New Orleans Mardi Gras Guide
Mardi Gras is one of the biggest, loudest, most colorful street parties out there, so if you’re planning a trip to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras in style, read on because we’ve put together this handy guide that’ll have you navigating the celebrations like a pro. In this article, we’ll cover:
- What Mardi Gras is
- What to expect during Mardi Gras
- How to get to Mardi Gras
- Where to stay during Mardi Gras
- What to wear to Mardi Gras
- Where to buy a Mardi Gras masquerade mask
- Whether you need to book to attend Mardi Gras events
- Things you need to know about attending Mardi Gras
WHAT IS MARDI GRAS?
Traditionally, Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday”, refers to the last night of feasting before the Christian period of Lent. It is often accompanied by festivities and parades, and celebrated in different parts of the world. The most famous iteration of Mardi Gras, however, is celebrated in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA), where extravagant parties, parades, and events take place. The Mardi Gras carnival season usually begins on January 6 and typically continues through to February or March (whenever Fat Tuesday falls that particular year), culminating in a massive parade.
WHAT WILL I EXPERIENCE AT MARDI GRAS?
The main event at Mardi Gras is the parades. The Mardi Gras parades consists of many floats (each designed and manned by a different krewe) that move through the inner neighborhoods of New Orleans. The parades run the twelve days leading into Mardi Gras, and all celebrations end at midnight on Mardi Gras, after which the somber period of Lent is ushered in.
The parades are free for all to attend. One of the highlights of the parades is the addition of ‘throws’, where trinkets are tossed to the crowds from the floats. These trinkets include gold coins (‘doubloons’), beaded necklaces, and drinking cups.
Depending on what you are looking for, there are different ways you can experience Mardi Gras. If you are looking for a family-friendly experience, then most of the city’s activities will work well for you. Just avoid Bourbon Street and the area around it in the French Quarter, which is where more adult entertainment may take place.
If you are after the kind of fun that’s a little bit more grown up and sexy, then head straight to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter where you’ll find more drinking, people wearing risqué costumes, and probably a little bit of flashing and nudity. Celebrating Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street with other revelers is a fun way to turn the parade into a party.
HOW DO I GET TO MARDI GRAS?
Traffic during Mardi Gras can be extremely difficult to navigate, with routes becoming congested and barricades going up to allow parades to pass through. If you are planning on driving to New Orleans, make sure you have a guaranteed place to park your car, particularly if you are staying in the city as parking spots will be incredibly difficult to come by.
A good way to get around New Orleans during the parade is on foot, by bicycle (make sure you have a chain and padlock), by taxi, or streetcar. Please bear in mind that if you choose to drive, that many areas where festivities take place will not be accessible.
To find out where the parade will be each day, what routes to avoid, and where to stay, we recommend you check out the full parade schedule before your trip.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY DURING MARDI GRAS?
Hotels get booked up pretty quickly for Mardi Gras, and rooms with a balcony or view of the parade will often be booked out years in advance. We recommend booking well in advance (at least six months ahead, but up to a year). We also like the idea of using Air BnB, which will allow you to stay in an apartment in New Orleans and possibly meet some locals. We like this option because it gives you access to a residential property which might be centrally located and more affordable than a hotel, and it gives you a chance to meet some locals who will undoubtedly have great recommendations for where to eat and drink, and what to see. If you want to be in the center of the action, we recommend you stay somewhere along the parade route, which takes place in the inner city neighborhoods.
WHAT SHOULD I WEAR TO MARDI GRAS?
Mardi Gras is the perfect opportunity to dress in costume. It’s the one time of year where you can dress up as anything you like (but try to keep it appropriate—there are a lot of kids at Mardi Gras); you can even enter one of the costume contests held around the city).
However, note that the weather in New Orleans during Mardi Gras can often be unpredictable, so the best way to be prepared is to dress in layers, whether you’re in costume or not. We also recommend you check the weather forecast in the morning, and if rain is predicted, bring an umbrella or a raincoat with you. Because you’ll likely do a lot of walking during Mardi Gras, we highly recommend you wear comfortable shoes, and lots of sunscreen.
Many people who dress in costume will choose to wear at least one of the three official Mardi Gras colors. These are purple (representing justice), green (representing faith), and gold (representing power). While it is not a requirement to dress in these colors, wearing at least one will pay homage to the city’s rich cultural history.
Traditional Mardi Gras costumes are ornate and heavily embroidered, usually with elements of the three official colors. If you are having a hard time deciding on a costume for Mardi Gras, one of these masquerade costume stores in New Orleans will help you find the perfect fit.
WHERE CAN I BUY A MASQUERADE MASK TO WEAR TO MARDI GRAS?
Like most carnivals, masquerade is a big part of the costumed aspect of Mardi Gras. If you’d like to pre-order a masquerade mask before heading to New Orleans, we have plenty of great options right here at VIVO. If, however, you’d like to purchase a mask when you arrive, there are plenty of mask stores in New Orleans where you can buy a mask to wear to Mardi Gras.
DO I NEED TO BOOK TO ATTEND EVENTS DURING MARDI GRAS?
Most events, including parades, during Mardi Gras are free which is why Mardi Gras has been dubbed “The Greatest Free Show on Earth”. Anyone can attend Mardi Gras and enjoy the festivities around the city free of charge. Tickets are required only for special parties and balls held after the parade by some of the krewes (float organizers). As a limited number of tickets are made available to the public, purchasing them in advance is a must. The three biggest krewes—
Orpheus, Bacchus, and Endymion— all throw extravagant balls that you can purchase tickets to attend. If you have difficulty finding tickets to those parties, have a look at parties hosted around town by some of the smaller krewes. You can also buy grandstand tickets to watch the parade, but these are not absolutely necessary, but we recommend them for people who have trouble walking or standing for long stretches of time.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MARDI GRAS?
While Mardi Gras is a lot of fun to attend, here are a few things you should know to help you navigate the city during this busy and exciting time of year:
- Plan ahead. This applies to everything including accommodation, transportation, and food. Mardi Gras is the busiest time of year for the city of New Orleans, so last-minute bookings will be difficult to come by.
- Think about food. Research restaurants along the parade route, and make dinner bookings well in advance. We also recommend you carry water and a light snack with you as many food establishments will be packed or have long queues, particularly those located on or near the parade route. And remember: there are a lot of great street food options, so if you’re having trouble getting into a restaurant, a more casual option will be easy to find.
- Be respectful. Mardi Gras is a fun celebration for the whole family. While getting drunk may seem like a lot of fun, it probably isn’t for the people around you. When in public, behave appropriately, dress modestly, and remember: there are children around (and cops too, who will arrest you for inappropriate behavior).
- While the French Quarter is beautiful and historic (and gets a lot of coverage because of this), it’s also the place where a lot of risqué behavior takes place: flashing for beads, public drunkenness, and revealing costumes. The parade does not pass through this area, so unless you are looking for a more debaucherous kind of party, avoid it later in the day or if you have children with you.
- Because of the large crowds, be aware of your personal belongings at all times. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, and don’t carry anything precious or unnecessary with you. Practice common sense while using your phone, camera, and wallet.
- Public bathrooms are available on parade day, but they are often not very clean and have long lines to use them. Hotels and restaurants will only let you use their bathrooms if you are a guest or paying customer, so only rely on that option if you have a reservation. The best thing to do on parade day is to purchase a bathroom pass from a school, church, or restaurant which will allow you to use their bathroom for a small fee.
- Be careful around the parade floats. Lots of trinkets will be thrown from the parade floats, free for all to collect. Whatever you do, do not run towards the floats or into the street to collect the trinkets—you could get crushed by an oncoming float.
Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! While there will be a lot of crowds, and the logistics of finding a place to eat, stand, or party on parade day might seem daunting, a little planning will go a long way into making it a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience for you. Enjoy!