There may not be much snow during the holidays in Southern California, but there are still plenty of fun and festive ways to celebrate. And while the weather is generally chillier, it’s still possible to enjoy many outdoor events. So take a look at your November and December calendar and decide how you’ll make the most of this year’s festivities.
1. LA All Lit Up
Throughout the county of Los Angeles, homes and businesses are festooned in lights to celebrate the December holidays. In the small town of Altadena, less than 20 miles north of LA, Christmas Tree Lane on Santa Rosa Avenue is the oldest large-scale Christmas lighting spectacle in the United States. This 1-mile collection of cedars is strung with 10,000 lights.
Located in the South Torrance neighborhood, the Sleepy Hollow Christmas Lights Extravaganza has been taking place every December for over 40 years. Located along Roberts Road off Pacific Coast Highway, this light show is among the largest in the U.S.
The Venice Canals -- just a short walk from Venice Beach -- are always a great day trip but head there during the evening in December to enjoy the decorated homes and bridges. You can’t drive through this area, so come prepared to walk.
If you’re not interested in driving around LA to see lights, try a virtual experience with Downtown LA Walking Tours. From the comfort of your home, learn about the lights, decorations, and festivities surrounding the season. Your guide will explore iconic holiday symbols and stories such as Christmas trees, nutcrackers, the Three Wise Men, and more. Dates and times coming soon.
2. Riverside’s Historic Celebration
Since 1993, the Festival Of Lights has been taking place each December at the historic Mission Inn Hotel and Spa. What started as a humble adobe boarding house in 1876 is now a luxury hotel with 238 rooms and seven restaurants and bars. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to this hotel during the holiday season to admire the lights and decorations both inside and out. Make a weekend of it and book a room at the hotel that has hosted U.S. Presidents and dozens of celebrities. While you’re there, visit the Mission Inn Museum to learn all about its history or schedule a tour to explore the intricate decor.
3. Holidays In The Mountains
Something about being in the snow feels like Christmas. So if you’re looking for this classic experience, head to Big Bear and enjoy skiing, snowboarding, sledding, or tubing.
Whether you prefer to speed downhill on skis or a snowboard, Big Bear Mountain Resort has two options: Bear Mountain or Snow Summit. Both facilities offer slopes with skill levels ranging from beginner to advanced.
If you prefer sledding, Big Bear does not disappoint. There are several places throughout the national forest approved for sleds and toboggans including Aspen Glen Picnic Area, Grays Peak Trailhead, and Cougar Crest Trail.
4. Lights On The Water
Holiday boat parades are a classic Southern California tradition. Boat owners adorn their vessels with lights and holiday decor and then proceed through the water to the delight of landside spectators. Many boats blast Christmas carols to add to the experience. Fortunately, several seaside cities are offering these events.
The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade has been attracting visitors for 112 years. Enjoy the festive boats, yachts, kayaks, and canoes as they sail through the harbor. Many of the surrounding homes are decorated for the season as well. Consider booking a cruise with Davey’s Locker or Newport Landing to get up close to the action.
For 58 years, the Huntington Harbour Boat Parade has celebrated the holidays with dozens of beautifully decorated watercraft. This entirely volunteer-organized event is also a fundraiser for music appreciation programs in local schools.
In San Diego, lavishly decorated boats of all sizes float through the harbor in the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights. The long route for this event provides visitors with plenty of viewing spots. Or enjoy the experience on the water and book a cruise with Flagship Cruises.
5. The Mission At Night
It’s always a treat to explore the 244-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano, but it’s even better during the holidays when the grounds are festooned with Christmas trees, lights, candles, and nativity scenes. Located in San Juan Capistrano, 1 hour north of San Diego, the Capistrano Lights program takes place most evenings in December. On select evenings enjoy the tree lighting in the ruins of The Great Stone Church.
If you don’t want to hassle with driving and parking, try taking the train to San Juan Capistrano instead. The station is just a 5-minute walk. Before or after seeing the lights, grab dinner at one of the city’s many excellent restaurants.
6. See Where Santa Lives
Opened in 1955, Santa’s Village celebrates the holidays all year long. And while you can feel the holiday spirit here any time of the year, it’s even better in December. You’ll find Santa’s Village in the mountain town of Skyforest, about 1.5 hours east of Los Angeles. Come and enjoy special parades, live music, as well as puppet and magic shows. That’s in addition to the regular attractions, including a train ride, ice skating, ziplining, archery, and more. If you’re visiting with young children, be sure to make a reservation for Breakfast with Santa. But there are plenty of dining opportunities for all ages, including St. Nick’s Patio and Grille, The Pedal Pub, and Billy’s BBQ House.
7. Play In The Snow
Travel up over 8,500 feet on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and you’ll arrive at Mount San Jacinto State Park. While below you’ll see desert landscape, up above, you’ll begin to see snow. This is a great destination for snow play. Feel like a kid again and start a snowball fight. Or rent a sled and race down the slopes. For something more challenging, try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Bring your own equipment or rent what you need at the Adventure Center. Timed tickets for the tram must be purchased in advance.
8. Glowing Gardens
One of Southern California’s newest holiday events is GLOW at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes Peninsula, just west of Los Angeles. The theme of this visually stunning art installation is Garden Lights and Ocean Waters. Stroll the grounds lit up with thousands of colorful lights while listening to the specially curated soundtrack. This event begins in late November and continues into early January.
9. Celebrate In San Diego
In just a few short years, Liberty Station has become one of San Diego’s most popular attractions offering visitors a large selection of shops, restaurants, theaters, and museums all in one place. This former Naval base has become an entertainment hub, and it gets even better during the holidays with Salute the Season. Start by visiting the 88-foot-tall Norfolk Pine tree adorned with lights each evening. Then explore the special art exhibit inspired by the famous carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” When you get hungry, there are over 30 restaurants to satisfy any craving. To try a variety of international foods head to Liberty Public Market and explore the dozens of food stalls. Liberty Station has so much to offer, it can be a great weekend getaway, so consider booking a stay at one of these hotels.
10. Find The Elf
The Elf on the Shelf is both a best-selling book and a widely popular holiday tradition. The small elf with the pointy red hat is said to be sent into homes from the North Pole to ensure that children behave. Each night he disappears to report to Santa and returns the next day in a new location. This year the story comes alive with The Elf on the Shelf Magical Holiday Journey in Pomona, just east of Los Angeles. As you drive through the Pomona Fairplex, everyone in the car is supposed to help Santa repair his sleigh and save Christmas. Visitors will enjoy endless lights, gingerbread villages, and festive music.
11. Pasadena’s Famous Parade And Game
After all the festivities of November and December are over, there are still two iconic Southern California events -- the Pasadena Rose Parade and Rose Bowl. A great way to learn all about the history and tradition of these two events is by joining Downtown LA Walking Tours for their New Year’s In Pasadena event. Walk part of the parade route, see the Rose Garden, and stop outside the Tournament House. Next time you watch the parade and game on television you’ll better understand all the pomp and circumstance surrounding them. Dates and times coming soon.
12. Woodland Hills Winter Wonderland
Head to Woodland Hills in North LA County for an epic display of holiday cheer at WonderLAnd. This drive-through experience includes millions of lights, a massive Christmas tree, holidays around the world display, plenty of elves, and even Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Get your jammies on since you never have to leave the car, and be prepared with your camera.
If you love the holiday season as we do, you’ll enjoy our other festive recommendations in California and globally!