San Francisco events calendar

Plan ahead with Time Out's guide to the biggest and best annual San Francisco events, festivals and concerts

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/zervas
San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade

Welcome to our guide to the biggest and best annual San Francisco events and festivals. Our hand-picked month-by-month selection will provide inspiration for things to do in the city year-round, but events are subject to change so check individual websites or contact the venue before making plans. Further essential dates on the calendar include weekly farmers’ markets and food truck gatherings.

January

Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration

The 1.5 mile march in memory of MLK and Alabama starts at San Francisco’s Caltrain station and ends with festivities at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Gardens downtown. Civil rights advocates, singers and other performers mix in, bringing King’s message back to life. norcalmlkfoundation.org

SF Sketchfest

The San Francisco Comedy Festival started as a way to check out local Bay sketch and improv troupes, but has since expanded to a national showcase including comedians from Saturday Night Live and discussions with Onion writers and Portlandia directors. Sketchfest spreads the laughter over two and a half weeks and 20 venues. sfsketchfest.com

February

San Francisco Tribal, Folk & Textile Arts Show

This event is part-show, part-sale: Upwards of 100 folk and ethnic art dealers congregate to sell a wide variety of pottery, baskets, textiles and jewelry. caskeylees.com/SF_Tribal/SF_Tribal.html

Lunar New Year

The start of the Lunar New Year offers the Chinese New Year Parade, the city’s best procession that doesn’t involve public nudity (instead, there are acrobatic dragons and stiltwalkers). It’s also the occasion of the enormously popular annual Treasure Hunt, which gets nearly 1,600 people scurrying around Chinatown. But Lunar New Year is not limited to the Chinese: The Tet Festival, the Vietnamese celebration of the New Year, takes place at the U.N. plaza on Saturday that same weekend, and also draws Cambodian, Latino and African-American families that turn the city center into a multicultural carnival.

SF IndieFest

The first ever SF IndieFest showed 85 films over 14 days and prompted organizer Jeff Ross to create three more festivals: Another Hole in the Head highlighting the horror genre, DocFest in the fall, and the Winter Music Festival. IndieFest now runs concurrently with the Winter Music Festival, and with more music-themed films added to the schedule, there’s always a lively crowd for screenings. sfindie.com

March

Ask a Scientist’s Pi Day Puzzle Party

Give your inner nerd an airing at this outdoor event hosted by the San Francisco Science Café. Participants compete solo or in teams of up to six people to solve math and logic puzzles. Your prize? A round of drinks and eternal geekdom. Bring your own scratch paper. askascientistSF.com

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

At one point, the Irish made up over a third of the city’s population. While that’s no longer the case, everyone has smiling Irish eyes in this green-hued parade. The procession, which kicks off at 11:30am, is led by a formation of kilted bagpipe players and followed by floats, marching bands, labor unions and Irish dance groups. Afterwards, walk a couple blocks to the SoMa Streat Food Park for a food truck party with plenty of Guinness-infused dishes. uissf.org

April

St. Stupid’s Day Parade

This silly costumed procession winds its way through the Financial District every April 1, stopping off at various “stations of the stupid” (a.k.a. noted financial institutions) to perform traditional acts such as tossing failed lottery tickets at the Federal Reserve. Bring any odd socks for a communal concluding “sock exchange” on the steps of the Pacific Stock Exchange. saintstupid.com

Cherry Blossom Festival

A joyous whirlwind engulfs the usually sleepy Japantown for two weekends in April. The Cherry Blossom Festival is a splendid celebration of the arrival of spring accompanied by sushi and teriyaki, rice paper crafts, and drum performances to ward off evil spirits. The Grand Parade on the second Sunday of the festival starts at Civic Center and goes up Polk to Post, ending in Japantown's Peace Plaza. nccbf.org

Earth Day Festival SF

Celebrate the planet with indigenous dance, DIY home-energy fix-ups, organic cooking demos and more in this all-day “eco-carnival” near City Hall. Those with spare green bucks may want to check out the earth-friendly fashion and crafts on display. earthdaysf.org

Easter Sunday with Hunky Jesus Contest

The morning starts innocently enough with a family-friendly Easter celebration, but the irreverence begins after the kids go home at noon. Held since the the mid-’90s by a San Francisco drag troupe that cross-dresses as nuns, the culminating event is a Hunky Jesus Contest with thorns and gore galore. Ladies, don’t fear: In 2014, the group started a Foxy Mary contest, too. Those looking for a more traditional Easter celebration—with a non-scandalous Easter bonnet contest—should head over to Union Street’s Easter celebration instead. thesisters.org

San Francisco International Film Festival

Launched in 1957, the San Francisco Film Society’s premier annual showcase is North America’s longest-running film festival. Held over two weeks, the festival screens more than 150 films and events (with more than 100 filmmakers in attendance) and attracts an audience of around 70,000 each year. The festival truly lives up to its “international” title: In 2014, it screened films from 56 countries in 40 languages. sffs.org

May

How Weird Street Festival

Described by the organizers as a place “where weird is normal,” How Weird celebrates technology, creativity and just being your oddball self with interactive art and games, ten stages of music, and free dance lessons. Wearing a costume that ties in with the annual theme (2014 was outer space) is compulsory. howweird.org

Cinco de Mayo

San Francisco’s Latino residents and their friends celebrate General Ignacio Zaragoza’s defeat of the French army at Puebla in 1862 with this raucous weekend of parades, fireworks and music. Bring your sombrero to the free all-day Mexican culture fest in Dolores Park on the closest Saturday to May 5. sfcincodemayo.com

AIDS Candlelight Memorial (March & Vigil)

This annual candlelight vigil begins at 8pm with a solemn procession from the Castro along Market Street, ending on the steps of the Main Library. There, crowds gather for speeches, an awards ceremony, and remembrances. candlelightmemorial.org

Bay to Breakers

In an effort to raise spirits during the arduous and lengthy rebuilding process that followed the 1906 earthquake and fire, William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner started this grandaddy of all San Francisco events in 1912. In 1986, it even set a Guinness World Record for world’s largest foot race. These days, up to 50,000 weekend warriors dressed as salmon, jog-walkers pushing kegs of beer in shopping carts, and footloose nude zanies run, walk or stumble from the foot of Howard Street (bay), a distance of about 7.5 miles to Ocean Beach (breakers). If you’re not going to be part of the action, a great place to watch is Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle. baytobreakers.com

Carnaval

One of California’s largest annual multicultural festivals, Carnaval celebrates both Latin-American and Caribbean culture and traditions with influences from Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, and Bolivia. Scantily clad dancers adorned with glitter and feathers compete for performance prizes and King and Queen for Sunday’s Grand parade. The street food is pretty hot, too. carnavalsanfrancisco.org

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Take a break from the chatter with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: a three-day program screening everything from Expressionist gems to classic Charlie Chaplin. Musical accompaniment is also wide-ranging—the soundtrack could be provided be a pianist, a Wurlitzer organist, or something more unusual like an Indian duo or avant-garde chamber group. silentfilm.org

June

Stern Grove Festival

Thanks to Rosalie Stern, who gifted this eucalyptus grove to the city for the performance of music, dance and theater in 1931, the Stern Grove Festival fills the small valley with free performances— everything from ballet to hip-hop to opera—on Sundays from mid-June to mid-August. sterngrove.org

Union Street Festival

This rain-or-shine weekend street fair draws big crowds each June to Union Street, where historic Victorians house shops and art galleries. The festival offers gourmet booze and food pairings (for a price), bands and artists’ stands, plus don’t miss Sunday’s waiters race, when the city’s best servers run up and down a hill trying not to spill a tray of wine glasses. unionstreetfestival.com

Haight Ashbury Street Fair

It’s the Summer of Love all over again, and as if the Haight weren’t a flower child’s haven already, be ready for more than 200 vendors of food, bongs and hippie craftwork in so many rainbows the rest of the world will seem drab. Live music comes courtesy of local acts. haightashburystreetfair.org

San Francisco Jazz Festival

The saxophones never stop in San Francisco's biggest jazz event of the year, featuring more than 40 big-name shows (past acts have included Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves and Juan De Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars) in just under two weeks. If you don’t want the groove to end, SFJAZZ Summerfest continues with free weekly outdoor shows in the South Bay at the Stanford Shopping Center in July and August and at Levi’s Plaza off Embarcadero in September—all sponsored by the big guns of the SFJAZZ Center. sfjazz.org

North Beach Festival

Take your furry and feathered friends to this festival to be blessed by a priest in this “Little Italy” neighborhood’s shrine of St. Francis Assisi. Other elements that harken back to the area’s European roots include elaborate Italian street art done in chalk or pastels, a wine and beer garden and, of course, cannolis galore. sresproductions.com/north_beach_festival_entertainment.html

Annual World Naked Bike Ride, San Francisco Edition

This NSFW event starts off in the Financial District, part of a global environmental protest against dependency on oil. Since 2004 these Bay Area riders have been forgoing shirts and pants for body paints and watercolors, joining forces with fellow naked bike riders in 70 cities and 20 countries around the world. sfwnbr.org

Summer Solstice

San Francisco’s pagans meet on the year’s longest day to drum, dance and celebrate another journey around the sun. At sunset, pound along with a drum circle in Justin Herman Plaza at the Embarcadero, or join the unofficial Baker Beach bonfires—traditionally burned to ward off spirits, which roamed free as the sun turned south, but in a San Francisco “summer,” especially helpful against the ghoul of cold.

San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade

San Francisco, one of the first cities in the country to pass a gay rights ordinance back in the ’70s, has much to be proud of, and drag queens, leather daddies and dykes on bikes all take the opportunity to show off their true rainbow colors. Don’t miss the Pink Saturday block party the night before the parade, when most of the Castro is closed off for one of the city’s largest after-dark street parties. sfpride.org

July

Fourth of July Waterfront Festival

You’ll find plenty of live entertainment and food stalls on the waterfront during the day, but be sure to stay for the spectacular fireworks display that gets under way after dark around 9pm. (Note: summer fog does often make viewing fireworks more of an auditory event; you might have better luck heading across the Bay to catch some in Sausalito or other parts of Marin.)

Fillmore Street Jazz Festival

In the 1940s, the jazz clubs on Fillmore Street hosted jazz stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. During this free two-day festival, the strip comes alive with performances on three different stages and two additional performance areas, and more than a dozen blocks of vendors selling food, paintings and pottery. fillmorejazzfestival.com

August

San Francisco Marathon

The younger and more athletic cousin of the Bay to Breakers foot race has grown every year since its inception in 1977. The course starts at the Embarcadero and then heads round the entire city, through the Mission, the Haight, Golden Gate Park and Bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina. Of course, the less hardcore can opt to tackle either of the two half-marathons or the 5K on the same day. thesfmarathon.com

Outside Lands

Outside Lands is probably the music event of the summer for SF, drawing roughly 200,000 revelers over three days. If you don’t mind the hefty prices (starting at $115 for a general admission day pass), it’s a smorgasbord of sounds for everybody, with lineups of up to 100 artists including big headliners (in years past, everything from the Dave Matthews Band to Metallica). The sprawling Golden Gate Park proves a perfect (though still crowded) venue, and gave the event its name: Back in the Gold Rush days, the area was marked on maps as part of the “great sand waste,” or “Outside Lands.” Today, it’s anything but. sfoutsidelands.com

San Francisco Street Food Festival

Wear your elastic-waist pants for this one to sample gastronomic innovations from deep-fried macaroni and cheese to vegan doughnut burgers. Be grateful there are a lot of blocks to roam as you take breaks between your fifth and sixth mini-lunches of the day. sfstreetfoodfest.com

Peace in the Park

A fledgling event that started in 2013, Peace in the Park is both free and wholesome (read: no alcohol). The all-day program focuses on rejuvenation and inner calm, with such activities as yoga, meditation, tai chi, folk dance, and a movement workshop called “soul motion.” Everyone is invited to take up a brush and express themselves on the 80-foot-long art wall. Pauses for world peace punctuate the event. peaceintheparksf.org

September

Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival

Keep reminding yourself that doctors say a little chocolate is good for you, as you sample chocolate-covered strawberries, decadent mousses, brownies, and all manner of over-the-top indulgences. Proceeds go to charity; calories go straight to your belly. ghirardelli.com/chocolatefestival

Folsom Street Fair

The Queen Mother of all BDSM street fairs, the Folsom affair is a gawkfest for visitors and locals alike. Don your studded jockstrap and be prepared for masks, whips, leashes, chains and—that old favorite—public fellatio. Needless to say, this might not be suitable for the whole family, or anyone without a strong stomach. If you can’t wait a whole year for Folsom again though, be sure to check out July’s Up Your Alley leather fair—also on Folsom Street. folsomstreetfair.org

Alice’s Annual Now and Zen Fest

Local CBS radio station Alice 97.3 has thrown a free end-of-summer pop/alternative rock party since the late ’80s (2013 acts included OneRepublic and the Goo Goo Dolls). The Zen element comes in the form of tents encouraging “mindful music meditation” and a Wheel of Karma booth for spin-to-win prizes. radioalice.cbslocal.com/show/alices-now-zen-fest

October

ArtSpan Open Studios

Gain insight into San Francisco’s creative community throughout the month of October during this massive open studios event, as more than 900 artists welcome the public into their workspaces—each weekend spotlights a different neighborhood. You’ll find a free map detailing participating venues and a directory of San Francisco artists at SOMArts Gallery, which also hosts the opening exhibition. artspan.org/sfopenstudios

Castro Street Fair

A taste of the softer side of gay life in San Francisco, this one-day fair—started in 1974 by gay city official Harvey Milk—offers food, crafts and community activists’ stalls, along with plenty of rainbow merchandise. Don’t feel bad for spending the bucks though; the fair is an NGO that funds, among other things, the iconic rainbow flag that flies over the intersection of Castro and Market. castrostreetfair.org

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

The late billionaire investment banker, mayonnaise heir and banjo picker Warren Hellman who founded the free music festival over a decade ago called it his “selfish gift” to San Francisco. With the first show consisting of only nine strictly bluegrass bands, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has since exploded beyond the banjo into the city’s biggest free musical extravaganza featuring up to 100 acts over three full days on six stages with around 800,000 attendees. Country stars like Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris mix with indie-rock artists like Conor Oberst for an eclectic mix. hardlystrictlybluegrass.com

Fleet Week

Since the early 1980s, the U.S. Navy’s acrobatic Blue Angels have rattled nerves and torn up the skies over San Francisco on Columbus Day weekend. The fleet sails into San Francisco Bay under Golden Gate Bridge on Friday morning; spectacular air shows and free battleship tours follow. fleetweek.us

Treasure Island Music Festival

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island is a little tricky to get to most of the time, but tickets to this weekend fest include complimentary bus pick-up to and from Downtown’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The festival site offers views of the San Francisco skyline, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and the lineup tends toward indie-rock and electronic dance music, from Radiohead to DJ Diplo. Party boats to the island are also available. treasureislandfestival.com

Litquake

Litquake likes to boast that San Franciscans spend twice the nation’s average on both books and booze. After a slate of literary activities, from readings to author spotlights, for most of the week, the bookish festival combines these worthy pursuits in a closing night Lit Crawl of Mission bars. litquake.org

Halloween in San Francisco

The city shut down the riotous festivities that used to take over the Castro at Halloween, but you’ll still find a healthy helping of drag queens, pagans and Sarah Palin lookalikes strutting their stuff in the neighborhood. Join San Francisco City Guides' annual evening Ghost Walk starting at City Hall (check sfcityguides.org for info as the date approaches) to hear about poltergeists and the cemetery that was once atop Civic Center. Even City Hall glows spooky orange.

November

Dia de los Muertos

Marchers gather at 22nd and Bryant Streets to celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead. After a traditional blessing, the music starts and the procession begins: Aztec dancers, children in papier-mâché skeleton masks and women clutching bouquets of dead flowers. Things wind up in Garfield Park, where people leave candles at a huge community altar (you can also make your own personal altar among the hundreds that line the perimeter of the park). The dress code is dark but showy. If you really want to blend in, paint your face a ghoulish white and bring a noisemaker. dayofthedeadsf.org

Holiday Lighting Festivities

The lights go on all over town, including Union Square and Ghirardelli Square, as the holidays approach. At Union Square, a 67-foot living white-fir Christmas tree is decorated with 2,000 lights, 400 ornaments and 500 bows. A 22-foot wooden menorah is also lit as part of Hanukkah celebrations.

December

SantaCon

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like for Santa to have a little too much to drink and start seeing Santas everywhere, this pre-Christmas pub crawl is for you. Though everyone starts at Union Square, you can choose from over six routes in the city depending on your favorite bars. The main rule is wearing a full Santa suit, though preparing some carols is encouraged; you don’t want the elves after you, do you? santacon.info/San_Francisco-CA

New Year’s Eve

While Union Square and Ocean Beach are traditional gathering spots to ring in the New Year, in recent years, the city has sponsored free midnight fireworks along the Embarcadero. This is usually preceded by a cavalcade of bands performing in tents.

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