I’m just finishing exploring my first U.S. city that I haven’t lived in and I have to tell you, I didn’t think I’d like traveling in my country so much because the grass is always greener on the other side. However, my first Mardi Gras New Orleans trip was simply amazing. My Mardi Gras experience will be some of my fondest memories that I’ll cherish forever.
Except for one thing:
I was totally unprepared!
Between the unique food, parade floats, Mardi Gras costumes, understanding the parade routes and schedules, and of course, the history and tradition of it all, I was a bit overwhelmed to say the least.
Now to worry though:
I’ve got you covered!
In this article, I’ll cover all the basics from the plethora of Mardi Gras activities you can partake in to the rich history that started it all.
Ready to learn?
Grab some mardi gras beads (You don’t even have to show your boobs!) & some king cake, sit back and let’s dig in!
Mardi Gras Traditions
No trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras Weekend can really be complete without first discovering why the hell we celebrate this obscure holiday to begin with.
What Does Mardi Gras Mean?
The Mardi Gras meaning literally translates into “Fat Tuesday.” Mardi coming from the French word for Tuesday and Gras meaning Fat.
Why is Mardi Gras Celebrated? (Mardi Gras History)
So why do we celebrate Mardi Gras? The celebration dates back to medieval Europe and later expanded into the French Colonies which in turn was brought to Louisiana.
In 1699 French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed just south of New Orleans. They staked their claim and dubbed it “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” Naturally, this was cause for celebration.
The holiday is often referred to as the New Orleans Carnival. This is due to the fact that it’s celebrated by costuming, partying, drinking etc. This is the time to “get it all out” so to speak before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
So this is where the Mardi Gras Carnival Celebration got its roots.
When is Mardi Gras? (Mardi Gras Dates)
The timeline that Mardi Gras takes place is again derived from European religious traditions. It goes from the twelfth night,12 days after Christmas, to Fat Tuesday. Even though the commencement of Mardi Gras always occurs on January 6th, the final day of Mardi Gras tends to vary.
So how long does Mardi Gras last?
That all depends on when Ash Wednesday begins. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a traditionally Catholic holiday in which sacrifice and self-denial are observed by giving up something during the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday.
Mardi Gras day is always the day before Ash Wednesday and is based on the Roman Catholic Calendar also known as the Liturgical Calendar.
Last year Mardi Gras lasted a whopping 58 days of celebration. Whereas this year it will last 50 days. That’s almost two months of Mardi Gras Celebrations, NOLA Parades, Floats, Costumes, Beads, and Tradition.
Mardi Gras Colors (Justice, Power, Faith!)
The Mardi Gras Colors are derived from way back in 1872 when the New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewe of Rex was initially formed and needed to select their colors. It is said that the colors were selected to honor the Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff who was coming for a visit.
The symbolism of the colors weren’t actually identified until Rex’s parade theme of “Symbolism of Colors” commenced in 1892.
“That’s great, but what do the Mardi Gras colors actually mean?”
Purple represents justice and “what is right.”
Gold represents power
Green represents Faith
These are the colors that you will find throughout the New Orleans Mardi Gras season. You can find them in all the different Mardi Gras costumes, parade floats, beads and other Mardi Gras throws, and of course, the food.
Even the Mardi Gras Themed Parties and Balls are designed with these colors in mind.
Mardi Gras Beads
The throwing of Mardi Gras beads began when a carnival king threw strands of jewels to his “loyal subjects” in the 1890’s.
In the Early 1920’s, one of the Mardi Gras Krewes were throwing glass beads to the crowds, it was such a huge hit that all of the Krewes started adopting this practice.
It’s since been modified to using plastic and other light materials for safety purposes.
These days you can get all types of different and elaborate beads. Some of them will light up and make noises which makes them even more desirable.
Mardi Gras Throws
Mardi Gras throws are any items handed out from the parade floats to the crowd as prizes. They are throwing frisbees, rubber ducky’s, hats, rubber boobs, toys, and pretty much anything you can think of.
If you thought the competition was fierce for regular beads, you should know that there are some other very unique items being handed out by some of the Krewes. Some are long-running traditions and can be very scarce.
Each Krewe has a signature throw that they are known for. The Krewe of Nyx gives out some very well designed purses that the entire crowd is vying for. The Krewe of Muses gives out shoes in the same fashion. The most sought-after of them all, however, is the coconuts given out by the Krewe of Zulu, a Social Aid and Pleasure Club. And Let’s not forget to grab a Toilet Plunger from the Krewe of Tucks.
If you give the Mardi Gras Krewes good vibes and lots of energy, maybe you’ll be taking one of these treasures home for yourself to cherish.
What about the boobs?
It is a common myth that flocks of women coming to flash their goods in exchange for beads and other throws is a New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition.
The act of flashing for beads became infamous in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s by a slew of drunken spring breakers with lowered inhibitions.
Couple this with the fact that some opportunistic filmmakers started selling this debauchery in an effort for monetary gain and you have acceptance due to widespread popularity.
In most parts of the city during Mardi Gras, this is frowned upon. If you are caught flashing on one of the parade routes, you may be arrested.
It is, however, a more commonly accepted practice if you tend to wander into the Bourbon Street area of the French Quarter during the late night post-parade hours. This is because Bourbon Street tends to cater to a much younger college-aged crowd.
I use the word “practice” because it is certainly not a formal Mardi Gras tradition, of which there are many. In addition, you will almost never see any flashing take place outside of Mardi Gras Season.
Happy Mardi Gras
Another thing to take note of is that the locals look forward to Mardi Gras season all year long. They are constantly looking for other reasons to parade and costume (not that they need one, it’s New Orleans ?).
There are several events, parades, festivals, and other celebrations throughout the year that keep the spirit of Mardi Gras alive.
So when Mardi Gras finally does come around, it’s polite to greet the locals (or anyone for that matter) with “Happy Mardi Gras!”
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the largest masked party in North America. Masks have been worn for hundreds and hundreds of years for different reasons. Mostly for rituals, celebrations, and the performing arts. Mardi Gras masks originated from ritualistic celebrations conducted centuries ago.
Mardi Gras masks were initially dawned in an effort to allow for a mixing of societal classes as well as an escape from the normality of regular life. It permitted the wearers of the masks to be whoever they wanted to be for a short period of time and mingle with whoever they wanted to without any social repercussion.
During Mardi Gras season, float riders are required to wear masks by law. Also, even though concealing one’s face is against Louisiana state law, on Fat Tuesday everyone is permitted to wear a mask.
The wearing of masks eventually evolved into full-on costuming. Mardi Gras costumes are the best way to convey the spirit of Mardi Gras through creativity and expression. You’ll see all types of costumes during this time of year from simple wigs and glitter to all-out costumes including unicorns, comic book characters, and pretty anything you can think of.
I personally love this as it’s another way to be whoever you want for Mardi Gras. So be sure to adequately prepare yourself prior to arrival. Of course, there are plenty of elaborate costume shops in the French Quarter as well.
So make sure you pick your Mardi Gras clothes well by coordinating with the events of the day. You’ll have a much better experience if you do.
Mardi Gras Floats
One of my favorite parts of what’s known as “the greatest free show on earth” is the Mardi Gras parade floats. They are generally centered around a certain theme and are designed accordingly.
Many of the Krewes pour thousands and thousands of dollars into making their Mardi Gras floats memorable. They work year-round, often in secret, in order to make their ideas and creations come to life.
Some are Beautiful and Elegant while others are funny and are meant to shock and awe. There are a few krewes whose Mardi Gras Decorations are centered around political satire which I found pretty amusing. Take a look at some of the floats:
Getting Prepared For Mardi Gras New Orleans
Where to Stay for Mardi Gras
Finding a reasonably priced hotel or Airbnb during Mardi Gras is a difficult feat. I’m not a huge planner and I usually err on the side of being spontaneous. In this particular case, however, I’d start planning well in advance in order to cut costs.
I’m a huge advocate of Airbnb because it’s always a great way make you feel at home while exploring a new city. One way to save money for Mardi Gras season is to find an Airbnb that sleeps 4 or more and split the cost evenly. If that vacation home you’ve been eyeing all of the sudden drops from $150 a night to 30 or 40 dollars a piece, it certainly becomes more appealing.
Planning well in advance, anywhere from 5 to 8 months or more, is a good way to try and save money on a hotel. Bed & Breakfasts are cheaper than hotels so be sure to look into those as well. If you don’t mind a little commute, it’s also far cheaper to stay in a nearby area outside of New Orleans proper. Metairie, Kenner, Gentilly, and New Orleans East are all good options for this.
Attend A Mardi Gras Ball (If You Can)
Want to partake in a Mardi Gras Ball or Themed Party? It may not be as easy as it sounds. Going to a Mardi Gras Ball can be a very exclusive party thrown by a “super krewe.” Most of them are by invitation only and they are all formal affairs.
To be invited is considered an honor and they have top-notch entertainment and musical performances from around the world. There are usually thousands in attendance to enjoy the spectacle of fine dining and entertainment for this yearly soirée including some prominent celebrities.
So how does one get access to a Mardi Gras Ball?
One option is to join a Krewe which would require you to live and work in New Orleans. It will also cost you at least $1000 dollars in annual fees if not more depending on the Krewe. Many of the krewe members are lifers who grew up in the krewe and end up as King or Queen at some point. To give you an idea, Harry Connick Jr. is a member of the Krewe of Orpheus.
Another way in is to join one of the super krewes’ (Bacchus, Orpheus, or Endymion) blow-out parties that they recently started opening to the public by selling tickets. They generally start at $150 for general admission and can be much more for VIP tickets.
If you do manage to get in, first of all, consider yourself lucky as that’s no easy feat. Secondly, ensure that you’re adequately prepared as these are all dress to impress affairs. Ladies, have your Mardi Gras dresses & gowns prepared. Gentleman, ensure you wear a suit and tie or possibly a tuxedo depending on which krewes party you’re attending.
Attend a Mardi Gras Themed Party (Much Easier)
What is a Mardi Gras themed party?
It’s simply a party in which you adhere to a Mardi Gras Theme. That means wearing costumes, masks or traditional Mardi Gras colors. It can be hosted at a local residence, a bar, or pretty much anywhere the host sees fit.
It is typically held in an area that’s on a parade route that allows the party to be centered around a certain Krewe’s Mardi Gras Parade. This allows for a good amount of viewing the floats and catching some throws as well as drinking, dancing, and socializing with others.
In order to gain access to a Mardi Gras Themed party, you simply need to pay attention to local event calendars and ask bartenders and hotels about the weekly happenings.
Mardi Gras Parades
The main event and spectacle that attracts millions of travelers from all over the world are the Mardi Gras Parades in New Orleans.
The crowded streets of parade floats being manned by your favorite krewes throwing some awesome Mardi Gras beads and throws makes for a good time. Combine that with a little drinking, entertainment and good vibes of friendly people and the excitement is palpable.
How do you make the most of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parades?
There are a few things you should know in order to help you get the best experience from your favorite parades!
Scope Out A Good Viewing Location
As I stated earlier, Mardi Gras NOLA attracts a crowd of millions every year. It’s never fun when you can’t see what’s going on or worse yet, you can’t even get enough room to catch those rare throws from your favorite Mardi Gras Krewe. It also makes it difficult to take those epic Mardi Gras pics to show your friends and family.
My advice is to check the Mardi Gras Calendar for your favorite parades. Once you locate which parades you’d like to attend on the parade schedule, go scout out the route (more on routes in the next section) for a good location.
Downtown New Orleans has a lot of barricades and a bigger crowd. It is the epicenter of Mardi Gras and there are lots of unique mardi gras throws pitched from the floats in this location.
Mid-City only has one parade that goes through the area, so it could be an option if you’re want to get a good look at Endymion.
Uptown has very few barricades and makes for a good place to roam around and get a little closer to the floats. There are mostly local families in this area, however, so it is my opinion that the krewes don’t toss too many of the rare throws here, but it’s certainly not unheard of.
Lower Garden District also has fewer barricades and is the best spot to view in my opinion but this varies depending on which parade you’re looking at.
Use A Parade tracker
There are so many events going on simultaneously during Mardi Gras season that it’s hard to keep up with it all. When it comes to knowing where to catch the parade and at which times, you may need some help.
There are a few Apps that have been created exactly for this reason. They will tell you precisely where the parade is currently at allowing you get your timing right.
You can just show up wherever you’d like on the Mardi Gras parade route to plan your night accordingly.
Here are the Apps I recommend:
- WWLTV Parade Tracker App (iPhone)
- WWLTV Parade Tracker App (Android)
- WDSU Parade Tracker App (iPhone)
- WDSU Parade Tracker App (Android)
Mardi Gras Parade Krewes
A Mardi Gras Krewe is a governing body responsible for funding, creating, designing, and implementing the parade for their respective social organization.
They work hard on this year round and raise lots of money in fees and fundraising in order to put their best foot forward when it comes to showmanship and entertainment.
There are many of them and each one has their own parade. In addition to the parade floats, there are other forms of entertainment in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parades.
Marching Bands & Adult Dance Krewes
In each parade, aside from the krewe floats you’ll see some high-quality marching bands and adult dance crews along with some other forms of entertainment mixed in.
I say high quality because according to locals, not just anyone can march in a Mardi Gras parade. Most of the entertainment marching in a parade got there either by auditioning for the krewe or receiving an invitation.
Most of the marching bands are local schools and colleges who want to partake in the magic of Mardi Gras while simultaneously improving their musical ability. It’s a great way to join the largest community gathering in the state and allows for a healthy dose of competition. Most of the bands practice for months on end before Mardi Gras season.
I think the adult dance krewes are the most interesting part of the parade entertainment. Just like the marching bands, the adult dance krewes may also need to be invited or audition in order to secure their spot in a parade krewe’s group. They also practice for months in advance.
They are similar to the parade krewes in that they pay dues and some of them have long-running traditions.
Each one has a different theme. For example the Rolling Elvi is a dance krewe dressed up as Elvis Presley and roll by on scooters during their routine. The 610 Stompers is the only all-male dance krewe whose tagline is “Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Moves” and is one of the most entertaining to watch. You even have The Organ Grinders and The NOLA Cherry Bombs who dress up as fez hat wearing monkeys and cheerleaders respectively.
There is definitely something for everyone and all the different krewes make for the best Mardi Gras pictures.
Throughout Mardi Gras season there are several different walking parades that can be seen through the city. Each one has its own theme and tradition as well. This includes the box of wine parade, the Red Beans & Dead Beans Parade (takes place during Lundi Gras), the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, and many more.
Some of these are very unique and a whole different experience in and of themselves. The Mardi Gras Parades are typically confined to their respective areas whereas a lot of these walking parades may also take place in various locations throughout the city.
Mardi Gras Food
There are tons of different types of southern, Cajun and Louisiana specific food in New Orleans. However, to my knowledge, there is only one that is more prevalent during the time of Mardi Gras, King Cake. Another that is popular year roiund and probably the most known is Beingets.
So what is King Cake?
Is it the only royal cake that has power and command over all other cakes in existence?
Of course not!
King Cake is a brioche dough topped with sugar and filling in accordance with the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. It’s most known for having a plastic baby baked inside of it.
Typically the person who receives the piece with the figurine inside wins some sort of prize or privilege and is usually used in determining Mardi Gras Royalty in some Krewes. Another common tradition is that the person who receives this “lucky” slice of cake are to host the next party.
Make sure you get to enjoy some during your next trip to New Orleans as I’m sure you’ll see them around.
If you are in New Orleans for more than a day, than you will certainly hear of Beignets as it’s probably the most popular local treat. Beignets are a fried dough topped with powdered sugar and traditionally served as breafast but can be consumed as dessert (or any time of day for that matter).
Outside of the traditional preparation, beignets are now being prepared in a multitude of ways to tempt your taste buds. You can have them sweet or savory. I have even heard of a place that serves King Cake inspired beignets.
“That’s great, where can I get them!?”
There are many places around the city you can get some delicious beingets. The most popular of which is Cafe Du Monde. It also happens to be the most packed because of it’s popularity and tourists line up by the dozens to try it. My favorite place, however, is a place called New Orleans Coffee & Beignet Co. They serve traditional and chocolate beignets as well.
Mardi Gras Indians
Another tradition worth mentioning is the Mardi Gras Indians.
I won’t go into too much detail since I’ll be writing another blog post entirely on the Mardi Gras Indians, but if you’re visiting for Mardi Gras, I highly recommend you check them out.
The Mardi Gras Indians are mostly comprised of The African American Community from the inner cities. The Tribes spend the entire year making the lavish and highly detailed costumes that are made by hand and are comprised of intricate images and unique materials (such as Ostrich Feathers). These costumes can only be seen but once a year when they’re revealed during Mardi Gras.
The fact that they are called Indians is to pay tribute to the American Indians that used to shelter New Orleans slaves. Their Culture and Tradition is very unique and is a must see in my honest opinion, don’t miss it!
Should You Attend Mardi Gras?
Call me bias, but there has to be a reason why it’s called “the greatest free show on earth.” I actually had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time in New Orleans both during and after Mardi Gras.
I enjoyed it so much so that I skipped an international destination I had been looking forward to seeing in order to experience more of it.
The friendly and festive energy of Mardi Gras (and New Orleans in general) is something that just can’t be missed. It’s something I believe should be on everyone’s bucket list.
You’ll get to experience the entire city’s year-round work dedicated to make this event as great as it is. It’s colorful, fun, friendly, and the people you’ll meet will absolutely melt your heart with their kindness and spirit. If you’re still not sure if it’s for you, check out this FAQ.
The city literally (ok maybe figuratively) offers everything you can ask for. The variety of live music mixing different genres and instruments, the unique food and culture you get to experience, lots of different types of dancing you can learn and partake in every night, and a fair amount of cool sites to see all year. Oh, and you must go to a Crawfish Boil!
What about you? Have you attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans? I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below!