San Diego Bay Parade of LightsEspecially good for: Limited budgets (free to watch)
How Long: Takes about 2 hours to pass one spot
More Info: Parade of Lights Website
Since 1971, San Diego's boating community has been putting on the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights. Coastal Californians are familiar with the idea of a Christmas parade being held on water, with lighted and decorated boats standing in for traditional floats, but if you're from somewhere else, it's a sight you'll never forget. In fact, it's so much fun they do it twice, on two Sundays in December. Check their website for this year's schedule.
As many as 40,000 people turn out for each running of the parade, but with such a long parade route, it's not as crowded as you might think. Expect some crowds and parking will be harder to find than usual. If you're not already downtown, your best bet may be taking the San Diego Trolley to the Convention Center stop, then walk to Seaport Village or the Embarcadero Marina South. To get to the marina from the trolley station, go left around the Convention Center on Park Blvd and follow the road to the waterfront.
The parade kicks off with fireworks at 5:30 p.m.
The parade route starts at Shelter Island, runs past Harbor Island and the city waterfront, turns just before the Coronado Bridge and continues along the Coronado waterfront. To see it early, try Shoreline Park on Shelter Island or Harbor Island Drive Park. Next best places for viewing are around Seaport Village and the Embarcadero Marina (where it arrives about 7:00 p.m.) and where the boats pass close to shore. The best viewing area on Coronado is around the Ferry Landing (about 7:30). Piers and buildings downtown keep the boats further away, making them harder to from the main waterfront.
A fun way to see the parade from the water is on a boat. If you don't own one, Hornblower Cruises offers several options that include dinner and dancing while you cruise along with the parade.
A few restaurants along the route also offer good viewing, including Bali Hai on Shelter Island, Tom Ham's Lighthouse, Island Prime Restaurant, Anthony's Fish Grotto and the Fish Market. Seats are limited for this popular way to celebrate the holiday, so reserve early.
They do a similar (albeit smaller) parade over on Mission Bay, sponsored by the Mission Bay Yacht Club.