California in December is a special treat!
As the rest of the country is zipping into down coats and pondering snowplows, California is frequently drenched in sunshine, with just scattered rain showers and slightly cooler temperatures. It’s one of the very best places to visit in the US in December.
Summer crowds are gone, leaving pristine beaches empty as iconic cities dress up in holiday glitter. Wondering where to go in December? Read on to learn about all of my favorite places.
Here, travel bloggers share their favorite things to do in winter in California …Where to go, what to see, and where to stay! So if you’re looking for things to do in California in December, read on.
California in December: Weather
California’s weather in December obviously varies depending on where you go.
It’s one of the coolest months for the state but that means you can expect day time temperatures in Southern California in the mid to high 60’s and overnight lows of about 50 degrees.
Days are mostly sunny with scattered rain showers.
In Northern California, it’s just a bit cooler. For example, San Francisco in December sees sunny days in the low 60’s and overnight temps averaging around 48 degrees.
Head to the mountains—Lake Tahoe or Mammoth for instance—and you can expect clear sunny days in the mid 30’s (for snow!) and 40’s with overnights in the teens. December in California is gorgeous!
California’s rainy season is between November and April so expect a few showers at lower elevations and snow at higher elevations.
If you’re looking for warm places in California in December, head directly to the desert. You’ll enjoy the very warmest sunny weather with little chance of rain.
Death Valley and Palm Springs make an ideal California vacation in December.
Best Places to Visit in California in December
1. San Diego in December
San Diego is one of the best places to visit in California during winter.
As a native, I love walking the empty beaches on clear sunny days. Or walking the PCH in downtown Encinitas in North County.
Whale watching season also kicks off mid-December so it’s a perfect time to book a harbor cruise spotting gray whales migrating south from Alaska (or look for them from the shore).
If it’s Christmas in California you’re after, consider a holiday tea at the iconic Hotel Del (scene of Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe) on Coronado Island.
Or check out the Pet Parade in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter.
San Diego’s famous Old Globe Theater in beautiful Balboa Park brings Dr. Seuss to life for kids and the young-at-heart in its annual rendition of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
Balboa Park’s December Nights is San Diego’s premier holiday festival with food, drink, free admission to all of the museums, and festive holiday lighting!
Whatever you do, don’t miss the Parade of Lights in San Diego’s Bay.
More than 80 boats decked out in colorful holiday lights strut their stuff as they cruise from Shelter Island, past Harbor Island, the Embarcadero and the Ferry Landing on Coronado. It’s a uniquely San Diego celebration.
San Diego in winter is amazing! If you’re wondering where to go in California in December, look no further!
Where to Stay in San Diego
La Valencia is a Mediterranean-inspired retreat with vintage luxury and oceanside views in the cute seaside village of La Jolla north of downtown.
Or, see my list of the coolest vacation rentals by San Diego neighborhood.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
2. San Francisco in December
San Francisco is one of America’s greatest cities at any time of year and one of the best places in California to visit in December. (San Francisco in October is also incredible.)
It makes for one of the best winter vacations in California.
However, it’s also one of the best places in California to spend Christmas as they really roll out the red and green carpet.
Throughout the city is a month-long celebration called the Festival of Lights.
A collection of artists install massive light sculptures in installations in prime locations for your enjoyment.
You can enjoy the lights in any number of ways from a self-guided walking tour of San Francisco to riding a historic fire engine to taking a Christmas cruise on the bay.
Don’t forget SantaCon, an adult-only party where thousands of costumed revelers take to the streets for a jolly party or the Chocolate and Art Show.
There are the usual holiday shows as well, like Christmas Carol, Handel’s Messiah, and The Nutcracker.
Even without the holiday glitz, San Francisco is a spectacular destination. Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, China Town, and Cable Cars are every bit as beautiful in the winter.
See them from a Golden Gate Bay cruise.
If you think Christmas is spectacular in the City by the Bay, you should see what they do for New Years.
Fireworks by the Bay and New Year’s cruises will let you celebrate in style.
Where to stay in San Francisco
Argonaut Hotel, Fisherman’s Wharf! If you love harbors and delicious seafood, stay in this wonderful nautically themed hotel right on famous Fisherman’s Wharf. Check price and availability at Argonaut Hotel here.
Or, stay in this gorgeous Victorian home with a private bath in Pacific Heights. Travelers give it top marks. Check price and availability here.
Jenn and Ed | Coleman Concierge
What to Pack for Winter in California
Pack layers! Even in winter, there is plenty of warmth and sunshine. However, in coastal areas particularly, your day may start out with overcast weather until the fog burns off giving way to brilliant California sunshine.
Don’t forget to pack:
• Lightweight rain shell
• Packable cooler
• Flip flops
• Down jacket
For other travel essentials, see my road trip packing list.
3. Palm Springs in December
If you’re wondering where the warmest place in California is in December, look no further than Palm Springs!
Southern California in winter makes for the perfect time to explore the desert since daytime temperatures are pleasant.
And the perfect springboard for launching your exploration is the Greater Palm Springs area, which includes the City of Palm Springs and a number of small nearby communities.
Palm Springs has been a favored California winter vacation spot for years. It’s also one of the warmest places in California in winter.
This is the perfect spot to take in soaring views of the desert from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway!
In fact, there is an amazing number of things to do in and around Palm Springs, long known as the getaway to the stars of Hollywood.
Do a tour of the city’s famous mid-century modern architecture. Or go stargazing!
Visit the Moorten desert botanical garden. Stroll Palm Canyon Drive, the main street in downtown Palm Springs, and browse the many stores and galleries that line the street.
A little way out in Rancho Mirage, you must tour Sunnylands, the estate of the Annenbergs.
The gardens are gorgeous, and if you love birds, you can join a birdwatching tour led by a local expert.
The Visitor Center is a lovely place to relax with a drink and take in the views. You can tour the home as well, but only with advance reservations and a ticket.
If you are an active vacationer, consider playing a round of golf at one of Palm Springs’ famous resorts.
Or drive an hour out of town to Joshua Tree National Park, where you can see stunning rock formations and the namesake Joshua trees.
If you are here to relax, try a pampering treatment at one of the many spas in Palm Springs. Or lounge by the pool.
Closer to Christmas, enjoy the many light shows in the area.
Palm Springs is home to RoboLights, the largest private residential holiday lights display in the USA, with more than 8 million lights!
Light displays also brighten the night skies at the Living Desert in Palm Desert and many other places in the Greater Palm Springs area. Drive around and take in all the displays!
Where to stay in Palm Springs
El Morocco Inn & Spa! It’s an exotic four star bed and breakfast.
Richly colored decor, a lovely pool, and daily happy hour make this the perfect Palm Springs oasis. Try the property’s signature cocktail, the “Morocco-Tini.”
Or, relax poolside at your own private romantic cottage downtown. Check price and availability at the romantic cottage here.
Dhara | Not about the Miles
Want 9 quick and easy shortcuts to creating a WOW itinerary every time? Click here to get my best tips.
4. Santa Monica in December
Considering a California vacation in December?
Santa Monica is a perfect choice in December as well as year-round. It’s a wonderful beach town situated west of downtown Los Angeles.
Even if the temperatures will be lower, you can still enjoy the beaches and have a good time at the Santa Monica Pier.
The famous Santa Monica beach stretches for several miles and makes a great place for relaxation.
It’s also a great place to get that Christmas feeling going strong. For example, you can go ice-skating or watch Christmas events and carols.
Santa Monica Place is also great if you want to go shopping and buy nice presents for your family, friends and loved ones.
Museum of Flying, California Heritage Museum, Santa Monica Camera Obscura are some other attractions that are recommended if you want to enjoy some culture while visiting.
Santa Monica is also full of restaurants and trendy cafes where the locals will go out and about in December especially for the upcoming holiday season.
Where to stay in Santa Monica
The Ambrose Hotel! It’s both centrally located and affordable.
From here, you can get around Santa Monica easily, and the hotel is nicely decorated around Christmas as well. Check price and availability at The Ambrose here.
Alexander | Destinavo
5. Lake Tahoe in December
Lake Tahoe is a beautiful place in any season, but it is a magical place to visit in California during winter.
While snow is not guaranteed in December, it is likely that you will find this area located high in the basin of the Sierra Nevada Mountains covered in shimmering white.
And it’s easy to rent some cross country skis to enjoy it! The crystal blue water, breathtaking vistas, and fresh mountain air are unrivaled.
Activities are plentiful in Lake Tahoe in December including outdoor ice skating at Northstar, seeing the ice sculptures at Heavenly Mountain Resort and taking the gondola up the mountain for stunning views.
Or just curl up in a cozy cabin with a hot chocolate as you watch the snow fall.
A drive around the lake with a stop at the Emerald Bay lookout is also well worth your while as it is the second most photographed spot in all of the United States.
If you are feeling adventurous, strap on your snowshoes for a hike down to the Vikingsholm Mansion or the Eagle Falls trail.
Skiing and snowboarding at one of the many resorts that surround the lake are among the most popular winter activities in Lake Tahoe.
Even in the case of uncooperative snowy weather, all resorts will make plenty of man-made snow if necessary, ensuring that you will be able to hit the slopes.
Heavenly Mountain Resort’s popularity brings in plenty of crowds, but many enjoy the massive amount of trails and family-friendly ski schools.
If you are looking for fewer crowds, deep powder, and steep runs, Kirkwood Resort may be the best choice for you.
December often brings Santa to the slopes, so keep your eyes peeled if you have children in tow!
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe
The Ritz Carlton Resort Hotel is our favorite choice for a luxury stay with its ski in and out privileges and elegant spa after a full day, conveniently located in Truckee, North Lake Tahoe. Check price and availability at The Ritz Carlton here.
Or, stay in a lake view cabin with a rustic, romantic ambiance. Check price and availability at the lake view cabin here.
Sierra | Free to Travel Mama
6. Santa Barbara in December
With a soothing California sun, cloud-covered mountain views, sparkling Pacific shorelines, Spanish architecture, exotic gardens, and farm-fresh food, Santa Barbara is one of the best winter getaways in California.
While you might get some rain showers in December, the winters are mild with average temperatures in the 60s. Don’t forget to pack some sweaters.
In December, there will be holiday markets, Christmas parades, wine tours, and concerts to enjoy.
But truth be told, Santa Barbara has a laid-back vibe all year long, so you may just want to relax and watch the waves anyway.
Head to Stearns Wharf at the Santa Barbara Harbor, the West Coast’s oldest operating wharf and one of Santa Barbara’s iconic landmarks.
You can drive on the wooden wharf and see some breathtaking views of the Santa Barbara coastline and the Santa Ynez Mountains during sunset.
Or ride a surrey along the palm tree-lined waterfront.
You can also take a narrated trolley tour of the city with that stops at all the highlights including Old Mission Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree, Butterfly Beach and a few more.
The trolley departs from the Visitors Center on the corner of Cabrillo Boulevard and Garden Street.
Many of the tasting rooms are located right in Santa Barbara’s downtown Funk Zone, are within walking distance of each other.
Santa Barbara County has more than 220 wineries and around 170 tasting rooms!
In addition, you’ll find some respected and influential tasting rooms in the Presidio Neighborhood in the historic heart of downtown Santa Barbara… names like Margerum Wine Company, Grassini Family Vineyards and Jamie Slone.
We loved visiting the eccentric gardens of Ganna’s Lotusland and farm to table meals at Bouchon and San Ysidro Ranch.
Walking in the gardens and seeing this special place where the Kennedys honeymooned was the highlight of our trip!
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
The Rosewood Miramar in Montecito! We loved waking up to the view of the mountains, gurgling fountains, and lavender.
The best part? The pristine Montecito beach just across the railroad tracks. Check price and availability on the Rosewood Miramar here.
Priya | Outside Suburbia
7. Joshua Tree in December
Whenever I’m in Southern California in the winter months, I absolutely must stop by Joshua Tree National Park.
It’s an easy day trip from Los Angeles, though I prefer to camp in the beautiful desert and fall asleep to the sounds of coyotes.
So it makes a good winter getaway. Plus, there are so many things to do in Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree is a fairly popular place, so the first piece of advice I’d give is to book your accommodation as early as possible.
This applies whether you’re camping in the park, glamping in a nearby yurt or cabin, or staying in a hotel or lodge in town.
Winters in Joshua Tree are quite mild, but keep in mind it is the high desert, so nights, in particular, can get chilly. There’s nothing quite like getting cozy next to the fire at sunset in the desert.
The silhouettes of the Joshua trees against the wide California desert horizon are just as eerily magical as you’d think—and the stargazing, once that sun sets, is some of the best in SoCal.
A Joshua Tree National Park vacation has something for every type of traveler.
I enjoy hiking and checking out the educational Ranger programs, but you could just as easily spend the whole time relaxing, meditating, and taking in the serene desert solitude.
Kaisa | Glam Granola Travel
Where to stay in Joshua Tree
Stay at Hawks View House in a secluded canyon just six minutes from the park. This historic 1950s homesteader cabin has been completely renovated with state of the art everything, include A/C.
Hike out the back door. Gaze at the starry night around the fire pit. There are incredible views in every direction. This place gets five star reviews from every guest.
Check price and availability at Hawks View House here.
Or see a list of the top 18 best Joshua Tree vacation rentals here.
8. Santa Cruz in December
You can’t spell Santa Cruz without Santa!
Santa Cruz is a beautiful California town to visit in December filled with so many fun things to do. It’s another one of the best places to travel or visit in winter.
And it’s not just for humans coming to the party, but animals too!
Late December is the time of year when elephant seals return to Año Nuevo State Park to mate. The beaches there are filled with 5,000 lb males barking for attention.
Monarch butterflies return to the coastal groves of Natural Bridges Park. On warm days, they fill the air, but when it gets colder, they gather in mass on the branches.
Santa Cruz is also home to surfing in California. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum commemorates the first surfing trip from three Hawaiian princes who surf these breaks in 1885.
Check the surfing reports for when the big winter waves are coming to Mavericks, just up the coast in Half Moon Bay. Mere mortals shouldn’t attempt these 25′ monsters, but it’s fun to watch.
The town of Santa Cruz offers weekend Christmas celebrations at the Boardwalk—an iconic seaside amusement park—and even a skating rink.
At night, the Roaring Springs Railroad converts into the Holiday Light Train. Ride to the redwoods in style as you sip cider and sing carols.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
Hilton Scotts Valley! It’s just minutes from beaches and the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Check price and availability at Hilton here.
Otherwise, stay in a stylish and modern surf shack and walk to the beach. Comes with beach cruisers! Check price and availability on the modern surf shack here.
Jenn and Ed | Coleman Concierge
9. Eastern Sierras in December
The backside of the Sierras in the wintertime is breathtaking and just a few short hours drive from Los Angeles Metro area.
You really get a different take of what California looked like and still does in this region of the Sierras with memorable views, a national park to explore at Death Valley, and world-class skiing if you are in an adventure mode.
There are so many wonderful natural landscapes to explore here.
Or just stop at many of the really cool western-inspired towns that dot the major highway I395 going from south all the way north to Lake Tahoe area.
You will enjoy the cooler temperatures in December, especially in extremely hot places like Death Valley which can reach temperatures over 110 degrees in summer.
This makes a great stop on an Eastern Sierra road trip.
There are many unique places to visit like Manzanar (the internment camp for Japanese during World War II), the Alabama Hills and the tallest mountain in California at Mount Whitney.
Where to stay in the Eastern Sierras
Best Western Inn in Bishop! If you are looking for a central location to stay along the way on I395, think about basing in Bishop where there are plenty of options.
The Best Western Inn in Bishop is clean, roomy and affordable. Check price and availability here.
Noel | Travel Photo Discovery
10. Monterey in December
Monterey has long been a popular beachside town, a perfect stop for those completing the Pacific Highway 1 drive.
During December, Monterey is home to crisp days and whilst you might encounter some rain, a lot of this will come in the form of romantic Monterey fog.
Aside from some of the grandest homes you could wish for along the beach, the most popular attraction here is the iconic Monterey Aquarium, in particular, its tall tanks filled with luminescent jellyfish.
Or book a half-day whale watching trip.
A half an hour drive south and you’ll be across the iconic Bixby Bridge.
This bridge is well known along the Pacific Coast Highway and deserves a visit when you’re in Monterey.
Fans of the TV show Big Little Lies will recognize it immediately, with that series based in Monterey.
Whilst a visit in December might still require you to rug up, visiting with fewer visitors than the peak summertime affords an enjoyable trip.
Where to stay in Monterey
The Spindrift Inn! Located on Monterey’s Cannery Row amongst a host of restaurants and bars in the former sardine factories, get a room with a sea view and wake up to the waves crashing outside your window. Check price and availability at The Spindrift Inn here.
Or stay in an oceanfront townhome at Lover’s Point and watch sunsets from your window. Check price and availability on the oceanfront townhome here.
Jeff and Kristen | Our Passion for Travel
11. Hollywood in December
December is a great time to visit Hollywood, the temperatures are perfect as the humidity drops and there’s still a whole host of great attractions for both locals and tourists.
During your visit, we recommend checking out the Hollywood Christmas Parade. The parade takes place every year on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and travels along a 2.5-mile route. There’s plenty of complimentary viewing areas; alternatively, you can reserve a prime viewing spot online in advance for a small fee.
Or book a tour of this iconic destination. From tours of celebrity homes to Hollywood after dark, the options are endless and fascinating.
No trip to Hollywood is complete without a trip to the Dolby Theatre to watch a performance of The Nutcracker by the LA Ballet. This annual performance has been taking place in the theatre since 2006 and has a wide range of seating options to accommodate all budgets.
If you’re looking for a great meal out during your visit, then I’d suggest visiting Cal Mare. Not only does the restaurant offer incredible Italian coastal-inspired cuisine, but it also helps to support the LA Region Food Bank by rewarding guests to a free cocktail or dessert if they bring along an Italian inspired non-perishable item to donate to the cause.
Where to stay in Hollywood
The W Hollywood! This four-star hotel gets consistently great reviews, is in a perfect location for exploring the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, and has a wonderful range of fantastic amenities. Check price and availability on The W here.
Or, stay in a chic and modern house just minutes from the sunset strip. Check price and availability here.
Cora | Inside Our Suitcase
12. Paso Robles in December
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the legendary historical El Camino Real trail is the wine region of Paso Robles.
With more than 250 wineries, any time is a great time to visit Paso Robles. Don’t want to drink and drive? Book an all-inclusive wine tasting tour!
December is especially nice because you won’t find Paso Robles as busy as the summer months.
Beyond the world-class wine, you’ll find top-notch breweries, craft distilleries, and elevated eateries.
As Paso Robles continues to grow with its ever-increasing popularity as a wine region, it has kept its small-town charm.
This is seen at the various events you’ll find in December including the Adelaida Cellar’s Walnut & Wine Festival.
The farm has over 700 acres of walnuts and is one of California’s largest walnut ranches. The festival celebrates the walnut harvest with wine and food pairings.
Another fun December event is the Vine St. Victorian Showcase. Thirteen blocks of Vine Street feature beautifully restored Victorian houses that are lit up for the holidays!
For more ideas on what to do in Paso Robles in December and current event dates, check out Travel Paso.
Where to stay in Paso Robles
Allegretto Vineyard Resort! It’s a charming luxury hotel that won’t break the bank. Check price and availability at Allegretto here.
Or stay in Beer Haven, an adorable cottage whose decor is a tribute to local craft breweries. Check price and availability on Beer Haven here.
Alexa | 52 Perfect Days
13. Long Beach in December
Long Beach is located roughly 25 miles south of Los Angeles proper and is a hidden gem of activities for visitors of all ages.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Long Beach experienced a revitalization and has since become a worthwhile destination of its own.
While some may wonder about visiting a beach town in December, much of what is unique about Long Beach is its proximity to the beach.
Visitors can easily spend a day visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific, which provides abundant opportunities to view sea life up close, followed by an afternoon harbor boat ride departing from the Rainbow Harbor Marina.
The late afternoon and evening is a perfect opportunity to visit Shoreline Village, which is full of quaint shops and dining options in all price ranges.
Don’t miss a tour of The Queen Mary while you’re here!
Where to stay in Long Beach
Stay in an upscale beach cottage nestled inside a serene garden. This place is a steal. Check price and availability at the Long Beach cottage here.
Nancy | We Go with Kids
14. Disneyland in December
Planning a trip to California during the month of December?
Let me tell you about a little local secret: Disneyland in December is one of the most magical times to visit.
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is enveloped in a blanket of snow, restaurants pull out all the stops with delectable treats, and joyous wishes can be heard all throughout the resort.
Here’s how to avoid the crowds:
Tip #1: Stay at a Disneyland Resort Hotel! You’ll take advantage of Magic Mornings, an early admission option…in fact, a full hour before the general public!
Tip #2: Visit early in the month and avoid weekends. Local schools are in session until mid-December and Thanksgiving holiday-goers usually vacate the resort by December 1.
Also, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays tend to have fewer crowds and shorter wait times for rides.
Tip #3: Arrive early in the morning. If you’re just visiting Disneyland for the day, plan on arriving before the park opens.
If you’re planning on driving to the park and leaving your car, aim to arrive a full hour before the park opens to avoid a full parking lot.
Tip #4: Invest in a FastPass. FastPass is a ticket that saves your place in line, leaving you free to enjoy other attractions.
The base option for a FastPass is free, with a paid digital option also available.
Tip #5: Discover the off-the-beaten-track attractions. Have you ever heard of Tom Sawyer’s Island? Star Wars Launch Bay? Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes?
Take a ride around the park on the Disneyland Railroad to rest your feet and get away from the crowds!
By arriving early to Disneyland, even during the holiday season, you can avoid the crowds and still experience the Happiest Place on Earth!”
Where to stay at Disneyland
Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel! It’s my personal favorite. Check price and availability at The Grand Californian here.
Or, stay in the Disney magic dream house, just across the street from Disneyland. Check price and availability on the magic dream house here.
Rachelle | Adventure is Never Far Away
Winter in California is lovely.
Whether you’re sunning in Palm Springs or skiing Lake Tahoe’s fresh powder, California makes the perfect winter vacation destination.
The best places to travel in December are the ones that call to you. The Golden State always delivers with its soft desert colors, world-famous coastline, and pristine beaches.
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