When Is Mardi Gras and How Did New Orleans Become the Place to Celebrate?

Mardi Gras parades through the streets of New Orleans. People are celebrating and welcoming locals and visitors. This is the biggest annual celebration of the city.
Photo: Photoservice/Getty Images

Mardi Gras is observed around the world, but in the birthplace of jazz, it’s a huge cultural moment that marks the biggest Carnival in the United States. Each year, almost 1.5 million people descend on New Orleans to revel in the vibrant parties and the parades that are full of feathers, beads, and artfully decorated floats.

An ornately decorated float belonging to the Krewe of Endymion passes through a crowd on Canal Street during Mardi Gras.
Joel Carillet/Getty Images

It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1730s, when the southern city was still under French rule, and today, Mardi Gras has evolved into an enormous event that generates around $800 million for the city. Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a true bucket list experience, and with hotel occupancy already reaching 90 percent, excitement for 2019’s festivities is building. If you’re considering attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans next week, read on for all of the essential details that you need to know to make the most of it. And be sure to stop for a beignet and a Sazerac along the way.

History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras originated in Europe, where celebrations emerged throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest records date back to 1294 in Nice, along the Cote d’Azur coastline, and continued in various incarnations in Venice, Cologne, and other cities across the continent. It was in the 1730s that the first annual celebrations took place in New Orleans. Around a decade later, the first Mardi Gras balls were established in the city, and it was 1856 that New Orleans hosted its first actual parade, with floats orchestrated by the first and oldest “krewe,” The Mystic Krewe of Comus. In 1870, the tradition of throwing beads and coins (referred to as doubloons) from the floats took off, and the past century has seen Mardi Gras evolve into the colorful, multicultural event that it is today.

Louisiana: The Carnival At New Orleans. the drawing of the famous Mardi Gras festival shows a parade full of floats and costumes going by.
Bettman Archive/Getty Images

So, what exactly is Mardi Gras? Officially, it’s French for “Fat Tuesday,” and it all relates to Christianity, marking the last day of Carnival season and the beginning of the holy period of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday (March 6). Regardless of whether you intend to observe Lent (which extends through until April 18), indulging in the festive Mardi Gras cuisine is a key part of the celebrations. And in the city of Creole, dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and King Cake topped with purple, green and gold sugar, are on the menus everywhere. Think of them as the Turkey or Pumpkin Pie equivalents of Mardi Gras.

When is Mardi Gras 2019?

Although Mardi Gras as we know it is officially taking place next Tuesday, March 5, this year’s festivities commenced on Jan. 6, marking the Feast of the Epiphany (otherwise known as Three Kings’ Day). Since then, smaller-scale parades and street parties have been taking place all over New Orleans, leading into next week’s elaborate Fat Tuesday bash.

The Zulu Parade performs on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day, February 13, 2018.
Emily Kask/AFP/Getty Images

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“There is no celebration like Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” says Kristian Sonnier, vice president of communications and public relations at New Orleans & Company. “It is a city-wide, family-friendly street party featuring more than 70 parades which include approximately 1,200 floats, 2,000 dancers, and 600 bands. All of it is free and it welcomes everyone who wishes to attend. You’ll never see a more inclusive, unifying, city-wide event than Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Each of the parades that take place throughout the Greater New Orleans area (including New Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany) are organized by individual organizations or carnival clubs called krewes. Each krewe has its own theme, many of which aren’t revealed until the parade. Some of the highlights over recent years include the extravagantly embellished stilettos from the Krewe of Muses, colorful feather headdresses from the Mardi Gras Indians, and the creative costumes and floats from the Krewe of Rex, one of the oldest krewes in New Orleans that established purple, gold and green (representing justice, faith, and power), as the official Mardi Gras colors.

As is the case with many large-scale events, having a good position is going to make your experience a lot more enjoyable. If you want to stay right in the center of it all, you could opt for Hotel Indigo, which is located along the parade route on St. Charles Avenue. Or, if you prefer something more upscale, book into the stylish Ace Hotel, which has a fabulous rooftop pool and bar and is located close to the French Quarter. Other good options include The Pontchartrain, Hotel Monteleone, The Ritz-Carlton, and the W New Orleans.

Crowds in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana
Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Mardi Gras Parade Schedule 2019

Here is the official Mardi Grad parade schedule for Tuesday, March 5, 2019:

Krewe of Argus – 10 a.m.
Krewe of Elks Jefferson – follows
Krewe of Jefferson – follows

Uptown New Orleans:
Krewe of Zulu – 8 a.m.
Krewe of Rex – 10 a.m.
Krewe of Elks Orleans – follows
Krewe of Crescent City – follows

Covington Lions Club – 10 a.m.
Krewe of Covington – follows

Krewe of Folsom – 1:30 p.m.

Krewe of Chahta – 1 p.m.

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