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The city of New Orleans loves a party, and there’s no bigger party than Mardi Gras. Although the holiday officially takes place on March 4 this year, many of the most highly anticipated parades take place days and even weeks leading up to it. Despite what you might think, Mardi Gras parades have little in common with the risqué mayhem that takes place on Bourbon Street. In reality, the celebration is a very family-oriented holiday that attracts locals and visitors from all over the world, and it's well policed. The floats, marching bands, and “throws” of beads and keepsakes are all part of a highly interactive and exciting experience unlike any other, and each parade has its own personality and theme.
Download one of the Mardi Gras apps to make plans and track the parades. WDSU News, New Orleans's local station, offers apps for iPhone and Android. WWLTV, another local news site, also has iPhone and Android apps. At mardigrasneworleans.com, you can find full coverage of parades and purchase tickets for seats in the grandstands.
When it comes to lodging, there are many different New Orleans neighborhoods to choose from. The historic French Quarter can be a lot of fun, but it's also noisy. Although there is construction going on this year, the Central Business District and Warehouse District offer a range of choices, while there are more limited options in even quieter Uptown.
One top pick is Le Pavillon Hotel, known as the “the belle of New Orleans” for its Belle Époque style. Not only is the staff warm and welcoming, but the hotel provides a nightly buffet in the lobby with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot chocolate, and milk for late-night nibbles. Turndown service brings peanut butter and jelly cookies, and a unique menu of drawn baths is also available. If you're curious about the hotel's haunted past, request a brochure from the front desk.
Another favorite is The Roosevelt New Orleans. The historic luxury hotel, named for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1925, was fully restored in 2009 and includes many art deco details. Prices rise precipitously during the festivities, but the Courtyard New Orleans Downtown Near the French Quarter is a more budget-friendly option.
Insider Tip: While small inns in residential Uptown may fill up in advance, Airbnb is another way to find lodging. Instead of a concierge, you’ll likely have a local to fill you in on the neighborhood's details and the best parade viewing spots.
Getting around is the biggest challenge to dining in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Many streets close hours before and after the parades, making it nearly impossible to get across town. Plan to eat near where you're staying or watching a parade—preferably within walking distance.
The vegetables and seafood dishes are as good as the pork at Cochon, Donald Link's James Beard Award-winning Cajun restaurant. Call for reservations or wait for a seat at the chef’s counter. Sandwiches at Cochon Butcher around the corner are also a good option. Skip the food vendors and head to FredRick’s Deli on St. Charles Avenue instead, a local pick for po’boys to go. Try Root in the Warehouse District for cutting-edge, creative eats with Southern influences.
To feel like a local Uptown, head to Clancy’s for strong drinks, fried oysters with brie, and the legendary smoked duck. For breakfast, the praline bacon at Elizabeth’s in hip Fauborg Marigny is a must. In the French Quarter, locals line up for weekend brunch at EAT and feast on eggs with pulled-pork cakes or grillades.
After the parades, the party continues at the bars, of course. Luckily, New Orleans ranks number one for the most bars per capita in the nation, so there are plenty of options. Cocktail culture is a big deal here, and it would be a shame to miss out on some of the classics. Wherever you go, leave the sickly sweet Hurricane for the tourists, and try a Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Brandy Milk Punch, Vieux Carré, or French 75 instead. You’ll even find truly retro drinks like the Grasshopper and Pink Squirrel on many bar menus in town.
The Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt is a must, if nothing else for the stunning art deco murals designed by Paul Muras. While the Sazerac here is good, the Ramos Gin Fizz is the best in town.
The revolving Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter is another beauty. The signature Vieux Carré was first concocted here with cognac, rye, and vermouth. Nearby is Arnaud's French 75 Bar, which feels manly and refined with its leather banquettes, cigars, and a mahogany back bar. What to order? A French 75, of course.
There are small parades and “super krewe” parades—namely Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus—that draw thousands and feature celebrity guests. This year, look out for grand marshals Hugh Laurie and Quentin Tarantino. Deciding where and how to watch the parades greatly depends on your group. Families may be advised to reserve seats in the stands, where kids can easily see the action with plenty of toilets nearby. More mobile parade-goers and couples may prefer wandering the parade route, and those hoping for a prized “throw” should consider the beginning of the parade route. Check the weather, too: This time of year it can be very cold and rainy, or warm and muggy.
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Courtesy of Amy Sherman (Mardi Gras and Le Pavillon Hotel); © 2014 Waldorf Astoria (Sazerac Bar)
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