The San Francisco Dickens Fair is an annual Christmas-themed event, creating a Victorian-themed fantasy. According to the event's website, it's "one of the most elaborate, inventive and authentically-Victorian Christmas events anywhere in the world." That might be a bit of an overstatement, but it is a fun, cheerful environment that visitors sometimes travel long distances to enjoy.
The Dickens Fair Event
Every year since 1970, the San Francisco Dickens Fair has entertained local residents with a taste of Victorian Christmas traditions. For five weeks before the holiday, the San Francisco Cow Palace turns into a bustling, 19th Century London street scene. It's a big production, covering over 120,000 square feet. It's an elaborate party to say the least, with hundreds of costumed players.
Inside, you'll find seven stages of entertainment and costumed characters in the streets. Taking its cues from the works of Charles Dickens, many of the characters are drawn from his stories and you're likely to meet Scrooge, Oliver Twist or David Copperfield walking down the street.
Besides all the entertainment, you have a beer or other liquid refreshment at four traditional pubs, or enjoy a cup of hot tea and cucumber sandwiches at Cuthbert's Tea House. Many of the food stands feature British-style classics like bangers and mash, meat pies, fish and chips or roasted chestnuts. And if all that isn't enough, you can even start your holiday shopping at any of dozens of shops.
Some attendees get into the spirit of things, wearing Victorian-style costumes. It isn't required, but if you want to join in, they ask you not to come dressed as characters from Dickens novels and you'll find more costume information here.
- The Dickens Fair runs for five weekends, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving
- Dickens Fair website
- Admission is charged. Reservations are not required, but buying tickets online in advance will save you money. Parking is extra and paid at the venue.
The Dickens Fair Venue
The Dickens Fair is held at the Cow Palace at 2600 Geneva Avenue in Daly City, south of San Francisco. It takes place in its the historic Exhibition Halls just down the hill from the main building, in surroundings that event organizers say are reminiscent of London's Covent Garden.
Crowd Factor at the Dickens Fair
This popular event can draw big crowds, but when we attended on a Sunday morning in early December, it was - as Goldilocks might say - just right. Enough people were there to make it seem festive and fun, but it wasn't so crowded that moving around was difficult.
Tips for Enjoying the Dickens Fair
- A few events require reservations: a sit-down meal at the The Tippling Toad and a few other entertainments. More info and reservation contacts are here.
- Many long-time attendees recommend arriving at opening time to get ahead of the crowds, but we found it easy to get in (and around) when we arrived shortly before noon on Sunday.
- If you arrive early enough, you may be able to find parking on the street and avoid that expense.
- Bring cash for the food and drinks, but most of the retail shops accept credit cards.
- You can leave the fair and re-enter if you get a hand stamp on your way out.
- Leave the pets at home. They won't be allowed inside.
- The fair is accessible if you have mobility challenges and they rent wheelchairs by the half-day if you need one.
Likes and Dislikes
The Dickens Fair is a popular event among many local area residents, who enjoy dressing up in Victorian-style clothing. It's also fun for visitors.
We liked the fun atmosphere, the variety of things to see and do and the good-natured, nostalgic ambiance. We're guessing that Dickens' London may not have been quite like the Dickens Fair, but it's still fun to spend some time thinking of a bygone era.
The shops we dropped into had well-made merchandise, reminiscent of the era, making it a good place for a bit of holiday shopping if the people your on list would enjoy what you find. Food was tasty and reasonably prices compared to similar events.
We spent an hour walking around, browsing and having a bite to eat. If you sat down to watch all the shows, stopped in all the shops and had a full meal, you could easily be there for two to three hours.
How to Get to the Dickens Fair
Directions from all major highways are at the Dickens Fair website. They also have directions using public transit. The fair runs a free shuttle from the Glen Park BART station.
Tickets and Reservations for the Dickens Fair
If you stay more than a couple of hours, tickets are well worth the price, less expensive per hour than going to the movies.
Buy your tickets online through the first few days of December and get a discount. Children aged 12 and under get discounted admission and not convenience fee is charged for their tickets. Senior and military discounts are also available.
If you're looking for more ways to celebrate the holidays, try this guide to Christmas in San Francisco, browse through these photos of Union Square at Christmas or see what's going on in other parts of the state in the guide to California at Christmas.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of reviewing the Dickens Fair. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.