Like New Orleans itself, Carnival—or as non-residents call it, Mardi Gras—is rife with misconceptions and assumptions. The most glaring is the idea that it's all about Bourbon Street. To really do it like a local, check out these cooler, off-the-beaten-path celebrations instead.
The best way to enjoy the Carnival season is to recognize the many funky, offbeat, and alternative parades, customs, parties, and people that truly represent the rich cultural tapestry that is New Orleans. Here are our picks for what not to miss.
1. Krewe du Vieux Parade
While Twelfth Night on January 6 serves as the official kick-off to the Carnival season, it's the subversive and satirical Krewe du Vieux (Saturday, Jan. 23) that helps kick off the parades. Not a "krewe" in the traditional, blue-blood sense of the word, Krewe du Vieux is nevertheless blue, indeed, and more than a little salty. Sub-krewes with names like "Spank," "T.O.K.I.N.," and "Drips and Discharges" parade the old-fashioned way, with mule-drawn floats (heralded by several brass bands) that skewer everything from local politicians to national figures through the Faubourg Marigny, French Quarter, and Central Business District neighborhoods before settling into an after-party at the Civic Theatre. (The smaller Krewedelusion, another satirical procession, follows right behind this one.)
2. Krewe of 'tit Rex
For decades, New Orleans schoolchildren would fashion Carnival floats out of shoe boxes. Now there's a whole parade of them (Saturday, Jan. 30), courtesy of 'tit Rex, about as street-level a procession as one can imagine. (The floats are so tiny, krewe membership has been capped so as not to overwhelm members' own work.) A loose coalition of some of New Orleans' most creative artists, journalists, and entertainers, 'tit Rex's membership includes Broadway and TV star Michael Cerveris ("Fun Home," "The Good Wife"), and the floats often embody the same satire (politically and socially) of the Krewe du Vieux parade (though without as much raunch). The mini-parade rolls through the Faubourg Marigny just before and after sunset.
3. Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus Parade
Imagine a fantasy or comic book convention as a parade. Chewbacchus—a combination of the legendary "Star Wars" character Chewbacca and the Carnival krewe Bacchus—moves downriver (Saturday, Jan. 30) from the French Quarter in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater just after sunset (and after Krewe of 'tit Rex, on a nearby route). Its motto: "Saving the galaxy ... one drunken nerd at a time." Sub-krewes pay homage to myriad comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy icons: "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Dr. Who," and "Wonder Woman" come to mind, along with a cherished favorite, the bicyle-riding, "E.T."-inspired "Rolling Elliots." The krewe has become so popular even Chewbacca himself, actor Peter Mayhew, rode one year as the grand marshal. The "Chewbacchanal" after party will be held at Castillo Blanco Art Studios in Bywater.
4. The Art of the Tease
One of the most fascinating aspects of New Orleans' entertainment and cultural heritage have been the often separate worlds of drag and burlesque—thanks in part to both a large gay population and Bourbon Street's row of nightclubs. Recently, those two worlds have overlapped, and two parties will present drag queens alongside burlesque and circus performers this year. Bella Blue, named the 16th most popular entertainer in 2015 in a 21st Century Burlesque magazine poll, presents "Touché" on Jan. 28 at the Joy Theater on Canal Street, hosted by "RuPaul's Drag Race" finalist BenDeLaCreme and featuring an impressive list of performers. Hip French Quarter club One Eyed Jacks will serve host to "High Maintenance: A Celebration of Humanity" (Feb. 7), featuring drag queens, burlesque, and other erotic performers that's hosted by local comedians Beverly Chillz and Corey Mack.
5. Speaking of drag ...
The city's vibrant gay culture also can be found in two events that serve almost as bookends to the Carnival season. There are several gay Mardi Gras krewes, the largest being the Krewe of Satyricon; its "bal masque" will be held Friday, Jan. 22, at the Sigur Civic Center with the theme, "Le Bal des Beaux Arts: A Night at the Museum." There guests will enjoy an almost endless procession of "tableaux"—think drag queens with enough ornamental costumes to weigh down a single float. It's hosted by cabaret performer Varla Jean Merman. Then, on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 9) at high noon, there is the Bourbon Street Awards, one of the largest drag-queen competitions in the world, around the 800 block of Bourbon. The emcees are "RuPaul's Drag Race" season six winner Bianca del Rio and fellow New Orleanian Blanche Debris.
6. Under the Big Top
Another emerging performance scene is the city's vibrant world of circus arts, whether it's aerialists, clowns, knife-throwers, sword-swallowers, or escape artists. Several performances have been scheduled to coincide with the Carnival season, most notably the all-female troupe Cirque Copine's "In Wonderland" (Jan. 28 at One Eyed Jacks, French Quarter) and the four-day "Vaude D'Gras" (Feb. 5 through 8) at the historic Happyland Theater in Bywater. Also, Krewe du Lune, another kooky Carnival club, presents its eigth annual Space Ball with the theme "Cirque de So Lune," Feb. 5 at the Carver Theater in Treme. It will feature several circus performers, as well as a music lineup highlighted by Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns, and King James & the Special Men.
7. Let 'em Eat Cake
New Orleans' iconic, sugar-sprinkled dessert treat is so popular that it is now celebrated with its own special gathering, the King Cake Festival, on Sunday, Jan. 31 in Champions Square. This third annual festival, which is free and open to the public, features food (lots of king cakes) from 20 bakeries around town. To counteract all that cake, there's also the Gladiator Games, complete with a one-mile fun run and other fitness activities, as well as music acts like local favorite Flow Tribe.
8. Greasing of the Poles
As part of the kickoff to the final weekend of Carnival, the annual "Greasing of the Poles (Friday, Feb. 5) outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel invites contestants (including local celebrities) to continue a tradition that began by years ago of greasing the building's support poles to prevent over-served revelers from climbing them during the madness in the French Quarter. (This year's theme: "Let Them Eat King Cake.") The event is free and open to the public, and starts at 10 a.m.
9. Marching Groups
There are virtually too many marching groups to count in New Orleans these days, so vast are their numbers since a post-Hurricane Katrina explosion. Many of them are cheekily named, including the all-female troupes the Pussyfooters, Camel Toe Lady Steppers, Muffa-Lottas, and Organ Grinders, and the all-male 610 Stompers ("Ordinary Men with Extraordinary Moves"), the Rolling Elvi (men on bikes), and the Laissez Boys (men in rolling lounge chairs). Watch for them participating in several of the krewe parades.
10. The Society of Saint Anne Parade
While the number of New Orleans marching groups has seemingly exploded over the past decade, one of the original of the modern-day groups is the Society of Saint Anne, a loose coalition of some of the city's most creative and artistic citizens. Each year, the group members—all in costume—meet at a friend's home deep in the Bywater neighborhood, then make their way up Royal Street toward the French Quarter. The parade is legendary for its extended stop at the intersection of Royal and Kerlerec streets, just outside the hip R Bar, as onlookers jam to percussive beats and often join the parade as it continues into the French Quarter, and then out to the banks of the Mississippi River for a solemn ceremony.
11. Searching for Mardi Gras Indians
Nothing is as distinct in Carnival culture as the elusive Mardi Gras Indians, whose "Big Chiefs" spend the entire year sewing and beading colorful, elaborate, and ornate suits they debut on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 9) in pockets of several neighborhoods, including Treme and Uptown. Trying to grasp the history and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians is a fascinating endeavor; even more fun is trying to spot the rival "gangs" as they "come out," meet, and do mock battle with one another. Check out the "Mardi Gras Under the Bridge" celebration along a several-block stretch of Claiborne Avenue. Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands often show up there, arriving from nearby Treme.