San Diego Bay Parade of Lights returns for its 50th year

sailboats, yachts and dinghies decorated with Christmas lights along the bay
San Diego Bay Parade of Lights
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One of San Diego’s most beloved holiday traditions, the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, presented by the Port of San Diego, is back for another year of dazzling boat light displays set against the city skyline — and this year, it’s celebrating its milestone 50th anniversary.

Each year, the parade takes on a special theme, which is then incorporated into participating boats’ decor. The 2021 theme is the Twelve Days of Christmas and about 80 boats are scheduled to participate. In addition to lights, boat displays can include music, costumes and other festive touches.

The parade takes place on two nights and can be viewed from various locations throughout the bay, including Shelter Island, Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, the Pier at Cesar Chavez Park and the Ferry Landing in Coronado.

If you’re interested in learning more about the participating boats, you’ll want to make sure you’re watching from an area near the announcers’ sections, located at the Maritime Museum on the Embarcadero and at Coronado Landing. Announcers will offer more insight into participating boats, including history and a description of the vessels.

Approximate arrival times for different viewing locations are as follows: Shelter Island, 5:30 p.m.; Harbor Island, 6 p.m.; Embarcadero, 6:30 p.m.; Seaport Village, 7 p.m.; the Pier at Cesar Chavez Park, 7:15 p.m. and Ferry Landing on Coronado, 7:30 p.m.

Pro tips

How long is the parade? The parade takes approximately an hour to an hour-and-a-half to pass any given point.

How many people show up? This event draws a crowd of upwards of 100,000 spectators, so finding a spot to view the parade takes some forethought due to increased traffic and crowds.

Parking: Spots are limited along the bay but you’ll find paid and metered lots throughout, including at Seaport Village. There are some free spots on Harbor Island and Shelter Island. Avoid the parking hassle altogether by taking public transportation. Santa Fe Depot is a stop for multiple trolley lines and bus routes and is a short walk to Seaport Village and the Embarcadero, which are both prime viewing spots.

Leave early: If you have a reservation at one of the many restaurants dotting the parade route (which tend to sell out early) or you’re planning to stand and observe from the shore, you’ll want to give yourself extra time to accommodate the crowds.

Bundle up: Make sure to bring coats and bundle up because even though it’s San Diego, December nights can get chilly.

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

When: Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 19
Where: Along the San Diego Bay from Shelter Island to Coronado
Cost: Free