Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not a day, but an entire season. Weeks of parades and celebrations and costumes that require a certain amount of knowledge. If you are planning on your first Mardi Gras season, or if you are looking for some more tips to up your already increasing Mardi Gras game, this list is to help you have the best Mardi Gras yet (or ever).
Get out of the French Quarter.
There’s certainly plenty to experience in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras season, but if you are a visitor to the city, be sure to avoid making the mistake of countless visitors before you and experience Mardi Gras in other places around New Orleans! Download a Mardi Gras parade app, check out what parades are listed and where their routes go through, and get out there!
Go to some “unofficial” krewes’ parades.
While the Mardi Gras website and apps are very helpful, there are also a number of unofficial, more casual parades that happen during the Mardi Gras season (as well as some krewes that sort of straddle the boundary between “official” and “unofficial”). Some of these are more like themed bar-crawls, and all of these are much more of a homemade Mardi Gras experience. Some parades that fall into various places on this sliding scale are Box of Wine, Krewe of OAK, Saint Anne’s, and Chewbacchus.
Rely on bicycling or walking as your main form of transportation.
New Orleans is not a large city but it can get extremely congested during Mardi Gras season – not to mention the headache of trying to keep track of what streets are closed off for what parade routes at what times. Do not waste your time in a car, you will get stuck and you will not find parking. Taxis, ubers, lyfts, etc. also can all get fairly expensive around this time (also, you will never get a cab to pick you up anywhere other than the French Quarter, it’s just a New Orleans thing), not to mention these car services are not exactly immune to the traffic either. If you must drive, go out of your way to avoid crowded areas at the wrong time (this is where knowing your parade schedule in terms of times and places can be very helpful). If you are biking, be careful of potholes, especially in the dark! Below, note the pothole that has been efficiently filled-in with Mardi Gras beads…
Bedazzle the shit out of yourself.
If costumes and dressing up are not your thing, then honey, you need to either suck it up or leave. Get a hot glue gun and some shiny shit from the craft store and GO TO TOWN. This is also a great time to repurpose old throw that you have from past Mardi Gras.
You do not have to make it to every parade or event, and you do not have to drink every day. I tend to only drink every other parade day, and I often skip out on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday) and just chill out with a giant hangover-curing traditional Monday beans & rice dish (my favorite is from Neyow’s in Mid-City). This way, I am prepared for the long-haul on the main event the following day. If it’s your first Mardi Gras season, do some research on the different parades that are happening and decide which ones you want to see, where you want to see them, etc. You can of course always go with the flow once the season has started, but having a basic plan can be super helpful with pacing yourself and ensuring you actually survive Mardi Gras season.
Join a krewe.
Referring back to the sliding scale of “official” parades, look into joining in on one of the parades! The less official bar-crawl style parades basically require you to join in, though there are some, like Chewbacchus, that are more official but still are not absurdly expensive to join. With the most official of parades, krewes are often looking for volunteer security members to keep the crowd pushed back enough to allow space for their krewe.
Know your throw etiquette.
Throws, or the random crap (including beads) that people in parades throw to onlookers, have some very particular etiquette attached to them. Amidst the shouts of “THROW ME SOMETHIN’, MISTA!,” it is important to know how to handle yourself. First of all, make eye contact with the person tossing a throw so that you know if it is meant for you. Do NOT take a throw that was meant for someone else. This is a terrible thing to do and people will smite you. Gotta work on your Mardi Gras karma! Also, and I know that this is counterintuitive for many newcomers so just go with it, do not pick up a throw that has fallen on the ground. Especially if it is just a random throw that you have found on the ground. Exceptions for this rule are if something awesome was thrown to you and it falls at your feet and you are quick to snatch it up, or if you do happen to find something amazing on the ground such as the ever-sought-after GLASS BEADS. Glass beads are the shit. Also note that each krewe is know for certain throws, some of which are very special (such as Zulu’s coconuts, Muses’ shoes, Nyx’s purses, etc.). If you get some stuffed animals or frisbees that you do not particularly want, it’s always good form to find the nearest children and offer it to them.
Have a Fat Tuesday plan of attack.
Mardi Gras day, Fat Tuesday, the culmination of the entire season, has quite a lot to offer. There are a million different parades, bar crawls, celebrations to choose from, and you cannot do it all. If you’re going to experience a few Fat Tuesdays in your life, try out a number of different combinations each year to see what you prefer. Personally, I am a fan of getting up bright and early for Saint Anne’s, in which you dress up in your best Mardi Gras costume (and in which you will see some fantastic homemade costumes, karaoke stands and bars on wheels, people dancing on roofs, etc.), start in the Bywater and go through the Marigny and the French Quarter, and then just kind of see where you end up drinking for the rest of the day from there. There usually is an all-day dance party happening on Frenchmen St. Also, even though you will never find a New Orleanian who has flashed someone for beads (this practice really is not actually a thing, y’all), the Quarter has no shortage of tourists who think it’s a thing – so, if you are looking to get rid of some of your copious amounts of beads, take some up on to a balcony at one of the bars on Bourbon and Saint Anne’s and get some drunken tourists to flash you for some beads. There is so much to see on this day, so take it in! Enjoy! It will be crowded, and the weather does not always cooperate, but it will be worth it. Be aware that at midnight, the party is over and the trucks come in to clean up the streets of beads (and whatever the beads may be mixed with). Another great option is to catch Zulu, the biggest official krewe of the day run by the Mardi Gras Indians – though I’ve been attacked by enough hoards of people thirsting for one of those coconuts, so I tend to wait until Super Sunday in April to see what fabulous adornments (and they are FABULOUS) the Mardi Gras Indians have been working on that year.
Find a Mardi Gras Guru to guide you through your first season.
I am not originally from New Orleans, so my first Mardi Gras, I had a guru. A friend who had experienced many a Mardi Gras and loved it, and who would tell me where to be and when to be there. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this, but if you do have a friend who can be this for you, do not underestimate the importance of it! It is because of my Mardi Gras guru that I have been able to be that for so many other people new to the city, and also why my Mardi Gras costuming and crafting game is as awesome as it is.
Know the difference between Neutral Ground or Sidewalk
Some of the bigger parade routes that go down streets like Saint Charles or Canal allow for a 2 major positions from which to observe the parade: the Neutral Ground (or, as others may know it, the median, the island, that strip of land with some grass on it that runs through a street and sometimes is where streetcars go down, etc.) or the Sidewalk. Some people have strong preferences to one or the other, and these preferences are to be respected. If you are not sure which you are, try them both out and see for yourself.
Go to parades with kings or queens who you want to see.
The major krewes will have celebrity kings or queens, so be sure not to miss your favorites and a chance to catch some coins from them!
Be nice or leave!
A common New Orleans mantra that is very important during Mardi Gras season. Do not tackle someone for a throw. Do not get in a fight over standing space. Do not yell at someone for accidentally knocking over your beer. Everyone is just there to have a good time and going with the good vibe flow is very important. If you can’t be nice, know when to remove yourself from the situation. Furthermore, much of Mardi Gras is a very family-friendly event, so be aware of your surroundings (are you in a sea of children and families?) and act accordingly. As we say in New Orleans, be nice, or leave.
Mardi Gras season can be exhausting and even a little stressful, so do not forget to just enjoy it! It is the best celebration of the year in a city that never stops celebrating, so just show up and enjoy the wildness.