It takes a carefully cultivated combination of advanced planning and inspiration to create holiday magic and cozy winter moments—especially in sunny San Diego. Whether you’re hosting a multi-generational gathering or just trying to get into the holiday spirit, everyone could use help whipping up a little wide-eyed wonder. Here are some of San Diego’s most festive seasonal specials and events this winter.

Holiday Lights

From Poway’s Candy Cane Lane to Point Loma’s Garrison Street, there are stunning light displays created by homeowners around San Diego County. However, if the idea of cramming the extended family into the car for a bumper-to-bumper cruise doesn’t appeal to you, make a reservation for Lightscape at the San Diego Botanic Garden. The walkable light festival returns to the San Diego Botanic Garden through January 1 and features a one-mile outdoor illuminated trail with tunnels of light, a fire garden, lantern trees, and more. Hit concession stands along the trail for giant Bavarian pretzels and premium beverages, toast marshmallows over a fire, and sip hot chocolate while wandering through over one million twinkling lights.

Tunnel of light at Lightscape reimagined for 2023. Image: Courtesy of San Diego Botanic Garden.

Iconic Winter Events

Photos with Santa or Buddie the Elf at Seaport Village

San Diego’s longstanding winter events are iconic for a reason— they are eponymous with the county’s holiday magic. Get your Selfies with Santa or Buddie the Elf at Seaport Village December 9–10 and 16–17 and drop off an unwrapped toy to Geppeto’s Toys for Tots drive through December 15 while you’re there. 

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights 

The Parade of Lights returns to San Diego Bay for the 53rd consecutive year on December 10 and 17. The 2023 theme is Christmas Traditions Around the World and the procession begins at 5:30pm. Decorated boats will start their bay parade at Shelter Island and travel west and south. For a prime viewing spot that comes with food and drink service, look to any of the restaurants and bars that boast a front-row seat. Quiero Restaurants at Mike Hess Brewing offers a rooftop deck that is one of only a few elevated vantage points at Seaport Village for the parade. The Bayside Lounge at Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina is high enough to provide unobstructed views if not a close-up look. 

Holidays at Hotel del Coronado

The Hotel del Coronado is the quintessential picture of San Diego holidays with spectacular decorations and the oh-so-So Cal beachside ice skating. This year’s theme tips a nod to the 1920s with updates to the redesigned All That Jazz Dynamic Light Show. The beachfront ice rink will be open through January 7 and proceeds benefit Make-A-Wish® San Diego. In addition to standout restaurant options like Serẽa, The Del offers additional special holiday dining, like dinner seatings in a beachside igloo for up to six guests.

Holiday attractions at Hotel del Coronado. Images: Courtesy of Hotel del Coronado.
The Old Globe – Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Through December 31, Balboa Park’s The Old Globe returns with their signature holiday musical—Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! On Saturday, December 9 at 10am, a special performance will be held for children on the autism spectrum and their families and other families with special needs.

Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo 

Jungle Bells returns to the San Diego Zoo from December 8 through January 1 with holiday decorations, music, and festive food specials. Don’t miss the Aurora light show held twice per night, which is a blended performance of 3D projection mapping, music, and lights. In North County, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park will host Wild Holidays from through December 31.

Neighborhood Festivities

Many towns and neighborhoods around San Diego County have community parades, festivals, and tree-lighting events. A couple are listed below but keep a lookout for more celebrations in your area.


The Holiday Tree Lighting on December 7 begins with Santa’s arrival on a vintage Oceanside fire truck, as well as holiday crafts, bounce houses, and more. The Oceanside Harbor Parade of Lights will be held on December 9, where boats, kayaks—and pretty much anything else that can float—circle the harbor in their decorations. 

Image: Zach Cordner courtesy of Oceanside Parade of Lights.
Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp hosts the 15th Annual Gaslamp Quarter Holiday Pet Parade and Pups in the Pub Party on December 16. Put your pet in a festive costume to compete for prizes or just come to watch the fun and spot Santa Paws.

Seasonal Treats and Yuletide Spirits 

Sometimes all you need to make the holidays look more magical is a festive cocktail. Local bars and restaurants are going beyond seasonal drink specials to create fully immersive spaces for yuletide cheer.

Miracle at Belmont Park Pop-Up Bar 

Miracle at Belmont Park has popped up at Draft with holiday cocktails and decorations through December 31. Share a pretzel-cuterie board with a seasonal drink served in a kitschy mug. 

Pretzel-cuterie. Image: Kimberly Motos courtesy of Belmont Park.
Over The Top Holiday Lounge

The Manchester Grand Hyatt transforms its Top of The Hyatt into an ‘Over The Top’ Holiday Lounge pop-up cocktail experience. Visit a snowy wonderland 40 stories up while enjoying themed food and drink and taking in the panoramic views of the San Diego Bay.

Courtesy of the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
A Cocktail Carol at Polite Provisions

Festive holiday drinks are the centerpiece of the winter transformation of North Park’s Polite Provisions in A Cocktail Carol. CH Projects goes full tilt on maximalism with Christmas décor to set the stage for drinks such as s'mores-inspired eggnog.

The Second Day of Christmas cocktail at Polite Provisions. Image: James Tran courtesy of Polite Provisions.
Deck The Halls at Nason’s Beer Hall 

Nason’s Beer Hall at Pendry San Diego partners with Tipsy Elves until January 1, 2024 to bring the ugly sweater to life. A portion of proceeds from the three seasonal signature Tipsy Elves cocktails—Tipsy and Toasted, Tipsy and Bright, and Extra Tipsy—will also benefit the San Diego Food Bank.

Vistal’s Winter Chalet Table

InterContinental San Diego brings diners apres-ski vibes (sans snow) with a Winter Chalet buffet table at their signature restaurant, Vistal, through Friday, December 29. The spread will feature seasonal dishes and a fondue bar showcasing alpine-style, California-produced cheeses with focaccia, pee wee potatoes, apples, pears, and other seasonal produce for dipping. 

Cutwater Lodge

Cutwater Tasting Room and Kitchen opened their seasonal Cutwater Lodge with winter cocktails, a Gondola photo op, and more fun surprises like a snow flurry through December 31.

Enjoy a Holiday Staycation

If your home is too small to share with visiting relatives or you just prefer to leave the hosting to the professionals, set your family up with a dreamy stay at one of San Diego’s stunning hotels. Many have special holiday events, dinners, and decor for easy entertaining—and zero clean-up!

Lakehouse Resort

Lakehouse Resort creates a Winter Wonderland along Lake San Marcos starting this December. Attractions include a 140-foot holiday light tunnel, dining in an igloo, and holiday-themed Pontoon and Duffy boat cruises on the lake.

Wine-down in an igloo with snacks. Image: Courtesy of Lakehouse Resort.
Rancho Bernardo Inn

Each year Rancho Bernardo Inn bakes a life-size gingerbread house for display in the lobby, a stunning centerpiece for their holiday decor. Their cocktail pop-up, Miracle at The Inn, runs from November 27 through December 31 at Veranda Bar. To start the last day of the weekend, try a  Sunday Champagne Brunch with Santa on December 10, and 17. 

Image: Courtesy of Rancho Bernardo Inn.
Catamaran Resort and Bahia Resort

The sister resorts on Mission Bay offer a Jingle Belle Cruise, photos with Santa, live carolers, and holiday treats. Better yet, the cruise is complimentary if you dine at the Christmas Day Champagne Brunch (10am–3pm) at either Oceana Coastal Kitchen or Dockside 1953.

Santa boarding the Jingle Belle Cruise. Hero image and this image: Courtesy of Evans Hotels.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines

From December 7 through 14, celebrate Hanukkah at A.R. Valentien with their Festival of Lights experience showcasing traditional dishes.

Image: Courtesy of Evans Hotels.
L’Auberge Del Mar 

You can still cozy up poolside this December at L’Auberge Del Mar with their festive Winter Wonderland Cabanas. Sip on a seasonal holiday cocktail flight next to a poolside fire pit and enjoy living in sunny San Diego! Each evening, December 9, 16, and 23, will feature a classic holiday movie around the pool. If you’d like to learn about cocktails, L’Auberge Del Mar will host holiday cocktail-making classes beginning on December 7 at 6pm.  

San Diego Mission Bay Resort

Nonstop fun is happening at San Diego Mission Bay Resort this winter, from Ugly Sweater Wine Wednesday on December 13 at 5pm to the Who Stole Christmas Scavenger Hunt on December 20 from 4 to 6pm. Showcasing the woman behind the magical St. Nick on December 15 at 5:30pm is a Pajama Party with Mrs. Claus and then a High Tea with Mrs. Claus on December 16 from 3 to 5pm.

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About the Contributor
Michelle Stansbury
Michelle Stansbury is a food enthusiast and the founder of Eat, Drink, Be SD, sharing the best restaurants, bars, and happenings in San Diego. Misuse of the word "literally" drives her figuratively insane.