Follow these survival strategies to ensure that your first trip to the Big Easy during its most famous and festive season is full of revelry, not regrets.
Carnival in New Orleans is a playful dance between stranger and friend, history and modernity, performer and spectator. The festivities kick off in early January and culminate in celebrations that reach a fever pitch on Fat Tuesday (this year, falling on February 25, 2020). With hundreds of parades and events sprinkled throughout the season, gorgeous, glittery Mardi Gras can be overwhelming for the underprepared. Want to join in the fun, but don’t know where to start? First-time visitors can avoid common tourist trip-ups with a little insider intel. Here’s how to make the most of your Mardi Gras getaway.
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Don't Think You Can't Join a Parade, Just Know the Unwritten Rules
Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport! While many parades and activities are carefully orchestrated by super krewes (social organizations putting on parades) with elaborate floats, more loosely organized walking clubs, like the (not so) “Secret” Society of St. Anne and the Red Beans Parade, rely upon the enthusiastic participation of the crowd. Just be sure to have an amazing costume if you expect to join the party; after all, the heart and soul of Carnival is in the transcendent tradition of masking.
INSIDER TIPWhile you’ll score bonus points for a homemade, head-to-toe getup, visitors can get last-minute gear from one of New Orleans’ many unique costume stores, like Fifi Mahony’s, famous for its wigs and headpieces; She Comes in Peace, with sci-fi-leaning costumes; and Maskarade, boasting masks of all types, including hand-made, leather, and papier-mâché varieties.
Don’t Be the Person Who Gets Pushed Around
It happens at every major parade during Mardi Gras: someone gets shoved back into line by a zealous security guard for trying to cross the street between floats, scolded by a police officer on horseback for attempting to pet their steed, or hit in the head with a bag of beads because they turned their back to the floats (ouch!). Keep in mind that krewes, sub krewes, dance groups, and the famous brass bands of New Orleans, like the St. Augustine Marching 100, spend months prepping to roll—so don’t be a jerk about needing to occupy a front-row space. Trust that you’ll still catch the action no matter where you are in the crowd.
Bring cash to tip the flambeaux, who keep the flame of Mardi Gras’ complicated history alive. Today, the mostly male flambeaux march and dance balancing flaming torches alongside the floats in many parades, including Sparta and Proteus, and tipping them is custom.
INSIDER TIPThe flambeaux tipping tradition harkens back to the mid-1800s when enslaved men and free men of color illuminated the white-only krewes’ floats during the dimly-lit and segregated 19th century Mardi Gras parades. Back then, coins were tossed to the torch bearers (today, just pass along a dollar or two).
Don't Leave for a Parade Without a Viable Restroom Plan
Since the vast majority of arrests that happen during Mardi Gras are for public urination, it’s best to plan ahead for nature’s call. Though tourists will notice a few hundred portable potties on the parade route, it’s better to find a venue on Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue offering bathroom access for a small fee. Some bars use a ticket system, like The Avenue Pub (which also happens to have a large balcony), granting you a trip to the restroom with the purchase of a food or drink item. Other venues, such as First Grace United Methodist Church, have full-day wristband access that’s well worth the price tag ($10).
INSIDER TIPThe facilities at St. George’s Episcopal Church are free and cleaned continuously throughout the day, so tip generously. In addition to restrooms, it has a bar and snacks on offer, and the funds it collects during Mardi Gras are deployed for maintaining the historic Norman-Tudor-style church.
Don’t Show Up Last Minute to the Big Parades
A tailgating atmosphere prevails during Mardi Gras season and locals tend to set up early, with a strong preference for “neutral ground” (or median) verses “sidewalk” spots that ensure peak views of parades, especially during Bacchus Sunday. Weather permitting, many neighborhood residents stake out their territory the night before and most have been occupying the same patch of grass for years. Traveling with a group and have gear? Feel free to bust out your beach chairs, coolers, and picnic blankets—just keep them 6 feet off of the curb.
Don’t Think Mardi Gras is Only for Adults
Have children? Bring them! They’ll make lifelong memories during Mardi Gras, and children are at the heart of many Carnival season activities. Keep in mind that while French Quarter parades slant racy (see Krewe du Vieux and Krewedelusion), children do get preferential treatment and throws, including LED trinkets and toys, at parades like Endymion, especially if they have a ladder and a net. Visitors will see hand-painted stepladders with built-in seats throughout the parade routes, often with the names of children inscribed upon them. Don’t miss Family Gras, a short drive from New Orleans, with face painting, activities for children 12 and under, plus live performances.
INSIDER TIPThe Louisiana Children’s Museum’s 8.5-acre campus—which debuted in August of 2019—is a must-stop for families visiting during Carnival. Special activities include storytime with Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Juan Pardo and mask-making workshops with natural materials from the Museum’s own edible garden.
Don’t Flash for Beads
Desperate to look like a desperate tourist? Please, keep your dignity. There’s no need for transactional nudity (unless that’s your thing) during Mardi Gras, and flashing for beads can actually get you arrested anywhere outside the notoriously raucous and raunchy Bourbon Street. Visitors can catch more throws by keeping their clothes on as their hands are free, dignity remaining intact.
Don’t Just Stick to the French Quarter
New Orleans has tons for visitors to see and do beyond the Vieux Carré. During Mardi Gras, make it a point to sample a variety of King Cakes from local bakeries around town (or visit King Cake Hub in Mid City with dozens of the city’s best Carnival confections all in one spot), learn about the long history of Mardi Gras Indian costuming at a NOMGI Sip and Sew event, or bust out some formal wear and attend a Mardi Gras ball.
INSIDER TIPThese balls are not strictly “members only”: from small to massive, krewes and clubs of all stripes throw indoor galas that anyone can purchase tickets to via Eventbrite or Stubhub.
Don’t Save All Your Energy for Fat Tuesday
The weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are jam-packed with activities and events, with most of the action concentrated in the two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday. Organize your trip around the parade schedule and make the most of free tools like the WWL Mardi Gras Parade Tracker app. Don’t miss the Lundi Gras Festival, the day before Fat Tuesday, showcasing Zulu’s top characters arriving by boat off of the Mississippi River—a tradition that dates back to 1917—and live music on three stages at Woldenberg Park.
INSIDER TIPAt the stroke of midnight on Mardi Gras, Carnival is officially over, and Bourbon Street is physically swept and cleansed.
Don’t Be That Overtly Wasted Jerk
Yes, Mardi Gras is a time for indulgence and even debauchery—with drinking alcohol on the street perfectly legal via “go cups”—but Carnival requires endurance, so sip slowly and stay hydrated. For those who can’t, or won’t, follow this rule, be aware that New Orleans opened a Sobering Center in 2019, a 25-bed facility intended to treat those identified as publicly intoxicated by law enforcement.
Have a bad hangover during your stay? Immediate relief can be found at a number of recently-opened IV-therapy centers, like The Remedy Room, where you can get an infusion of fluids and anti-nausea meds delivered straight to your vein.
Don’t Expect to Catch Parade Throws Without Making an Effort
Some Mardi Gras throws are so coveted—picture the famous coconuts of Zulu and sparkly high-heeled shoes of Muses—that many locals collect and display them all throughout the year. While krewe members spend hundreds of dollars and precious time hand-crafting these special throws to give to loved ones along the route, visitors can try to score their own by going the extra mile. Visiting from out of town? Try handcrafting a sign that notes where you’re from and that it’s your inaugural Mardi Gras—you’ll likely score an enviable treasure, helping to make certain your first Carnival experience won’t be your last.