Check your bucket, as it’s time for Mardi Gras in New Orleans – the festival of all festivals. Nothing quite captures the joie de vivre of New Orleans than this lively annual party. Two weeks of exciting street parades lead up to Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 21 this year, when revelers don lavish costumes, colorful face paint and masks, and take to the street for a final bacchanalian bash before Lent.
A dozen or so parades roll down the city streets, with large floats carrying riders throwing beads and trinkets, while local Second Line bands with horns stroll about. Joining in the party is all part of the fun.
The best part is this year Mardi Gras falls on President’s Day weekend, February 17-20, all the more reason to come celebrate. For the latest info, parades, and parade routes, check out www.mardigrasneworleans.com. Then once you’re there, laissez les bon temps rouler – “let the good times roll!”
Carnival parades begin two weekends before Mardi Gras. Carnival krewes, or Carnival parade organizations, choose a different theme each year for their parade, ranging from the whimsical to the politically incorrect. “Throws” – or gifts thrown from riders on floats – are the popular currency here, and those who collect them proudly show their spoils.
The most common throws are strings of plastic beads, doubloons, stuffed animals and aluminum coins. Parades generally consist of floats, bands and walking groups.
The first parades begin on Saturday night, February 4, with Krewe du Vieux (pronounced in the region like “voo”) and Krewe Delusion entertaining the crowds as they roll through the French Quarter and Marigny districts. On Sunday night, February 5, Krewe of Little Rascals parades through the suburb of Metairie.
On the weekend of February 10, the number of parades increases, with krewes rolling through such neighborhoods as the French Quarter, West Bank, Metairie, and Uptown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The festivities continue Uptown on Wednesday and Thursday nights, featuring the parades of the Krewe of Ancient Druids and the Knights of Chaos.
Mardi Gras Weekend
On Friday, Krewe of Hermes, one of the oldest parading krewes, kicks off the weekend festivities, parading through Uptown, followed by Krewe d’Etat. On Saturday parades begin in the morning, featuring such krewes as NOMTOC, Iris and Tucks, rolling through Uptown and the Garden District.
In the evening, the extravagant floats of Krewe of Endymion roll through Mid-City on their way to Canal Street. This krewe is famous for its celebrity guests. Past guests have included Kool & the Gang, Fats Domino, Marisa Tomei and Emeril Lagasse. On Sunday, Krewe of Thoth is a popular daytime parade, followed by Krewe of Bacchus in the early evening. Both parade through Uptown.
Monday is Lundi Gras, or the Monday before Mardi Gras, a major event held at Spanish Plaza by the Riverwalk downtown. There are no day parades, but the main event is the arrival of Rex, the King of Mardi Gras, by boat along the Mississippi River.
Stages host live music throughout the day, and at night you can see a fireworks extravaganza over the mighty Mississippi. In late afternoon, the krewes of Proteus and Orpheus, with their celebrity riders, parade along St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street, while the Krewe of Zeus entertains revelers in Metairie.
Mardi Gras Day
Time to let the good times roll! New Orleans shuts down for the day, and festivities start early. The Krewe of Zulu, the oldest African-American parade, starts at 8am followed by the Krewe of Rex. These two parading krewes show off their spectacular, no-less-than elaborate floats and are a must-see.
The Mardi Gras Indians and walking clubs also make their appearance on Mardi Gras Day. The walking clubs – costumed parading organizations usually accompanied by brass bands – zigzag all over town, stopping in bars and handing paper flowers, strands of beads or doubloons. The elaborately-costumed Mardi Gras Indians, members of African-American organizations, parade through the back streets in vibrant costumes and crowns chanting traditional Mardi Gras songs (think Iko Iko).
On Mardi Gras morning you can find the Uptown Indian tribes in the Garden District between Jackson and Washington Avenues; the downtown tribes wander around the Treme (pronounced tre-MAY).
Where to Watch
Where to watch the parades depends on what kind of experience you want. Although during the parade the entire route is crowded, some places are a little less crazy. Uptown is more family-friendly, and you’ll find plenty of places to catch throws along St. Charles Avenue. The Garden District is another good spot for families, especially around Third and Fourth Streets.
The action picks up Downtown, and the Central Business District and French Quarter become a full-on party. Streets are jam-packed, especially Bourbon Street, where you’ll see a fair share of merrymakers drinking, exchanging beads and strutting their stuff. Carrying alcoholic beverages is legal on the streets, but an increased police presence during this time keeps everyone in check.
Where to Eat
Every trip to New Orleans should include a fair amount of eating. Your taste buds are certainly in for a treat. For recommendations, check out our Top 10 Places to Eat and Drink in New Orleans.
Keep in mind, many restaurants close on Mardi Gras day but some are open. Be sure to call ahead for reservations on the day of and the weekends surrounding Mardi Gras.
Other Things to Do
During Mardi Gras, it’s all about partying in the French Quarter, catching throws, and checking out the many parades around the city. But if you need a respite from the raucous crowds, New Orleans has much to offer and discover.
Stay for a few days before or after Mardi Gras and take a Louisiana cooking class, a Westbank plantation tour or a Garden District walking tour. For more suggestions, check out our list of things to do in New Orleans.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s New Orleans tours and things to do, New Orleans attractions and New Orleans travel recommendations. And for insider insights in to local culture and history, New Orleans cultural and theme tours are a good start!