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SAN DIEGO — Get ready for two nights of dazzling decorations on San Diego Bay, with the Parade of Lights beginning this weekend and giving the family a fun holiday activity for free.

The San Diego tradition returns Sundays Dec. 12 and Dec. 19 at 5:30 p.m., drawing an estimated 100,000 residents and visitors to the shore to watch about 80 boats decorated to fit this year’s theme: “12 Days of Christmas.”

There is no cost to watch along the parade route, which starts at Shelter Island and proceeds to the ferry landing in Coronado over the course of between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, organizers say.

When and where to watch:

You can view a San Diego Bay parade route map on the event’s website.

These are estimates of when you can catch the decorated boats at stops around the bay:

  • Shelter Island – 5:30 p.m.
  • Harbor Island – 6 p.m.
  • The Embarcadero – 6:30 p.m.
  • Seaport Village – 7 p.m.
  • Cesar Chavez Park pier – 7:15 p.m.
  • Coronado ferry landing – 7:30 p.m.

Getting there and parking tips:

Every year, organizers warn that parking will be very limited as thousands of people try to check out the free event. Attendees are encouraged to take public transportation, including the trolleys and buses that provide service to the area north of the Embarcadero.

You can take the trolley Green Line to the Santa Fe Depot, or the Orange or Blue Line to the American Plaza stop to get in the vicinity — check the San Diego MTS trip planner for more details. On Sundays, kids 12 and under ride for free on buses and trolleys with each adult ticket.

You can also drive or take public transit to the downtown area, then order a ride from a rideshare app or pedicab to your specific viewing area.

If you’d like to try driving straight to your destination, organizers provided the following information on parking options:

  • There are metered spaces along Harbor Drive
  • There are some paid parking structures/lots near Harbor Drive and Broadway
  • Seaport Village has paid parking
  • There is a metered parking lot in front of Fish Market north of Seaport Village
  • Harbor Island has (limited) free parking
  • Shelter Island has (limited) free parking

Best place to watch from:

Ah yes, the golden question. Experienced attendees say the north and south ends of the Embarcadero are a good vantage point and that the pathway along Coronado tends to get less crowded. You can also catch the procession from the park behind Seaport Village. The pier at Cesar Chavez Park is new, so it also might attract a smaller crowd.

As for the most common spot? “If you plan on viewing the parade from Harbor Island, get there early and be aware that parking is at a premium,” the parade website warns.

Want to hear information on the participating boats while you watch? Then you’ll want to be near the announcers’ stands, which are located at the Maritime Museum on the Embarcadero and at Coronado Landing. The emcees will offer a little history and description of each passing boat.

Are you a mariner yourself? There are limited opportunities to watch from a boat on the water, but you’ll need to be sure to stay clear of the parade route. Decorations are concentrated on the port side of boats, so it may not be the best vantage point.

“There are a few small areas where one can park a boat and see the port side of the parade boats as they pass. The largest of these areas is where the boats cross the channel going to the Coronado side,” organizers explained.

Can you still participate?

The parade is a U.S. Coast Guard sanctioned event, and only registered boats can participate. Unfortunately, that means it’s too late to join the fun this year, as registration is closed.

You can still check out the Parade of Lights participant page to get an idea of what you should expect for next year, if you’d like to join. It’s a good website to bookmark, too, so you register early next year.

You can also contact with any questions about the event.

More of a landlubber? Here’s our guide to San Diego Christmas light displays on firm ground.