Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, San Francisco’s always-jumping Union Square ups its game. A towering Christmas tree aglow with thousands of lights and ornaments rises from its center. Skaters whirl around an ice rink, grooving to holiday and pop music. Street performers entertain in and around the square. Festivities include Hanukkah menorah lightings and an annual Drag Queens on Ice show (Dec. 5). Last year, as we have almost every holiday season for a decade, my daughter and I joined in Union Square’s merry madness. We checked out the dazzling window displays of the department stores that rim the square. Fluff trumped bling at Macy’s, where kittens and puppies available for adoption played and snoozed in the windows, charming a large crowd. We also toured some of the area’s decked-out hotel lobbies. The elaborate sugar castle at the Westin St. Francis didn’t disappoint. And the short but steep climb up Nob Hill to see the Fairmont’s two-story gingerbread house was worth the effort. (Hop a Powell Street cable car or hail a taxi if you’re not up for a workout.) The tab: About $220 for a one-night hotel stay, plus $125 for meals.
We bunked at the elegant Palace Hotel, built in 1875 and just a five-minute walk from Union Square. Our room’s contemporary leather headboards, dark furniture, and muted gray-and-cream palette blended with the crown molding and other original architectural details. The Palace’s public spaces retain their Old World splendor, thanks to soaring marble columns, graceful archways and Austrian crystal chandeliers. My daughter loved the large indoor swimming pool with its skylight roof.
We stuck with tradition and ate at the Rotunda, a swanky spot for lunch or tea, on the fourth floor of Neiman Marcus. I usually go for the satisfying NM chicken salad. This time, I tried the pappardelle pasta with red wine-braised short ribs. It was rich and filling, especially after indulging in the popovers that come with every meal. Snagging a coveted table overlooking Union Square is tough during the holidays. Luckily, the Christmas tree that stretches from the ground floor through the dining room’s circular opening is just as mesmerizing, as is the ornate stained-glass dome ceiling.
After lunch, we strolled the Astroturf-carpeted stretch of Stockton Street known as Winter Walk SF. Holiday revelers have replaced vehicles in the pop-up park the last five years. Family-friendly entertainment and food trucks rule here. Adult treats include craft cocktails, beer and wine. This year’s event runs through Dec. 31 on Grant Avenue between Geary and Post streets.
THE LESSON LEARNED
If you want to skate, hit the rink early for prime ice conditions and sparser crowds.
Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco; (415) 512-1111. 553 rooms, including wheelchair-accessible accommodations, from about $210 during the holidays.
The Rotunda, 150 Stockton St., San Francisco; (415) 249-2720. Open for lunch and afternoon tea; see website for holiday hours.
Union Square Ice Rink, 333 Post St., San Francisco; (415) 781-2688. Skating through Jan. 20. Visit website for tickets and hours.