10 Reasons to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is called the ‘greatest free show on earth’. The Carnival season which begins on Jan 6th and ends on Fat Tuesday is a time of great revelry in New Orleans and Mardi Gras is its great culmination. Mardi Gras legends talk about visitors who came to New Orleans to experience Mardi Gras and never left. Attending Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans is a fantastic experience for everyone, regardless of their age, race or gender. New Orleans Mardi Gras is very family friendly and there are many things to do in New Orleans with teens and toddlers alike. Read our New Orleans Mardi Gras guide to make the best of the experience. Here are 10 reasons to attend the celebrations in New Orleans:
1. Dramatic costumes and elaborate masks
New Orleans Mardi Gras laws dictate that float riders must always have a mask on. Other revelers are not allowed to wear masks on streets during the Carnival, except on Mardi Gras when everyone and their mother is dressed up in elaborate masks, beautiful finery, dramatic and provocative costumes, and making a bold statement.
2. Beads. Duh!
Beads thrown by float riders are most popular symbols of Mardi Gras. The parades throw a variety of glass bead strings, medallions, doubloons, stuffed toys, and other ‘Throws’ to the crowd. Riders of the Krewe of Zulu throw hand-painted and beautifully decorated coconuts to the crowd; these are one of the most coveted throws.
3. Intricately constructed parade floats
The earliest Mardi Gras parade floats were designed in France; today most of the floats are made at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans. Every year the social krewes vie with each other for the honor of having the most spectacular, elaborate, and biggest themed floats of the Carnival. Krewes spend thousands of dollars and artists work year-round to bring the amazing floats to life.
Every Mardi Gras, celebrities descend down upon New Orleans. Many of the top parades including Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpehus have Celebrity Grand Marshalls. Different bands and DJs come to perform at the balls and parties while others come to enjoy the parades and other festivities. Seeing star-studded parade floats is an only-in-NOLA delight.
5. Flickering light of the Flambeaux
Flambeaux are a long-standing Mardi Gras tradition. In ancient times, flaming torches were essential for revelers to see the Mardi Gras parades at night. Over time as infrastructure and parade lighting evolved, the flambeaux useful decreased – but they continue to be a parade tradition and have evolved into an art form. Today, the torchbearers wave, spin and twirl their heavy blazing torches as they lead the way for parade floats and the crowd thanks them for their performance by tipping them generously.
6. King Cakes
Mardi Gras house, corporate, and social parties have been historically associated with King Cake – a sweet pastry decorated with Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. The King Cake holds a hidden treasure – beans, trinkets or more commonly a tiny plastic baby. The baby symbolizes the arrival of the three wise men/kings in Bethlehem, bearing gifts, to see the baby Jesus. All bakeries and sometimes even street vendors in New Orleans sell King Cakes during the Carnival. Besides King cake, this is also the time to try some of New Orleans best foods – including crawfish boils and vegan restaurants in the French Quarter.
7. High-society Carnival Balls
The carnival season is marked by spectacular balls hosted by social krewes for their members. These by-invite-only balls are firmly rooted in the aristocracy and are elegant, formal affairs. The balls have extravagant tableaux, debutantes, calling-out cards for dances, kings, queens, courts, pages, maids, and jesters.
8. Lowered inhibitions in the French Quarter
Mardi Gras celebrations in the French Quarter are decidedly risqué, tinged with drinking and debauchery and solely for adults. The practice of women flashers or those baring their breasts for beads is pretty common in the Bourbon Street area.
9. Drinking on the streets
Locals say New Orleans during Mardi Gras is like a big, never-ending party. It’s true, there are no open container laws in New Orleans and drinks come in to-go cups. It’s assumed that everyone missing a step is a little bit drunk. Try a Sazerac – no one makes the cocktail like New Orleans – or the powerful Hurricane.
10. ‘Greatest Free Show on Earth’
Did I mention you get all the above for free? The parades, floats, celebrities, and costumes can all be experienced for free. There are no tickets except for a few grandstand seats along the parade’s route. You just have to walk up and stand along the barricades to experience the most dramatic, bold, and colorful festival in the country.
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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.