Ahoy, mateys! One of our very favorite December events here in America’s Finest City has always been the magnificent Parade of Lights San Diego.
It’s time to start planning to light up your holidays and catch the views of lavishly decorated boats cruising the San Diego harbor. It’s not only a longstanding favorite San Diego Holiday event, but it’s also a ton of fun!
Update: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the 2020 Bay Parade of Lights has been canceled. However, if you don’t want to miss out, you can go to Newport Beach for their Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. Book your tickets here>> And if you want to experience it from the water, you can even do a Holiday Lights Cruise!
History of the San Diego By Parade of Lights
Since 1969, spectators have been wowed by this iconic time-honored holiday tradition presented by the Port of San Diego. The San Diego boating community sports vessels of every size and shape taking to the night waters of our magnificent bay.
Boats come dressed to the nines with colorful lights, decorations, costumes, and music to fits each show’s yearly theme. Accompanied by the twinkling lights of the city skyline, the parade makes for a magical evening- one to share with family and friends.
A variety of prizes and awards are presented to the best decorated boats and those best capturing the parade’s theme. However as one Coronado participant exclaimed “We have so much fun just getting together to decorate our boat. We love the smiles and cheers from the crowd watching from the shoreline. Heck, I’d have bought a boat just to participate in this event.”
This holiday tradition has become so popular that it attracts more than 100,000 residents and visitors to multiple locations surrounding the waterfront. They come in droves to celebrate and enjoy the spectacle of more than 80 dazzlingly decorated and illuminated boats.
Participating in the Parade
Boat owners hoping to join the parade may register online. A $75 registration fee covers both nights of the parade, increasing to $100 after November 26.
However, due to current health restrictions, registrations have been temporarily paused as the Parade of Lights San Diego directors are in the process of applying for additional city and state permits. The website will be updated as new information is released.
Those who want to be on the water but not enter a boat in the parade can offer to be a ‘stake boat.’ These dedicated volunteers help marshal the parade along its their predetermined route.
2020 San Diego Parade of Lights Theme
Past themes of the parade have included “Comic-Con on the Bay,” “Tropical Island Christmas,” “Arrgh! A Pirates Christmas” and other enchanting and entertaining motifs and concepts.
Our 2020 theme celebrates “The Twelve Days of Christmas” based on the beloved carol that has its roots in 18th-century England. As such, the theme also represents the actual 12 calendar days of Christmas from December 25 (the birth of Jesus Christ) to the Epiphany on January 6 (commemorating the arrival of the Magi).
About the Parade
As in previous years, the 2020 Parade of Lights San Diego will be held on the consecutive Sunday evenings. Mark your calendars for December 13th and 20th. The event is absolutely free for spectators wishing to view the parade from various locations along the waterfront. The procession begins at 5:00 pm and runs approximately one-hour-and-a-half to two hours, depending on the number of boats participating.
Beginning at Shelter Island, the parade route follows a predetermined course past Harbor Island, heading south along the Embarcadero, cruising by Seaport Village and Cesar Chavez Park before turning parallel with the Coronado Bridge to the west side of the bay. The parade then proceeds along Coronado Island, finishing at Ferry Landing.
How to Get to the Parade
Due to increased traffic and the number of visitors the parade attracts, attendees are encouraged to utilize San Diego Public Transit, like the San Diego Trolley. All three trolley lines and bus lines provide drop-offs within a short walk of Harbor Drive. On Sundays, two children ages 12 and under ride free with each paid adult ticket. Transportation schedules and additional information are available on the Metropolitan Transit System website here.
Another fun option is to park downtown and hop on a Pedicab for transportation to the Embarcadero.
Those choosing to drive in should plan to arrive early as parking is limited both bayside and Coronado. Metered spaces are available along Harbor Drive, the parking lot of the Fish Market Restaurant north of Seaport Village, Harbor Island, and Shelter Island. Seaport Village and Allright Parking (at the corner of Broadway & Harbor) also offer paid parking.
Where to View the Parade
Landlubbers have several options for viewing the parade. These include Shelter Island, Harbor Island Park, The Embarcadero, Seaport Village, the Pier at Cesar Chavez Park, and the Coronado Ferry Landing. The website includes a map of the route and a viewing timeline of the parade procession.
Tips for Waterfront Viewing
December evenings in San Diego can sometimes get chilly. So, your best bet in dressing for the parade is to check the weather forecast, and then layer accordingly. Some years we’ve been in shorts with just a sweatshirt, others we needed both gloves and scarves!
Once again, plan to get to viewing spots early as these tend to fill up very quickly, especially along the Harbor Island area. This year with COVID restrictions, visitors will want to maintain the 6-feet-apart rule, and of course, make sure you bring your mask.
Pack a comfy chair, bring a warm blanket, fill a cooler with food and drinks (on cool nights it’s great to have a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate), and head to one of several viewing spots along the waterfront. A wagon also works wonders for hauling all the above items you’ll want for an evening of fun and enchantment!
Viewing the Parade of Lights from Waterfront Restaurants
Here’s an option we didn’t even think about until a few years back —making a reservation to dine at one of San Diego’s waterfront restaurants along the parade route. They do fill up early, so, you may want to consider booking NOW.
Here’s a few to check out:
- Tom Ham’s Lighthouse in Harbor Island Park
- Brigantine at Portside Pier Restaurant at The Embarcadero
- The Fish Market at The Embarcadero
- Harbor House in Seaport Village
- Peohe’s at Coronado Ferry Landing
Let the magic of a thousand lights gleaming off the water from festive boats bring joy to your holiday season.
Parade of Lights San Diego was written by Noreen Kompanik for SanDiegoExplorer.