There are many countries and cities around the world that celebrate Mardi Gras, but no city does it like New Orleans.
Several weeks into the season and just one week away from the Big Day everything revolves around Mardi Gras in New Orleans. For example, the classes at my gym are canceled due to the parade schedule!!
In a way, Mardi Gras feels almost as big of a holiday as Christmas - people have the day off, they make special seasonal cakes (king cake) and fantastically decorate their homes. In 2019, Mardi Gras celebrations started on January 6th and Mardi Gras Day will be celebrated on March 5th!
Mardi Gras History
According to Mardi Gras New Orleans, Mardi Gras can be traced as far back as the 1600's in France and the early 1700's in New Orleans!
Literally translated, Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" which sounds exactly like what it is. It's the time where people eat their fill, drink to the brim and party until their legs give out.
This name explains the tradition of parties, fancy balls and extravagant parades held during Mardi Gras season. The main Mardi Gras festivities start about two weeks before the actual "Fat Tuesday" which is the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent in the Christian religion).
Lent starts exactly 40 days before Easter and since the day of Easter changes, so does the date of Mardi Gras. This year the official Mardi Gras day is March 5th, 2019!
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras was declared an official holiday in 1875 by the governor of Louisiana. This means the whole family can celebrate and enjoy the festivities on the actual "Fat Tuesday".
Weather & What to Wear
As I have found out from living in New Orleans for the second winter, it is not warm. For the most part, the weather has been fluctuating everyday from as low as the 30's to as high as the 70's. Bring layers so you can easily change between warmer and cooler temperatures.
In addition to the chilly weather, there has been a fair share of rain and thunderstorms. Parades go on regardless of rain, so a must have item is a raincoat or poncho. Umbrellas are not as useful because of the crowds. Do your best to bring rain gear to weather any storm.
Due to the rain and the crowds, do not wear your favorite pair of shoes. Sidewalks get wet, muddy and all around dirty so wear something you don't care too much about. Make sure your footwear is comfortable because a lot of roads will be closed for the Mardi Gras parades. You may have to walk 10 -15 minutes outside of the barricades.
Green, yellow and purple are the colors of Mardi Gras: green symbolize faith, yellow symbolize power and purple is justice. For parades or parties, if you wear those colors you'll be dressed for the occasion.
A lot of people like to wear colorful wigs or headbands with feathers! Some people wear costumes, but if you don't have a costume you can mix and match the colors or find a t-shirt with all three in a local shop.
In the end, pretty much anything goes and you can be as silly and goofy as you'd like - sequins, glitter, mis-matched patterns or whatever your heart desires.
On actual Mardi Gras day, folks come dressed up to the parades - headdresses, wigs, onesies and tutu's etc. These are some of the things I've personally seen worn by others during the celebration! Also, usually float riders are the only ones allowed to wear masks, but on February 13th the crowd is allowed to wear masks as well.
Driving will take at least twice the normal amount of time and parking will be a nightmare. I would avoid driving yourself if you have the option.
Instead, take public transportation or a rideshare. Public transportation like street cars, busses and Ubers can usually get close enough to your destination. Take note that you may have to be flexible, as Ubers may be redirected or unable to drop you off where you would like to go.
After parades you may have to walk several blocks to get to a good pick up location. Definitely bring comfortable walking shoes as it's probably the best means of transportation.
If you do end up driving, there are certain parking rules in New Orleans to be aware of. You cannot park within 15 feet of crosswalks and curb corners, in front of fire hydrants or on parade routes 2-3 hours within the parade time.
There are usually signs about parade routes and don't take those lightly as your car may be towed or you will receive an extremely high fine. Curb corners aren't always painted red like in other cities, so avoid parking too close to crosswalks and curb corners.
Where to Stay
Mardi Gras draws in thousands of tourists every year so it's no surprise that accommodation will be pricey during this time of year.
You can either plan to stay in the city (avoid French Quarter) or you can book in the suburbs like Metarie and then Uber in.
Look into boutique or chain hotels as well who may not raise their prices as much. The CBD (Central Business District) or the Garden District may have cheaper options available as well.
In addition, take a look at the activities you would like to partake in and select accommodation from there. If you rather go to all the parades, for example, in Uptown, then look for hotels in that area so you can walk to the parades.
What to Eat
There's no shortage of delicious cajun and creole cuisine in New Orleans. Pick from any restaurant and you'll most likely find the best gumbo, jambalaya or po' boy you'll ever have. During Mardi Gras season though, you have to try King Cake!
King Cakes are fluffy brioche dough rings filled with cream cheese and smothered with purple, green and yellow frosting.
Traditionally, there is also a plastic baby baked inside. The desert-eater who finds the baby in his piece is said to have good luck, but also is tasked with providing the next King Cake! You'll also find King Cake flavored things everywhere - king cake ice cream, king cake lattes, king cake alcoholic drinks and more!
Police: Around the parade routes there are metal barricades for the public's and police safety. Police take it very seriously and if you cross the barricade for any reason - even to catch beads - you will get arrested. Stay away from barricades and be cooperative with the authorities. The chances of being released during Mardi Gras weekend or on actual Mardi Gras are slim.
Flashing: Mardi Gras in the French Quarter (specifically Bourbon Street) is notorious for flashing someone in exchange for beads. It's definitely not necessary and a lot of people will throw you beads regardless. It's also not common in other parts of town and it can be considered as public indecency.
Bathrooms: Although there are porta pottys along parade routes, there's not as many as you think. Since Mardi Gras is an official holiday, many businesses are closed including access to their toilets. Other businesses capitalize on this and charge money for use of their amenities. Just be prepared that a bathroom may be hard to find!
Now to the Fun Stuff: Parades!
Parade are hosted by Mardi Gras Krewes which are private groups or organizations designed to show off the best members of their society. They used to be very exclusive, but with the changing times most Krewes can be joined by paying a fee.
Krewes usually have a different theme for their parade every year, but they keep them secret until they roll!
There are different areas where parades routes are held and they roll multiple times a week starting about 2-3 weeks before actual Mardi Gras Day.
Contrary to popular belief, most Mardi Gras parades are not held in the French Quarter since the streets are so narrow and the buildings are old. There are a few that still go through the French Quarter, of which the most notable are Krewe du Vieux (adult content) and Barkus (dog parade).
Some of the best parades are held in Uptown, specifically going down St. Charles Avenue. Most notable parades going down the Uptown route include Rex, Bacchus, Muses and Krewe de Orpheus. These parades are known for their "throws" aka items thrown from the floats like beads, stickers, candy, trinkets and in some cases shoes and purses. Muses parade throws high heeled shoes! (Pro tip: don't stand to small children, they'll get the shoes instead of you!)
More family friendly parades are held in Uptown and the surrounds of New Orleans like Metarie and Marigny. Parades to look out for include Endymion, Caesar and Excalibur.
Mardi Gras Day Parades (March 5th, 2019):
Krewe of Zulu: 8:00 am - Uptown
Krewe of Rex: 10:00 am - Uptown
Krewe of Elks Orleanians & Krewe of Crescent City follows Uptown Parades
Krewe of Argus: 10:00am - Metarie
Krewe of Elks Jefferson & Krewe of Jefferson follows Metarie Parade