Alameda – lights, statues, giant candy canes, and more and more and more. Families like walking the block to stand in front of houses and gawk at the elaborate display in the front yards of each home.

My Pro Tip: Traffic moves so dang slowly on this street that driving through is almost the same speed as walking. There are so many folks packed on the sidewalks on some days that it’s hard to get through if you have a pup or kiddo. Play your favorite holiday tune and roll on by as many times as you’d like.
More Information: Christmas Tree Lane

The Lighted Yacht Parade in Alameda is December 3rd – photo from their website

Alameda’s Lighted Yacht Parade

When: December 3rd – starts at 5:30pm
Address: The Oakland Alameda Estuary – starts between Wind River and the Fortman Marina’s public pier.
Cost: FREE

Every year, dozens of boats get decked out with thematic displays, and thousands of lights to create a yacht parade of holiday happiness down The Oakland Alameda Estuary (the body of water between Oakland and Alameda). In years past, you would have seen some really imaginative boat decorations including a Police Car!
This year’s theme is Holiday Music. Do you think anyone will have a Mariah Carey themed boat? Boats are judged so expect folks to go all out.

For the full route and more information: Visit the Parade’s Website
If you missed Alameda’s boat parade on the 3rd, there is a Sausalito boat parade happening December 10th.

This light display has over 600,000 holiday lights

Deacon Dave’s Christmas Display

Where: 352 Hillcrest Avenue, Livermore CA 94550
When: Starts December 2nd at 6:30pm, with the Christmas procession down Hillcrest Avenue. Open through Jan. 1.
Cost: FREE – donations are accepted and given to charity.

An awe-inspiring amount of lights are included in this display. With over 600k lights, it rivals all other homes as *the* light display of the season. There are tiny little attractions everywhere tucked between the lights. Such as, a coin toss for charity, a ferris wheel display, a decorative merry-go-round, and even fountains that create extra ambiance. The twinkling masterpiece has even inspired multiple proposals on the “proposal bridge” on the property.

This year, the theme is “America Celebrates Our Heroes” and is the 39th annual Deacon Dave’s Christmas Display. It’s a bit outside of The City but it’s also truly a holiday must-see.
More Information:

You can find multiple mailboxes around The Bay Area where you can drop a letter off for Santa himself

More Holiday Lights and Cheer In The Bay Area:
(not all of these are FREE but most are)

Mail a Letter to Santa Himself:

What: The most iconic holiday classic, sending a letter to Santa. You can find a slew of places to drop your letter to the man himself. Get your letter in by December 21st and you may even get a response back! Many volunteers come together to help respond to letters that come in.
Cost: FREE! But be sure to include a return envelope with a legible address for a reply.
More Information & Locations: Find more spots where you can send a letter to Santa

Oakland Zoo's Brand New "Glowfari" Lantern Festival

Oakland Zoo’s Brand New “Glowfari” Lantern Festival – photo from SF Fun Cheap


What: Epic lantern festival featuring illuminated animals of all shapes and sizes.
Where: Oakland Zoo
When: December 1-23, 26-31, 2022 | January 1-8, 11-15, 18-22, 25-29, 2023
Cost: Adults: $24, Children (2-14)/Seniors (65-75): $20, Members: 10% discount, Under 2 and over 76: Free, Parking: Free
More Information: 

68 Castro in San Francisco

The Castro Santa House

What: Santa hangs off this jolly house dripping with Christmas lights. This house is an SF holiday staple and it brings joy to anyone driving by. I’m so happy to see that this house is back for another year. 
Where: 68 Castro street, San Francisco
When: Now through December
Cost: FREE

Fairy Winterland

What: Holiday cheer, fairy style. FairyLand gets a holiday facelift with twinkly lights everywhere and holiday events which include multi-cultural family activities.
Where: Children’s Fairyland in Oakland
When: December 16 to 23, 2022
Cost: $9-$18
More Information:

Fairy Winterland – photo from the Fairyland website

Surely, I’ve missed some attractions but these are just some of my favorites.
What are your favorite free and low-cost holiday events and displays?

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.

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