SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Annual Events
image courtesy of San Francisco Visitors Bureau
Chinese New Year Festival & Parade Free. Or in February or March, depending on the lunar calendar. First held in 1851 during the Gold Rush and again every year since, this popular event is the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia. It is composed of a beauty pageant, an outdoor carnival in Chinatown, and the famous parade featuring gorgeous floats, elaborate costumes, ferocious lions, exploding firecrackers, and a spectacular block-long golden dragon (this is one of the few illuminated night parades in the U.S.).
Pacific Orchid Exposition Fee. Or in March. Thousands of gorgeous blooming orchid plants are on display at this stunning show of amateur and professional collections--the largest of its kind on the West Coast. In addition to the plants entered for judging and show, thousands more are available for purchase. Lectures by international orchid experts are scheduled. Sponsored by the San Francisco Orchid Society.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade Free. This traditional parade is the city’s largest and has been held annually for more than 150 years. It is also the largest Irish event west of the Mississippi.
Earth Day The first official Earth Day celebration occured in San Francico in March of 1970, with a nation-wide celebration occuring in April. Free events are scheduled around town.
Grand National Rodeo, Horse & Stock Show Fee. This is the largest such show held west of the Mississippi. A rodeo and horse show is scheduled each day, and ticket holders are invited to come early for a variety of related activities: dairy animal auctions; judging contests; displays of unusual livestock breeds, including literally tons of premium steers, woolly sheep, and prime swine. Kids especially enjoy the pony rides and baby animals.
image courtesy of Hanford Associates
Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Free. Japanese cultural events at this elaborate celebration of spring include traditional dancing, martial arts demonstrations, taiko drum and koto performances, and tea ceremonies. A Japanese food bazaar operates continuously, and demonstrations of the Japanese arts of doll making, calligraphy, and flower arranging are usually scheduled. The festival culminates with a colorful 2-hour, Japanese-style parade.
San Francisco Decorator Showcase Fee. Strict quality control gives this show house a reputation for being the best in the West--perhaps even the best in the entire country. Proceeds benefit San Francisco University High School.
San Francisco International Film Festival Fee. Known for honoring the finest in cinematic achievement, this oldest film festival in the Western Hemisphere presents recent productions from around the world. Some children’s films are usually included.
image copyright George Olson, courtesy of Dudell & Associates
Bay to Breakers Free to watch. The world’s largest, and perhaps zaniest, footrace began in 1912 as a way of uniting residents and boosting morale after the 1906 earthquake. It is routed through the Financial District, up the Hayes Street hill, and on through Golden Gate Park to the Great Highway. Outrageous outfits are de rigueur and in the past have included everything from a band of running Elvises to spawning salmon to the Golden Gate Bridge. All participants receive a commemorative t-shirt.
image courtesy of venue
Carnaval San Francisco Free. This spectacular Mardi Gras-like revel is a multicultural celebration of life. It includes a parade and a 2-day outdoor festival.
image courtesy of venue
Cinco de Mayo Festival Free. Commemorating the Battle of Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862--which marked the defeat of the powerful French Napoleonic Army by a small, poorly equipped band of Mexican soldiers--this is the largest such festival in the U.S. It attracts visitors and performers from throughout Latin America and includes a free parade.
North Beach Festival Free. This granddaddy of street fairs was established by a committee of Beat generation artists in 1954 and is said to be the country’s very first. It features Italian foods, sidewalk cafes, traditional Italian sword-fighting demonstrations, bocce ball games, and a variety of entertainment.
San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Parade & Celebration Free. Though other cities now also hold annual gay pride celebrations, San Francisco’s self-described “queerific” event is considered the biggest and wildest. The parade is a don’t-miss. A popular highlight is the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent, also known as “Dykes on Bikes,” which leads the parade every year.
Stern Grove Festival Free. Through mid-Aug. No pets. Featuring the finest of Bay Area performing arts, this program is the country’s oldest free summer performing arts festival and has been held in the Grove’s natural outdoor amphitheater each summer since 1938. It is traditional to bring a picnic lunch and the Sunday newspaper and spend the pre-performance wait indulging in food, drink, and relaxation. Bring a blanket to sit on and a jacket in case the weather turns chilly.
The city’s croquet lawns are available here for year-round play.
Cable Car Bell-Ringing Competition Month sometimes changes. Free. Competition for “Ding Dong Daddy” is held in both pro and amateur divisions. The previous year’s champion defends his title, and amateurs (who include some well-known Bay Area personalities) ring on behalf of non-profit organizations. Judges are selected from among the area’s musical and theatrical elite.
Fourth of July Waterfront Festival Free. Continuous entertainment begins in the early afternoon. The celebration culminates after sunset with the West Coast’s largest fireworks display.
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival This is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival. Screenings are scheduled in venues all around the bay.
American Craft Show in San Francisco Fee. Produced by the American Craft Council, this is the largest juried craft fair in the West. It features the latest work of more than 250 of the nation’s premier craft artists.
San Francisco Fringe Festival Fee. Over a period of three weeks, independent theater companies from the Bay Area and around the U.S. present eclectic, cutting-edge performances that range from the quirky to the macabre.
image courtesy of venue
San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival Free. Racing dragon boats is said to be the second most popular sport in the world. According to legend, the races began over 2,300 years ago, in 288 B.C., when fishermen rowed into China’s Mi Lo river in an attempt to rescue an exiled poet as he drowned himself in protest against a corrupt government. Though the fishermen thrashed their oars in the water to scare away evil spirits, the poet died anyway. Nowadays, dragon boat racing commemorates the poet’s heroic spirit. This traditional race attracts world-class teams, in addition to amateur and local high school crews, and is the largest competitive dragon boat festival in the U.S. Dragon boating is the most popular team sport in the world, with more than 60 million participants. Teams consist of 1 steerer, 1 drummer who sets the pace, and up to 20 paddlers on a fiberglass or teak hull boat. Many wear traditional Chinese costume. The long, narrow fiberglass boats are adorned with colorful dragon figureheads. Free shuttle buses are available between San Francisco and Treasure Island.
Columbus Day Celebration Free. San Francisco’s is the only Columbus Day celebration in the country that includes a re-enactment of Columbus’s landing in San Salvadore. When landing at Aquatic Park, the person acting as Columbus wears a handmade Italian replica of the great navigator’s clothing.
The Blessing of the Fishing Fleet takes place the next day at Fisherman’s Wharf. (The three most dangerous areas for fishing are the tip of South America, the tip of South Africa, and the bay outside the Golden Gate Bridge.) This event honors fisherman who were lost to the sea, with flowers dropped in the procession from the church to the bay.
The Italian Heritage Parade and Festival usually takes place the next weekend.
image courtesy of Alameda Naval Air Station Public Affairs Office
Fleet Week Free. To celebrate the anniversary of the Navy’s birthday and honor the men and women of the U.S. Navy and Marines, the City of San Francisco throws a gigantic party each year and the public is invited. Past events have included demonstrations of high-speed boat maneuvering, parachute drops, and a fly-by of World War II vintage aircraft. The Blue Angels, the Navy’s premier precision flying team, also perform in a breathtaking culmination. Viewing is best from Crissy Field, the Marina Green, Aquatic Park, Pier 39, and the Marin Headlands. As part of the celebration, all Navy ships moored at the piers are usually open for public visits. Fleet Week originated in 1908 when President Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” of battleships sailed under the Golden Gate. Mayor Dianne Feinstein established it as an annual event in 1981.
San Francisco Jazz Festival Fee. The Chicago Tribune calls this “the biggest and most acclaimed jazz festival in the United States.”
A Christmas Carol Fee. Dickens’ popular seasonal ghost tale, which celebrates the rebirth of the human spirit and death of indifference, is sure to rekindle any lagging Christmas enthusiasm in grumpy holiday Scrooges. American Conservatory Theater’s lively production enhances the story with a musical score of carols, songs, and dance. It is interesting to note that Dickens’ story is credited with actually reviving the celebration of Christmas, which at the time his book was published in 1843 had slipped to the status of a quaint, almost obsolete custom. It is also considered responsible for some English social reform. Fortunately for all of us, his story still manages to wake up the spirit of human kindness.
Chanticleer Fee. This internationally acclaimed, locally based 12-man a cappella ensemble performs four Bay Area concert sets each year in between touring and recording. Performances in local churches during the Christmas holidays are positively ethereal.
Golden Gate Park Christmas Tree Lighting Free. San Francisco’s official Christmas tree, a 100-foot Monterey cypress located at the east entrance to Golden Gate Park, is decorated each Christmas season with more than 3,000 lights. The mayor is usually present to flip the switch. Santa also makes an appearance, and the audience is led in singing carols.
Great Dickens Christmas Fair Fee. No pets. See A Christmas Carol brought to life at this re-creation of Christmas in Victorian London. After playing spirited parlour games, purchasing some fine yuletide gifts, and feasting on period food and drink, even the grumpiest Scrooge will capture the season’s spirit. Entertainment is continuous and includes parades, theatrical performances, and caroling--even dancing with Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig and guests at their celebrated party. And as if this isn't enough, Her Majesty Queen Victoria and consort Prince Albert always attend. Visitors are encouraged to dress in period costume.
Guardsmen Christmas Tree Sale Free entry. Claiming to have the largest enclosed Christmas tree lot in Northern California, the Guardsmen sell more than 5,000 trees each year. This sale is famous for having the best selection of noble firs but also stocks a variety of other trees, including Douglas fir, Frazer fir, and Scotch pine. Just visiting the lot is a thrill--it resembles a small forest--and is particularly nice on a rainy day. Trees range from tabletop size to 14 feet. Garlands, wreaths, holly, mistletoe, and ornaments are also on sale. Proceeds fund educational programs for disadvantaged Bay Area children.
image copyright Arne Folkedal, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet
Nutcracker Fee. The San Francisco Ballet has presented the Nutcracker since 1944, when it blazed the path for all subsequent U.S. Nutcrackers by dancing the first full-length production. A new version is introduced every 10 to 15 years, the most recent in 2004. It is always an extravagant interpretation, with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of scenery and handmade costumes, and each performance features a cast of more than 175 dancers comprised of the company’s dancers plus children from the Ballet School.
Union Square Window Displays Each year the biggest department stores--Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus--treat the public to elaborate window decorations, some with moving mechanical displays. A visit to the commercial, but gorgeous, Christmas wonderland at Macy’s--known as Bayberry Row--is always special, and Santa is found here. The lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel is always festively decorated and worth a walk-through, and on the street entertainers, vendors, and carolers provide further diversion.