10 Things to Do in San Francisco in January

With Christmas just ending, you may be excited to visit San Francisco, a city that despite the winter, is usually warmer than others in the United States.

Carmen Navarro

Carmen Navarro

9 min read

10 Things to Do in San Francisco in January

San Francisco | ©Mathieu Marquer

Although it may not seem like it, January is a really fun month to visit San Francisco. Gone is the Christmas season where there are celebrations and lights everywhere, but the joy of the new year is felt in every corner of the city.

So, to the list of things to see and do in San Francisco on a regular basis, you can add events like the Chinese New Year celebration and various art festivals, important commemorations, parades and even food festivals.

1. See gray whales in San Francisco Bay

San Francisco Bay| ©Fabrice Florin
San Francisco Bay| ©Fabrice Florin

In southern San Francisco, during the month of January, you can go gray whale watching. It is common to see them at other times, but especially in January when they come to the South Bay.

January is the breeding season for this type of whales, so you will not only see the adult whales, but also their calves.

This is a truly beautiful natural spectacle that you can't miss if you visit San Francisco in January, when the temperatures start to drop to give way to winter. After the whale watching you can book a cruise in the San Francisco Bay and finish enjoying the area.

Details of interest

  • Location: from Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf.
  • How to get there? By any bus route that will take you directly to the pier.
  • Cost: it's free to visit the harbor.
  • Date and time: check the official website of the American Cetacean Society.

Book a San Francisco Brunch Cruise

2. Taste great food during restaurant week

San Francisco Restaurants| ©Alex Bellink
San Francisco Restaurants| ©Alex Bellink

Restaurant Week is a week-long event where you can try some of San Francisco's most renowned restaurants at a special price.

To find out which restaurants will be participating in the event, you should go to the official website of the event.

In this restaurant week you will have the chance to try different foods, some very typical of San Francisco and other more international options. As for the chefs who prepare each of the dishes, they are professionals of international stature.

Details of interest

  • How to get there: the address is that of each of the participating restaurants.
  • Cost: entrance to the restaurants is free, consumption has a base price that is known close to the date of the event.
  • Date and time: the last week of January and is usually available for lunch and dinner.
  • If you're left wanting more... Book a food tour in San Francisco and discover the best food tours in the city.

Book a food tour of San Francisco

3. Visit the San Francisco Zoo

San Francisco Zoo| ©Willis Lam
San Francisco Zoo| ©Willis Lam

While this is an activity you can do any time of the year, one of my favorite times to go to the Zoo is January because the number of visitors decreases considerably.

If you want to have an even better experience, I recommend going between 10:00 and 14:00. In this time slot the traffic of people inside the enclosure is even lower and you will have the opportunity to see how the keepers feed the animals.

If you book tickets to the San Francisco Zoo during the first days of January, hopefully you will still be able to see the Christmas lights that usually decorate the place during the Christmas season.

Details of interest

  • Location: Sloat Blvd &, Upper Great Hwy, San Francisco, CA 94132, USA
  • Cost: from $22.
  • Hours*: daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm.

San Francisco Zoo ticket reservation

4. Have fun with the arrival of the sea lions

Sea Lions at Pier 39| ©Ken Lund
Sea Lions at Pier 39| ©Ken Lund

Other animals that begin to arrive in large numbers at the port of San Francisco in January are the sea lions. The arrival of these species is a real spectacle if you are a nature lover.

The inhabitants of the areas near the pier have a deep respect for these animals and do not miss the opportunity to show the spectacle to visitors.

This is an excellent opportunity to take many pictures of you enjoying one of the most traditional activities of the San Francisco Bay.

Details of interest

  • Location: at Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf, where the Sea Lion Pier is located.
  • How to get there. It's easy to locate the pier because of the amount of activities you'll see in the area.
  • Cost: completely free.
  • Date and time: go to the official website of the Marine Life Conservation Institute.

Book your San Francisco boat tour

5. Enjoy FOG Design+Art

FOG Design+Art| ©Steve Jurvetson
FOG Design+Art| ©Steve Jurvetson

You'll love the FOG Design+Art exhibition if you have a real affinity for art and especially design. It takes place at Fort Mason in the Festival Pavilion, where a large number of designs presented by galleries from all over the country are on display.

You can appreciate works of art made of felt, glass, bronze and even ceramics. The theme can change according to the inspiration of the artists participating in the exhibition, so you will surely be surprised with each of the representations.

If you like this type of art I also recommend you to book tickets for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is one of the largest in the United States and has both modern and contemporary works.

Details of interest

  • How to get there? By bus you have to get off at Chestnut St. & Laguna St. which is the closest station to get to Fort Mason.
  • Cost: from 175 euros.
  • Date and time: from Thursday to Saturday of the exhibition week from 11:00 to 19:00. Sunday from 11:00 to 17:00.

Book tickets to MOMA San Francisco

6. Ice skating to say goodbye to the season

Ice skating in San Francisco| ©Scazon
Ice skating in San Francisco| ©Scazon

San Francisco is a really warm city with a rather short winter season, so going ice skating is not always an option, also considering that seeing snow in the city is extremely rare.

However, that's what the city's ice skating rinks are for, and in January, being the off-season, there are fewer tourists on site.

Without a doubt, ice skating is one of the must-see and do things to do in San Francisco in winter.

Details of interest

  • Where to go? The Union Square rink is the most recommended and is open until January 15.
  • How to get there? You can use public transportation to get to the heart of Union Square, between Geary and Powell Streets.
  • Cost: from $18 euros.
  • Date and time: until January 15 between 10:00 and 23:00 every day.
  • Tip: book online as there may not be immediate availability in Union Square.

7. Celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year, San Francisco| ©Carnaval Studios
Chinese New Year, San Francisco| ©Carnaval Studios

Since 1860, the arrival of the Chinese New Year in San Francisco has been synonymous with a great celebration that extends throughout the month of January and even the first days of February.

Although it is true that the Chinese New Year can change its date year after year, being in January or February, in San Francisco this celebration always begins in January.

This celebration has to be included among the interesting things to see and do in Chinatown, a neighborhood where you can find a festive atmosphere throughout the month, in addition to having the opportunity to see and learn about Chinese traditions more closely and taste its extensive cuisine.

Interesting details

  • How to get there? You can go by public transport or, if you are staying near the neighborhood, take a walk there.
  • Cost: free, but consumption is chargeable, depending on what you want to consume.
  • Date and time: during the whole month of January, every day from morning to night.

Carmen's Traveller Tip

The colorfulness of this celebration is one of the things that catches my attention and that is why I recommend you to include it in the list of things to see and do in San Francisco with kids, because they usually enjoy the great amount of color and the parades.

8. Participate in the Hot Chocolate Run

Hot Chocolate Run| ©Nicki Dugan Pogue
Hot Chocolate Run| ©Nicki Dugan Pogue

If you are a chocolate lover but also love healthy living, working out and running marathons, then this is definitely a must do activity in San Francisco in January.

Just coming out of the holiday season, the Hot Chocolate Run offers you the opportunity to run 5, 10 or 15 kilometers and then eat lots of chocolate.

The whole family can participate and children from 8 years old accompanied by adults. And if you do not want to participate you can always go to the chocolate exhibition where you can find this product in all its presentations.

Details of interest

  • Starting point: usually at the Golden Gate
  • How to get there? Using public transportation with any of the lines leading to the Golden Gate or use a private car.
  • Cost: varies from year to year, so I recommend you visit their official site. The exhibition is free of charge.
  • Date and time: Friday and Saturday at the beginning of the month. The race starts at 7:00, while the exhibitions start Friday at 15:00 and Saturday at 10:00.

9. Attend the Martin Luther King Parades

Yerba Buena Gardens| ©Marc Smith
Yerba Buena Gardens| ©Marc Smith

Martin Luther King's birthday is January 15, and the people of San Francisco celebrate this date annually to pay tribute to the legacy of America's living civil rights fighter.

This is one of the celebrations that I recommend you not to miss because of the colorful parades, the musical concerts that are usually held in commemoration of MLK and the historical importance given by the inhabitants.

Also, if you love music and concerts, you can not miss the annual concert held in his honor.

Details of interest

  • Location: Yerba Buena Gardens
  • How to get there? Go to Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Street on South of Market Street.
  • Cost: free.
  • Date and time: during the second week of January, from morning to evening hours.

10. Have a good laugh at the SF Sketchfest

SF Sketchfest| ©Daniel Hartwig
SF Sketchfest| ©Daniel Hartwig

SF Sketchfest is a comedy festival that has become a true tradition since it began in 2002.

Of course, in order to have fun with the comedy shows, you must know how to speak English. But in case you don't know, this show also offers varied musical options for you to enjoy the atmosphere.

Some of the musical offerings propose artists on stage performing as soloists, playing some instruments or any other kind of musical activity. But in case you know the language, you can also enjoy the improvisation show that is usually so popular during this festival.

Details of interest

  • Location: in the Brava Studio on Mission Street
  • How to get there? By public transportation stopping at the Hampshire St. & 24th St. station.
  • Cost: some events are free, but for others you have to buy tickets and I recommend you to do it on the official website.
  • Date and time: from the first to the third week of January at night.

This is how San Francisco temperatures are in January

San Francisco| ©edward stojakovic
San Francisco| ©edward stojakovic

Although San Francisco is a city characterized by very short winters and warm temperatures most of the year, winter usually brings low temperatures ranging from 8º to 14º.

In January specifically, the city is leaving winter behind, so temperatures are usually positioned between 9º and 15º approximately.

San Francisco tourist arrivals in January

Streetcars in San Francisco| ©Pom
Streetcars in San Francisco| ©Pom

January is the off-season, so the number of tourists in the city is usually very low compared to the Christmas season or the vacation season.

Except for the weather conditions, January would be an ideal time to visit the city and see its most popular attractions, given the low number of people in those places.

What to pack to visit San Francisco in January?

Ready to go| ©Martijn van Exel
Ready to go| ©Martijn van Exel

In winter in San Francisco it rains frequently, so the essential things to pack in your suitcase are clothes that cover you from the cold and waterproof garments, which will protect you from the rain at all times.

In addition, I would recommend you to bring:

  • Sunglasses to protect your eyes from the wind, which usually blows strongly in January in the city.
  • Closed-toed shoes and boots are must-haves in your suitcase if you expect to visit San Francisco during January.