Getting married at San Francisco City Hall?

A few pointers from a wedding photographer in love with that venue.

San Francisco City Hall Exterior

Congratulations, you are one of the smart ones: City Hall is the most beautiful wedding venue in the Bay Area and it’s practically free. Granted, you have to stand in line DMV style at the beginning, but once you get past that, it’s gorgeous. San Francisco City Hall is a building like no other, and getting married there is a privilege.

If you have some spare time when you pick up your license, try to join one of the free docent tours of City Hall. The original San Francisco City Hall was built in the late 1800’s and destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The new City Hall was designed in the Beaux-Arts style, filled with arched windows and classic details, a staircase that would make Scarlett O’Hara green with envy, and one of the largest domes in the world. During the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, San Francisco City Hall shook like crazy, but the voters approved bonds to rebuild the hall along with seismic retrofitting. This included something like 530 lead-rubber shock absorbers that created the word’s largest base-isolated building.

Your Wedding

You have 3 options

Wedding options inside San Francisco City Hall

Mayor’s Balcony

Rental fees: $1,000.
Private ceremony, private space.
1 hour time slot, 9am – 4pm.
Reserve 1 year ahead here.
Chair rental: $7.50 each.
40 seats / 100 guest max.
BYO officiant.
Privacy: ♥ ♥
Noise: ♥ ♥
Light: ♥ ♥

4th Floor Gallery

Rental fees: $1,000.
Private ceremony, private space.
1 hour time slot, 9am – 4pm.
Reserve 1 year ahead here.
Chair rental: $7.50 each.
60 seats / 100 guest max.
BYO officiant.
Privacy: ♥ ♥ ♥
Noise: ♥ ♥ ♥
Light North Gallery: ♥ ♥ ♥
Light South Gallery: ♥

Rotunda

Processing fees: $100.
Public ceremony, open space.
30 mins time slot, 9am – 4pm.
Reserve 90 days ahead here.
No chairs, no tables.
6 guests max (not enforced).
Officiant included.
Privacy: ♥
Noise: ♥
Light: ♥

Rotunda Wedding

This is what 90% of people do.

Make your appointment using the online reservation system. Cost: $100. Ceremony appointments start every half hour between 9am and 3:30pm Monday through Friday. You can only make a reservation 90 days in advance, so be ready to hit “refresh” at 1 second past midnight if you want a popular date (Summer / Fall Fridays and holiday weekends). You can officially bring up to 6 guests but I have never seen that rule enforced.

Here is how things flow, assuming a 2:00pm ceremony appointment:

  • 1:50 to 2:00pm: You check in at the counter, still in room 168, they verify your license and IDs, and give you a number, DMV style.

  • 2:00 to 2:15pm: You and your witnesses meet the judge and sign some paperwork. It takes 5 minutes, and two other couples will go through the same process in those 15 minutes. Then everyone walks upstairs to get married.

  • 2:15 to 2:30pm: One by one, each of the three couples and their guests assemble under the rotunda for the ceremony. The ceremony itself lasts 2-3 minutes. YOU ARE MARRIED!

Tip: if the other 2 couples have a lot of noisy guests, ask the judge to go last. You know, you are waiting for that late guest …

Warning: it’s like a box of chocolate: you never know what you’re gonna get. Two busloads of tourists swarming your wedding, mid-ceremony to take a selfie with you? That happens, although not often, and makes for great wedding pictures.

The official rules & policies are here; they are way more helpful in reality than this makes them sound.

Here is what the process looks like:

Mayor’s Balcony

You get a pretty posh private space for one hour, with up to 40 chairs and 100 guests. You will need to supply your own officiant, and make sure they have a strong voice (hint: Tim Mills), as this is one of the noisier spots.

The Mayor’s Balcony will fill up quickly, reserve it here up to a year in advance.

Heads-up: depending on the schedule, they may need you to clear up the space as soon as your one hour is up.

Here is what that space looks like:

4th Floor Gallery

This is probably my favorite spot in City Hall. There are two identical galleries, a North and a South gallery. 

If you have a choice, pick the NORTH side, it has far better light.

It will get booked up quickly, reserve it through the lovely people at the special events department. And heads-up: depending on the schedule, they may need you to clear up the space on the hour promptly.

Here is what that space looks like:

Don’t forget your wedding license!

Or your ID for that matter

You must have a wedding license to get married. I recommend getting your license days before your wedding, one less thing to stress about. Schedule your appointment using the online reservation system. Cost: $108. Show up at room 168 with your fiancé & IDs, and you’ll be out of there in 15 minutes.

*** As of September 1, 2018, photographers are no longer allowed to document the wedding license process in room 168. We can still photograph the ceremony portion (you meeting the judge, your witnesses signing the license, etc.) just not the printing of the license and your swearing in. ***

You can also get your license from any other California county clerk, up to 90 days in advance.

Here is what that process looks like:

How busy will it be?

Several factors drive the crowd density and noise inside City Hall.

1- It is a major tourist attraction in San Francisco, so you can count on busloads of tourists being dropped off randomly throughout the day.

2- For weddings, the activity varies from a barren landscape on a Monday in Winter, to a madhouse on Friday afternoons in Summer. Around holiday weekends it is a zoo, all bets are off and couples fight over a few coveted spots; be ready to hit refresh at 12:00:01 on your browser, 90 days ahead.

3- The news, elections, protests, press conferences will all randomly take over the space.

4- Corporate parties: especially true on Thursdays and Fridays around Christmas. The grand staircase and some other areas sometimes get roped off at 3pm to allow vendors to set-up. You can count on a giant Christmas tree all December.

Here is my official & copyrighted guestimate for 2018, compiled from dubious data by statistician Margie Novera.

First, frequency distribution of San Francisco City Hall weddings by weekday:

Frequency distribution of San Francisco City Hall weddings by weekdays

And frequency distribution by month

My fellow geeks will notice:
- the rainy season dip in Jan/Feb;
- the foggy season dip in June/July/Aug;
- the end of year rush towards that "extra tax exemption".

Frequency distribution of San Francisco City Hall weddings by month

But wait, there’s more!

Week end options.

You get to rent the whole shebang. Seriously, the whole place can be yours along with some of San Francisco’s finests to keep the place all secure. Two options: a two hour slot on Saturday mornings & early afternoons for $5,000, or the entire Saturday evening starting at $10,000.

Pricing

Photo coverage with files:
Weekdays from $1,250,
Weekends from $3,500.

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