Get California dreamin’ in holiday-style, during the west coast’s finest, chicest and brightest Christmas celebrations. From the smallest watercraft to fully decked out oceanside homes and fashion islands, the entire town of Newport Beach gets dressed up for the holidays to welcome visitors and embrace the spirit of the season. As a local luminary put it, they like to send a ‘Christmas card to the world’ in December, and pull out all the stops during this festive time of year. Get into the holiday spirit with our guide to 6 festive things to do in Newport Beach at Christmas.
6 Festive things to do in Newport Beach at Christmas
1. Christmas Boat Parade
The largest and oldest (114 years) lighted holiday boat parade in the United States, the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is the community’s signature holiday event. With seasonal music, fireworks, and an estimated 1 million lights installed on the participating boats, this annual spectacle is one of the most unique Christmas traditions in America. The family-friendly festival is a wonderful way to enjoy the season of Christmas in Newport Beach.
The more than 100 participating boats are all shapes and sizes, from mega-yachts to sailboats and even canoes and kayaks. They’re all individual and not corporate boats, with some owners spending more than $50,000 to kit out their craft with lights, moving installations and sound systems. Think moving carousel, Ferris wheel and a lighted roller coaster, on a boat, and you get the idea. The Parade is judged, so it makes sense that some owners go big for bragging rights.
Find a great place to stay in Newport Beach
An excellent place to view the Parade is Marina Park on the Balboa Peninsula. There’s a wide sand beach, lighthouse, playground and grassy area to park some chairs, sit and enjoy the parade float by during its 2 1/2 hour loop through the bay. You’ll hear plenty of oohs and aahs as spectacular boats go past, as well as lots of crowd interactions, making for a fun and festive atmosphere for everyone.
If you go… Get your parade viewing spot early before the sun goes down and festivities begin at 5:30 PM. Dress warmly and bundle up. It gets cool by the water at night. If you want to watch the Parade from a harborside restaurant, book your table early for one of the five nights of the event. Or set up at the parade turnaround point near Corona del Mar State Beach.
Fun fact: The Lead Boat announces Merry Christmas more than 4,000 times over the course of 5 nights. We trust he’s lubricating his throat with candy canes and gumdrops.
2. Captain a Duffy Boat on a Harbor Cruise
Head to Balboa Boat Rentals to rent an electric-powered Duffy boat to toodle around the calm waters of Newport harbor. The rental period is a minimum two hours, which allows for enough time to fully loop the bay and maybe even catch surfers at the Wedge near the beach. Anyone with a license can rent and pilot the little boats around Newport Beach Harbor.
Bring aboard a picnic of snacks and drinks to enjoy with friends, and don’t miss checking out the stunning homes, boats and yachts dressed up for the holidays on the many islands in the bay. If you’re into celebrity home spotting, look for the original home of Shirley Temple, and the former property of John Wayne, the “Duke.”
When you return your Duffy boat, check out the Balboa Fun Zone arcade and carousel on the Balboa Peninsula. The kids will enjoy the carnival-style fun.
3. Visit Balboa Island
You can visit picturesque Balboa Island anytime of year, but during the holiday season, the quaint homes and lovely downtown shopping street are festive and bright with Christmas finery.
You can access the island via the bridge, or by the Balboa Island ferry that goes between the island and the peninsula. The ferry transports three cars at a time, costs just $2 and takes less than five minutes. It’s a great way to see Balboa Pier and the harbor too.
Stroll the independent shops and boutiques along Marine Avenue. Be sure to stop in at Our Gang’s General Store, Balboa Candy for sweets, and Dad’s Donuts & Bakery, with its famous frozen bananas, Balboa Ice Cream Bars, and decadent donuts. If you jut can’t get enough of the frozen treats, Sugar ‘n Spice has been serving up frozen banana treats since 1945, and is just a couple doors down.
Fun fact: Over the course of an 8-hour day, the ferry crosses 96 times.
4. Shop at Fashion Island
Got gifts? You’ll find what you need for everyone on your Christmas list at the ultimate shopping destination in Orange County, Fashion Island. While it’s technically not on an island, it does offer a lovely open air shopping experience with more than 160 boutiques, brands, beauty spas and restaurants. During the holidays, the square is crowned with a 90 ft tall real Christmas tree that is trucked in from Northern California and light up every night at 5 PM. There’s an adorable cottage where Santa Claus accepts visits from both good and naughty children.
Fashion Island maintains Personal Shopping Stylists for those needing customized service, knowledge of the latest trends and must-have items. Anyone who’s pressed for time or wanting an extra special level of service can engage a stylist – visitors included.
In addition to large department stores like Nordstrom’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales, check out Anthropologie. This location is the brand’s first California ‘Ultimate Anthropologie Experience’ store. Pop into Gorjana, local jewelry brand made with care and set with positive intentions, and Voluspa, the OC-based luxe candle retailer with its only retail location at Fashion Island.
5. Roger’s Gardens
Step into Roger’s Gardens’ annual stunning and shoppable Christmas Boutique. All of the Christmas ornaments, live wreaths, trees and holiday décor can be purchased, but it’s also a magical place to enjoy the seasonal decorations.
Revive post-shopping spirits with an al fresco lunch or fine dining dinner at the Farmhouse restaurant at Roger’s Gardens. The beautiful outdoor patio is large and family-friendly, has an extensive menu of fresh California favourites like pizza, meat and fish dishes. You can ask for a blanket and to sit near a heater, as it can get a little chilly this time of year.
6. Night of 1000 Lights at Sherman Gardens
Behind the walls of the Sherman Library & Gardens, it’s a bright holiday wonderland of 1,000 Lights. I believe that it’s more like 10,000 lights, aglow among the lush gardens of this private facility. Enjoy a ‘Blue Christmas’ with Elvis, take a stroll in the glittering ‘ring of lights tunnel’ and boogie through the disco inFERNo. Enter a world of sugary sweets in Gingerbread Land, visit with Santa Claus at his workshop, and wonder at the movements of the live Moon Goddess. Is she real or…?
What to wear for a holiday visit to Newport Beach
The weather in Southern California during December is often warm and sunny during the day, but there may also be periods of rain. People tend to dress up when going out, as this a fashionable and upscale community. But beach wear by the harbor and ocean is perfectly acceptable.
Holiday time is wintertime in the OC, and the temperature can dip down at night, especially near or on the water. It’s good to pack and wear layers, and you may want to bring a hat, gloves and a windbreaker. Or sport a full down coat if you’re a local!
How to get around Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California, is at once fairly compact, and also spread out along the coast and the Pacific Coast Highway. Having a car is great, as is using Uber or cabs.
In the Newport Center area, you can use FRANC, a free shuttle service that is bookable via its App. Travel to and from Fashion Island Hotel, Newport Center, Fashion Island, Corona del Mar Plaza, Villas of Fashion Island and Colony with ease.
The free Newport Beach Balboa Peninsula Trolley operates during the peak summer months only.
Where to stay in Newport Beach
There are myriad hotels, resorts and Airbnbs to choose from in Newport Beach. I enjoyed a stay at the lovely Hyatt Regency Newport Beach. This luxury property is located on 26-acres near Upper Newport Beach Nature Reserve. It has generously-sized suites, three outdoor pools, and beautiful grounds to enjoy on an evening walk. The property is conveniently located near John Wayne Airport and Fashion and Balboa Islands.
Find other places to stay in Newport Beach
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Photo Credits: Claudia Laroye; Featured image courtesy of Bleu Cotton Photography.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. The writer was hosted by Visit Newport Beach. As always, her opinions about celebrating the holidays by the beach are honest and her own.