How to Do Mardi Gras Right
Since the first week in January, parades have been swelling in the streets, while gleaming gold, green, and purple balls dangle from trees. Fences are striped with beads from Carnivals past, and wreaths shaped like King Cakes (the revered sweet breads that make a cameo this time of year), dot the doors of homes.
Mardi Gras celebrations are serious business in the Big Easy. But what sometimes gets lost amongst the glittering beads and drunken revelry is that historically, Carnival is areligious holiday.
While it’s celebrated in many places with large Roman Catholic populations, including Brazil and Venice, NOLA’s Mardi Gras festivities are arguably the most wild. If you’re headed south to celebrate before the penitent season of Lent begins, it’s worth doing Mardi Gras right. We’ve asked locals who love the merrymaking how to make the most of your Mardi Gras experience.
Get the right apps
The most crucial app to have is the Parade Tracker. Not only will a blinking dot help you pinpoint where the parade is, but you’ll also see which streets it crosses. And if you’re in a car, this can help you avoid getting sandwiched between floats and revelers with no escape. (Ideally, though, you’re experiencing Mardi Gras by foot, bike, or in a streetcar.) Visitor should also download WWOZ’s live music app, which helps keep you apprised of great late-night local music gigs.
Seek out the lesser-known parades
Rex, Zulu, Orpheus, Bacchus, and Endymion are arguably the city’s biggest parades, with the most enormous, impressive floats. But there are plenty of other underrated ones. Local favorites include Muses (which always takes place the Thursday prior to Fat Tuesday), during which glittery, elaborately decorated shoes are tossed along with the usual beads and toys. Then there’s Chewbacchus, a Sci-Fi-themed romp on February 18th. And ask around about Saint Anne, a beautiful walking parade that meets up with Rex on Tuesday.
You’ve heard it before, now hear it again: Drink plenty of water all day, whether or not you’re boozing. And don’t skimp on food. It’s a good idea to keep a big bottle of H2O somewhere on your person at all times, in addition to wet wipes and tissue paper (because you never know), and non-perishable snacks. Consider opting for a charging protective phone case, and—for goodness sakes—wear comfy walking shoes. You’ll be on your feet all day long.
Eat a po’boy
With parades starting very early in the day and particularly potent booze (like rum-punch Hurricanes and Hand Grenades made with gin, grain alcohol, rum, vodka, and melon liqueur) seemingly free flowing, you’ll need to eat something substantial. Verti Marte, in the French Quarter, is open 24 hours, takes orders over the phone, and will deliver a mean fried shrimp po’ boy right to your door. Consider this your Carnival life saver.
Head to the overpass
The high school bands that play Mardi Gras are unlike any you’ve ever seen, featuring incredible musicians—some of whom manage to dance while playing tubas. Groups tend to bust out their best routines under the highway overpass, because they like the reverb produced by the concrete. During Rex, for example, stake out turf (early!) under the Pontchartrain Expressway at St. Charles.
Be aware of your body
"Know your personal space, and respect the rhythm of the road,” said New Orleans photographer and writer Pableaux Johnson, a friend with a traveling national supper club. “Go UP for the floats and BACK for the marching bands. And quickly.” By this, he means: If you want beads, look left and right before closing in on the floats to beg for some. And if you see a band, get out of the way. “These school kids hike and play four-plus miles per parade,” Johnson added. “Do everybody a favor and hit the curb right after you catch your throws—and quickly—or risk catching a trombone slide to the head or a bass drum mallet to the face.”
Make lunch and dinner reservations
Dying to go to NOLA hotspots? Awesome. So are lots of other people, so book well in advance. (If you’re reading this too late, try going right when they open and snagging seats at their bars.) We recommend the James Beard Award-winning Pêche (specifically, the crawfish capellini) and Bevi Seafood Co., a local market that serves a Po’ Boy called The Cure: a surefire hangover remedy.
Plan your bathroom break
"Choose a parade-watching location near a bathroom,” suggested one local. “There are many restaurants and even a couple churches on the route that will charge around $5 and give you a wristband that allows bathroom use all day.”
Don't stand in front of children
The bead-catching competition during Mardi Gras can get a little fierce. One resident urges visitors to be cognizant of tiny tots. “If you stand behind a child, make sure you let them catch the beads—even the good ones.”
Check out a parade house party
New Orleanians are famously hospitable, so if you get an invite to watch a parade from the comfort of someone’s front porch or lawn, take it. This writer’s favorite Mardi Gras memory is of watching Thoth while drinking punch and eating her body weight in King Cake with a local.
Be prepared for the mass exodus
"Getting a cab or Uber to the airport will be harder than usual, there will be more traffic, and the lines there will be longer, too,” warns one New Orleanian, suggesting that you leave your hotel a full three to four hours before your flight.
Embrace the chaos
Wise words from a local. Watch your drinking, stay safe and hydrated, and be prepared for the unexpected. It’s the Mardi Gras way.