Finding a Wedding Location

Martha Stewart Weddings, Summer 2010

Chances are, not long after he popped the question, you found yourself asking a decidedly less romantic but no less pressing one: "Where and when?" And with that, you officially started your wedding planning. Figuring out where the most joyous occasion of your life (thus far, at least) will take place isn't a small matter. Where you wed can dictate when you wed, how formal the event, even what you'll wear. The key is to look far and wide, and to heed advice that's typically given for the wedding-dress hunt: "Try on" different options, not only the one you think you want. With that in mind, we compiled a list of the most common (and a few not so common) venues. See if one fits!

At a Home
Marrying at your house, a summer home, or a family friend's property lets you share with your guests a place that's meaningful to you. Besides, you can't beat having the comforts of a private home on your big day. Some of the trickier aspects: You may need to rent a tent (which could cost $1,000 or more), depending on the amount of space in the home and the size of your guest list, and/or the potential for inclement weather. Most at-home weddings also require portable bathroom rentals, which start at $200 each for basic flush versions. And parking can be an issue -- one option is to hire a valet service ($25 and up per attendant per hour); another is to arrange for guests to leave their cars at a nearby location, like a school or park-and-ride, and rent trolleys ($500 and up) to transport them to the house. All these extras will cost you, but as they say, there's no place like home. 

PROS: A meaningful at-home setting creates instant intimacy and puts guests at ease. 

CONS: It can be pricey, and the logistics of this type of wedding may be complicated.

At a House of Worship
Tying the knot in a church or synagogue is the traditional route, of course, particularly for the ceremony. What you may not have considered: continuing the festivities there. An increasing number of churches and synagogues are encouraging couples to have it all under one roof by offering beautiful reception spaces that rival hotel ballrooms and catering halls. Some religious venues have rules about who is eligible to be married there (for instance, the bride and groom may both need to be members of the parish) or about attire (no bare shoulders in a synagogue, for example), so be sure to ask about this up front. There's also a required fee for the officiant (about $100 to $500), typically given in the form of a donation to the facility. A room-rental fee may apply, from $200 per hour and up (it may or may not include furniture, tableware, and linens, too). You'll also likely need to hire a caterer in addition to your florist, and the church or synagogue often has a pre-approved list of vendors to choose from. 

PROS: Having the ceremony and reception in one place makes it easy on guests -- and you. You won't have to worry about getting them from the ceremony to the party. 

CONS: Some religious institutions impose limitations on the noise level, length of party, and types of food and drinks served.

At a Country Club
For an elegant, black-tie affair, a country club can be your best bet -- the stately entranceway, classic furnishings, and landscaped grounds all contribute to a wedding that feels polished and formal. Because social events are a focus of this type of facility, there's usually ample space for the ceremony and reception (and optional after-party). There's also typically an in-house caterer with package options that are priced similar to those of a hotel. If you're not a member of the club where you'd like to marry, you may still be able to hold your event there if you're sponsored by someone who is. 

PROS: Parties are at the core of country-club operations, so the staff is likely to handle your big day with ease. Chairs, tables, dishes, glassware, and linens are usually supplied. 

CONS: Beware of common hidden charges, such as corkage and cake-cutting fees, not to mention mandatory valet parking and bathroom attendants.

At a Restaurant
Foodies often favor a restaurant wedding because they want to give their guests a fine-dining experience. But it can also be a sentimental choice -- the site of your first date or proposal, a longtime family favorite, or an authentic spot that's representative of your heritage. The size of your wedding can make this a smart pick as well; a guest list of about 100 may be too small to fill a hotel ballroom, for example, but just right for a restaurant's dining room. "If you're looking at renting the restaurant as a 'buy out' -- meaning you'll have it all to yourself -- you'll need to cover the food and beverage income they would have brought in that evening," says California-based event designer Sasha Souza. "But the flatware, china, tables, bar, and more are included, so this can be a cost-effective option." 

PROS: Distinctive food. Also, you may be able to negotiate a great price if you're willing to hold your wedding on a night when the restaurant is typically closed or slow. 

CONS: The dance area may be small or nonexistent. And when it comes to customizing a menu, there's usually less flexibility with a restaurant chef than with a caterer.

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At a Public Beach or Park
If your hometown boasts a beautiful (practically free) outdoor space, why not take advantage of it for your nuptials? For a nominal permit fee -- typically about $50 for residents, $100 for nonresidents -- you get a picturesque, open-air setting with plenty of space for seating, not to mention gawkers who will gather for a glimpse, leaving you and your groom feeling like stars (for good or bad). You'll need to bring in chairs, flowers, and decor for the ceremony, and if you are permitted to throw the reception there as well, everything else. A tent in case of rain may also be required. 

PROS: Natural light and beautiful scenery translate into amazing wedding photos. 

CONS: Some parks and beaches impose a time limit of just two hours. There might be rules about noise levels, and glass bottles and drinking containers may not be permitted.

At a Hotel
Hotels and resorts are popular venues for good reason: They have ballrooms, courtyards, and various spaces to use for any size party. Plus, it's one-stop shopping; you typically select a wedding package you can then customize. You're not bound by too many rules on the length of your event or the noise level, and having your guests stay on-site can simplify the experience, especially if you plan to hold the rehearsal dinner or next-day brunch there as well. 

PROS: An in-house planner is often included with your wedding package, so you can avoid paying extra for a professional to oversee and coordinate the details. 

CONS: Hotels almost always have multiple events booked per weekend, which means your cocktail hour could be taking place right next to a noisy dentists' convention.

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At a Museum
This uncommon venue can provide you with a memorable site and lend your affair instant grandeur. A museum in a large city, like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, may have fees upward of $6,000; lesser-known ones in other areas may have significantly lower fees. Museums often have an in-house caterer, but some may permit outside vendors (for a nominal kitchen-use fee). As every museum has different rules, speak to its administration about restrictions; for example, the facility may not allow photos or video in certain gallery or exhibition areas. 

PROS: Artwork and artifacts serve as natural conversation starters during the cocktail hour. 

CONS: Since the space isn't designed primarily for large events, you will likely have to get creative with how you configure the dance floor or bar area.

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At a Historic Estate
An old, restored mansion can lend a uniquely romantic feel to a wedding. But as with a museum, the estate may have strict rules regarding capacity and noise to protect the facility from damage, and may require you to choose from a pre-approved vendor list. "The style of the estate can dictate the style of your event," says Souza, "but it's possible to create a modern-style wedding in this space." 

PROS: Fewer flowers and decor are necessary, since it's already highly designed. Add to the sense of history by using your own family treasures, like vintage silver, in the place settings. 

CONS: The layout of small rooms means you may have to break up your party with a few tables in each. If you prefer to keep everyone together, consider renting a tent.

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Site Unseen
Four wedding locations that are off the beaten path but surprisingly oh-so-right

Camp
Love your childhood camp experiences? Relive the glory years with a weekend wedding on the lakefront where you spent your summers. 

Book: Camp Waldemar, Hunt, Texas. 

Train Station
Restored depots often boast grand archways, marble floors, and other intricate, wedding-worthy details. 

Book: Union Station, Washington, D.C. 

Airplane Hangar
You'll love its soaring space, but you'll need plenty of decorations to offset the starkness of the venue. 

Book: Panorama Flight Service, Westchester County Airport, White Plains, New York. 

Aquarium
Giant tanks of colorful fish can make a bold design statement at a wedding. Be picky about your choice of aquariums, though; not all can be dressed up enough for a reception. 

Book: Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

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