This empty-nester is no Grinch. I love the holidays, especially when celebrating with family and friends. However, now that there’s a toddler in the family and another grandchild on the way, I can see my holiday spirits will focus on the younger set next year. Not one for wasting time, this season the ‘adulting’ commenced with these holiday lights and special cocktail spots around the San Diego area.

Reflections on a pond during the nighttime Lightscape holiday lights show in San Diego

Reflections during the holiday light show, Lightscape.


This is the first year that the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas lent the property to Lightscape, an “internationally acclaimed light show” with over a million lights illuminating the pathways. I signed my grown up family up for the trek that covered a half mile of displays. In the dim light, it wouldn’t be a safe experience for toddlers although I saw more than one ambitious parent pushing a stroller. There were several places to stop for drinks, both alcoholic and non. Benches were set strategically. All well and decently, but I left wondering who was doing the “acclaiming?”

Read about other light shows in Southern California from this earlier post.

The show has lovely sections but the overall impression was generic. Lightscape has been set up in different cities around the world. I felt that the most unique aspects of the Botanic Garden in Encinitas were ignored. Perhaps my expectations were skewed. Years ago, I attended their holiday lights show with my young son. We hiked around the park sipping hot chocolate, visited with Santa, and enjoyed the garden in between the shadows.

Lightscape was inconsistent with music and heavy on dim pathways.  Tickets were supposedly set for timed entries, not cheap, and then parking was an additional $20. Still, the event was overly crowded throughout as we waited to enter to park, to get into the event, and then exit. We left the garden underwhelmed. However, if you are looking for an experience that lends itself to Instagram poses and then pair the stroll with dinner elsewhere in the area, it could make a nice date night. Lightscape tickets are available here.

San Diego Theme Parks with Light Shows

San Diegans with Annual Park passes can indulge in the holiday shows at the region’s theme parks with affordable ease.

The Zoo and Safari Park have entertainment, shows, and carolers through January 1st.

Those wishing to extend their gift budgets, might consider visiting Belmont Park for carnival fun and then drinks or dinner upstairs at Cannonball with its sweeping vistas, or other dining spots along the boardwalk.

Entrance to the Fairmont Grand Del Mar holiday park.

Entrance to the Fairmont Grand Del Mar holiday park.

Hotel Extravaganzas

Hotel Del Coronado outdoes itself each year with a giant tree in the main lobby covered in theme decorations. Outdoors there’s a beach-side ice-skating rink, plus a generous dollop of drinking and dining options throughout the property.

The Fairmont Grand Del Mar has transformed its parkland adjacent to the hotel into a holiday experience. Wander the lawn along a row of private bungalows, s’mores pits, and a glice rink (non-ice.) It’s free to meander but be prepared for $40 s’mores kits (four house-made marshmallows, with additional, generic ones available by request.) Rink-side seating is available by reservation. It makes a nice, new holiday excursion, especially if you spring for cocktails or dinner in the beautifully decorated hotel.

The Rancho Bernardo Inn is very proud of the giant gingerbread decorations in their lobby. “Over a thousand pounds of flour and sugar!” I plan an excursion just to get a gander at the scale!

Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad has another “famous” gingerbread house in their lobby, plus there’s a Cocoa Cabana.

Torrey Pines Lodge always decorates in an opulent Craftsman style. It’s one of my favorite hotels anytime of year – elegant but welcoming. The A.R. Valentien Restaurant has a menu with Hanukkah-inspired dishes for each evening.

Cutwater Distillery new Bali Hai Mixer

Cutwater Distillery new Bali Hai Mixer

Holiday Spirits in East Village and North County

Cutwater Tasting Room and Kitchen

There are many reasons to explore the Miramar (Beeramar!) area in northeast San Diego but none so holiday bright as the Cutwater Tasting Room and Kitchen. I tried several of their holiday cocktails (sips, mind you,) and was delighted by the detail and flavor. Well worth stopping by and their menu is lovely too.

You & Yours Distillery espresso martini made with their new Up and At Em Liqueur

You & Yours Distillery espresso martini made with their new Up and At Em Liqueur

You and Yours Distillery

Looking for a quietly cozy place with dynamite cocktails? I adore the You & Yours tasting room in San Diego’s East Village for its ambiance and style.  Their new Up and At ‘Em coffee liqueur is amazing with notes of vanilla, cinnamon and espresso. It’s absolutely gift-worthy – perfect for a brunch menu or afternoon sip. The distillery is notable also for being woman-owned and run. That kindles my holiday spirits too.

Pop Up Prowling

Last but not least on this grown-up holiday playlist are the quirky and fun pop-ups that delight visually as well as taste-fully.

Selections in the Oslo Sardine Bar in San Diego.

One night’s selections in the Oslo Sardine Bar in San Diego.

Oslo Sardine Bar

It’s only open on Thursdays so mark your calendar to visit the Oslo Sardine Bar in Sea Port Village. As much performance art as nutritious, this brain-child of Max Daily has been serving curated, canned sardines since well before the pandemic times. Max held on and is always planning the next expansion, but for this season his Fishmas on Dec. 22nd will warm the coldest pirate’s heart. Here’s a link to my article about the spot for Edible San Diego magazine.

Everyone tells me that the “Over the Top Holiday Lounge” spreading across the highest floor of the Grand Hyatt downtown is adorable. The Christmas-y drinks look amazing on Instagram and the décor is cabin-core sweet.  @grandhyattsandiego  @topofthehyatt

Holiday Spirits Downtown, Hillcrest, and Pacific Beach

I’ve been a fan of the Grass Skirt Speakeasy in Pacific Beach for the great Tiki décor (Save Saturday nights for the college coed crowd.) This year they’ve collaborated with Sipping Santa and “tropical holiday-themed cocktails are center stage.” If you’re hankering for a stiff sip from a surfing Santa mug, this is the place.

Polite Provisions has definitely indulged in holiday spirits with the Miracle Pop-Up that’s taken over their 30th and Adams location. It’s been going strong since November and runs through January 3rd. With ten seasonal cocktails at $12 each it’s definitely one of the more affordable holiday menus.

The Pendry Hotel‘s corner beer hall, Nason’s, is bubbling over with holiday décor. In partnership with their friends, the ‘Tipsy Elves,’ they also host a small shop and ‘festive entertainment’ on select evenings. I’m glad Santa gave his helpers time off to play.

There are of course, many other great holiday excursions and menus around San Diego. Much depends on what you’re looking for, your budget, and your tolerance level for crowds. Seasonal collaborations will continue throughout the year too, because whether on the beach or indoors, San Diego knows how to party.