Due to all its pomp and circumstance as the US capital, DC tends to get typecast as a one-dimensional trap for all things political. But even just a weekend elopement proves the small dot of a city on the Potomac River is a multifaceted place filled with color and vibrant energy. It’s got a booming restaurant scene embraced by critics and a diverse cultural landscape evident in everything from street art to street festivals. It’s dripping with living history, both inside its many (typically free!) museums and along its sweeping National Mall—and yet it’s undeniably contemporary, with all the perks of a big city.
DC is divided into four quadrants: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. Each holds distinctive neighborhoods, from the politico- and celeb-studded Kalorama (Northwest) to the Navy Yard (Southwest). And thanks to flexible marriage laws, you can wed practically anywhere in DC, making its various nooks, twists, turns, and hidden alleyways all the more worth discovering.
Best Time of Year to Visit
March - June
In the spring, the city’s beloved cherry blossoms bloom, beckoning snap-happy tourists and nature-loving locals who seek the gorgeous canopy of pink and white, most abundant along the Tidal Basin near the National Mall. The trees make a stunning backdrop for newlywed portraits and provide welcome shade for post-ceremony picnics. Springtime is also when the city’s many al-fresco dining and drinking establishments percolate, before the temps—and humidity—soar to brutal heights in the summer, making it a sweet spot for rooftop brunch mimosas or a beer garden dinner beneath the stars. Because much of the Capital’s best sightseeing is outside (take the National Mall, for instance), the mild spring weather makes soaking it all in that much more pleasant.
Pro Tip: Unless you really love crowds, avoid visiting on a national holiday: In addition to swarms of tourists, you’ll have to deal with road blockages and motorcades due to government-sponsored parades, festivals, and other events. It makes getting around particularly difficult, especially since the city’s underground Metro system isn’t quite as robust as you might expect. DC is also full of runners, so be sure to check out any races that bring road closures and maxed-out hotels (e.g., the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in March and the Marine Corps Marathon in October) unless, of course, you plan on incorporating some racing into your elopement.
Once a shanty-ridden hideaway of the city’s poorest dwellers shrouded from view by row houses on M and N streets, Blagden Alley in Shaw is now a hub for street art, with its many garage doors transformed into striking murals. (In 1990, it even received a spot on the National Register’s listing of historic districts—a move that protects it from the kind of rushed over-development known to strip cities of their unique character.) One of its most eye-catching works of art is the geometric rainbow LOVE mural by DC-based Lisa Marie Thalhammer, which makes for an eclectic (and very topical) ceremony backdrop. Also home to a La Colombe coffee shop and the esteemed Dabney restaurant, among other buzzy purveyors, the Alley is both a sought-after Instagram destination and real-life hangout.
You might not be the first to do it, but hey, it’s a popular choice for a reason: the National Mall offers (monumentally) gorgeous backdrops for a big-day ceremony, and signifies DC perhaps more definitively than anything else. Note that there are only three locales where wedding ceremonies (but no receptions) are technically permitted on the Mall: the DC War Memorial, the west lawn of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the George Mason Memorial—and your time will be limited to one to two hours depending on the spot you select. Of the three, the columned DC War Memorial, which honors DC citizens who served during World War I, is a popular choice for its quiet, secluded location beneath a canopy of lush foliage.
Since the Mall is a National Park, you’ll need to apply for a Special Use Permit and submit a $50, nonrefundable fee to host your ceremony in any of the aforementioned locations. A document with rules for special events hosted on Park premises—e.g., glass containers or helium balloons are not permitted—can be found here. To ensure you’re not battling the crowds or dealing with transportation issues, it’s particularly important to choose a date that doesn’t coincide with a holiday, concert, or political demonstration if the Mall is your destination of choice.
Fair warning: The Ken Cen, the nation’s busiest performing arts center, does not technically permit wedding ceremonies (and they’ll politely ask you to leave if you attempt to hold one indoors), but for the most part, they have no problem allowing an intimate one to proceed on the roof terrace. Because it wraps around the building, it offers sweeping, panoramic views of the city’s landmarks, including the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument to the southeast, the Watergate to the north. And thanks to the Kennedy Center’s location just off the Potomac, there’s a convenient opportunity for sweeping waterfront shots, too.
Admittedly, this 50-acre park—which borders the Reflecting Pool to the south and Constitution Avenue to the north—is entirely on the National Mall, and no, it’s not technically one of the three spots (above) where wedding ceremonies are officially permitted. But in the instance you’re planning to keep things short and low-key, you’ll likely have no trouble exchanging your vows on this green oasis. (Hey, if Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle could do it and get away with it, surely you can, too.)
The Gardens—which were dedicated in 1976 as an American Revolution Bicentennial Tribute—boast a small island in the center of a large pond called Signer’s Island, in honor of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Follow Doolittle’s lead, and choose this spot for your ceremony; it’s incredibly picturesque and, one might even say, quiet—a hard thing to find just steps away from the monuments and memorials.
In a piece of big D.C. weddings news, the Smithsonian recently adopted a new policy allowing private social events—including weddings—at many of its museums and galleries as part of a three-year pilot program initiated in 2018. Generally, this refers to full-blown events, which would involve renting any of its various spaces for fees ranging from $1,000 to $150,000 (that latter price tag applies to renting the whole National Zoo). Though this policy dangles the unique prospect of a private Night at the Museum-esque ceremony for two, if you’re looking to skirt the rental fees altogether, you can still have your ceremony just outside one of the Smithsonian’s gorgeous museums (and then head inside for portraits next to your favorite works or exhibits—admission is always free, but be sure to only take photos where allowed). We’d opt for the steps of the National Portrait Gallery or in front of the gorgeous Renwick Gallery, the third oldest Smithsonian building that’s located near the White House (pictured).
This multi-level stairway connecting S Street and Decatur Place dates back more than 100 years and holds the curious title of the “only Washington public park to occupy a street.” Walk all the way up the steps, and you’ll arrive at a wide brick terrace fronted by a balustrade and striking fountain, surrounded by magnolias and oaks. The whole place takes on the romantic aura of a European plaza—and yet it still feels like the city’s best-kept secret, located just steps from DC’s unofficial, bustling center. Some pointers if this is your dream spot: Nab a permit from the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (different from the National Park Service permits required for the National Mall) in order to reserve your preferred date and time and ensure no one will intrude (such as dog-walkers and personal trainers leading stair drills). And, if you’re bridging the gap between a true elopement and a micro wedding, you’ll definitely need a permit to avoid any issues with the park officials. Get all the details here.
While this bustling train station’s main hall—where the sleek, white marble floors have been graced by many a politician—makes a stunning venue for upwards of 2,000 guests, it’s also an equally beautiful spot for a party of just two (not to mention, incredibly easy to get to, as it’s a hub for Amtrak, Metro, MARC, and DC city buses). The station’s massive windows bathe the place in natural light, and its barrel-vaulted, gold leaf-lined ceiling lends a purely regal feel. Because it’s often crowded with travelers, the station’s outdoor areas—stone alcoves that line the building—offer a much quieter choice for the ceremony itself. Once it’s over, pop back inside the main hall for ample photo ops and celebratory crab cakes at Legal Seafood.
Situated on the banks of the Anacostia River in the city’s Navy Yard neighborhood in Southwest—known best for housing Nationals Park and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy—Yards Park is an increasingly popular summertime destination. And it’s no wonder, given its Friday night concert series, free fitness classes at the river’s edge, and a pool for escaping the sweltering heat. Perhaps its most recognizable landmark, though, is a pedestrian foot-bridge with a mod tunnel-like skeletal structure. It’s an ideal, ultra-photogenic spot to tie the knot, while gazing out over the water.
Obtaining a marriage license in DC simply involves submitting an application online, then visiting the Marriage Bureau at the Moultrie Courthouse to show ID and pay the $45 fee ($35 for the application and $10 for a certified copy of the license). The District’s three-day waiting period was eliminated in 2014, meaning the license will typically be issued the same day that you apply and you can marry immediately afterward.
Bonus: DC also allows marriage-by-proxy. In this case, you’d pay a third party to provide your documentation to the Court and pick up your marriage license—which saves you the trouble of waiting in line.
On the flip side, you can also do the whole thing yourselves, without even so much as an officiant: Self-officiating marriages are legal in DC (and recognized everywhere else). The two of you would simply complete the above application process and submit your fee in person, then leave the courthouse premises to marry yourselves, and finally, return for the clerk’s signature to make it official.
For more information, including links to the marriage license and officiant applications, visit the DC Courts website.