Costumed musicians in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras
The festival is rooted in the ancient European Carnival traditions. It marks the final celebrations before the period of fasting during Lent in the Roman Catholic Religion, although New Orleans Carnival is enjoyed by people of any belief.
For locals, "Mardi Gras" strictly speaking is only the last and biggest day of the Carnival season, "Fat Tuesday". Visitors less clear on this distinction sometimes call the whole New Orleans Carnival season "Mardi Gras". The final big day is thus sometimes called by the (technically redundant) name "Mardi Gras Day".
After spotty earlier festivities, parades roll most nights starting 2 weekends before Mardi Gras. Things kick into high gear the weekend before Mardi Gras, when the population of New Orleans more than doubles (book a room well in advance!). There's an all day party along the riverfront downtown on Lundi Gras ("Fat Monday", the day before Mardi Gras) followed by more parades that evening, and just when you think things couldn't get more wild, the climax of Mardi Gras takes Carnival to an entirely new level.
Wearing a mask or costume on Mardi Gras Day is highly recommended by Mardi Gras veterans; one becomes part of the party, rather than just watching it. Veterans also start the party on Mardi Gras morning, even if you aren't usually a morning person. Mardi Gras officially ends promptly at midnight Tuesday.
The next day is Ash Wednesday (nicknamed locally "Trash Wednesday" from the debris left in the streets from the parties), the start of Lent. Wearing Mardi Gras beads during Lent will mark you as a tourist; time to take them off.
The Rex parade is one of Mardi Gras' most famous and beautiful
Mardi Gras parades are a big attraction. Many locals have their favorites and by not following the crowds, you can often get a better perspective on the Big Easy.
The parades are put on by private organizations known as "krewe"s; they do not receive any government or corporate sponsorship.
Watching a parade in New Orleans is a participatory party; crowds dance to the music of the bands and clamour for "throws". Throws are the trinkets thrown from krewe members on the floats to the crowd, including plastic beads and cups (often decorated with the emblem of the krewe), "dubloons" - small aluminum discs like a souvenir coin, and various toys and gee-gaws.
Pick up the Mardi Gras Guide magazine, or consult the newspapers for parade schedules and routes. Note that many of the smaller parades, marching krewes, neighborhood pageants, Mardi Gras Indians, etc are usually not listed in these schedules.
There are sizable parades two weekends before Mardi Gras, then every night starting the Wednesday before Mardi Gras. There are also several parades in a row during the day the Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras. The parades on Mardi Gras Day are in the morning and mid day.
Endymion - Saturday night before Mardi Gras. An exception to the standard Uptown route, Endymion starts in Mid City and travels along Canal Street to the Central Business District, traveling St. Charles only the sort distance up to Lee Circle in the opposite direction from the other parades. Endymion 2008 is the first parade to return to the Mid City route since Katrina.
Bacchus - Sunday night before Mardi Gras. Krewe of Bacchus features national celebrity monarchs each year, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. (read crowded)
Orpheus - Monday night before Mardi Gras, known as "Lundi Gras" ("Fat Monday). Musician oriented krewe, Harry Connick Jr. is the krewe captain.
Zulu - Mardi Gras morning The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parade is well known for its interesting history (it originated over 100 years ago as an African American organization satirizing the White krewes during the era of racial segregation) and "golden nugget" (coconut) parade throws. Note: Zulu follows the Uptown route only from Jackson Avenue to Canal Street, not the portions of St. Charles further Uptown.
Rex - Mardi Gras morning. Founded in 1872, "Rex...King of Carnival" has been the international symbol of New Orleans Mardi Gras since the krewe first appeared. Rex was the first krewe to hold an organized daytime Parade and remains the main event parade of Mardi Gras.
The nights of the week leading up to Mardi Gras, in addition to the days on the weekend before Mardi Gras, have numerous parades. Pretty much every parade can be somebody's favorite for one reason or another. Some of the most popular include Muses, an all women's krewe known for it's beautiful creative parade on the Thursday night before Mardi Gras; Krewe d'Etat Friday night before Mardi Gras is known for its clever biting satire. Thoth is a Sunday day parade with an Ancient Egyptian style; its route includes a stretch of Magazine Street above Napoleon Avenue not used for parades on other days. Proteus, which precedes Orpheus Lundi Gras Night, is the second oldest parading krewe, giving a sample of a 19th century style night parade in the 21st century.
In addition to the parades on the standard routes, interesting off-beat parades include:
Krewe du Vieux - 3 Saturdays before Mardi Gras, the earliest parade in the New Orleans Carnival calendar is noted for satirical and off color floats and costumes. Parades around the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods.
Barkus: - 2 weekends before Mardi Gras the official unofficial dog parade in the French Quarter. Dogs and their humans parade in costume; too fun, usually early in parade season before most tourists arrive. A non-profit organization, it raises funds every year to benefit local animal shelters and national humane societies.
Jefferson City Buzzards "Practice Parade" usually Sunday afternoon, 3 weeks before Mardi Gras. The Buzzards Carnival walking club have their main parade on Mardi Gras Day (listed below), but a few weeks before you can might be lucky enough to see this group in bizarre costumes followed by a brass band roving from bar to bar in Uptown New Orleans, on the lake side of Magazine Street between Napoleon and Henry Clay Avenues.
Krewe of OAK - the Friday night before Mardi Gras Day in the Carrollton neighborhood, starting and ending at the Maple Leaf Bar.
Krewe of Dreux - one of the largest alternative Mardi Gras celebrations, out in Gentilly on the Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras. Daytime party in People's Park followed by a parade around Gentilly; come to participate, not just observe.
Red Beans & Rice Parade rolls through the Marigny and Treme on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras Day).
Mardi Gras Indians - More than a dozen "tribes" of "Mardi Gras Indians" rove the streets starting early Mardi Gras morning. In a tradition dating back some 150 years or more, the "Indians" (most are actually of African-American ancestry) wear dazzling elaborate costumes covered with feathers and beads in styles combining Native American, African, and contemporary New Orleans influences. Routes are not announced to the public if they are set in advance at all. Central City and Treme are especially rich with tribes. Claiborne Avenue or St. Claude Street in Treme are popular places to catch the "Indians", but if you're lucky you might encounter them earlier on neighborhood back streets.
Society of Saint Anne - Marching club through the Bywater, Marigny, and French Quarter neighborhoods on Mardi Gras morning, with some of the most elaborate and creative costumes seen.
Krewe of Kosmic Debris - one of the most informal krewes; if you play a portable musical instrument you can show up in costume and jam on Dixieland standards as the Kosmic Debris roams from bar to bar in the French Quarter, starting on Frenchmen Street at noon Mardi Gras Day.
The Completely Mystick Krewe of Chartreuse marches on Fat Tuesday. Headed by the strangest folk in living history, do not miss the parade named in honor of the liquor made from over 130 plants and herbs by Carthusian Monks. In the morning, search for the green and gold globe and crux banner on St Charles Avenue as it heads toward the French Quarter, or find us later in the Quarter proper. So drunken and raucous you will run home crying if you're not careful. You have been warned.
KOE - the first of the walking krewes organized on the Internet. Found in the Quarter on Mardi Gras, originally "Krewe of Elvis"
Jefferson City Buzzards - the oldest traditional walking krewe; men from a working class neighborhood of Uptown have been drinking lots of beer and giving out flowers to pretty gals in exchange for a kiss while parading downtown every year since 1890.
Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching Club headed by the city's most famous Dixieland clarinetist who leads his band on a small float, the Half Fast wind through uptown down to the Quarter on Mardi Gras.
Mondo Kayo has a tongue-in-cheek tropical/Caribbean theme to celebrate New Orleans as the northernmost "Banana Republic". Starting Uptown, they go down St. Charles Avenue before Zulu, then continue into the French Quarter before winding up on Frenchmen Street in Marigny.
While some visitors think of Mardi Gras as a "Girls Gone Wild" event, most of the city's Mardi Gras celebration is kid-friendly family fun. Stay away from the rowdies on Bourbon Street; catch the parades Uptown on Saint Charles Avenue anywhere above Lee Circle up to Napoleon Avenue (Note: on Mardi Gras Day, Zulu parades only on the portion of the route from Jackson Avenue down). Most kids love the excitement of catching the beads; for safety just make sure they don't try to run up too close to the floats. On Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), the festivities in Waldenberg Park (along the Mississippi by the upper French Quarter just below Canal Street) includes a children's stage. On Mardi Gras dress the family in matching costumes to be thrown extra beads and have extra fun.