Laissez les bons temps rouler! Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the jubilant and rowdy culmination of the Carnival season, is only a few weeks away. For the uninitiated, Carnival is the Western Christian season of festivities that precedes the liturgical season of Lent, the period before Jesus’s crucifixion. In New Orleans, Carnival is observed with a series of parades, balls, and other events held throughout the city. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” is the last day of partying before Ash Wednesday ushers in the start of Lent, and is renowned for its “blowout” approach to celebrating.
If you’re planning on heading to the Big Easy for the big event, take along these helpful tips to ensure you enjoy the festivities and have a tip-top time. In the sage words of the New Orleans Saints’ current quarterback Drew Brees, “If you love New Orleans, she’ll love you back.”
1. Talk like a native
Before you dive in, make sure you’re up to speed on the lingo. If you can master these you’ll sound like a local in no time:
Krewe. A social organization that puts on a parade, ball, or other carnival celebration.
Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll! The official motto of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Muse. A woman-only krewe.
Neutral ground. A street median. Parades are often described as having a neutral ground side and a sidewalk side.
Oui, cher (pronounced “we, share”). What to say in response to Laissez les bons temps rouler. It translates to, “Yeah, you right!”
Samedi Gras (Big Saturday). The final Saturday before Mardi Gras.
Sidewalk side. The side of the street (or parade) adjacent to the sidewalk.
Throws. Items tossed from parade floats, including beads, cups, doublons (coins), boas, stuffed animals, and other toys.
2. Go early
While Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, marks the end to the Carnival season, some of the most popular and elaborate parades roll the weekend before Mardi Gras. The Endymion Krewe gets the party started Saturday afternoon. Known for exuberant floats, celebrity guests, and prolific throwing (“Throw ’til it Hurts” is the official Krewe motto), Endymion is not to be missed. The parade follows the Mid-City route to the Mercedes Benz Superdome, where the party really gets going – which brings us to Sunday.
The Bacchus Krewe, also known for the sheer magnitude of its Mardi Gras carnival celebration, gets going Sunday, just as you recover from Saturday’s indulgences. Sixteen hundred members don 31 massive and elaborate floats – including the Bacchagator, Bacchasaurus, and Baccha-Whoppa. There are marching bands, ceremonial escort groups, lots of vino, and a celebrity King to oversee the spectacle. The parade follows the Uptown route and ends in the Convention Center where 9,000 strong are expected to get their bacchanal on for the Rendezvous party.
By this time, if you prefer to avoid the even bigger crowds on “Fat Tuesday,” rest assured you can leave New Orleans Monday knowing you’ve done good.
3. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a family affair
Carnival has always been a time for family celebration and family-friendly parades and festivities abound. Kid-friendly parades include Endymion; Bacchus; Caesar (Metairie route), featuring extravagant costumes and a massive royal court; and ‘tit Rex (pronounced T-rex) (Marigny route), the parade that showcases miniature shoebox floats with all the pomp and circumstance of the life-sized versions.
And while there are numerous spots for kids to enjoy the parades, the French Quarter is NOT one of them. During Mardi Gras, the neighborhood transforms into HQ for adult-themed celebrating. And we’re not just talking about adult beverages. Best to avoid it when Junior is going with.
Instead, grab a spot on Napoleon Avenue (Uptown route), the Garden District portion of St. Charles Avenue (also Uptown), Severn Avenue, or Bonnabel Avenue’s neutral grounds (Metairie). These northern locations are less crowded, more family-friendly, and because they are at the start of the parade routes, allow the kids to see the whole parade in time to make it to bed at a reasonable hour.
4. Getting around and “The Box”
The sheer volume of merrymakers, parades, floats, and throws makes getting around challenging and nearly impossible by car. Prepare to do a lot of walking or biking, which may also include rethinking those spiked (albeit fabulous) heels. Blue Bikes NOLA offers bikes for rent and has hubs throughout the city.
St. Charles Avenue serves as the northern border of “the Box,” the primary area through which most parades process. Other borders are Louisiana Avenue to the southwest, Canal Street to the northeast and the river to the south. During Mardi Gras, driving is prohibited within the Box. To pick up an Uber, you also need to be outside the Box. Did we mention you should prepare to do a lot of walking or biking?
It’s easy to get waylaid, as crossing parade routes is essentially prohibited. Expect to spend your time on one side of a parade during its duration. When you’re ready to get out of the Box, head south to Magazine Street; this east-west thoroughfare is generally less crowded than St. Charles Avenue and will get you to a border more quickly.
5. Don’t pick up the beads
Beads are everywhere. There will be enough for you and everyone you know to drag a suitcase full back home. It will not be necessary to pick up anything off the street, and importantly, it’s not safe. Eyes on the ground means you’re not watching the parade, or the guy next to you, which could result in a hand being stepped on or worse. Bring a bag to collect your throws, and recycle those you don’t want in an ARC of New Orleans bin, located throughout the area.
6. Keep valuables in front
As with all crowded public places, keep an eye on your wallet or purse. Opportunistic thieves will be looking for distracted partiers, so don’t make it easy for them. Keep your phone and other valuables on the front of your body, in a money belt, or in a waist wallet.
7. Pace yourself
Mardi Gras in New Orleans allows for the consumption of alcohol everywhere, all the time. Open containers are allowed on the streets and parade routes so long as you are drinking from a plastic cup. Seasoned Mardi-Gras-ers concur: Sip slowly along the way, rather than go all out only to be sidelined later by an incapacitating hangover. Relatedly, be sure and behave yourself. If you are arrested any time from the Friday before Mardi Gras through Tuesday, you will not be released from jail until after Mardi Gras — that’s Wednesday at the earliest.
8. Dress for the occasion
Mardi Gras offers the chance to put your party on and get jiggy with it, without feeling silly. If you’re looking for a quick means of getting into character, head over to Fifi Mahony’s for a wig rental. Nothing says Mardi Gras like pink hair or a harlequin mask.
9. Prepare ahead of time
Before you head out to lose your head (maybe), know where you’re going, where you’re going after that, and how you’re going to get there. Mardi Gras New Orleans online is a good place to start and includes specific parade times and routes, among other helpful nuggets.