New Orleans 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.
Mardi Gras dates
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.
The majority of the parades follow a standard route, starting Uptown at Napoleon Avenue and going down St. Charles Avenue to the Central Business District then on to Canal Street at the upper border of the French Quarter.
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.
Other parades of interest
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.
There are dozens of small neighborhood krewes and walking clubs. Events better known to locals than visitors include:
Before Mardi Gras Day
Mardi Gras Day
Mardi Gras Indians, Bourbon Street, Lundi Gras in Waldenburg Park, Arrival of Kings of the Zulus and Rex, costume parties, balls, block parties
Family-friendly Mardi Gras
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.
Crime and safety
Be aware that during this time of where large crowds collect, pickpocketers are just around the corner so keep as few valuables on you, don't be flashy with money, and avoid wearing jewelry.
Be aware that during partying, alcohol is abused rampantly which could lead to arrest for public intoxication or possible altercations with tough guys who have had too many beers. Drink responsibly and if you see anyone getting too rowdy, move away and report it to police. It's not worth your safety trying to intervene.
While flashing for beads is a common sight, public indecency can get you arrested, fined, or both.
Also, be aware that Mardi Gras is also a busy time for drug dealers who may creep into the crowd and offer you some drugs. Refuse it and get out of there. You may be more in danger than you think. Often, drug dealers who sell during Mardi Gras get territorial and shoot each other out of wanting each other's money, customers, and/or drugs. They hide the gunshots sound under the blasts of the fireworks and loud parades. Getting an eyeful of the commotion could be a fatal mistake. Additionally, you could get caught by an undercover cop and get arrested.