Eloping in Santa Barbara vs. New York City

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Katie: This is the Runaway Together Podcast. In this episode, we’ll be chatting about the differences between eloping in Santa Barbara and New York City. I’m your host, Katie Doherty, and I’m an elopement and intimate wedding photographer based in Los Angeles. I created this podcast as a resource for couples who are thinking about eloping.

Katie: If you are possibly interested in hiring me as your elopement photographer, you’ll get a free hour of coverage if you mention this podcast. I can create custom packages for all of my couples. Basically what that means is, I’ll just throw on an extra hour of coverage to whichever package you decide to book. I am in LA, definitely very happy to travel. At this particular moment in time (it’s June 2020), travel might not be the easiest thing in the world due to COVID. But under normal circumstances, I’ll literally go anywhere.

Katie: For this episode, I invited my good friend Phil to speak about some of the differences between getting married in New York city versus Santa Barbara. Phil has lived in both of these cities, so he helped me break things down. We talk specifically about elopements in the city hall and courthouses in both of these locations. We cover favorite spots to take portraits after the ceremony, favorite places to grab a drink or some food, and also some suggestions on where to stay. Without further ado. Here is our conversation.

Hey Phil.

Phil: Hi Katie.

Katie: So we know each other from probably like 6 years ago…And you used to live in Santa Barbara. That’s where you grew up, but now you’re in New York City. I thought it would be fun to kind of compare what it’s like eloping in Santa Barbara versus New York. Can you just first tell me a little bit about your backstory? Like what brought you to New York and where you grew up?

Phil: Sure. I think I met you right before I moved to New York. Like maybe one or two months before I moved to NYC.

Katie: Two weeks.

Phil: That’s crazy. So I grew up in Santa Barbara, California. I spent 32 years there. And then two weeks before I moved to New York City, I met Katie through her friend. We talked photo stuff and Lightroom, and then I moved to New York. And every time I came back, we would connect and talk about photo stuff. And then we eventually became business partners. But I moved to New York because I wanted to pursue commercial and fashion photography and magazine photography out here. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six years.

Katie: How long have you been doing weddings?

Phil: Now it’s been 11 years.

CA vs. NY

“If you’ve never been to Santa Barbara, it is probably the most perfect town you’ve ever visited.”

Katie: That’s a long time. I didn’t know it was that long. Well, here’s my plan. I want to ask you kind of the same set of questions for New York and then Santa Barbara. And I can kind of chime in on the Santa Barbara bit because I’ve also photographed weddings there. So I guess my first question is just in general, what do you think are some of the main differences between California and New York?

Phil: In terms of elopements and weddings?

Katie: Not necessarily, just anything that you’ve noticed, since you’ve lived in both places.

Phil: If you’ve never been to Santa Barbara, it is probably the most perfect town you’ve ever visited. The weather is guaranteed like 72 degrees every day of the year, or somewhere around that. It almost never rains…which is good and bad. But weather is never, ever, ever a factor. So you can always get married outside and do outside activities. And you rarely have to worry about if it’s gonna snow rain be windy, like too hot, too cold, nothing.

Phil: So California has like perfect weather, but in New York we’ve got all four seasons and we experience rain, winter, hail, blizzards, sunny, too hot, like sweltering hot. And it’s really a lot of things. If you want it to be perfect, like an event or a wedding, then it’s usually indoors. So there’s a lot of what you would call ballroom weddings out here where you’re at fancy hotel, like the Plaza Hotel or Four Seasons. And you just, you get married in the ballroom. It doesn’t matter what the weather is outside. If it’s nice, you can go out and take a couple pictures on the street. But if not almost everything is inside, which is very strange. If you’re a California photographer, imagine an entire wedding inside. I’ve done quite a few of those out here.

Katie: Right. And so today’s May 22nd. What’s the weather like today? Is it nice?

Phil: Well, it was pretty warm actually. It was like 75 degrees earlier. And I think it’s raining now. So like sunny and nice all day and now it got overcast and think it’s about to rain. So again, it’s totally all over the place. I went and photographed with a friend out in empty streets of Soho, and we moved it up two hours because she was afraid it was going to rain. And she was right.

Best Time of Year to Visit NYC

Katie: What is the best time to, if you’re going to plan an elopement, if there’s a certain month of the year, what would you say for weather?

Phil: Hmm, good question. Best months in New York for that kind of thing would be like may, June and September, October, maybe November are perfect months in New York city.

Katie: Okay. So aside from weather, are there any other differences between California and New York?

Phil: There’s so much nature and outdoors in California. New York is so much artificial and buildings. There’s a lot more like architecture, I think, involved in New York things. Like I remember at least if we’re talking about weddings in Santa Barbara, it was always like, are you getting married at a park or a beach? And that’s kind of like the two options.

Katie: That makes sense. I want to hear about some of your favorite New York City elopements.

NYC Elopements

“He didn’t want to plan anything. They were just going to get married at the last minute. And so it was two days before she was like, okay, we’re officially getting married on Friday.”

Phil: I was talking with a friend earlier today and I had photographed her wedding. She is an author and a podcaster. Her name is Jenny. She got married to an artist. Who’s like, I want to say Armenian or like Egyptian, some background like middle Eastern. Very artist type. He didn’t want to plan anything. They were just going to get married at the last minute. She had reached out to me and told me, Hey, we’re thinking of getting married sometime in the next two weeks. We’re not really good at planning right now. And I mean, I think it was him. He was not very good at planning. She wanted to have things locked down. So she told me like, if you’re available in the next few weeks, that’d be great. I said, yeah, I’m available like this Thursday, this Friday.

Phil: And so it was like two days before she was like, okay, we’re officially getting married on Friday. And then I like locked it in. I showed up to the courthouse with them. She wore a white jumpsuit and it was such a cool outfit. Yeah. He had a blue corduroy jacket on and like a cool little boutonniere. And it was just, it was fun. It was only seven people total. They got married at the New York City Hall, and it was like just her brother and his family and then his best friend and her best friend. And then they invited me to their brunch afterwards, and I sat down and ate with them, but also took pictures. It was cool. It was like that, you know, I became like a part of the family instantly and it was really, really fun.

Katie: I love that. When was this? Was this pre-COVID?

Phil: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was like two years ago. Oh, wait, can I say one more though?

Katie: Yes, please do.

eloping in the city

Phil: I have another favorite one. I also felt super part of the family. This one, it was just the two of them. It was two ladies from London or like it just outside of London came to New York to get married. They didn’t tell any of their friends. I think they both were into non-traditional dresses. So one of them had kind of a peach colored dress. And the other one was in a navy blue colored dress. They were so cute, and I was their photographer and their witness at the same time! I had my assistant Carly with me. I don’t even know why we had an assistant, but I think she wanted to be there and so I asked the couple. And they said it was cool. So Carly was with me, and then the two girls got married and that was it. We got the best pictures ever in Brooklyn right afterwards. And it was really, really lovely. I almost visited them the last time I was in London, but they were remodeling their house. And so the timing just got a little bit off, but I’m going to see them the next time I’m out there in the UK. And I love them a lot.

Katie: I love that! Do you recall if it was easy for them to do this from being out of the country? Like as far as the marriage license goes in New York?

Phil: Yeah. So I think anybody can just show up in New York, and I don’t know if it takes two days or one day…but you can go to the marriage hall and ask for a license and then get married. Like within a day, and you don’t even have to be citizens apparently. So that’s what they did. I think their process was very smooth.

Katie: Yeah. Cool Phil. Well, I want to talk about the city hall. Is there only one city hall in New York where you would go to do the licensed stuff?

Phil: There’s two that I’ve photographed out. There is the New York city hall, which was kind of down by the financial district and there’s the Brooklyn city hall. And that one’s sort of downtown Brooklyn. Most of the ones I’ve done have been in New York city hall, but a couple of Brooklynites have gone to Brooklyn. And that’s a little more mellow. Both of them very ugly.

Katie: Haha! That was going to be my next question. What do you think of them?

Phil: I mean, if you’re a good photographer, I think you can make it look cool. But they definitely have not been updated or remodeled or changed or anything since like probably 1971. There’s like really olive green benches that you sit on. There are fluorescent lights overhead. It’s really like a DMV process in there. Because so many people get married through the New York city hall. You check in at one place, you go to another window to get a number and then you pay for it at another window, and then you sign documents at another window, and then you wait, and then you get married. And the marriage usually lasts about 45 seconds, the whole wedding. I’ve timed it. I’ve looked at my photos that I’ve taken, because you can see. I’ll start at like 2:15 pm and 30 seconds. And then 2:16 and 45 seconds, it’s over. People spend a little more time clapping and hugging afterwards than they do actually like getting married. It’s crazy.

Katie: That’s funny. Two questions. Are there windows in this place?

Phil: No.

Katie: No windows. Okay. And then, are people bringing in an officiant from the outside world or is it just somebody who works at city hall?

Phil: It’s the person there. So the person at city hall probably does like 50 to 100 weddings a day. I’m guessing. Yeah. That’s why it’s so fast, because I don’t think they care. They’re not like, mean about it. They’re obviously smiling a little bit. But they definitely are like, Okay, thanks for being here. Do you take this man to be your husband? Do you take this woman? Do you have a ring? Put it on. Okay. Now by the power vested in me by New York state, I now pronounce you… That’s like literally the whole thing. But yeah, it’s a very garish inside. There’s like bad art in the backgrounds and it’s not centered. So the podium is off center from like the middle of the room. It’s very, very strange.

Katie: Interesting.

Phil: But I’m going to ask you Katie, how is it in California?

Katie: Well, it’s beautiful. I was going to save all the Santa Barbara stuff for after we run through New York. But that’s one of the big differences that you and I talked about…just how vastly different the Santa Barbara courthouse is. It’s beautiful, but we’ll go into more details with that in a little bit.

Phil: I’ll let you run the show.

Wedding Portraits in NYC

So you can get skylines or cobblestone streets and old buildings and it’s just kind of classic. And being able to see New York in the background is really fun.

Katie: So you go to the city hall in New York, and then where would you take a couple afterwards for some nice portraits?

Phil: So the area right outside of city hall is not that great. It’s like Chinatown in one direction. And then just sort of like office financial district stuff in the other direction. So a lot of times people get in a car and then head up to maybe Central Park. Or over the bridge, and then you can be down in it’s called DUMBO. It’s a part of Brooklyn called DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It’s just on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s all the city views of New York, from the Brooklyn side. And they have really cool, like old cobblestone streets and stuff. And it’s really lovely. So I end up taking couples over there a lot afterwards.

Katie: I love that area. I’ve seen a lot of wedding photos taken there. It’s kind of a nice iconic spot. Right? Because you have the water, but then you have the bridge, but then you can see, you can still see Manhattan like in the distance.

Phil: We shot there.

Katie: Yes we have.

Phil: It’s so great. It’s like old, old Brooklyn. So you can get skylines or cobblestone streets and old buildings and it’s just kind of classic. And being able to see New York in the background is really fun.

Katie: Cool. Do you have any spots in mind that would be nice for a celebratory drink, or a restaurant if a couple wanted to go out and maybe get some pictures celebrating afterwards?

Phil: Yeah, I think I would say anywhere in Soho or like West Village. That has kind of like a cool little atmosphere. With maybe like a back patio is really nice. I’ll look up a couple of names. I can’t think off the top of my head.

Katie: Okay. I’ve been to New York a few times. I’m thinking of just all the cool hotel lobbies and stuff that I think would be a cool spot to grab a drink or something afterwards.

Phil: Oh yeah. You could even do, if you want to go fancy, you could go to the Plaza Hotel and have like a tea or a drink. In Brooklyn, actually ride by DUMBO, is the 1 Hotel. And that place has a super, super nice lobby. They also have like patio seating that overlooks a little park right there. So that’s kind of lovely. And they also have a rooftop bar. So you can actually see the whole city.

Katie: I’ve always thought that the ACE Hotel is pretty cool. I don’t know if it’s too predictable, but…

Phil: The ACE Hotel in New York is like, it doesn’t have very much outdoor space and it’s a little bit crammed inside. So that would be a little bit harder to find a good seat quickly. I think not impossible, but I think the ACE hotel is better in other cities than in New York.

Where to Stay: NYC

I mean, honestly, if it were me, I would recommend staying in an Airbnb. I think you could get a really cool Airbnb for the same price as a hotel, and even like host a few people if you wanted.

Katie: Gotcha. What about a place to stay? We just named a bunch of hotels.

Phil: I mean, honestly, if it were me, I would recommend staying in an Airbnb. But if you want something cool, you could do the Public Hotel in downtown New York. That’s kind of like a lower East side hotspot. It’s super popular during fashion week, and all the cool kids stay there. There’s a really amazing rooftop view, probably one of the best rooftops in lower Manhattan. And that’s the Public Hotel. It’s famously designed by a famous architect. And it’s cool.

Katie: And I agree with you on the Airbnb as well. I think that’s always a cool place to look.

Phil: Yeah. I think you could get a really cool Airbnb for the same price as a hotel, and even like host a few people if you wanted.

Katie: Okay, we’re moving on to Santa Barbara in a second, but I just want to quickly know if we forgot any pros or cons for eloping in NYC? Like, what do you love about New York?

Phil: You know, you can be a tourist and get married. What a cool vacation. It’s a really great place to vacation. I mean, Santa Barbara is too, but New York’s awesome. Like my friends, they didn’t just come here and get married and then leave. They stayed a few days, you know, and got to be married and walk Central Park and take taxis and maybe see a Broadway show. You can’t do any of that stuff in Santa Barbara. Right. I think being able to go to the Metropolitan Museum or see a Broadway show…or do that kind of stuff, is kind of like a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in New York.

Eloping in Santa Barbara

Katie: So Santa Barbara, you and I have both photographed intimate weddings there. I went to college there. You and I met there. So I’m going to chime in a little bit. But first thing I wanted to talk about was the courthouse itself. We kind of briefly mentioned before, but oh, I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s it’s a very old building. I don’t know what year it was built.

Phil: I think it’s like the 1800’s. I used to know that the top of my head. Yeah. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Santa Barbara. Let’s see….So 1929 was when it was completed.

Katie: I’m going to try to describe it. I think it kind of has that Spanish flair to it on the inside. There are a lot of tiles and gates and archways. And then just the property itself: it takes up this whole block on the corner. There’s a lot of greenery and Palm trees, and there’s different ceremony spots within the building. So there’s this really gorgeous mural room upstairs that has murals all over it. And you know, like floor to ceiling windows with these draperies. And it’s got a very moody vibe to it.

Phil: It’s stately. The mural room is actually, it looks like a courthouse room. So there’s like a judge’s chair and everything. It’s also used as a wedding hall for most days. It’s really beautiful.

eloping in santa barbara

Katie: I love that room. There’s another spot that you can get married inside. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the little balcony area that’s right above where you sign all the papers. To get up there you go in this elevator. I think there’s a max amount of people that can go up there. I believe it was raining one day. And so we decided to do it inside. It’s probably the most private spot in the courthouse, because no one can go up there unless you’re getting married. So it’s just this little room there’s not much to look at, but there’s like white walls and nice light and red curtains. And so that’s another spot. And then you can also do it outside. I’ve done this little area that’s outside of a door and there’s kind of plants around you, and it’s in the shade a little bit. Yeah. There are all kinds of spots. I think you just decide ahead of time where you want to go. And for the mural room, you probably have to reserve ahead of time.

Phil: They have lots of options. There’s also, they call it the sunken gardens, but it’s just like a few steps down. That’s just like this nice grassy lawn and you can get married in different parts of that with different backgrounds. Yeah, you could get married like five or six different ways and it’s never a bad picture, whichever direction you’re looking.

Katie: So we already talked about the plusses of eloping in Santa Barbara. At least one of them I wrote down earlier was the weather – literally any time any day of year is going to be nice. Any other plusses you can think of? Just Santa Barbara in general, doesn’t have to be the courthouse.

Phil: I mean, if you want to be in an idyllic beach town, that’s really clean and easy…it’s perfect. Santa Barbara is great for like day hikes and then kayaking in the ocean. And it’s a very active outdoorsy place to be. There’s a lot of really beautiful pockets of the city to see. The courthouse is actually a tourist attraction, but also the Santa Barbara Mission is a huge old Spanish style building with a church. It’s actually a place that monks live and work still. And there’s a rose garden right below that. And there’s all these different beaches you can hang out in. Beaches are never crowded. It’s always white sand, lots of space.

Katie: Also Santa Barbara is close to, if you’re into wine, it’s at the foothills of wine country. Basically if you drive up to San Inez or Los Olivos, or even just like the, what is it? The Urban Wine Trail. There’s all these little wine tasting rooms.

Phil: Yeah. In Santa Barbara, you can walk from one little urban winery to another. It’s super easy to get around and you can bike everywhere if you want. Houses are cool. The whole town is, it’s very nicely, nicely run.

Katie: I agree. I did think of one downside though, to eloping at the courthouse and that is, it can get pretty busy there. This could happen at any public location, but I think it’s pretty common to have some onlookers. You know, it might not bother everybody, but I’ve seen people like just random people, taking pictures of the bride and groom. The mural room is not a private spot, so people can actually even still walk in there.

Phil: Yeah. They can walk in during the ceremony. That’s the only downside. You’re not going to be able to escape onlookers anywhere, especially in New York. It’s probably worse in New York to be honest. But yeah, you will not have a private room If you get married at the Santa Barbara courthouse.

Wedding Portraits in Santa Barbara

And if you walk out, you know, 10 minutes from the trees, you have cliffs over the ocean, it’s really lovely. But a lot of monarchs do their annual migration through that grove of trees every year. So you can see them around January, February, and it’s just like thousands of butterflies in the trees.

Katie: Do you have a favorite spot to take wedding portraits in Santa Barbara? I wanted to ask you, because I kind of forget what it’s called, but the butterfly preserve place. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Phil: You mean the outdoor wild one? It’s Ellwood, Ellwood Butterfly Preserve. Yeah. Out in Goleta.

Katie: I liked that place.

Phil: So basically for those who don’t know, in the outskirts of Santa Barbara in the suburbs, there’s this whole protected area that has a bunch of Eucalyptus trees and it’s like a grove of trees out there. And if you walk out, you know, 10 minutes from the trees, you have cliffs over the ocean, it’s really lovely. But a lot of monarchs do their annual migration through that grove of trees every year. So you can see them around January, February, and it’s just like thousands of butterflies in the trees. There’s lots of lovely dirt paths and walkways. If you want to have like some nice kind of nature pictures, that’s a good place.

Phil: My favorite places to do wedding photos in Santa Barbara….I really liked downtown actually. I think the downtown State Street, which is the main street down the center of Santa Barbara is really pretty. Cool sidewalks and kind of a lovely atmosphere. There’s Palm trees everywhere. So I think that’s a fun little backdrop. You still maybe have people on the street and stuff, but you can time it right and position the people. I think you can get a cool Santa Barbara backdrop by just going down State Street and find side alleys around there.

Santa Barbara Hotspots

So the Funk Zone would be kind of the hottest spot to go and get a drink in Santa Barbara.

Katie: Yeah, I agree. It has everything basically. My next question was going to be a spot to go out for a drink or a favorite restaurant. All of State Street is lined with cool places to do that. Do you have a favorite?

Phil: Well, the real secret, I think to Santa Barbara, which is not too much of a secret anymore, is that the cool places to get a drink now is the area called the Funk Zone. The Funk Zone is like down, down, down at the bottom of State Street, closer to the water. It used to be all of these old industrial buildings where artists used to live. And there was a strip club out there and a fish market, and just like weird. It didn’t make any sense. And so they called it the Funk Zone, but now it’s the place where all of those urban wineries are that we talked about. And there’s cool hip restaurants and really nice bars. There was a great Asian fusion Thai place that I love down there. So the Funk Zone would be kind of the hottest spot to go and get a drink in Santa Barbara.

Katie: Actually I agree with you now that you say that, and my favorite is Muni Wine. I don’t know if you’ve been to that one, but if you want some wine, yes. Municipal Wine would be my choice. Last time I was there, which was not super recently, there were restaurants popping up down there as well. I think that’s a good call. I’ll link to some good ones in the blog post. (The Lark, Eat This, Shoot That food tour).

Where to Stay: Santa Barbara

Katie: Places to stay, Phil?

Phil: Gosh, since I grew up there, I just always stay with my friends or my family. I guess if you’ve got a little bit of money to spend, there are three phenomenal hotels on the water, on the beach. And one of them is the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara. You can literally walk out the front door of the hotel and you’re looking at the ocean. There’s a new one, which is the Miramar Hotel. That would be a Rosewood Miramar. That one’s very beautiful and stately again. I don’t even know how to describe it. Feels like you’re in like a Southern estate or something. It’s got kind of a cool vibe and it’s not quite Santa Barbara feel. The other one would be the Bacara Resort and that’s a little more in the suburbs area. Walking distance actually to those butterflies we talked about. That one’s super, super lovely. And all of those are like steps away from the ocean.

Katie: Oh, there’s also the Canary Hotel right in downtown.

Phil: But that’s the heart of the heart of downtown. Yeah. The Canary Hotel’s kind of a cool, it’s a Kimpton resort.

Katie: I like that spot. They have a cool rooftop and it’s a boutique hotel. It’s not like a big old thing, but they also have a little nice restaurant bar at the bottom.

Phil: Yeah, that’s a nice alternative option to like the fancy places and it’s still fancy.

Closing Remarks

Katie: Okay. Well, Phil, is there anything else you’d like to share regarding elopements or anything in general?

Phil: I think almost everybody getting married in the next 12 months is probably going to have something that looks like an elopement, especially if you’re in California or in New York. You’re not even legally allowed to have a gathering of over 10 or 15 or 20 people right now. A lot of the people that I know in the New York wedding industry are planning on a year of very small, intimate weddings of like 50 people or less. And that might not be an elopement, but if you want to do like your 10 people, like now is the time. And there’s lots of vendors out there like Katie and myself who are willing to help.

Katie: Definitely. I had a change of plans for a wedding that I’m actually photographing this weekend. It was originally going to be, you know, 150 people here in California, but the couple decided to go forward with just the two of them. So that’s what we’re doing on Saturday. It’ll just be them, me and the officiant. And they seem totally fine with it. They’re just embracing how plans change. It’s kind of out of our control and it’s going to be a lovely day regardless. How can people find you online Phil?

Phil: You can find me everywhere at phillipvn. My weddings is Philip VN Weddings. My personal account is phillipvn. My TikTok is phillipvn. Everything. My website’s phillipvn.com.

Katie: Well, thank you. I think this was pretty helpful. If I had to choose between Santa Barbara and New York….I don’t know. It’s kind of a toss up for me. Maybe I’d choose New York just because I’m used to California and I like new things.

Phil: I would choose Santa Barbara actually.

Katie: Oh really?

Phil: I think that there are more beautiful options. Santa Barbara is just an easier place to be. But New York is like a little more exciting and glamorous, you know? And so it’s a different vibe, but yeah, you can come to New York. I’ll come to Santa Barbara.

Katie: Okay. All right. Thank you, Phil!

Thanks for listening. You can visit runawaytogether.co/resources for all of the previous podcast episodes. If you want to come say hi on Instagram, I’m also on there @runawaytogether.co. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions. See you next time.


Katie photographs elopements and intimate weddings. She is located in Los Angeles and is available for travel worldwide.