How to Do Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday. In Catholic tradition, it is the last day of feasting before Lent. In modern practice, carnival season begins on January 6th, the Catholic holiday of Epiphany marking the arrival of the three wise men after Christ’s birth. It is also known as “Twelfth Night” being 12 nights after Christmas.
Parades can be seen throughout the season, but the most popular parades roll in the final 5 days leading up to Mardi Gras. Regardless of whether one is religious or not, the spectacle of carnival is often seen as a celebration of life. Most carnival events are full of color, intrigue, music and art, and the New Orleans version is no exception.
Krewes, Parades & Balls
New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations have been put on by community groups called “krewes” since 1856. Krewe members pay dues to join and also pay for the many throws which are given to the public from the parade floats. Krewes can be old or new and big or small. The largest krewes are called super krewes, they can have as many as 3000 members and their subsequent big budgets allow for extravagant floats and parties. While most krewes throw private balls which are invitation only, the super krewes host public balls which are open to all. Well known and much loved krewes are Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus, Rex, Zulu and Muses. Most krewes’ names and symbolism is taken from mythology. Float riders are always in masks and costumes and there are varying degrees of secrecy regarding membership. There are several parade tracking apps available which have been created by local media sources.
Parades are elaborately planned by the krewes and usually Kern Studios. They consist of floats, marching bands and street performers. Large, double decker floats carry many riders and thousands of beads are thrown out to spectators along the routes. People line up for hours to wait on the streets for the most well-known krewes but the better way to see them is to purchase tickets for the viewing stands at Lafayette Square, or to view them from a hotel viewing stand or balcony along the route. More information on parades and ticketing can be found here.
Beads & Throws
Krewe members have been known to spend more than $1000 each on beads and throws which include standard beads, light up beads, specially designed beads, stuffed animals, cups, and signature throws like the Muses shoes or the Zulu coconuts. Find your way to the front line of parade goers and you will leave with a healthy collection of beads, each hard won and stored in an overflowing bag. If you can’t make it to the front, not to worry, riders throw to all areas of the crowd, particularly those on the second levels of the float. Though beads may have little practical use afterward, one’s hard earned collection is a point of pride during the parades.
You can go to Mardi Gras World and see previous floats which have been made by Kern Studios. It is a fascinating working museum of Mardi Gras creativity.
Costumes & Revelry
Masks and costumes are mostly worn on Fat Tuesday, the day street masking is legal in New Orleans, and much of the city shows up in costume for the day’s events. The raunchy “flashing for beads” reputation of Mardi Gras has mostly been earned by drunken coeds on Bourbon Street in the “Girls Gone Wild” video series days, however, you may see revelers in body paint and pasties. If you stay out of this area you will experience a more family oriented version of events, although some of the parade content can be a little risqué. While Bourbon Street is a spectacle of another kind, the Mardi Gras balls encourage formal attire.
Hotel rooms and viewing stand tickets have a tendency to sell out – both should be booked months in advance. This is especially true over the final weekend of Mardi Gras leading up to Fat Tuesday. Book at least six months in advance by early fall and there should be availability. Proximity is key as parades end around 11:30 p.m. and you won’t want to be walking far at that hour. At the time of this writing Uber cost around $33 from the airport to the Central Business District.
On Fat Tuesday many areas of the city essentially shut down and transportation can be challenging in and out of the parade routes and the French Quarter. Parking can also be a challenge. During the most popular parades in the final weekend, most hotels along the route will require a wristband for re-entry.
New Orleans is a major city and like most major cities you should be aware of your surroundings and not travel alone late at night. If you use the ticketed viewing stand seating and choose a hotel near Lafayette Square, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.
For more information you can pick up Arthur Hardy’s Guide.