Hey there! So you’re planning a San Francisco City Hall wedding? Awesome! There are different ways to go about it, and as a local photographer who photographs there regularly, I wanted to share information and tips that could help you figure it out.
First you will need to decide what type of ceremony you are having. Are you renting out a balcony for a private ceremony then hosting a reception at a nearby restaurant? Or are you eloping and want to have your picture taken as you explore the city with your new official partner in crime? Or maybe you’re striking a balance between the two by setting some time aside for a portrait session before joining your guests for a dinner celebration.
I’ve seen people do it all but it takes some figuring out, so I wanted to pull together some of my best tips and advice that I believe you will find useful. I hope that you’ll keep me in mind as your San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer as your read, but for now, onward to the insider tips!
Getting your marriage license
First you will need your license before you can get married. I recommend picking up your license in advance if you live locally in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are from out of town, pick up your marriage license the day before your wedding if possible. I recommend this because it means less waiting around on your actual wedding day, but if your schedule doesn’t allow it, don’t sweat it. You can also pick up your license the same day. Schedule the license at least 90 minutes before your ceremony to give you plenty of time.
Because it is easier to get the marriage license appointment than scheduling your wedding ceremony appointment I recommend that you book your wedding ceremony first and then go back and book your license appointment, which you can set up through their website here. You can also pick up your license anywhere in California within 90 days before your ceremony, so if you are coming from another part of the state or even just a different city in the SF Bay it could be more convenient and cheaper to pick up your license near to home.
Civil marriage ceremony: what to expect
This is the easiest and most popular way to get married at City Hall. Check in to the office 10 minutes before your ceremony if possible. Your ceremony is still 30-60 minutes away after you check in. They will assign you a number and you will wait in the hall again before you meet the judge who will be marrying you.
When you go back in to the office to meet the judge, only the couple, your 1 or 2 witnesses and photographer are allowed in at that time. Your witnesses will sign your license and the judge will tell you where to wait for your actual ceremony. Weddings are normally performed in the rotunda, a private room, or sometimes depending on the judge, they may offer you another spot that they like. Almost everyone chooses the rotunda for it’s beauty.
The judge marries 3 couples at a time in a 30 minute block. Technically you are only allowed to have 6 people attend your ceremony, though I have definitely seen people bring more and I have never seen anyone turned away. The judge will perform the short ceremony and I have found that at the end they usually will not tell you to kiss, so please be ready to take it upon yourselves! 🙂
Your ceremony may not be finished until 45 minutes to an hour after your appointment time, so keep that in mind when scheduling your plans that will follow. That’s why my coverage starts at 90 minutes, I find that’s enough time to cover our bases and give us a little time for great shots around city hall after!
You can book your civil marriage ceremony 90 days in advance through San Francisco City Hall’s website here. Appointments are available every half hour between 10 am- 3:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Keep in mind that Friday afternoons are the most sought after spot during the week. As a general rule, mornings are quieter than afternoons, and the earlier it is in the week the quieter it will be too. So it’s safe to say Monday and Tuesday morning are the quietest time for ceremonies and Fridays afternoons are the busiest. Photo sessions will require more patience on a busy Friday afternoon, but the good news I know City Hall well and always find a way to make it happen.
private ceremony: what to expect
If you choose a private ceremony you will be able to reserve either the Mayor’s Balcony or one of the 4th Floor Galleries– North or South. As a photographer I recommend the North Gallery, the light is better. You will have the space for one hour. There are chairs available for your guests and I believe you can invite up to 100 people. For larger groups, the Mayor’s Balcony feels more spacious. You will have to arrange your own officiant for a private ceremony. The advantages are you can set a firm time for your ceremony to begin and you can really make it your own. You can exchange your own vows, invite many more people, and hire musicians. And of course as the name suggests, a private ceremony is more private than the standard civil ceremony. Both the Mayor’s Balcony and 4th Floor are really beautiful.
Another option altogether is to rent out the entire city hall on a Saturday and then you can get married on the grand staircase. Of course those rates start considerably higher.
After you have your ceremony figured out you will want to decide if you would like to host a reception for your guests, or make time for portraits at beautiful locations in San Francisco. If you are here because you are looking for a photographer, I would love to hear from you and help you plan the photography portion of your day. Please get in touch through my contact form to see if I am available on your date.
That sums up the basics, read on for logistics.
Getting to and from city hall
You’ll need to figure out how you are getting yourself to city hall. Here are the transportation options that I can think of and their pros and cons.
- Drive yourself: The main concern is knowing how much traffic to expect at the time you will be driving there and allowing yourself time to park. There is a reasonably priced lot very close to city hall at 355 McAllister St, but it can often get full, especially in the afternoon. Then you will have to search for another lot, so if you’re short on time that will become a bit stressful. If you are driving yourselves you should plan on arriving at least 30 minutes before your ceremony time.
- Hire a driver: Hiring either a limo service, shuttle, taxi or car sharing service like Lyft or Uber is the easiest way to go. You can get dropped off at the door and voila, you’re there! Plan on arriving at least 15 minutes before your ceremony. I especially recommend hiring a shuttle if you are trying to coordinate a large group of people on a tight timeline.
- Take public transportation: This can be a good option (the F train is super cute and great for photos) but I would only recommend it if you know you are traveling when it’s not rush hour. Otherwise it can easily get cramped and take much longer than hiring a driver. The F train runs along Market Street and drops off near city hall and all of their trains are adorable vintage cars collected from around the country and world.
I recommend that you check out the San Francisco Giants baseball schedule. If they are playing a home game at the same time that you and your guests are trying to navigate the city it can be a bit of a nightmare! If you do happen to schedule your wedding at the same time that a Giants game is happening in the city don’t despair, I recommend planning your reception or following photo shoot to be west of city hall and away from the city center where traffic will be worse.
Where to stay for out of town couples
I recommend that couples avoid the staying at hotels in the Tenderloin neighborhood that is located near city hall, it’s quite a seedy neighborhood. Hayes Valley is a nice residential area adjacent to city hall where you might be able to find an Airbnb rental. There are many other places to stay in a hotel or otherwise, just do your research on the neighborhoods you are considering first.
I hope that was helpful! If you are looking for a photographer for your SF City Hall wedding, I hope you’ll consider working with me. I have photographed at many beautiful places throughout San Francisco. Want pictures in front of the Golden Gate Bridge? No problem. I also am familiar with a variety of other natural and urban locations that are awesome. It all depends on your personality and what will make special photos for you to enjoy for all the years to come. Please view my pricing information here and fill out the contact form to see if I am available on your day!
I specialize in capturing candid photos of romantics, goofballs, shy types, and all types. As long as you are in love with your partner and looking for natural and candid wedding photos we’ll get along splendidly. Please learn more about my experience and approach to photography here.
To see a gallery with more City Hall wedding photos please visit here.
For a real wedding that occurred on the North 4th Floor Balcony, in October of 2019 please check that out here.