New Orleans Mardi Gras: The Complete Guide
Mardi Gras 2018 is Tuesday, February 13.
If you’re visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year, then you’ll love this (updated) complete guide to New Orleans Mardi Gras parades, krewes, traditions, and beads.
This year, the annual Mardi Gras celebrations are likely to be held on a much grander scale than in the past, as New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial (300 years) in 2018. Covering New Orleans Mardi Gras is no joke, and this guide gets pretty long. We have divided it into easy sections and you can skip to what you want. This fun and handy guide will prove invaluable as you make the most of this NOLA tradition.
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras is a big feast at the end of the Carnival Season marking the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting before Easter. On Mardi Gras, revelers indulge in food, including meats, and drinks in anticipation of the austerity of Lent.
Mardi Gras has been historically celebrated in New Orleans with music, dances, and masked costumed balls. The early practice of processions and wearing masks and costumes on the street during Mardi Gras evolved into formal parades with floats and krewes followed by a formal ball for krewe members. The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on Feb. 24, 1857, by the Krewe of Comus. To learn more about Mardi Gras history, click here. New Orleans is, without doubt, the best place to celebrate Mardi Gras in the United States. Not convinced? Check our article on 10 reasons to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
How long is Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
In 2018, New Orleans Carnival season is from 6th January 2018 to 13th February 2018.
New Orleans Carnival season starts with the Twelfth Night (the night after Twelve Days of Christmas) or January 6th. The first parade is held on this day. Mardi Gras celebrations usually intensify two weeks before Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras day. The crowd and excitement of the Mardi Gras season reach its peak during last 5 days before Mardi Gras and is the best time to attend the celebrations. New Orleans Mardi Gras season comes to a formal end with a ceremony called the Meeting of the Courts. In the Meeting of the Courts, Rex, the King of the Carnival, meets with Comus to mark the end of the Carnival.
Parades and other events occur every day but the best parades take place in the week leading up to Mardi Gras. The best parades are the longest, have the most elaborate floats, and their float riders toss unique throws into the crowd. The parades have different routes; for a detailed parade schedule click here.
Top Things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras
New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations are like a FREE big fat never-ending party. There are so many things to do at different city venues that it would be hard to keep up with all of them. If this is your first visit to the city, you should also catch up on some of New Orleans tourist sites including Cathedral, Jackson Square, Magazine Street, and the cemeteries. However, if you are visiting NOLA especially for Mardi Gras then here are the top Mardi Gras related things to do (that you won’t be able to indulge in at other times.)
Watch the Parades, you won’t be disappointed!
Mardi Gras dance troupes, krewe members, and social clubs are big on drama, bold colors, excitement and non-stop action. The parades are family-friendly but they are not for the faint of heart. The themes for costumes and floats include history, tradition, pop culture, satire, and humor. The parade floats are the result of year-round dedication to the single biggest event of the year. Here you will find detailed information about the history and themes of New Orleans’ most famous Mardi Gras parades and krewes.
Collect unique throws and haul them home
Most common throws are the glass beads available at any big box stores or dollar tree before Mardi Gras. Some krewes throw different shaped bead strings, pearl beads, or beads with medallions. Krewes are also known to throw inexpensive toys, plastic cups or glasses, doubloons, homemade trinkets, t-shirts, lingerie and gift cards. However, the best throw of all is the hand-painted Zulu coconut, thrown by the Krewe of Zulu. These unique throws are the most coveted ones and catching one will be one of your most memorable Mardi Gras experiences.
Dress up in traditional Mardi Gras colors
Rex, the King of Carnival, selected the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold in 1892. The colors have significance and meaning attached to them -Purple stands for justice, green for faith, and gold is for power. Today, most revelers dress up in elaborate costumes or in traditional Mardi Gras colors to participate in the festivities. Visitors dressed up in costumes or Mardi Gras colors get thrown the most beads by float riders.
Try some of New Orleans best delicacies between the parades
New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise, the city’s best foods are iconic. The Cajun / Creole cuisines have many star dishes including po-boys, boiled crawfish, char-grilled oysters, and gumbo. Besides, no one leaves New Orleans without having the famous beignets with Café Au Chocolat at Café Du Monde. For vegans, read our list of gluten-free plus vegan/vegetarian restaurants to try in the French Quarter – serving vegan gumbos, vegan crab cakes, vegan poboys, and more.
Dance to the music
I can’t say this enough; attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like attending a giant block party with no last call. You can openly drink from to-go cups, dress as you please, dance to the music of the marching bands and jump in excitement to catch the throws. I have often seen people put on some music on their phones and have a spontaneous dance party along the parade routes while they wait for the floats and krewe members.
Attend a Mardi Gras Ball dressed up in your best ball gown.
Mardi Gras Balls are super-exclusive, by invitation only formal affairs. These Masquerades are elaborate affairs and planned spectacularly by the Kings and Queens of each krewe. These balls go back to their aristocratic roots and involve invitations, debutantes, formal court, and call-out cards. While it is not possible to ‘arrange’ an invitation to the exclusive balls, three krewes–Orpheus, Bacchus, and Endymion–throw “Super Krewe” Balls every year that are ticketed events and open to the public.
King Cake has been associated with New Orleans Mardi Gras since 1870. This oval-shaped baked cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. Each king cake has a tiny plastic baby hidden in it. Mardi Gras parties are celebrated with the cutting of the King Cake. The person whose piece contains the baby is named ‘king’ for the day and is responsible for hosting the next party and providing next King Cake. The tiny plastic baby inside the cake represents Baby Jesus and is a symbol of the festival of Epiphany.
Mardi Gras for Families with kids
I know, you are recalling the Mardi Gras in French Quarter (read below) covered by multiple news sources and are wondering if it’s appropriate to take children to New Orleans Mardi Gras. However, the bulk of what happens in French Quarter stays right there in French Quarter and all the famous parades are family-friendly. Mardi Gras is a family celebration. You will see lots of families camped on the parade route with carts, coolers full of food and drinks, and lawn chairs. For many New Orleanians, watching the Mardi Gras parades with your family is an annual tradition. Float riders often throw special throws including stuffed toys, trinkets and medallions directly to the children. You should avoid the French Quarter and see the parades near the beginning on St. Charles Avenue (Uptown). Mardi Gras has and always will be primarily about the parades, floats, music, throws, and excitement of the carnival. Your family will love the greatest free show on earth. New Orleans also has many other things to do with teenagers and children and is perfect for a Mardi Gras mini vacation.
Mardi Gras in the French Quarter
For spring-break aged crowds, the action is concentrated in the Bourbon street area of French Quarter. Flashing women are a long-standing French Quarter Mardi Gras tradition of sorts. (I know, some people will fume and say – it’s not a NOLA tradition – BUT for tourists and revelers it is) Women flash for the biggest beads, coconuts and other coveted throws. Flashers on balconies bare their breasts to crowds that form on the street. This area of French Quarter also has strip joints and is particularly popular with millennials and college students. Inhibitions are shed faster in the French Quarter than in any other place. Unsavory or not, this side of New Orleans Mardi Gras is here to stay and if you want to be a part of it – you should hurry down to Bourbon Street after the parades end. The crowd on the narrow streets of French Quarter can get crazy fast, and if you want to be out of the crowd yet enjoy the experience you should try to get one of the balcony seats in the French Quarter. Some of these seats are sold years in advance, making them quite difficult to come by. The rowdiness of French Quarter at night during Mardi Gras is a world apart from a leisurely stroll in the French Quarter at morning. If you want to appreciate the true beauty and character of French Quarter with its beautiful balconies framed with potted ferns, street musicians playing jazz, artists sketching a stunning likeness of the area, horse-drawn carriages, and families strolling by then you should take in French Quarter before noon. Ultimately, French Quarter Mardi Gras is not what New Orleans Mardi Gras is about and we would urge you to check the parades on St. Charles Avenue, know more about the Mardi Gras Indians, and attend a few masquerade balls to understand this great New Orleans tradition.
Gay Mardi Gras
In 2018, the Gay Mardi Gras celebration is from Thursday, February 8 to Tuesday, February 13 (Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras day), and will occur in the lower French Quarter.
New Orleans is one the most gay-friendly cities in the US. On my most recent two trips to the city, I saw gay weddings take place at different places. Stands to reason, that the Big Easy has something special planned for Gay Mardi Gras. There are several gay Carnival krewes, including the Krewe of Petronius and the Krewe of Amon-Ra however, many gay krewes don’t parade. The Gay Mardi Gras krewes also hold balls with King, Queen, court, costumes, and debutantes. Other events include Bourbon Street Awards for best costumes and a Fat Monday Luncheon. Many of the celebrations take place at the gay nightclub, The Bourbon Pub / Parade located at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann Streets. The nightclub sells various passes for the events which can be purchased here. The celebrations include performing DJs, unlimited cocktails, and more. To learn more about Gay Mardi Gras in New Orleans visit here.
New Orleans Mardi Gras tips and FAQs
Are you going to Mardi Gras for the first time? Here are some FAQs to make the best of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
When is the best time to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
There are parades and events throughout the Carnival season which begins on 6th January each year and ends on Mardi Gras. The excitement reaches its peak on Fat Tuesday. The absolute best time to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans is five days before Fat Tuesday and stay till Mardi Gras day.
How to dress for Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
You can dress up if you like or attend Mardi Gras parades in casual clothes, it’s all allowed. You can never go wrong wearing something purple, green, and gold, and even your most elaborate costume will blend in with the thousands celebrating Mardi Gras. Whatever you wear, you will soon be covered in beads for the rest of the day!
What is the best place to watch the parades?
Best places to watch the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans are along Canal Street or close to French Quarter. Other options include watching the parade in Uptown where crowds are less dense. The corner of Jackson Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, is the favorite place to watch the parade on Mardi Gras morning for many locals. You can also buy parade tickets to watch the parades from the comfort of a grandstand.
Where to stay for Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
Central Business District and French Quarter hotels are the most popular with travelers. Most of these hotels require a 4 to 5 day minimum stay. We recommend booking hotels in the French Quarter only if your party doesn’t have children. For a list of available hotels for this year’s Mardi Gras – check here.
How to survive Mardi Gras New Orleans?
The best way to make the most of Mardi Gras is advance planning. You should book your hotel or Airbnb ideally in the summer of the previous year for the best deals. Advanced flight reservations are also strongly recommended and you should plan your trip according to parade schedules. If you are planning to watch a lot of parades, arrive early at your pre-decided spot and stake your place with lawn or beach chairs and coolers. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a large bag to store all the beads and trinkets that you will catch.
Go to Mardi Gras for the sheer joy of this exuberant festival and you won’t be disappointed!
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I’m Ketki Sharangpani, an Indian living in the United States. I'm a Travel Writer / Blogger & Photographer.
I travel to see striking buildings, people and cultures, and experience profound sunrises, shadows, and rituals.