One item on many Bucket Lists is to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Thanks to the hospitality of my lifelong friend, this year I had the chance to do exactly that. What I’ve compiled here are my top tips for a first-time Mardi Gras attender to help you have a fun, memorable, and sane experience.
This is a lengthy post, so if you’d like to jump ahead use these links:
Before we jump in, here’s some crucial lingo:
- Krewe: A purposeful misspelling of “crewe” coined in the mid-1800s as an archaic affectation (fake old-sounding word). Krewes lead parades throughout the Mardi Gras season. Some parades consist of multiple small Sub-Krewes (Krewe Delusion, The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus) but most run their own independant parades.
- Reveler: A person who has paid to gain membership to a Krewe and is therefore required to participate in the parade. Revelers are all required to wear masks — some resemble those worn by French clergy and some are classic masquerade masks).
- Royalty: Krewe members who have made particularly large contributions and therefore ride on individual floats at the beginning of the parade. Some parades have only a King/Queen and some have Dukes, Duchesses, Paiges, Maids, and more.
- Throw: Items thrown by revelers to parade goers. Typical throws include classic Mardi Gras beads, Krewe-themed beads, medallions, doubloons, plastic cups, and special hand-decorated throws.
- Ball: Krewes throw exclusive parties after their parades where attendees are able to see the floats go by in a special location and are sometimes treated to a concert by the parade’s celebrity marshall. Tickets to these parties are hard to come by and can climb upwards of $500.
1. Research And Decide Why You Want to Go
Deciding on a primary reason for your Mardi Gras trip will help you to see what you want to and relax knowing you made an informed decision about what to miss. Because the real truth is you can’t do it all. There’s just too much going on.
To help you decide your own reasons for attending, it can help to understand more about the history of Mardi Gras.
Many cultures have a holiday to celebrate the upcoming return of Spring. From the famous Carnival in Brazil to the lesser known Pancake Week (“Maslenitsa”) in Russia, this is a global holiday that has been tied to the Christian tradition of Lent.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans offers a chance to experience a festival in a way that is not found anywhere else in the United States. Mardi Gras is the French translation of “Fat Tuesday”, the day before the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of lent. Mardi Gras and its relatives are a way to celebrate excess and abundance before beginning the fasting of Lenten season. In fact, the closest relative of Mardi Gras, Carnival, shares its linguistic root “carni-” with “carnivore” and the word itself literally means “to put meat away”.
In addition to celebrating abundance of rich, fatty food, Carnival and Mardi Gras festivals often include turning societal norms on their head. Celebrations often include mockery of authority and political figures, bizarre or exaggerated depictions of the human body and face, as well as the infamous excessive drinking.
There are many reasons to want to see Mardi Gras, all of them valid. Some people go to experience a piece of history, some to see the artistry of the floats, and some people go for a wild party. Regardless of your reason, you’ll undoubtedly get a little of everything.
2. Prioritize What You Want To See
Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans are enormous and go on for weeks leading up to the day of Mardi Gras itself. To have a sane trip and not leave feeling like you’ve missed something you might have wanted to see, you (and your traveling companions) need to prioritize.
Must sees for the culturally inquisitive viewer:
If your interest lies in the cultural angle, start (or continue) to research the history of the festival. You might enjoy a trip to Mardi Gras World — a massive warehouse where floats are stored and constructed during the off-season. The artistry of some of these floats is best witnessed up close, something hard to achieve during the actual parades. If your interest extends to the history of New Orleans in general, don’t pass up a chance to see the New Orleans Voodoo Museum — with an inexpensive entrance fee, this small exhibit set in former home in the French Quarter with an authentic vibe.
Krewe du Vieux and Krewe Delusion
These two parades most closely represent the Carnival tradition of turning social norms on their heads. Krewe du Vieux and Krewe Delusion are smaller than most other parades because they take place in the French Quarter where the narrow, historic streets prevent tractors from pulling massive floats. Thus, all floats in these parades must be pulled either by people or mules. Both Krewe du Vieux and Krewe Delusion pride themselves on political, provocative, and sometimes explicit themes. Perhaps you guessed from the pun in Krewe Delusion’s name?
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club
The Krewe of Zulu, also known as Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has its history closely tied to the oldest Krewe in New Orleans is the Mystick Krewe of Comus, founded in 1856. The Krewe of Comus’ purpose was to create a more “civilized” (read:whiter) celebration of Carnival and explicitly excluded any non-white people from their parade. In response, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club was founded in 1916.
In 1991 the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance requiring that Krewes did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. The Mystick Krewe of Comus withdrew from parading while the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club continues to parade every year. The Zulu parade is famous for their facepaint which resembles blackface, the intricate and heavily-feathered costuming of their parade royalty, their much sought-after throws (hand-painted coconuts), and the Zulu Witch Doctor.
Krewe of Rex
The Krewe of Rex, as their name suggests, reigns as the King of Carnival. Founded in 1872 to bring tourism to New Orleans after the Civil War, Rex was originally an all-white Krewe but unlike Comus chose to open its membership up to all races up on the city ordinance of 1991. Krewe of Rex is the last of the major Mardi Gras parades and nowadays is known for having many “float beads” — a string of Mardi Gras beads with a medallion specific to the particular float it was thrown from. Many New Orleans residents have collections of Rex float beads.
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and the Krewe of Rex are two of the oldest continually running Mardi Gras Krewes, and for history and culture nerds, they can’t be missed.
Must sees for the party-minded visitor:
When people think of partying in New Orleans, they think of Bourbon Street. The infamous bar-cluttered street in the French Quarter lives up to its wild reputation in that you’ll pay obscene amounts of money for mediocre jello shots and spend most of the time worrying about being pick-pocketed (in particular be cautious of the Mango Bar towards the Canal Street end of Bourbon). After seeing two parades in the Quarter, I walked down Bourbon Street to get back to the streetcar and did so only to say “check, I’ve been on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, now I never have to do it again.”
The takeaway here? Bourbon Street is really only worth it if you have a specific destination in mind. The only place on Bourbon Street I enjoy going to is Oz because it is one of the oldest gay bars in the US and the second story deck is great for people watching.
Instead, the best party atmospheres can be found at the big parades on St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. Grab a 30-rack, some classic Nola snacks like Zapp’s chips, and park yourself on the side of the road for a one-of-a-kind type of festival. Big parade routes fill up early with families bringing folding chairs, tables, tents, and unique ladder contraptions to see over the crowd. If you’re a small group, you’ll be able to squeeze up front without setting up hours in advance. Groups of more than four should either accept their spot in the back or come early and claim territory.
Super Krewes like Endymion, Bacchus, & Orpheus
Super Krewes are called such because they are the highest funded Krewes in Mardi Gras. The highest funding means the most outrageous parade floats and the Krewes of Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus are here to impress. Each of the three Super Krewes is known for particular must-see over-sized floats.
Though none of Krewe of Bacchus‘ multi-segment floats are on quite the same scale as Endymion and Orpheus, I’ll mention my favorite: the Bacchagator. This enormous alligator float towers over the crowd with its mouth wide open and stands for the city’s endearing relationship with their reptilian neighbors.
Krewe of Orpheus is home to an enormous 6-car train called the Smokey Mary. Including the engine, this float is seven times as long as a typical one. You’ll be able to hear it approaching because of its realistic train whistle.
Most impressive is the Krewe of Endymion‘s 7-part Pontchartrain Beach float, themed after the now-defunct amusement park (think NYC’s Coney Island or LA’s Pike). Each segment of the float represents a piece of the amusement park, including a haunted house, ferris wheel, and house of mirrors. It’s hard to understand the scale of these floats until you see them for yourself.
While many parades have lighting built into their floats, few have the extensive and detailed LED work that these three Super Krewes do. In addition to LED lighting the Super Krewes (and some others) also include traditional hand-carried torches known as flambeaus. When you see them go by, try to imagine pre-electric Carnival celebrations lit entirely by fire.
Women’s Krewes like Nyx & Muses
Some of the parades with the best party-vibes are the all-women Krewes. While the 1991 city ordinance served its purpose to make a statement to Krewes like Comus and Rex which excluded non-white revelers, the ordinance was later overturned by two federal courts allowing women’s Krewes to come into existence.
All of the women’s Krewes are relatively young, but they know how to throw a party. Both the Mystic Krewe of Nyx and the Krewe of Muses are known for enormous signature floats at the beginning of their parades in addition to themed throws. Krewe of Nyx kicks of their parade with an enormous handbag lined with pink LEDs and throw hand-decorated purses to parade goers. Krewe of Muses similarly begins their parade with an oversize shoe (a sensible pump, of course) covered entirely in pink LEDs. Their hand-painted shoes are possibly the most coveted rare throw in all of Mardi Gras, perhaps second only to the Zulu coconuts.
Smaller parades worth an honorable mention:
Smaller parades may not have the funding of the Super Krewes or the history of Zulu and Rex, but they can be a welcome break from the intense crowds and offer their own charm and beauty.
Krewes of Cleopatra & Pygmalion
The Krewe of Cleopatra and the Krewe of Pygmalion featured some of the most beautifully painted floats I saw in all of Mardi Gras, and I actually got to see them up close because the crowd wasn’t ten people deep!
Krewes of Femme Fatale & Morpheus
The Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale and the Krewe of Morpheus are smaller all-women Krewes have fun throws and a laid-back vibe. Some of their floats were rented from other Krewes and thus were repeats for me, but I was glad to have seen them and caught a Femme Fatale compact.
Knights of Babylon & Hermes
As their names suggest, the Knights of Babylon and the Knights of Hermes have a Medieval Europe theme which can be a fun and different take on Mardi Gras. Plus, if you’re a fashion nerd with fashion nerdy friends, you can enjoy the puzzled looks when you hand them a plastic cup that says Hermes.
Krewe of D’Etat & Tucks
Similar to Krewe du Vieux and Krewe Delusion, Krewe D’Etat and Krewe of Tucks are irreverent, punny, and wacky. Krewe D’Etat is, perhaps obviously, known for their political humor and this year Krewe of Tucks entertained while the TPed the whole avenue with their green, yellow, and purple rolls.
Krewes of titRəx & Chewbacchus
The Krewe of titRəx and the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus are two small parades that take place in the trendy, gentrifying Marigny neighborhood. Krewe of titRəx (a play on Krewe of Rex but with a ‘schwa’ in place of the ‘e’ for legal reasons) is a parade of miniatures known for its shoebox floats. The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus (a play on Krewe of Bacchus) is a nerdy Star Wars parade that includes other Sub-Krewes from fandoms like Firefly and Star Trek.
Without a car, the Marigny is tricky to get to (streetcars don’t reach it and busses are a gamble in this city). I had to miss both of these parades this year, but I’ve been invited to join a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sub-Krewe being formed for 2018. If I find myself in New Orleans next February I’ll surely be attending.
3. Be Strategic About Location
Where you stay in the city will make a huge difference in how your exhausting or how fun your Mardi Gras experience is. The Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods may be trendy, but unless your only goal is to see Titrex and Chewbacchus, it doesn’t make sense to stay so far from the major parade routes.
Similarly, Gentilly and Metairie may have the cheapest rates but you’ll be resigning yourself to being stuck in traffic for the entirety of your time in New Orleans. Finding parking near the parades is a challenging feat (because literally half a million other people are trying to park too) and driving to the parades means one person in your group will always have to volunteer to be the designated driver.
For a visual aid on New Orleans neighborhood, check out this map I made!
Shelling out the extra cash to stay a couple blocks off of Saint Charles Avenue or Canal Street is very worth it. Nothing beats the feeling of watching exhausted tourists line up for porta potties while you walk back to your very own bathroom. When everyone else is drinking warm beer and melted daiquiris, you can stroll back to your hotel or Airbnb to make a cold cocktail. And if for no other reason, staying close to the parade route allows you to be spontaneous about smaller parades.
Whether you stay uptown on St Charles or downtown on Canal depends on what time you want to see the parades. All uptown parades except Zulu and Endymion start far uptown near the Audubon park and move down Magazine Street and St Charles before making it to Canal Street hours later.
If, like me, you stay farther uptown, you will see the bands at their least exhausted and the dance troupes will be able to put on their best show. Revelers will be well-stocked with throws and may be at their most generous. I loved being able to see the parades well before midnight so I could get a good night’s sleep.
Staying downtown will be more expensive and louder. The parades won’t make it to you until very late. If you’re a late night partier with extra money to spend, downtown would be the choice for you. Plus, you won’t have to hike up St Charles to catch Endymion and the French Quarter parades will be more accessible to you.
Regardless of where you stay, a crucial tool for planning any Mardi Gras celebration is the Parade Tracker app. Not only does the helpful app allow you to see where parades will run, it also provides helpful information like the theme and number of floats in each parade, special throws from each Krewe, and any particular spectacles to look for. Know that the tracker dot on the app’s map represents a car at the very front of the parade. Just because it’s passed your location doesn’t mean you’ve missed the parade. Mardi Gras parades stretch for miles and can take hours to go by.
4. Be A Considerate Tourist
During Mardi Gras anywhere from 500,000 to one million people visit the city of New Orleans. Nola is a provincial city typically home to only a little more than a million in its metro area. That means that at Mardi Gras the population of the city can double. For a city still in recovery, this can be a lot to handle.
Remember that New Orleans is a regular city with regular people trying to continue living their lives around the festivities. Try to keep your most belligerent moments (if you must have them) to Bourbon Street and please don’t pee on people’s houses.
In addition to common sense and common decency (neither of which are very common, unfortunately), there are some basic unspoken rules to attending the parades.
Parades are typically organized in a float-band-float-band-etc pattern. With the exception of major parades like Endymion, streets are not barricaded off and it’s up to you to not get run over — if not by a tractor pulling a float, by a high school marching band chaperone.
When bands approach, you’ll need to move all the way back onto the curb. There will be chaperones on the outskirts of the bands looking for potholes and stray parade goers. Do not give these people a hard time if they ask you to step back. They’re trying to help you avoid being hit in the head by a batton.
When floats approach, it’s common for the crowd to rush up to them and yell for throws. You’ll see (and sometimes find yourself participating in) some truly bizarre displays of desperation when this happens. The typical cry for a float is “Hey mister, throw me something!”
From my limited personal experience of one Mardi Gras, I have found that the best ways to catch throws come from either standing back or rushing forward. If you stand in the middle of the crowd and wave you’ll be lost in a sea of craziness and won’t get much — and that might be ok for you, not everyone is there for the throws!
If you want to catch some throws but aren’t too particular, stand far enough back to make eye contact with a reveler on the top deck of a float. One of them will catch your eye and either point or nod at you, at which point you had better be ready to catch. You’ll learn quickly that Mardi Gras beads could easily be used as weapons when thrown from high up. Watching some revelers in Endymion whip heavy beads into the ten- to twenty-person deep crowd reminded me of the pairs of cannonballs connected by a chain in Pirates of the Caribbean.
If you have specific throws you want, wait for a float to stop, go up to a specific reveler and ask politely.
- Good example: You see a reveler handing out a specific throw and the float comes to a stop. You walk up and politely (but loudly) ask “Could I please have a compact?” and she hands you a Krewe-themed compact mirror. You say “Thank you!” because you’re an adult.
- Bad example: Standing far from a parked float and repeatedly saying “Hey! Hey! Can I have some big beads? Hey! I need some big beads! Hey man! Big beads right here! Hey!” while the reveler tries desperately to avoid eye contact with you.
This method works best with throws you know they have. This method does not work with highly sought-after throws like Muses shoes and Zulu coconuts. Those you will just have to get lucky to catch. Some people make signs, some people scream about them the whole parade, but every time I saw someone catch a special throw, it was because they were just having a genuine good time.
It’s a good idea to bring a bag with you (though you may end up catching one if you’re near the front of the crowd). Most throws are beads that you can wear on your neck or wrists but if you’re planning to catch cups, plushies, doubloons, or other toys you’ll need somewhere to put everything. Throws add up fast.
In a similar vein, if you’ve found yourself with a large excess of plain beads (as any parade goer will), consider donating them before leaving town. My favorite spot to do this is NO Fleas Market on Magazine Street. They’re a thrift store run by the LSPCA so your bead donation will go towards helping shelter animals.
If you’re bringing a kid to Mardi Gras, revelers will often go out of their way to give kids the stuffed animals and other toys they have instead of beads. This is awesome and you’ll see it’s a great way to get new toys to some of the poorer families in the city. What you should definitely not do is use your kid as a means to get rare throws. My friend watched a family hold their kid up yelling “shoe for the baby!” at a Muses parade a few years ago, only to see them acquire upwards of six of these rare throws in one parade. Not only was this greedy it was probably a crappy experience for the young baby.
When it comes to catching throws, try not to take it too seriously. If you get caught up in “needing” to catch a particular item, it can ruin your parade experience. If there are special beads you truly feel you can’t live without, you can find them at the French Market in the Quarter.
5. Take It Easy
Following nicely from my point about not taking catching throws too seriously is to not take any of it too seriously. At the beginning of the season it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll be able to see and do it all. But no matter how high your caffeine intake, you won’t be able to see absolutely everything. If you try, you’ll end up a burnt out Mardi Grinch half-way through.
And that is the lesson in Mardi Gras — abundance is a wonderful thing but in order to truly enjoy it, you have to experience scarcity. It’s why we gorge ourselves on King Cake for February and then give up sugar for Lent. It’s a lesson that goes beyond this holiday and into everyday life; we need to acknowledge that lacking is what drives us to achieve our goals. We are always in search of more because we are always missing something.
New Orleans has the sometimes-hated-but-very-accurate nickname of “The Big Easy” and you should take it that way. This city is at its core a place of relaxation and while Mardi Gras can seem like a wild frenzy, it is really about celebrating the ease of life with abundance as opposed to the struggle of poverty (which most of the city residents face). So between crazy parades and museum tours, step back and appreciate your abundance of food, abundance of drink, and abundance of love.