There are a number of experiences that I think every American should have at least once in her life — one of those being Mardi Gras. It's a celebration unlike anything else I've ever experienced. The already vibrant city of New Orleans becomes even more magical with a constant stream of upbeat Zydeco and jazz music drifting through the air, the extra sparkle from the thousands of strands of colorful beads hanging from every surface imaginable, and the indescribable excitement and positivity that's infectious and puts everyone in a good mood. I call it Mardi Gras Magic. It's something that sticks with you well after you leave. If you're planning a trip or thinking about it, here are some tips on how to do Mardi Gras according to New Orleans locals.
Parades & What to expect:
Parades are definitely the most exciting part of Mardi Gras. There's nothing better than the anticipation and excitement that comes along with watching an elaborately decorated float roll down the street with all sorts of costumed riders tossing festive trinkets that are known as throws.
You'll see more during day parades, which are more family oriented, people are more courteous, and they're safer than night parades. The Iris and Tucks Parades are two of the best day parades.
Night parades are a whole different ball game. You can expect larger crowds, parking issues, more fights over beads and throws, and generally safety can be of a concern. Muses, Endymion (where you'll get catch the biggest throws), Bacchus, and Orpheus are the most popular night parades to watch.
If you're looking for off-the-beaten-path parades you'll want to check out the Krewe of Barkus, St. Anne Parade — which takes place on Fat Tuesday and has the best costumes of all of Mardi Gras, Chewbacchus Parade, and Krewe Du Vieux — which is considered more of a locals parade and is full of political satire and is sexually explicit.
Although Fat Tuesday is the most buzzed about day for parades the Friday before is a really fun day in the French Quarter, with lots of smaller walking parades, including the Prima Donnas who wear corsets and throw beaded bras, the Krewe of Hermes, and the Laissez Boys who ride through the parade route on motorized La-Z-Boy chairs.
Most streets in the Quarter and along the different parade routes will be blocked off, so anticipate A LOT of walking to get from one place to another.
Plan to get to the parade route early to get a good spot.
You'll want to pack plenty of snacks, sandwiches, adult beverages, and water.
You may also want to pack chairs or something to sit on unless you're planning to stand the whole time.
It's also important to mention that restrooms are very scarce, so plan accordingly.
If you want to avoid the drunken crowds consider catching a parade Uptown along St. Charles Avenue — downtown in the Central Business District or French Quarter can be too crowded, filthy, and people often shove into each other. Plus, it's harder to catch good throws.
Only plan to see a few parades during your visit, and catch a different set of parades on your next visit. You can't do it all in one trip and won't enjoy it if you try.
You can track parades along the route with this website.
What to wear:
Anything goes! But dressing in some sort of costume will help you get better throws. You can wear crowns, wigs, fun makeup, fake eye lashes, and glitter, etc. The more elaborate, the better.
Good shoes are a MUST, because you'll be walking a lot and the streets can get pretty nasty, so you'll want something that's closed toe to avoid stepping in something or cutting your foot on broken glass.
Since the weather in New Orleans can be tricky this time of year plan to wear layers that you can add or take off throughout the day.
If it's raining the party WILL still go on. Pack rain gear and expect to get drenched — you'll still have a great time.
Tips on catching throws:
While you're likely to catch some plastic beads no matter what you do, there are a few ways to guarantee you catch more desirable throws. (And, no you don't have to pull up your shirt!)
1. Make a sign. (i.e. 50th birthday! Or one that says where you're visiting from.)
2. Make eye contact with float riders as they pass.
3. It's easier to catch more throws during day parades — because they're less crowded.
4. It's also easier to catch cool stuff when the floats are stopped, so make sure you move to the front of the crowd when a float is stopped.
Best/Rare throws to catch:
Each Krewe is known for throwing specific items during their parade — here are some of the best/hardest throws to snag at some of the most popular parades:
Glass beads — can be thrown at any parade. These are very delicate necklaces made of tiny glass beads and are rare to get. Krewe members will typically hand these to you instead of throwing them to avoid breaking them.
The Muses parade is known for throwing elaborately decorated shoes.
At a Nyx parade you'll want to catch one of their unique purses.
At the Zulu Parade you'll want to go for coconuts.
Tucks try to snag a plunger.
Unspoken parade rules to ALWAYS follow:
1. If a child goes for the same throw as you and you get it, you need to give the throw to the kiddo.
2. Don't pick up beads off the ground. The streets are pretty nasty and it's the ultimate way to look like a total tourist.
3. Don't run between floats to grab a throw in the middle of the road — you can get run over.
This little cutie was so generous and shared his throws with everyone around.
1. To really enjoy Mardi Gras remember that it's a marathon and not a sprint. As fun as it is to drink, and as easy as it may be to overindulge — especially in the Big Easy — you WILL NOT make it through the festivities if you over do it. You also don't want to be too hungover to enjoy the experience.
2. When it comes to eating out during Mardi Gras keep your expectations low, because it is extremely hard to get around and most restaurants are typically FULL at all times. Don't even try to book reservations anywhere across town from where you're staying — you will never make it. Instead you can pack a backpack with sandwiches, snacks, and drinks for the parade route.
3. Don't expect to do any other touristy NOLA activities while you're in town for Mardi Gras. Most streets are blocked off and public transportation is a nightmare with such large crowds, making it almost impossible to get around the city. Plus, a lot of businesses are closed for the festivities.
4. If you're staying at a hotel near the French Quarter pack some ear plugs, because it will be loud ALL NIGHT LONG and into the early hours of the morning.
5. Don't forget to try King Cake. It's a Mardi Gras tradition that's said to date all the way back to the 1870s and a must-try while you're in New Orleans. Every place makes their King Cake differently, but it's basically a sweet pastry covered in icing and decorated in Mardi Gras colors.
Want more info on the BIG EASY? Here's how to navigate New Orleans in three days.
A big thank you to my good friends and NOLA residents — Sarah, Nate, and Debbie — for their Mardi Gras insight.
Heading to Mardi Gras or want to throw your own party? Here are a few festive items to get you started:
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