I’m often asked by couples getting married at San Francisco City Hall for my tips on how to personalize their day. This is especially the case for civil ceremonies – after all, you cannot even personalize your wedding vows you’ll be reciting the standard courthouse vows.
Whatever type of ceremony you’re planning, there are a few things you can do to add some personality, fun, and a sense of occasion.
While the ceremony itself is templated, the rest of your day doesn’t have to be.
In this article, I’m going to share 10 ways that you can personalize your simple ceremony at San Francisco City Hall.
For more details about getting married in our beautiful monument, be sure to read through my comprehensive guide to wedding ceremonies at San Francisco City Hall.
1. Get a bouquet and boutonniere
Nothing says wedding like a tasteful bouquet and boutonniere set – or whatever combination of florals is right for you!
Whether dried, fresh or even artificial (paper or silk), florals always add a sense of occasion. If your budget won’t stretch, you can even consider making your own florals or renting them! (ask me and I’ll give you some vendors to try!)
All of the floral vendors I recommend have specific experience with City Hall couples, meaning much lower minimums than those that specialize in regular weddings. Your order can be as small as one bouquet and one boutonniere without breaking the bank.
I do recommend looking into different floral designers’ portfolios before committing. There are a great number of styles and fashions for arrangements.
A disappointing bouquet is worse than no bouquet at all, so if you’re not really feeling the style (even if the price is right), just skip it! I’ve seen brides who purchased a cheap bouquet, only to ditch it as soon as we begin our photo session.
Extra time needed: Zero
2. Decorate your space
For private rentals only, there are some things you can do to really bring your rental area to life!
First and foremost, I love to see beautiful floral displays. This is much costlier than a simple hand-bouquet but on the plus side, a floral installation can be repurposed for your reception.
Just make sure you use an awesome, experienced floral vendor that will load in/ out for you. Displays can become unwieldy with the plinths as well, so it’s not a job to just entrust to a guest. Also, be mindful of the size restrictions for bringing floral displays into the building.
For Jewish ceremonies, we love to see a chuppah. This works perfectly because free-standing arch structures are not permitted, so having your chuppah-bearers holding it means great visual impact while staying within the rules!
We’ve also seen jumping the broom and handfasting ceremonies as ways of introducing meaningful traditions that also look visually striking in your photos.
You can even rent tables if you’d like to have more elaborate displays or have guests leave gifts there.
Extra time needed: Zero
Budget: Inquire with your florist for a custom quote
3. Incorporate personal touches and heirlooms
Whether it’s a family tradition or jewelry to commemorate someone special who can’t be there or is no longer with us, there are so many ways of adding meaningful details to your day.
I’ve seen brides attach lucky charms to their hair and lockets to their bouquet. I’ve also seen folks incorporate details from their mom or grandmother’s dress or veil into their own. The possibilities are endless.
Just make sure you let your photographer know that you would like photos of any smaller items – they can be easy to miss. If the item is very small, such as a family locket, I’d also need to bring a macro lens so that the item fills the frame. Plus any props or backgrounds for styling purposes.
Sometimes these items also need some styling and better light than for portraits. Therefore, I would also love to know in advance so I can plan my time, adding a spot on the timeline for these important photos.
Extra time needed: 5-10 mins on the timeline
Budget: Depending on your details
4. Have a first dance
Having your first dance after your ceremony is SUCH a fun idea! I love it when couples introduce more traditional customs into the more matter-of-fact nature of getting married at City Hall.
The best time to do this is right after your ceremony. You should ask your officiant to introduce the first dance, so guests’ attention goes from the first kiss right to the first dance.
You may need to clear the chairs out of the way, which happens quickly when the guys help!
Otherwise, you can keep the guests in their seats and just have them turn towards where your first dance will be (depending on how much space you need). Some may need to stand to see.
Adding a first dance is an option that’s only possible for private ceremonies, not civil ceremonies. Of course, you need to make sure you have a musician that is open to it and can brainstorm ideas and make suggestions.
Amplified music is not permitted at City Hall, nor is any kind of recorded music. When selecting a musician, you must choose a professional that’s on City Hall’s official vendor list.
Your musician can usually tailor a song to fit your time preference. I have it on good authority from Stephan Kane (the guitarist pictured below) that short and sweet first dances tend to work best at City Hall.
Extra time needed: 10 mins on the timeline
Budget: Inquire with a musician from the SF City Hall official vendor list for a quote for your event
5. Have a streamer or bubble exit
Confetti is not permitted for San Francisco City Hall exits. This includes biodegradable confetti such as rice, paper and flower petals.
While it might look great for your photos, it would ruin the next couple’s pictures. If every couple wanted to use confetti, the steps would be an absolute mess.
I have a few updates on the traditional confetti-throwing, that I’ll share with you.
We recommend using bubbles or ribbon streamers. Bubbles create fun rainbow colors and because they are natural, they photograph so beautifully. Kids especially love blowing bubbles. You can even get a portable bubble machine!
Ribbon streamers on a stick are great too! Absolutely no mess, reusable, affordable and they make for joy-filled photos!
Your guests can wave these on and on which keeps everyone engaged.
When people are engrossed in an activity, this tends to produce maximum opportunities for truly candid photos. There’s more color, more liveliness!
Extra time needed: 5 mins on the timeline
6. Bring your dog
It normally is not a problem to bring your dog into City Hall. The animal *should* be a service animal, but City Hall is not technically allowed to check an animal’s service status, at least that is my understanding.
Even better is to take photos of your pup on the steps outside (or somewhere around City Hall or another location) before or after your time in the building.
It’s imperative to coordinate this to a T and we’ll also need you to provide a handler. This could be a friend, dog-walker or hired help that is in charge or bringing Fido to the exact location at the right time for a few photos.
We will only have a short time for doing dog photos, so you can hopefully see why planning it out carefully is so important.
Extra time needed: 5-10 mins on the timeline
Budget: Cost of a dog sitter/ handler, or free if using a friend! + extra treatos for a goodboi
7. Exchange personal vows
Yes, I know I just said personalization of vows isn’t permitted, but hear me out!
There’s nothing to stop you from carving out some time and a little space in a nook of City Hall, in which to recite your own vows. Completely unofficially, nothing to do with the civil ceremony itself.
There are plenty of areas where ceremonies don’t take place and tend to have less foot traffic. These include the 2nd and 3rd floor North and South sides. Really beautiful spots where you shouldn’t be disturbed.
If you’re doing this, be sure to write out your vows in advance and get yourself some vow books for a keepsake, awesome photos, and a sense of occasion.
Of course, this does need to be mapped out with your photographer and strategized. It takes time to find an area, get set up, gather guests around, and begin proceedings.
You wouldn’t want to miss out on your couples’ session, so for this option, more time would be needed, preferably after your civil ceremony. Ask me how, and about the times of day/days of the week when this is possible!
More information is given below about how to have a ‘private ceremony’ without renting a space.
Extra time needed: 20 mins on the timeline. Would require an extra ½ hour of coverage time added to the 2-hour base package.
Budget: $20+ for beautiful vow books
8. Add on other events or locations
This one isn’t strictly part of your ceremony but I’d be remiss not to mention it.
The beauty of a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall is that it can be your entire celebration or just a building block in the story of your day.
From this as your focal point, you can add on events before (getting ready, first look, portrait session at a San Francisco landmark) or afterward (brunch/ lunch/ dinner, even a full, traditional wedding reception program at another venue).
You can have as much or as little of these other events photographed as you wish! But just know that it doesn’t have to begin and end in one place – your wedding day can truly be your own creation.
Extra time needed: At least one hour (including some of that being travel & setup time) but aside from the basics of scene-setting, candids & toasts, it depends on what else you’d like captured.
Budget: Inquire with your reception venue for a quote. For photo locations, I recommend using public locations such as beaches, parks, neighborhoods etc to avoid hefty permit fees.
9. Stay in a luxury hotel
Even if you live in the Bay Area, booking a home base closer to City Hall is SUCH a great way of minimizing stress and elevating your experience. It becomes especially handy if:
- You are having an early morning ceremony.
- You want getting-ready photos or to stage a vow renewal somewhere relatively private and beautiful.
- You want some downtime and somewhere to chill between your wedding events.
- You don’t want to deal with bridge traffic on your wedding day.
- You want to prolong your experience, not just rush into San Francisco then rush out! Use this opportunity to create memories. Enjoy your wedding night. Soak in the nervous anticipation and the just-married bliss in your own private sanctuary with a touch of luxury.
I have gotten so many questions about which hotel to stay in that this warranted another article that goes in depth into 27 of my favorite 3-, 4- and 5-star hotels.
They are all so stunning and different, so it’s worth checking out this article linked below for some personal recommendations before you check out what deals are available for your wedding night!
Budget: For an upscale hotel room in San Francisco for two nights, you can expect to spend a minimum of about $600 depending on what deals you can find!
10. Book a great photographer!
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), you’ll want a professional to capture it all! Not just a great photographer, but also someone who’s an expert with the ins and outs of how it all works at San Francisco City Hall.
City Hall isn’t just a venue like any other. It’s a process, a certain ordering of events, rules that you have to play by. An experienced photographer can act as a guide, seamlessly taking you through the day.
This is one type of wedding in which thorough knowledge of the venue and process will pay dividends.
Even the simplest of ceremonies deserves sweet little touches and an experienced photographer to do it all justice.
Budget: See FULL pricing information here.
Thanks for sharing your skills and techniques. Thank you for your suggestions!
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