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What to Know About Planning a Wedding in Durham

Estimated Read Time:
6 minutes

Congratulations, you’re engaged! Now, it’s time to decide where to host your wedding. Durham is a city steeped in early modern American history that has developed into a top destination for restaurants, nightlife, culture, entertainment and the arts.

Your friends and family will be traveling to celebrate you both, and in choosing the right location, you’ll need to consider your budget, guest travel, venues, vendors and hotels. Durham has become an increasingly popular wedding destination, not just for couples who grew up in the area or went to Duke University or North Carolina Central University but also those who are looking for a memorable experience in an approachable place that’s accessible, welcoming, tasteful and fun.

I’m Emily, and I have been planning weddings and other milestone events in Durham with my company, Events by Emily, for the past seven years. We specialize in elegant, approachable weddings for the modern couple. My weddings are design-focused and tend to be larger in scale, and my company offers a range of services from coordination to full-service planning. The wedding and events industry here in Durham is made up of friendly professionals who offer personal services to their clients and take pride in collaborating to ensure a perfect day for their clients. I’m proud to be a part of what makes Durham such a wonderful, thoughtful place for a wedding.

Emily Katherine with Emily Katherine Events, another local wedding planner, agrees, “I love working (and living) in Durham! There is so much history, character, and variety in this city, and that's definitely reflected in the venues. I love seeing modern vibes set against historic industrial spaces, but I also love that there are more unique spaces to host events like museums and art spaces. There's a little something for everyone, and different styles seem to blend and mix well together in Durham venues!”

A bride and groom stand before the officiant at an outdoor ceremony.

Durham's unique spaces and beautiful weather make it a wonderful place to plan your wedding. Photo: Discover Durham

Reasons to Choose Durham as your Wedding Setting


A large part of wedding planning is maintaining and keeping a budget. Simply put, Durham is a more affordable wedding location than a bigger city. Many of my clients who live in a major metropolitan area decide to bring their guests to Bull City once they explore venue and vendor pricing where they live.

Aesthetic Beauty

Durham offers the perfect architectural backdrop for your wedding. It’s full of wedding photo opportunities: consider the bull in our City Center, the view from the rooftop at the Durham Hotel, and the modern art galleries at 21c Museum Hotel. The city is full of mid-century architecture and historic buildings and landmarks, like the water tower at American Tobacco Campus, the brick backdrops at Brightleaf Plaza and light-strung alleyways downtown.

Pro tip: If you plan to take photos at American Tobacco Campus, take a look at the photography guidelines on their website. You’ll find dos and don’ts as well as information on how to obtain the appropriate permissions.

Traveling To Durham

Durham is conveniently located and easy to get to by car, plane or train. Raleigh-Durham Airport is less than 20 minutes from downtown Durham, and flights are typically frequent and affordable from almost anywhere in the country. If your guests are traveling by car, Durham is just off Interstates 85 and I95. While Durham does have a public bus line, its service is limited to and from the airport, so I recommend that your guests plan to use a rideshare service or rent a car if they’d like to explore the surrounding region.


Durham’s weather is wonderful and varies seasonally throughout the year. Despite our hot summers, Durham has a much more moderate climate than cities further south, and our winters are extremely mild. If you are looking for resplendent flowers in the spring and peak colorful leaves in the fall, you’re guaranteed to be thrilled at the beautiful backdrops available at your wedding, no matter the season.

A Diverse, Welcoming Community

Durham’s culture is also welcoming and safe for LGBTQ couples and their families. Durham wedding venues and vendors are accepting of all types of couples and celebrations. As an example, Amos Cooper, a professional concierge and planner known as Bull City Butler, specializes in non-traditional weddings for LGBTQ couples. Amos has called Durham home for more than 30 years, and his professionalism, network and friendly approach make him an excellent partner to plan your wedding.

Brides embrace on the dance floor, smiling, as guests look on.

Durham is a diverse and welcoming destination for all celebrations of love. Photo: Joe Payne Photography

Durham Planning Options: Hiring A Wedding Planner vs. A Wedding Coordinator

Once you’ve decided you’re going to host your wedding in Durham, it’s important to decide how you’re going to approach planning.

“My passion lies in helping couples feel supported throughout the wedding planning journey, recognizing the significant investment they make for their big day. I particularly enjoy working with eclectic, modern couples who appreciate a unique touch. I believe in fostering a strong connection, ensuring the planning process is enjoyable and reflects their personalities and styles. When couples entrust their special day to me, they can also rest assured that Durham will be more than just a backdrop—it will be an integral part of the experience, offering their guests a glimpse into the vibrant spirit of the Bull City.” - Heather Thomas, Bona Fide Events

Tables set for a formal event, including place settings, flowers and menus.

A full service planner takes care of the details, including event design. Photo: Robin Van Dyke

Full Service Planning

If it feels like the scale of your wedding exceeds the time you have to put into it–or if you just want someone to take it on for you, I recommend full service planning. This is especially useful for couples who don’t live in Durham. Full planners provide structured guidance for your budget and planning decisions, typically for over a year, and recommend and book vendors.

Wedding Coordinator

If you want to plan your own wedding, you also have the option to hire a wedding coordinator for the month or two leading up to the event. Many venues will require you to hire a coordinator, regardless of whether or not you think you need one. Once you’ve chosen and booked all of your vendors, a coordinator will handle all the logistics of putting together a timeline and layout for your wedding day. A coordinator may also be able to provide you with a list of vendors that they love in Durham to help you with the booking process.

Choosing a Date

Once you’ve decided on your planning approach, it’s important to consider dates. While this may sound simple, Durham is also a university town with an active arts and culture scene so you will need to consider the calendar of events around the city. A major event weekend can mean limited hotel room availability, booked vendors and venues, and busy restaurants and bars. Here are major weekends throughout the year that you would be wise to avoid:

  • Events at Duke University: Check dates on Duke's calendar.
    • Commencement: Held on Mother’s Day Weekend every year
    • Reunion & Alumni Weekend: Typically held in mid-April.
    • Homecoming: Decided by Duke Football’s schedule. It’s typically in late September or early October. Homecoming’s announcement will also affect hotel rates, so I recommend securing your block before it’s announced, which typically happens in late winter.
  • Events at North Carolina Central University: Check dates on NCCU's calendar.
    • Commencement: Held in May each year. Often the week before Mother’s Day weekend.
    • Homecoming: The largest event on NCCU’s calendar each year is typically held in late October. Check the University’s Alumni Programs website for updates.
  • Annual Events in Durham
    • Durham is home to numerous homegrown festivals and multi-day events that attract visitors from far and wide, particularly in the spring and fall. This Annual & Seasonal Events page will help you navigate these dates.
A crowded Durham street with tents and vendors.

Check local calendars to avoid major events. Photo: Discover Durham

Choosing a Wedding Venue in Durham

I recommend booking your Durham wedding venue 12 to 18 months in advance. Major Saturday dates from April to June, and then September to November, will be reserved first. Here are a few of my favorite Durham venues that serve a variety of different sizes and styles of events:

The Cookery: ​​The Cookery is an industrial-style venue located less than a mile from downtown Durham. The space, originally constructed in the early 1900s began as a grocery store and transitioned into a culinary incubator for new businesses, which it remains to this day. Guests are surrounded by the building’s original exposed brick and historic architectural details. The bar features an original deconstructed tobacco warehouse bar top, a facade from an old Durham water tower and a foot rail made from a track from Durham’s former trolley line. The trolley ran from Durham’s Five Points to Lakewood Park, passing by where The Cookery stands today! The room’s beautiful mezzanine railing also makes use of metal crescents from the former Heart of Durham Motel, and the centerpiece is a catwalk from the old Liggett Meyers building.

Two long tables set up for an event, a bar is staffed with bartenders in the background and a balcony has cocktail tables.

A reception setup at The Cookery. Photo: Robyn Van Dyke

Duke Gardens: Sarah P. Duke Gardens is one of the most respected public botanical gardens in the U.S. and it’s also Durham’s most popular garden wedding venue. Named after the wife of one of Duke’s founders, the original gardens were actually completely destroyed by floods in 1936. Sarah Duke’s daughter, Mary Duke Biddle, quickly constructed a new garden on higher ground in her mother’s memory, which opened in 1939. Since then, it has developed into five miles of sprawling beauty. Hot tip: you can obtain a photography permit through the garden’s staff to take photos with a Durham photographer. I recommend taking photos there for your engagement session, or even on your wedding day. The wedding reception building at Doris Duke Center will be undergoing renovations beginning in the fall of 2024.

A bride and groom stand before an officiant at Sarah P. Duke Gardens as bridesmaids and groomsmen look on.

A wedding at Sarah P. Duke Gardens offers the natural beauty of a botanical garden. Photo: Lindsey Cash Photography

The Cotton Room: The Cotton Room is located in East Durham within the Golden Belt campus. As part of Durham’s rise as a tobacco manufacturing center, The Golden Belt factory complex officially opened in 1900, making the original building one of the oldest in Durham. The venue originally functioned as a cotton mill, and its latest renovation, completed in 2018, took great care to preserve its best details, including massive timber framing, large windows and historic brick, while incorporating modern, utilitarian interior details.

Duke Chapel: A nationally popular setting for wedding ceremonies, Duke Chapel was first built in 1925 and was intended to be the center of Duke’s campus. I’ve had many couples get married at the Chapel whose parents also got married there almost 30 years prior! The Chapel is welcoming of LGBTQIA couples, and does not require religious ceremonies at weddings.

Some other important Duke Chapel logistics to consider:

  • You can only book Duke Chapel a year (or less) in advance. Dates for each month of the upcoming year become available the first day of each month. This can add a layer of stress to wedding planning, since reception venues often book more than a year out.
  • In the past, alumni would camp out in a line of tents to reserve times at the Chapel, but now their bookings are on a first come, first serve email basis to the wedding coordinator.
  • At least one person in the couple must be affiliated with Duke University to get married at the Chapel – either as a current student, alumni/child of an alumnus, or as a Duke employee.
    A bride and groom pose on the stairs of Duke Chapel with bridesmaids and groomsmen

    A wedding party on the stairs of Duke Chapel. Photo: Robyn Van Dyke

    The Museum of Life and Science: The Museum of Life and Science is Durham’s beloved 84-acre sprawling children’s museum and is a wonderful option for adventurous and young-at-heart couples. The museum offers a variety of creative indoor and outdoor spaces for your ceremony and reception. Host your ceremony inside the main building’s Aerospace space exhibit or out in the Hideaway Wood’s giant tree house! Guests can also walk through the “total immersion” butterfly house during cocktail hour and be surrounded by thousands of butterflies. The museum also offers interactive activities guests like animal encounters, liquid nitrogen drinks and train rides.

    The Bull City Butler, Amos Cooper, also suggests these venues:

    The Durham Exchange: A great, budget-friendly venue that doesn’t sacrifice elegance. The Durham Exchange is perfect for those planning smaller celebrations. It's a hidden gem with great historic bones, updated with a modern, industrial feel. Owned by a local female entrepreneur, this venue includes lots of items you might have to rent at another venue, like tables and chairs, that help budgets go a long way.

    Durham Arts Council: Another budget-friendly option that’s often overlooked for weddings and social events, the Durham Arts Council has numerous galleries, theatres and studios that are great for a multitude of wedding styles. Go big with the grand lobby or one of the larger galleries or, if you desire something more intimate, one of the studio spaces.

    Choosing Your Guest Hotels

    Once you’ve chosen your venue, it’s important to consider where your guests will stay. You’ll also need to think about the financial aspect of setting up a wedding hotel block. Here are the two types:

    Courtesy Blocks: Hotels will hold a block of rooms at a reduced rate for your guests –with a cut-off date for reservations– with no financial obligation. Courtesy blocks are the most popular option with my wedding clients since it’s hard to predict where your guests will want to stay (Durham also has great AirBnBs!). Room rate courtesy discounts may be more significant in the summer and winter when there’s less demand. Typically, room blocks are available to book until a month before your wedding. Remember: you won’t have to pay for the unused rooms in your block, so there’s no reason not to reach out to hotels that offer courtesy blocks!

    While the rooms are held for you, you’ll need to stay in touch with the hotel monitor booking, and you may or may not be able to add more rooms if your original block fills up. Your full service planner can help manage this process for you!

    In downtown Durham, The Durham Hotel, Durham Marriott City Center, and the Aloft Downtown all offer courtesy blocks.

    A woman in a wedding dress walks away from the camera on the sidewalk in front of The Durham Hotel.

    Choose from boutique downtown hotels or bigger brands for your wedding room block. Photo: The Durham Hotel

    Attrition Block, aka Guaranteed Block: Hotels will also guarantee you a set amount of rooms with a credit card held on file. As the host, you will be required to guarantee a percentage of rooms, also known as the hotel’s attrition rate — typically 70% to 90%. For example: If you have contracted 30 rooms for 2 nights, and the hotel’s attrition clause rate is 80%, then you will be responsible for 50 room nights whether or not they are booked.

    These blocks are great for high-demand dates, like a home football or basketball game or festival, when rooms will be snapped up quickly. I also recommend this if you have a big family that you know will want to stay at the same hotel.

    The downside is that the financial obligation of filling the block can be stressful. We suggest starting out with a guarantee of 10 rooms for 2 nights, and then once those fill, adding more if available.

    In Durham, the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, The JB Duke Hotel, and the 21C Museum Hotel all offer attrition blocks. If you aren't sold on any of these options, you can always search through the full list of Durham's hotels and inns.

    Congrats on your big day!