The best festivals in San Francisco

By: Lauren Hill

April 20, 2016

California’s breezy City by the Bay, San Francisco is famous worldwide for leading the way in embracing diversity, which is an attribute that’s resulted in an exceptionally vibrant and culturally rich community. This enthusiasm for culture, as well as for the arts, is exhibited year-round through an extraordinary abundance of festivals in San Francisco. Come summer, festival fever is heightened even further, as the fog once again drifts over the Golden Gate Bridge and the city welcomes a multitude of dynamic new events.

The year in cultural celebrations

The best festivals in San Francisco | Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year Parade and Celebration takes place in February each year © Flickr/torbakhopper


With its enviably mild climate, San Francisco is the setting for outdoor events year-round, and the city certainly knows how to throw a street party. Each year, this kicks off with the Chinese New Year Parade and Celebration. Named among the best in the world, the parade was established by San Francisco’s Chinese community as far back as the 1860s, and now draws the attention of hundreds of thousands of people for its dragon parade and Miss Chinatown USA competition. These parades then return with vigour in September for the San Francisco Chinatown AT&T Autumn Moon Festival.

The Union Street Spring Celebration & Easter Parade follows on from this in March. In its 26th year, the family event has proven resoundingly popular for its street parade and array of family activities. And in June the street is at the centre of San Francisco’s celebratory spirit again with a special showcase of arts and crafts, local food vendors and fashion, the Union Street Festival.

The best festivals in San Francisco | Cherry Blossom Festival
Spring sees the return of the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco © Flickr/–Mark–


As spring arrives in April, it’s Japantown that people flock to. Now in its 49th year, The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture through a series of activities and events. Embrace Japanese pop-culture in the Sakura 360 Area, watch the event’s Grand Parade, or try your hand at origami.

Latin American culture then comes into the spotlight in May with SF Cinco de Mayo. Latin American food, music, dance and the arts are all showcased, with the aim of retaining these traditions within the local community. And staying with the Latin theme throughout the month, the city plays host to Carnaval San Francisco, a two-day festival for which the 2016 theme is Viva La Madre Tierra, or Long Live Mother Earth.

The best festivals in San Francisco | Carnaval
Carnival San Francisco is a colourful celebration of Latin culture © David Yu

Festivals of music and the arts

Some of the best festivals in San Francisco celebrate music and the arts, spanning a range of disciplines and genres. It’s the SF Sketchfest comedy festival that takes place first in January, showcasing the talent of six Bay Area sketch comedy groups throughout the month. FOG Design+Art also takes place at this time; named after San Francisco’s climatic phenomenon, the event is a platform for contemporary art as it shifts and morphs to reveal its forms and dimensions.

The best festivals in San Francisco | San Fran Street Jazz Fest
See Taylor McFerrin at the San Francisco Jazz Festival 2016 © Simon Benjamin


Carrying over from May to June is the major San Francisco International Arts Festival, combining visual arts with performance, dance, music and theatre. And film festivals take place throughout the year, too, from the San Francisco Independent Film Festival in February, to the Ocean Film Festival (inspiring people to appreciate and care for the ocean) in March, the Food & Farm Film Festival (bringing the food and art worlds together) in April, and the San Francisco International Film Festival from April to May.

The best festivals in San Francisco | SF Jazz Festival
Zoe Keating will take to the stage in June at the San Francisco Jazz Festival © Claudeshade


While spanning an eclectic range of genres, the City by the Bay ensures jazz is well represented, with the June San Francisco Jazz Festival (SFJAZZ) and the Fillmore Jazz Festival in July. In September, music enthusiasts can soak up the sounds of San Francisco Opera in The Park, followed by both the Bay Area Blues Festival and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October. And just like the city’s cultural celebrations, these music events cross the globe for inspiration, including July’s Salsa Festival on The Fillmore.

For an event that encompasses all disciplines and genres, visitors can be a part of the free Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, which carries all the way through from May to October, and both the San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival and San Francisco Fringe Festival, which are on the cards in August each year.

The best festivals in San Francisco | Fillmore Jazz Festival
See some live music at the Fillmore Jazz Festival © Flickr/Charles Wagner

A gamut of gastronomic festivities

Naturally, San Francisco’s culinary scene reflects its global influence, too, spanning the gastronomic spectrum from rustic street food to fine dining. The popular four-day event in August, Eat Drink SF, displays this multiplicity through food, wine and spirits exhibits, with top chefs on hand to share their culinary knowledge. For casual cuisine, San Francisco Street Food Festival – which takes place in the same month – is hard to beat, as it aims to connect the people of San Francisco with their local food vendors.

The best festivals in San Francisco | San Fran Street Food
San Francisco Street Food Festival is a great way to discover local vendors © sf_foodphoto/iStock


With wine regions like Napa Valley on the doorstep, it’s only natural that some of the best-loved festivals in San Francisco celebrate the grape. In February, The Zinfandel Experience kicks off; claiming to be the world’s largest single varietal wine tasting event, the Zinfandel Experience enables ticket holders to meet each of the winemakers in person. In May, there’s also the all-varietal Uncorked – The San Francisco Wine Festival. Here, top tier wines are paired with local food, while live music performances take place in the event’s Ghirardelli Square setting.

The best festivals in San Francisco
Sample top quality local wines at the San Francisco Wine Festival © zoranm/iStock


Beer gourmands have several reasons to celebrate, too, starting with the citywide week of beer appreciation in January, San Francisco Beer Week (which in its last edition had 288 venues take part, hosting everything from meet the brewer nights to beer dinners). Bay Area Brew Festival follows in March, in which both local and international breweries are represented. And naturally, the city gets behind the great German tradition of Oktoberfest as well, with German beer, music and food at Oktoberfest By The Bay.

Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow, making it easier to join in on the city’s festivities.

Have you experienced any of these festivals in San Francisco? Let us know in the comments section below.

Lauren Hill

Between living in Japan, Singapore and London, Lauren has spent the past few years working as an editor, sub-editor and travel and lifestyle writer, with a focus on luxury and adventure travel. She is currently based in London, exploring the city’s eating and drinking scene and seeking out its outdoor green spaces.

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