An Alternative Wedding at the Academy of Sciences

Dinner in the Swamp with a View of the Rainforest in the Cal Academy of SciencesTrying to plan a wedding yourself can be really difficult. What colors? What accents? What centerpieces? Where should you have it? Who to invite? What to say? The list goes on and on. Brides and grooms want a unique, special occasion that truly celebrates their love for one another, but sometimes it can be difficult, and expensive, to find the right way to say “I Do”. Here’s a story of one bride and groom who worked their way through the questions, and found the perfect way to have a non-traditional wedding that lived up to all expectations. Let’s call them Harry and Sally.

Choosing an Alternative Wedding Venue

When Harry met Sally (see what we did there?), he immediately noticed their shared love of learning. Both worked in the tech industry in the SF Bay Area, and Harry proposed using a PowerPoint presentation.  A year and a half later, they were looking for a place to get married that not only represented them as a couple, would be fun for all of their guests to experience as well. Most importantly, they really wanted to get married somewhere in San Francisco with dinosaurs, which really helped narrow it down to the California Academy of Sciences. A venue like the Academy, inherently beautiful and recently built, requires very little decoration. Giraffes and a Groom at the California Academy of Sciences

When choosing your own alternative wedding venue, think of something unique that you might want to represent you. Off-beat venues such as museums, art galleries, unique restaurants, colleges, stadiums, and concert halls may seem over the top, but many of these venues offer little-used rental packages to either partially or fully rent out the entire space. If you can’t find any information on their website, just give them a call. Often venues are willing to work with you to find a solution to be a part of such a big day.

Alternative Wedding Music – Cheesy love songs? Thanks, but no thanks.

Harry and Sally really wanted to have music that brought people joy and enthusiasm for the day, without using emotional wedding classics. They eventually chose to have the ceremony music and cocktail hour music come from Synchro Strings, a string quartet, who played pop songs with a twist. They also communicated the type of music they wanted to their DJ, so when it was his time to shine, he kept the party going.


Music for a wedding is a lot harder than making a playlist for the gym. Take the time to discuss what type of music you both like, and figure out what would make an impact on the day of the wedding. Some different options to have the music of your dreams are:

  • Load up an iPod or laptop with a playlist, and plug into big house speakers. A DJ isn’t necessary if you know exactly what you like.
  • Hire live music to keep the experience fresh and new
  • Hire a DJ! There are plenty of professional services, and chances are you have a friend who isn’t bad on the tables.
  • Do you have a friend who’s a great singer, or plays an instrument? Ask them to sing or play your first dance. If they need, you or your venue can easily provide instruments such as a guitar, a piano, or just a microphone.

Animals at the Academy are excited for a wedding in the African Hall

A String Quartet Plays in the Aquarium at the Academy

Alternative Wedding Wear

Getting a bridal party of different ages, shapes, and sizes outfitted and coordinated can be a challenge. Harry and Sally opted to choose a color scheme and fabric, and let the bridal party pick their own dresses and suits. They gave everyone matching ties and jewelry.

Bridesmaids at the front of the California Academy of Sciences can wear the same color but different dresses, and still coordinate.

Consider your bridal party’s budget and any restrictions before deciding on the final uniforms. Getting the clothing for a wedding can be one of the most expensive and stressful components. There are many options to find second hand wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, suits, ties, even the perfect wedding shoes, in the exact colors you want. With minimal alternations, you could have your dream wedding outfits (and pictures) for half the cost.

Choosing an Alternative Centerpiece (and other special touches)

Dinner set up in the Swamp at the Academy of SciencesHarry and Sally were adamant that they didn’t want staid floral centerpieces at their wedding. Although their venue required very little decoration, the tables were a place to really showcase their own tastes. They also wanted to prioritize keeping the centerpiece costs lower so they could increase the budget for entertainment. After running through 40 different alternative centerpiece options, they finally settled on a simple glass cloche encompassing a succulent plant in a terra cotta pot. Each centerpiece in total was $15, and fit the theme of dinner in the Swamp. After the wedding, guests were thrilled to take the plants and cloches home, but the majority of the leftover glassware went home with the coordinator to use at other events.

Table Settings for a Wedding Dinner at the Academy of Sciences


Instead of numbering their tables, Harry and Sally loved the idea of naming them after famous scientists. They found a local artist to create table signs with each scientist on them, and each person received a keepsake magnet with the design of their table.

An Alternative Wedding Centerpiece

For creative alternative centerpieces, consider all your options. Some of the simplest solutions will play out beautifully on a completely set table, and some of the most complicated can be overwhelming. Consider how much time you have to create each centerpiece, if you have to transport them, and if you need to carry them any distance. This can sometimes eliminate common centerpiece components, like pounds of rocks. Additionally, reach out to coordinators, friends who got married before you, and look for glassware and fully assembled centerpieces second hand. You can also consider second hand options for linens, glassware, and favors. Often brides will donate their centerpiece glassware and components to coordinators, or try to sell them. It makes economic sense; after your wedding, will you really need 25 glass vases?

Table Settings in the Swamp with a view of the Rainforest

An Alternative Wedding Ceremony

An Alternative Wedding at the California Academy of Sciences in front of the Penguins

Neither Harry nor Sally are religious, so a traditional, religious wedding ceremony wasn’t an option. This left them with a lot of questions, because suddenly the format of the ceremony could be very open and unstructured. Eventually, they chose to have the ceremony officiated by a good friend, with readings in pairs from the bridesmaids and groomsmen. It took a few practice runs to get everything feeling right, but once they found the right readings it all fell into place. Structurally, the ceremony remained fairly traditional, but the content was distinctively Harry and Sally. Harry and Sally chose two readings they felt best represented them. A Lovely Love Story, by  Edward Monkton, and a passage about the importance of love in the universe by Carl Sagan. They wrote their own vows, and got married in front of the penguins.

Choosing a reading and making a ceremony feel right can be a daunting task. Think about what the most important things to you are as a couple. Research! Your wedding will always be one of a kind, but it doesn’t hurt to take inspiration from other people. Some great alternative readings are:

  • Children’s books – These commonly have heartfelt, simple messages that can easily be conveyed to an audience
  • Classic Literature – These commonly have high level themes and lessons that feel meaningful during such a special moment
  • Song Lyrics / Poetry – These typically allow you more choice in the emotions you want to share, and can carry an element of surprise
  • Major Political Speeches or Scientific Learnings – although not traditionally filled with romantic love, these often contain pure passion for humankind

Some other great ways to spice up a wedding ceremony:

  • Include a loved pet, perhaps as the ring bearer
  • Include members of the family in the ceremony
  • Ask the moms to walk the bride down the aisle
  • Let the Bridal party choose their own outfits

Most importantly, have a great time. No matter how long you plan for, it will go by in an amazing blink of an eye! Have the best time with your family and friends, and make tons of memories.

A curious little girl examines the fish in the Aquarium during a wedding

About Divya Valluri

Divya Valluri