6 San Francisco holiday light displays to make your Yuletide gay

It’s that time of year when the sun sets a bit earlier and San Franciscans brighten their nights by turning to the city’s longtime winter traditions.

Some bundle up to glide around the ice skating rink in Union Square. Others find solace in thrifting on Valencia Street, hunting for kitschy holiday gifts. Yet every San Franciscan can’t help but take in the many light installations adorning the city during the annual Illuminate SF Festival of Light, which provides a glowing contrast to winter’s darkness. 

For both out-of-towners and local queens alike, a tour of these San Francisco holiday light displays will help keep your Yuletide gay.

Holiday lights in Downtown San Francisco

San Francisco City Hall 

Next to iconic clubs like the Eagle, Oasis, and Powerhouse in San Francisco’s SoMa district, you’re sure to find plenty of holiday light displays in storefronts, museums, and galleries. Or just across Market Street, in Union Square where shopping season is in full swing, you can’t help but feel the holiday cheer. Here are a handful of our favorite holiday light displays in the area.

Point Cloud – SOMA

Point Cloud, Leo Villarreal

Point Cloud is made of 858 steel rods suspended from the roof of the pedestrian bridge that connects the North and South halves of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Each of the 28,288 LED bulbs is individually programmed, changing 30 times per second into shades of blue, yellow, orange, lavender, and our fave, hot pink.

After your obligatory selfie at this installation, head on over to Folsom Street for a Leather Row bar crawl, or catch a drag show at Asia SF. 

 The Bay Lights – Embarcadero

The Bay Lights, Leo Villarreal

Another display created by the artist Leo Villareal, this nearly two-mile-long light sculpture incorporates 25,000 individually programmed white LED bulbs. The Bay Lights was originally planned as a temporary two-year installation, but due to its overwhelming popularity, in 2016 it was made a permanent public art piece. Fans of this sculpture can claim a piece of it for themselves and their loved ones. For a $100 tax-deductible donation, Illuminate SF allows individuals to dedicate one of the Bay Light’s bulbs to a friend or relative, making it a unique holiday gift for the art lover in your life.

If you would like to view the lights from a nice restaurant on the bay, head to Perry’s across the street for dinner and a drink.

Helical Trace – LUMA Hotel

Helical Trace, Jim Campbell

Lighting up the corner of Third and Channel streets is Jim Campbell’s dynamic Helical Trace. Viewable from the street through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the LUMA Hotel’s three-story lobby, the installation looks different from every angle. 

For a truly unforgettable dining experience, talk a walk a few blocks south of LUMA to Spark Social SF. This “off the grid”-style food cart congregation brings together the best eats from every culinary corner of San Francisco.

Christmas Tree Lights at Union Square

San Francisco Union Square

One of San Francisco’s most cherished holiday traditions is the annual Union Square Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, typically held the day after Thanksgiving. Although this year’s event has already occurred, the tree itself will be illuminated every evening through the end of the year. 

Before the sun sets, there is plenty of fun to be had in the area, including ice skating, viewing the nearby holiday window displays at Macy’s, and watching the time-honored classic A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory Theater on Geary. 

Golden Gate Park holiday lights

Cross Van Ness Avenue, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind you, and travel to a very San Franciscan winter wonderland. Golden Gate Park, the largest urban park in the country, and its surrounding neighborhoods transform during the holiday season. Walking or driving through the Richmond district, you can tell the neighborhood really enjoys decking the halls. Though the real treat waits for you inside the park as you take in these awe-inspiring light displays.


Entwined by Charles Gadeken

Returning for its third year, this Golden Gate Park installation from local artist Charles Gadeken runs from Dec 1st through Mar 12th. A winding pathway leads visitors through a procession of LED-illuminated trees ranging from 12 to 20 feet in height, providing an interactive art experience ideal for pedestrians and parents with strollers alike. In addition to the visual elements, Entwined also serves as a venue for twice-a-week performances and art activations and provides a “fallen tree” installation that serves as a creative seating area for audience members, so locals may want to visit more than once to enjoy a different experience each time.

Before your Entwined experience, you could squeeze in a visit to the National AIDS Memorial Grove nearby. This serene green space shares the story of the struggle against HIV/AIDS, remembers the lives lost, and offers healing hope to survivors. 

Skystar Observation Wheel

SkyStar Observation Wheel at night

Like the Bay Lights, the Skystar Wheel was initially erected as a temporary installation. This 150-foot observation structure was built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate Park; but due to its popularity, this architectural work will be extended through 2024. While it was intended to serve as an observation deck to provide a birds-eye view of the city, Skystar itself is illuminated, making it a light display to view in itself this holiday season.

Just a stone’s throw from the Skystar Wheel, you can come back down to earth while getting to know Mother Nature at the California Academy of Sciences – home to an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all under one living roof. An outing usually reserved for the daytime, the Academy challenges you to “see science differently” by staying open after dark.

For those outside the Bay Area curious to see these light displays, consider entering the 10th annual Illuminate SF Sweepstakes, where you and a friend can win a two-night hotel stay, tour tickets, and dining experiences showcasing the city’s iconic installations. And for you local queens, we’re shining a spotlight on SF’s best holiday lights to brighten your winter and keep your Yuletide gay.

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