How to Throw an Unforgettable Rehearsal Dinner

taylor frankie rehearsal dinner couple embracing
Rachel Havel Photography

Your rehearsal dinner shouldn't compete with the actual wedding. However, that doesn't mean it should be devoid of things like delicious food and fun touches! Instead, it should complement or supplement your nuptials. Treat the celebration as a pre-party, where guests leave craving more—and lucky for them, you're going to deliver the next day. Here, the ins and outs of pulling off a memorable, mood-setting evening. We've rounded up a list of all the elements that can contribute to having the best rehearsal dinner ever.

Our comprehensive guide covers all the bases, from etiquette tips to décor suggestions and everything in between. If you're wondering who to invite, we've got some guest list advice. If you need menu ideas, there are those, too. Seriously, we've touched on every piece of the puzzle—rehearsal dinner toasts, attire, and activities included. We'll also help you make decisions, like when to start your party and where to host it. Basically, consider this your ultimate rehearsal dinner checklist. We've outlined exactly what you need to throw an event your guests won't just enjoy but appreciate before they head into the big day.

Ahead, you'll find that a great rehearsal dinner includes personal details, creative entertainment, and a few traditions sprinkled into the mix. It's also about accommodating your nearest and dearest, which is a foolproof way to show how much they really mean to you. To learn more about what it takes to really impress on the night before your wedding, consult the following slides.

01 of 21

Lock Down the Guest List

Tec Petaja

At minimum, here's who makes the list: your wedding party (even child attendants and readers), plus spouses or dates, and your immediate families. It's also customary to invite the officiant of the ceremony and his or her spouse, if he or she is close to the family. After that, the guest list is wide open, though the budget typically determines how many places to set.

02 of 21

Watch the Clock

Josh Gruetzmacher

Whether you start the party at 5 o'clock or 7 o'clock won't greatly impact attendance, so go for the early-bird special. Schedule your ceremony rehearsal for 4 o'clock, budgeting 30-45 minutes for practice and 15 minutes for transit (adjust as needed), and you'll begin just as the sun is setting—prime cocktail hour. By 6 o'clock, after a drink or two and hors d'oeuvres, dinner can begin. At that pace, the evening will finish up by 9 o'clock, ensuring you get your much needed beauty rest before the big day.

03 of 21

Pick a Theme

margaux patrick welcome dinner groomsmen
Rachel Havel Photography

You've learned how to prioritize details, but your host or hosts might need a helping hand in planning all things large and small. The best way to guide them is to agree on a theme, whether that's inspired by a color scheme, locale, or a favorite activity.

04 of 21

Choose a Venue

Heather Payne Photography

Choose a venue that suits your theme, your budget, and the number of guests you're hosting. The closer it is to where they're staying, the better—a long ride home is tough the night before the wedding day. Feel free to party somewhere unexpected, too. (This couple hosted theirs at The Observatory at Alta Lakes.) A smaller group might make it easier to gather at a unique location.

05 of 21

Spread the Word

camryn eugene rehearsal dinner invite
Lauren Fair Photography

Once you've decided on the major details, put them on paper and send out your invites. These ones were designed by Kelsey Malie Calligraphy.

06 of 21

Make a Playlist

vicky james mexico mariachi band
Jodi & Kurt Photography

You scoured the lists of greatest hits (and your memory) to choose the tunes for your first dance and more, so here's your chance to debut those tracks that you love but won't have a chance to spotlight on the big day. Basically, you're setting the tune—and tone—for the festivities to come, regardless of whether or not dancing ensues. Bonus points if you hire live performers. (Visuddha Entertainment artists played at this event.)

07 of 21

Create a Menu

table with food
Lilly Red Creative

The food can complement your wedding's, or it can be totally different. For example, if you couldn't splurge on an elaborate charcuterie spread for your reception, try one at your smaller rehearsal dinner.

08 of 21

Don't Forget Beverages

Kate Headley

Tie these into the rest of your theme. If it's casual, a BBQ-style setup like this one will do. Though we do warn against too much booze—hungover ceremony guests are unhappy ceremony guests.

09 of 21

Decorate Your Space

taylor frankie rehearsal dinner photos
Rachel Havel Photography

Before everybody arrives, spruce up your venue. We love when couples incorporate personalized details (like this photograph display) for the intimate event.

10 of 21

Give Guests a Ride

Catherine Mead

Consider staffing drivers for this smaller celebration to ensure that you and your party make a timely arrival following the rehearsal and that additional partiers arrive promptly from their hotels, too (a late start means a late finish). Or, book a bus that fits everybody (this double-decker came from London Bus Company). Let guests know on the invite or by word of mouth that you'll be providing transportation for the event. Otherwise, they might preemptively rent a car or book a taxi service, and that's an expense that would be kind for you to cover, if you can swing it.

11 of 21

Ask Guests to Sign-In

Aaron Delesie

Here's another opportunity to walk away with a memento. Unlike at the wedding, where guests might get too distracted by how much fun they're having to remember to stop and sign your guest book, at the rehearsal dinner, the relaxed atmosphere is an ideal setting to pen a note of congrats or piece of advice. You can set out the same guest book that you plan to use at the reception (this one came from Boutique by Cypress) or designate a different one to collect well-wishes.

12 of 21

Encourage a Game of Dress Up

porsha terry wedding jamaica guests african dress
Jillian Mitchell Photography

Sure, you can go with semi-formal or another classic dress code, but you can also work with a more personal theme. This couple asked guests to wear African-inspired attire.

13 of 21

But You Should Wear White

groom and bride
Magnolia Adam's Photography

At the beginning of your festivities, very few people have had a chance to greet you and give you a word of congrats. Make sure you're easy to spot by wearing your signature color. This bride-to-be's white dress came from BHLDN.

14 of 21

Help Guests Meet

Jose Villa

Now's the time to introduce any loved ones who haven't met. An activity, like these icebreaker cards, will help.

15 of 21

Provide Other Activities

rebecca clay rehearsal dinner cornhole
Kayla Barker

Another great idea? Social games like cornhole, or anything else that gets guests laughing and interacting. No one wants to be bored!

16 of 21

Go Family Style

rebecca clay rehearsal dinner tables
Kayla Barker

If you're having a seated rehearsal dinner, let diners serve themselves from shared platters at the table's center (a natural way to form friendships). Be intentional about who sits at the head of each table to ensure there's an unofficial conversation starter (and fighter of the sometimes unavoidable "awkward pause"). These people are typically the hosts and their families. The couple shares a table with their bridesmaids and groomsmen, though, to honor—and thank them for—the role they've played in their lives and will play in the wedding.

17 of 21

Promote Your Wedding Hashtag

Chrisman Studios

If booking a photographer will max out your budget, encourage attendees to document the rehearsal dinner by displaying your wedding hashtag predominantly (for example, at each table) to remind them to snap and upload images that you can access later.

18 of 21

Record the Toasts

John Dolan

Unlike the wedding reception where toasts are far more choreographed (and PG), the ones at the rehearsal dinner are lively and super personal. Have a friend record the slue of stand-ups so that you have them for life.

19 of 21

Serve a Groom's Cake

Laura Murray Photography

If you want a "groom's cake," feel free to serve it now (T&Cakes baked this one). This is an especially fun move if you're forgoing a traditional wedding cake the following night in favor of a dessert bar or a dessert course at dinner (this sweet will be serving fewer people, and therefore, less costly). And feel free to throw on a cake topper or to "cut the cake" if you'd like—there aren't any rules against it!

20 of 21

Finish the Night Strong

Patricia Lyons Photography

Hold off on a signature drink until the end of the night, and let the libation instead function as a tasty nightcap (homing in on the point that the party, and evening, is winding down). A good nightcap is one that must be sipped, meaning it's stiff but tasty. Try building—and naming—a sipper around these digestifs: single-malt scotch, cognac, chartreuse, port, or sherry. And one more word to the wise, serve them neat!

21 of 21

Give Meaningful Gifts

rebecca clay rehearsal dinner welcome baskets
Kayla Barker

At the rehearsal dinner, it's customary for the couple to gift their besties, but don't feel like you have to break the bank to prove to your pals that you love them and appreciate their support. Go for a simple, personalized present that calls on the rehearsal dinner's theme. You can also bestow welcome gifts (like these The Wildflowers ones) on guests if the event doubles as a welcome party.

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