Get the Most out of your City Hall Wedding Experience

3rd Floor Window Bride at SF City Hall

So you are getting married at San Francisco city hall and want to make the most of it. You and your future spouse have agreed that to save money you should have a civil ceremony without all the fuss and expense of a large San Francisco wedding. But this is your wedding and you want it to be memorable and fun. What do you do?

Choose the Reserved Ceremony Option

Yes, I know that SF city hall reserved weddings costs $1,000 instead of around $100, but this is your wedding. What is another $900? This will allow you to invite lots of guests (up to 80 people) and have some privacy. But most of all, it will provide you with your own area in San Francisco city hall to call your own. For 1 hour you can spend time with your guests and not have to worry about tourists walking through and being disruptive. You don’t have to worry about the County Clerk telling you when your nuptials will be performed. As long as the ceremony occurs within your 1 hour time window, you have complete freedom. For those who don’t want the 3 minute standard ceremony, this is the way to go. You can create your own vows and add religious references to your ceremony if that is important to you and your spouse. San Francisco city hall civil ceremonies cannot include privately recited vows. There just isn’t enough time since they are trying to do 3 weddings at every half hour.

San Francisco city hall bride adjusts her wedding dress

Take a Mini Tour of San Francisco City Hall

A tour on your wedding day? Allow me to explain. San Francisco city hall DOES in fact have its own self guided tour or you can actually do one of their Docent tours. You want to make sure everyone is on time to your wedding? Let your wedding guests know that there is going to be a tour before the ceremony and give them the time. This accomplished 2 things: 1. It gets your guests parked and through security early and ready to attend your wedding; 2. It is a very interesting tour and you and your guests will learn some interesting facts.

It’s not so odd to do something like this on your wedding day. Many weddings that now take place in wineries and special restaurants or other famous places will include tastings or tours. It’s all in fun!

Hire an Experienced Professional City Hall Wedding Photographer

This is a no-brainer. You need to have your special memories recorded for all time, but you also owe it to yourself to take a wedding photography tour of San Francisco city hall with somebody who knows all the best spots to take photos in this historic building. In addition, if its a busy day or an event going on, a professional wedding photographer will know how to handle adversity.

San Francisco City Hall Crowd Control

City Hall Crowd Rules

The city hall website specifically states that the maximum number of guests allowed at standard civil ceremonies is 6.  The rules go on to explain that if you DO bring more than 6, city hall reserves the right to have them removed from the building.  The rules also talk about your guests being a nuisance and disrupting city hall business.  Everyone seems to know that this rule is not enforced so people often bring large numbers of guests to city hall weddings.  I recently photographed a wedding where the couple brought close to 30 guests including bridesmaids and groomsmen.   The guest were loud and didn’t really care about anyone else including the other weddings going on.  In fact, they had a guy who played a trumpet when the couple came out of the clerk’s office.

So the question is, should you as an engaged couple violate the rules and invite anyone you want and as many people as you want?  My opinion is that couples getting married at San Francisco city hall should, at the very least, respect  the spirit behind the rule.  So if you are going to go over the 6 guests, don’t go way over.  Talk to your guests about not being disruptive and make sure they understand that others are getting married at the same time.   If every couple brought 25 guests the place would be a mad house.  The rules are there for a reason, to try to keep the environment safe and quiet.

Catching the Bouquet in front of San Francisco City Hall

Reserved Ceremony Option

So what do you do if you have a large crowd but still want to get married at SF City Hall?  Contact the Events Department and talk to them about reserving a space to have your city hall ceremony.  It only costs around $1,000 and you get to have all nice section of city hall all to yourself.  They even give you 2 choices.  You can have your nuptials on the Mayors Balcony or The 4th Floor North Gallery.  Both locations are exceptionally beautiful and provides plenty of room for the couple and their guests.  You can seat up to 60 people on the 4th floor and up to 40 at the Mayors Balcony.  If you bring more guests than those numbers, the remaining guests can stand. They also rope of the area to keep others out which provides your wedding a certain amount of privacy.

Keep in mind these types of options before you decide to bring your whole family and friends to a small civil ceremony.   It will make your special day more enjoyable for you and your guests!

San Francisco City Hall Events

We always talk about how great San Francisco City Hall is for weddings and of course Wedding Photography.  There are so many iconic locations to shoot here, most notably the Grand Staircase, Rotunda and Mayor’s Balcony.  Wonderful backgrounds for wedding photography with amazing early 1900’s architecture.  However, were you aware that there are times that you will arrive at city hall to get married and some or all of these places are not available and roped off?  This is the big secret that The County Clerks office never tells you when you sign up to have your ceremony at city hall.  Brides and grooms are frequently surprised when they learn that the  most beautiful background in San Francisco is unavailable on their wedding day.  Why?  Because an event has been scheduled at the same time as your wedding!

San Francisco Events

San Francisco just happens to be one of the favorite places on the West Coast for companies to schedule their special events.  In addition, local entities such as the Opera House, The Symphony and even Google love to have their events in San Francisco.  Guess what is one of the most popular event locations for elegant events?  Yes, San Francisco city hall!  There have been times that we as wedding photographers have walked into the building ready to shoot a wedding only to see hundreds of people milling about wearing fancy clothes.  Half of the building can be closed off and they provide you a narrow path through the mess to get to the Clerk’s office to have your ceremony.  The fact is, SF City Hall does not guarantee you access to the whole building when you reserve your ceremony time.  The only thing they promise you is that you will have a legal marriage.  Nothing else is promised, but of course full access is implied.  So what does a bride and groom do to avoid this happening to them?

Scheduling is Everything

Through the years I have attempted to find a good web page that is kept up to date and lists city hall events in San Francisco.  I have never found one that is actually updated.  Most are just blank pages and some show past events.  Thus, the only thing an engaged couple can do is try avoid scheduling their wedding on the prime event days and times.

Days and Times to Avoid Booking

  • Fridays should be avoided, but if you have to, make sure it is early morning only.  The Staircase can often be closed all day or they start setting up late in the afternoon.  The building hosts music and some form of entertainment almost every Friday at Noon.
  • Thursdays, especially after 3 pm.  This day of the week is also quite popular for events.  Sometimes if San Francisco city hall is going to have an all day event on Friday, they will start the set up late on Thursday.
  • In general, any day of the week after 3 pm .  Even though it is rare, there are events early in the week.  If city hall schedules them, it will most likely be in the evening or late afternoon.

The tough part of all of this is that the late afternoon times are some of the best for wedding photography and no crowds.  So we often recommend that people book  the last ceremony of the day because city hall starts to become less crowded late in the afternoon.  For me, the best times and days of the week overall are Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.  There is  a small risk of an event, but overall the experience is usually good on these days late.

Engagement Portraits City Hall Wedding

Many of our San Francisco City Hall wedding couples like us to photograph a formal engagement session prior to their marriage.  We can make a package for any couple that includes a San Francisco engagement session at any of the popular city locations.  Our most popular location continues to be The Palace of Fine Arts, but there are many others.  We take our couples to Russian  Hill, North Beach and the Legion of Honor to name just  few.  Believe it or not, we even sometimes do our sessions at San Francisco City Hall!

Engagement Session in Marin County

Our most recent engagement shoot occurred in Marin County at Cavallo Point close to Sausalito.  This was a fantastic location for the session especially with it’s unique angles to the Golden Gate bridge and the view of San Francisco.  In the image below, we placed our future bride and groom on  the Break Water with the bridge in the background.  It was about 1 hour before sunset when we set this up.

Golden Gate Bridge from Cavallo Point

Golden Gate Bridge from Cavallo Point

From this angle we found a great looking cliff that was right up against the San Francisco Bay.  We placed our couple up on the cliff and took a series of images of them with a few different suggested poses.

Engagement portrait session overlooking San Francisco
Engagement portrait session overlooking San Francisco

We finished up our shoot in the bar at the Cavallo Point Lodge.  A very cute bar and one of our couple’s favorites. It turned out that this bar was one of their favorite stopping points over the past few years.  So what a great place to finish up the session.   We look forward to photographing their San Francisco City Hall wedding in May of 2018.  To see more images of city hall weddings and engagement sessions click on our City Hall Gallery Link

Cavallo Point Lodge bar
Cavallo Point Lodge bar