How to Do Mardi Gras Like a Local
Officially, Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) only lasts one day and takes place on the Tuesday before Lent begins. But celebrations begin weeks earlier and make up a whole carnival season. You may have heard a lot about the parties on Bourbon Street, but locals know that Mardi Gras is really a family affair, best celebrated in a neighborhood setting.
Parades are a great way to get in on the celebration, since entry to many of the balls is by invitation only. Krewes (or social clubs) build the floats, make the costumes, and organize and march in these moving street parties. Each carnival season, there are more than forty large and small parades in Orleans Parish alone! With so many options, it helps to have a game plan. We have put together some tips on how to best experience Mardi Gras like a local.
1. Come Early
Carnival Season in New Orleans officially begins on Twelfth Night (January 6), with parades beginning about two weeks before Mardi Gras day. If you’re looking to save a little money or come at a time when things aren’t as busy, try booking in the two weekends leading up to Mardi Gras Day. Mid-week parades are also a great option. Be aware that the festivities end at midnight Mardi Gras day, so don’t expect to catch any parades the day after.
2. Know the Parade Routes
You may be surprised that most parades don’t run through the French Quarter, and many of the primary routes are through residential neighborhoods like Uptown and Mid-City. We recommend taking a look at routes online ahead of time and keeping track of parade progress when you’re on the go with an app like WDSU’s Parade Tracker.
3. Find Your Parade Spot
Locals often watch parades in the same spot each year. You’ll notice that families and groups of friends bring folding chairs, tables, blankets, ice chests, ladder seats for children, and even tents, couches and grills. Make sure your belongings are set up at least 6 feet from the curb to avoid a violation. In order to scope out a good spot, head to the route a little early. Note that parades often roll back to back, so it’s easy to catch a few in one location. One final note: be sure to scope out the nearest restroom when choosing your parade spot.
4. Know How to Get Around the City
Since parades block main roads and streetcar lines, car travel, taxis and public transit are often disrupted during Mardi Gras. Be prepared for a lot of walking or try renting a bike to cut down on travel time. Either way, it’s a good idea to wear comfortable shoes and clothes, since you’ll likely be out and about for hours at a time. You can track public transit disruptions at www.norta.com.
5. Know How to Dress
In addition to comfortable walking shoes, locals dress festively! Whether you’re wearing a full costume, or just a mask, hat or brightly colored wig, you’ll fit in best if you get into the Mardi Gas spirit. Anything purple, green or gold will do the trick! Since you’ll be outdoors, you’ll also want to pay attention to the weather – especially if you’re catching both day and night parades without changing in between. Bring some light layers and keep your neck clear of scarves so you can throw on all the beads you’re catching!
6. Learn About the Traditions
Mardi Gras has all kinds of fun and historic traditions – from King Cakes to Flambeaux. Learning about these traditions ahead of time can help you recognize when you’re seeing something really special. And if you want to catch beads like a local, yell out “Throw me something, Mister!”
7. Appreciate Each Parade’s Unique Personality
With forty plus parades taking place in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, you might be tempted to think they all blend together, but each parade actually has a unique personality. Whether it’s an all-female parade like Muses, a satirical parade like Krewe D’Etat, or an alternative parade like Chewbacchus or ‘tit Rex, pay attention to the floats and you’ll learn a lot about the krewe’s personality and values. Each krewe has special throws to accompany their theme, so be on the look out for these sought-after emblems.
8. Pace Yourself
Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint! With weeks of festivities, there’s no reason to overdo it in one day. Make sure to eat balanced meals and drink plenty of water throughout the celebrations. Also remember that for locals, Mardi Gras is a family affair. Please be respectful and avoid lewd behavior.
9. Have Fun
Carnival season is a time to let loose and enjoy life: listen to great music, eat delicious food, spend time with family and friends, and participate in parades and parties. Make sure to laugh a lot and have fun!