The granddaddy of all New Orleans celebrations is Mardi Gras. Thanks to sensationalized media accounts that zero in on the salacious aspects of this Carnival, its rep as a “Girls Gone Wild”–style spring break persists, drawing masses of wannabes for decadent, X-rated action rather than tradition. If that’s your thang, by all means go forth and par-tay (just remember, Facebook is forever).
But there is so much more to Carnival than the media-hyped wanton action. Truth is, Mardi Gras remains one of the most exciting times to visit New Orleans, for people from all walks. Yes, you can hang in the Bourbon Street fratmosphere till you’re wholly hung, but you can also spend days admiring and reveling in the city’s rich traditions, or have a fun, memorable family vacation beyond what any mouse could offer.
Knowing some of its long and fascinating history helps put matters in perspective. First of all, Mardi Gras is just one day: French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Though many people call it Mardi Gras, “Carnival” is the correct term for the 5- to 8-week “season” stretching from Twelfth Night (Jan 6) to Fat Tuesday. The idea was that good Christians would massively indulge in preparation for their impending self-denial during Lent.
The party’s origins can be traced to the Roman Lupercalia festival: 2 days when all sexual and social order disappeared, cross-dressing was mandatory, and the population ran riot (sound familiar?). The early Christian church was naturally appalled by this, but unable to stop it. So Lupercalia was grafted to the beginning of Lent, as a compromise to bribe everyone into observance.
Carnival (from a Latin word roughly meaning “farewell to flesh”) and its lavish masked balls and other revels became popular in Italy and France, and the tradition followed the Creoles to New Orleans. The first Carnival balls occurred in 1743. By the mid-1800s, Mardi Gras mischief had grown so ugly (the harmless habit of tossing flour on revelers gradually turned into throwing bricks at them) that everyone predicted the end of the tradition.
The Birth of the Krewes
Everything changed in 1856. Tired of being left out of the Creoles’ Mardi Gras, a group of Americans who belonged to a secret society called Cowbellians formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus (named after the hero of a John Milton poem). On Mardi Gras evening, they presented a breathtakingly imaginative, torch-lit parade. And so a new tradition was born, with new rituals and standards established. Mardi Gras marked the height of the social season for “krewes,” groups comprised of prominent society and business types.
After the Civil War put a temporary halt to things, two new enduring customs were added. Members threw trinkets to onlookers, and a queen reigned over their lavish balls.
As an elite Old South institution, Mardi Gras eschewed racial equality or harmony. African Americans participated in parades only by carrying torches to illuminate the route (the atmospheric if controversial flambeaux, as the torches are known). In 1909, a black man named William Storey mocked the elaborately garbed Rex (aka, King of Carnival) by prancing after his float wearing a lard can for a crown. Storey was promptly dubbed “King Zulu.” Thus begat the Krewe of Zulu, which parodied the high-minded Rex krewe and mocked racial stereotypes. The Zulu parade quickly became one of the most popular aspects of Mardi Gras, famously crowning Louis Armstrong as King Zulu in 1949.
Unfortunately, most krewes still excluded blacks, Jews, and women even as late as the 1990s when anti-discrimination sentiment and laws (tied to parade permits) finally forced the issue. The mighty Comus, in a move that many old-liners still feel marked the beginning of the end of classic Mardi Gras, canceled its parade rather than integrate. Proteus and Momus followed. Proteus later relented and parades again; Momus parties but no longer parades.
Then as now, the krewes and traditions of Mardi Gras change. Today there are dozens of unofficial krewes and “sub-krewe” spinoffs, and more crop up like roadside wildflowers (or weeds), some with hilarious or subversive themes.
Spectacle & Beauty
Parades were always things of spectacle and beauty, but they grew bigger than the narrow Quarter streets could accommodate—and bigger yet. New “superkrewes” emerged, like Orpheus (founded by local musician and lifelong Mardi Gras enthusiast Harry Connick, Jr.), Bacchus, and Endymion, with nonexclusive memberships and block-long floats. The largest parades can have dozens of floats, celebrity guests, marching bands, dance troupes, motorcycle or scooter squads, and thousands of participants.
The trinkets known as throws fly thick and fast from the floats, to the traditional cry of “Throw me something, Mister!” The ubiquitous plastic beads were originally glass, often from Czechoslovakia. Doubloons, the oversize aluminum coins stamped with the year and the krewe’s coat of arms, are collector’s items for natives. Other throws include stuffed animals, plastic krewe cups, and especially the cherished Zulu coconuts and Muses shoes.
Kickin’ Up Your Heels: Mardi Gras Activities
Mardi Gras can be whatever you want. The entire city shuts down (including schools and many businesses) so that every citizen can join in the celebrations. Families and friends gather on the streets, on their stoops, or on balconies. They barbecue in the neutral ground (median strip) along the route, and throw elaborate house parties. Bourbon Street is a parade of exhibitionism and drunkenness. Canal Street is a hotbed of bead lust. Royal and Frenchmen Streets are a dance of costumed free spirits and fantasies made real.
The Season -- The date of Fat Tuesday is different each year, but Carnival season always starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, when the Phunny Phorty Phellows kick things off with a streetcar party cruise.
Over the following weeks, the city celebrates, often with round, purple, green, and gold king cakes. Each has a tiny plastic baby (representing the Baby Jesus) baked right in. Getting the slice with the baby is a good omen, and traditionally means you have to throw the next King Cake party. For the high-society crowd, the season brings dozens of ritualized parties and masked balls, where krewes introduce their royal courts.
Two or three weeks before Mardi Gras itself, the parading (and parodying) begins. Adorable canines parade in the Mystick Krewe of Barkus, often with their humans in matching costumes. The riotous Krewe du Vieux outrages with un-family-friendly decadence. Sweetly insubordinate ’tit Rǝx features itsy bitsy insurrectionary floats, shoebox-size stabs at the more established traditions (like those of grande Rex—‘tit being an abbreviation of the French petit, meaning “wee”). For a slightly mellower Mardi Gras experience, consider coming for the weekend 10 days before Fat Tuesday. You can count on 10 to 15 small-to-midsize parades, and easily manageable crowds.
The following weekend the parades (15 of ‘em) and the crowds are way bigger—the massive party is on.
Lundi Gras -- in a tradition going back to 1874, King Zulu arrives by boat to meet King Rex on the Monday before Fat Tuesday (it’s February 16 in 2015). With the mayor presiding, this officially welcomes Mardi Gras day. Nowadays, an all-day music and food fest along the riverfront celebrates the grand event (unsurprisingly). Events start by noon; the kings meet around 5pm; major fireworks follow. That night, Proteus and the Krewe of Orpheus hold their parades, and a good portion of the city pulls an all-nighter.
Mardi Gras Day -- The two biggest parades, Zulu and Rex, run back to back to kick things off. Zulu starts near the Central Business District at 8:30am; Rex starts uptown at 10am. Across town, the bohemian Societé of St. Anne musters around 9am near Burgundy and Piety streets in the Bywater area. This fantastical walking club (no floats) is known for its madcap, au courant, and sometimes risqué costumes.
In between the parades, you can see other elaborately costumed Mardi Gras walking or marching clubs, such as the Jefferson City Buzzards, the Pete Fountain Half-Fast, and Mondo Kayo (identifiable by their tropical/banana theme). They walk (or stumble), accompanied by marching bands. Catch the “marchers” anywhere along St. Charles Avenue between Poydras Street and Washington Avenue.
Also keep a watch out for homegrown and rogue krewes, and marching clubs like the sci-fi Krewe of Chewbacchus; the legume-adorned Krewe of Red Beans; or the severely sideburned, many-wheeled Krewe of Rolling Elvi. These groups form among friends or neighbors or along any random theme, and are sometimes announced on WWOZ.org or in Gambit (www.bestofneworleans.com).
By early afternoon, Rex spills into the Central Business District. Nearby, you may be able to find some of the elusive Mardi Gras Indians, small communities of African Americans and black Creoles (some of whom have Native American ancestors). The tribes have an established hierarchy and deep-seated traditions, including enormous, elaborate beaded and feathered costumes. They’re entirely made by hand and a great source of pride, each attempting to out-outlandish the next. The men work on them all year in preparation for rituals and parades on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day.
The timing is loose, but traditionally tribes converge throughout the day at main intersections along the Claiborne Avenue median (underneath the interstate), and at St. Augustine Church in the Tremé. Crowds of locals mill around to see the spectacle: When two tribes meet, they’ll stage a mock confrontation, resettling their territory. After marching in various parades, they reconvene around mid-afternoon on Claiborne, where a party gets going. Play it cool, however—this is not your neighborhood, nor a sideshow act. It is a ritual deserving of respect. Also, Indian suits are copyrighted works of art; photos of them can’t be sold without permission. For times and locations, ask locals, check www.wwoz.org/inthestreet, or listen for drums. You can also try to catch these confrontations during St. Joseph’s Day, at parties, and at Jazz Fest.
As you make your way through the streets, keep your eyes peeled for members of the legendary Krewe of Comus, men dressed in tuxes with brooms over their shoulders, holding cowbells. Ask them if they are Comus, and they will deny it, insisting they are Cowbellians. But if they hand you a vintage Comus doubloon, the truth will be out.
The last parade each day (on both weekends) is loosely scheduled to end around 9:30pm but can run way later, and most krewes hold balls or parties after they parade. Some are members only, but those of Bacchus, Endymion, and Orpheus sell tickets to the public (they’re more concerts than formal balls). At the end of the day (or the start of Wed), expect exhaustion. If you’re in the Quarter at midnight, you’ll see another traditional marvel: The police come en masse, on foot and horseback, and efficiently, effectively, shoo the crowds off—officially ending Mardi Gras. If you’re tucked in, tune in to WYES (Channel 12) for live coverage of the Rex Ball—it’s serious pomp.
Doing Mardi Gras
Lodging -- During Mardi Gras, accommodations in the city and the nearby suburbs are booked solid, so make your plans well ahead and book a room as early as possible—a year in advance is quite common. Price spikes, minimum-stay requirements, and “no cancellation” policies apply. Some hotels along the parade routes offer popular but pricey packages including bleacher or balcony seats.
Clothing -- For the parades before Mardi Gras day, dress comfortably and prepare for whatever weather is forecast (which can vary widely). You’ll see some wigs and masks, but most don’t dress up. Fat Tuesday is a different story. A costume and mask automatically makes you a participant, which is absolutely the way to go. You needn’t do anything fancy; scan the thrift stores for something loud and it’s all good. Anything goes, so fly your freak flag if you’re so inclined.
If you’ve come unprepared for costume shops, or try the secondhand stores along Magazine Street, Decatur Street, and in the Bywater.
Dining -- Many restaurants close on Mardi Gras day, but are open the weekend prior. Make reservations as early as possible. Some (such as Emeril’s, Herbsaint, and Palace Café) are right on the parade routes, which could be fun. Pay attention to those routes because if there is one between you and your restaurant, you may not be able to drive or park nearby, or even cross the street, and you can kiss your dinner goodbye. Thus, restaurants often have a high no-show rate during Mardi Gras, so a well-timed drop-in may work to the nonplanner’s advantage.
Save the Date
Mardi Gras falls exactly 47 days before Easter: That’s February 17, 2015; February 9, 2016; and February 28, 2017.
Driving & Parking -- Don’t. Traffic and navigating during Mardi Gras is horrendous. Take a cab, walk, or pedal (call well in advance for a bike reservation). Parking along parade routes is not allowed 2 hours before and after the parade. Parking on the neutral ground (median strip) is illegal (despite what you may see), and you’ll likely be towed. Note: Taxis are very busy, and streetcar and bus schedules will be radically altered (none run on St. Charles Ave.). Contact the Regional Transit Authority (RTA; www.norta.com; tel. 504/248-3900) for more information.
Facilities -- Restrooms are notoriously scant along the parade routes. Entrepreneurs rent theirs and the city brings in the ever-popular porta-potties. Bring tissues and take advantage of the facilities when you come across them. The brilliant airpnp potty-locator app launched for Mardi Gras 2014 and quickly went global. If it survives into future years it could be a lifesaver, or at least a bladder saver.
The Day Plan -- It’s not necessary to make a plan for the big day, but it might help. Get your hands on the latest edition of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, through www.mardigrasguide.com or at nearly any store. Download the app, since schedules and routes occasionally change at the last minute. Also download the real-time parade-tracker app from WWLTV.com. Resolve that you’ll probably adjust the plan, or throw it out altogether—and that you’ll chill and go with it. The fun is everywhere—but with limited transportation and facilities available (and until you’ve done it enough to determine a satisfying routine), you’ll have to make some choices about what to do, in advance and on the fly. Read the rest of this section and check the route maps. Then decide if you want to head uptown, downtown, to the Quarter, the Bywater, Claiborne Avenue, or some combination of the above, as your stamina dictates.
Safety -- Many, many cops are out, making the walk from uptown to downtown safer than at other times of year, but pickpockets enjoy Mardi Gras, too. Take precautions.
Seating -- A limited number of bleachers are erected along the downtown parade route. Most are reserved for private use, but some are sold to the public—you’ll pay dearly for the convenience. Start checking Ticketmaster and www.neworleansparadetickets.com in December. Some folks buy cheap folding chairs at local drug stores, which typically don’t make it home; others just bring a blanket or tarp. You might find a spot to use them on the Uptown routes; downtown, you’ll probably be standing. The longest parades can last 3-plus hours, so plan according to your staying power.
Kids -- Though it may seem contrarian, you can bring the kids to Mardi Gras if you stick to the Uptown locales (you’ll see hundreds of local kids seated atop custom-rigged ladders, the better to catch throws). In fact, it’s a terrific family event, as any local will tell you. It’s a long day, so make sure to bring supplies and diversions for between parades. There may be some schlepping involved, but their delight increases everyone’s enjoyment considerably.
What Else to Bring -- The usual dilemma applies: You’ll want to stay unencumbered, but well supplied. Much depends on whether you plan to stay in one place or make tracks. A starter set of beverages and snacks is called for, or a full picnic if you desire (food carts and trucks, not to mention enterprising homeowners-turned-delis, are usually available along the routes). Toilet tissue and hand sanitizer are good ideas, and don’t forget a bag or backpack for those beads.
How to Spend the Big Day
Major Mardi Gras Parade Routes
Despite the popular impression of Mardi Gras, the parades don’t even go down Bourbon Street. Your Carnival experience will depend on where you go and whom you hang out with. Here are three ways to do it: nice, naughty, and nasty. Us? We prefer the first two, traversed on two wheels.
Nice -- Hang out exclusively Uptown with the families. Find a spot on St. Charles Avenue (which is closed that day) between Napoleon Avenue and Lee Circle, and set up camp with a blanket and a picnic lunch for Rex, the truck parades, and walking clubs. Dressed-up families are all around. One side of St. Charles is for the parades and the other is open only to foot traffic, so you can wander about, admire the scene, and angle for an invitation to a barbecue or balcony party. New Orleans kids consider Mardi Gras more fun than Halloween, and the reasons are obvious.
Zulu’s route starts at Jackson and goes downriver, so those further uptown will miss out. Staking out a spot downtown is another option; the crowds are a bit thicker and rowdier.
For an utterly different experience, head to Claiborne Avenue around 9am-ish and look for the Mardi Gras Indian tribes’ meeting. It’s a hit-or-miss proposition; the Indians themselves never know in advance when or where the gatherings occur. But running across them on their own turf is one of the great sights and experiences of Mardi Gras.
Naughty -- Around mid-morning, track down the Krewe of Kosmic Debris and the Societé of St. Anne: no floats, just wildly creative, costumed revelers. At noon, try to be near the corner of Burgundy and St. Ann streets for the Bourbon Street awards. You may not get close enough to actually see the judging, but the participants are all around so you can gawk at their sometimes R- and X-rated costumes. It’s boisterous and enthusiastic, but not (for the most part) obnoxious. Afterward, head to Frenchmen Street, where dancing and drum circles celebrate Carnival well into the night.
Nasty -- Stay on Bourbon Street. Yep, it’s every bit as crowded, booze-soaked, and vulgar as you’ve heard, and there are no fabulous floats. Every square of the street and every overhanging balcony is packed with partiers. Those balcony dwellers pack piles of beads (some with X-rated anatomical features) ready to toss down in exchange for a glimpse of flesh (by the way, flashing is technically illegal). It’s anything goes and wildly fun—but it can grow old fast.
A Mardi Gras parade works a spell on people. There’s no other way to explain why thousands of otherwise rational men and women scream, plead, and sometimes expose themselves for a plastic trinket. Nobody goes home empty-handed (even the trees end up laden with glittery goods), so don’t forget to actually look at the amazing floats. When the nighttime floats are lit by flambeaux torchbearers, it is easy to envision a time when Mardi Gras meant mystery and magic.
These are just a few of the major parades of the last days of Carnival. Also see the route map on.
* Muses (founded 2000): This popular all-gals krewe honors New Orleans’s artistic community—and shoes. Their glittery, decorated pumps are highly sought throws. Thursday evening before Mardi Gras.
* Krewe d’Etat(founded 1996): Social satire is their specialty. No current event is left unscathed, and their hilarious float designs can fuel water cooler and barstool discussions for weeks. Friday evening before Mardi Gras.
* Iris (founded 1917): This women’s krewe follows traditional Carnival rules of costume and behavior. Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras.
* Endymion (founded 1967): One of the early 1970s “superkrewes,” it features a glut of floats and celebrity guests such as Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Dolly Parton, and John Goodman. It runs in Mid-City, concluding with a big party in the Superdome. Saturday evening.
* Bacchus (founded 1968): The original “superkrewe,” it was the first to host international celebrities. Bacchus runs from Uptown to the Convention Center. Sunday before Mardi Gras.
* Orpheus (founded 1994): Another youngish krewe, it was founded by a group that includes Harry Connick, Jr., and adheres to classic krewe traditions. Popular for its many stunning floats and generous throws. Follows the Bacchus route on Lundi Gras evening.
* Zulu (founded 1916): Lively Zulu’s float riders are decked out in woolly wigs and blackface. They carry the most prized Mardi Gras souvenirs: glittery hand-painted coconuts. These status symbols must be placed in your hands, not tossed, so go right up to the float and do your best begging. Zulu parades on Mardi Gras morning.
* Rex (founded 1872): Rex follows Zulu and various walking clubs down St. Charles. It features the King of Carnival and some classic floats. Mardi Gras day.
Cajun Mardi Gras
For an entirely different experience, take the 2 1/2- to 3-hour drive out to Cajun Country, where Mardi Gras traditions are just as strong but considerably more, er, traditional. Lafayette celebrates Carnival in a manner that reflects the Cajun heritage and spirit. The 3-day event is second in size only to New Orleans’s celebration with parades and floats and beads a-plenty, but their final pageant and ball are open to the general public. Don your formal wear and join right in!
Masked Men & a Big Gumbo -- In towns like Eunice and Mamou in the Cajun countryside, the Courir de Mardi Gras celebration is tied to the traditional French rural lifestyle. Bands of masked men (and women, now) dressed in raggedy patchwork costumes and peaked capichon hats set off on Mardi Gras morning on horseback, led by their capitaine. They ride from farm to farm, asking at each, “Voulez-vous reçevoir le Mardi Gras?” (“Will you receive the Mardi Gras?”). “Oui,” comes the invariable reply. Each farmyard then becomes a miniature festival of song, dance, antics, and much beer. As payment for their pageantry, they get “a fat little chicken to make a big gumbo” (or sometimes a bag of rice or other ingredients).
All meet back in town where cooking, dancing, games, storytelling, and general merriment continue into the wee hours, and yes, there is indeed a very big pot of gumbo. Get particulars from the Lafayette Parish Convention and Visitors Commission (www.lafayettetravel.com; tel. 800/346-1958 in the U.S., 800/543-5340 in Canada, or 337/232-3737).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.