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10 Things You Should Know Before Your First Mardi Gras Experience

Feb. 25, 2017
11 min read
Image courtesy of Daniel Grill via Getty Images.
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So you're going to Mardi Gras, one of the biggest parties in the world. Should be simple, right? If you're walking down Canal Street with a gaggle of beads around your neck and a very large cocktail in your hand, you certainly could be doing worse. You could also be doing much, much better.

Mardi Gras is a centuries-old cultural phenomenon, and like any great tradition, it's deep and layered. I lived in New Orleans for seven years and, even as a resident, it took me several years to truly embrace the Carnival spirit. Break away from the drunken mobs of Bourbon Street and you'll be treated to a kaleidoscope of N'awlins culture. You may not be able to see or do it all, and that's okay. Just in time for Mardi Gras day (Tuesday, February 28, this year), here's a quick guide to the things you should know — and the things you might want avoid.

1. Mardi Gras Is a Religious Holiday... And a Family Affair

One of the most common exclamations I've heard from first timers is, "I can't believe there are kids running around here!" While Mardi Gras has a somewhat seedy reputation, that misconception is largely fueled by drunken and misbehaved tourists unaccustomed to New Orleans' special brand of partying. First off, Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday" is actually just one day, the culmination of a month-long Carnival Season. It's also a statewide public holiday in Louisiana.

Carnival itself is a meat, sweets and alcohol-fueled feast and street party that precedes the liturgical Lenten season, a 40-day period that lasts until Easter Sunday — it's widely celebrated in Europe and South America, with some of the largest and most famed festivals taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Barcelona, Spain; and Barranquilla, Colombia. New Orleans' Carnival is the largest and best known iteration in North America, although there are also public Carnival celebrations in other southern cities including Key West, Florida; and Mobile, Alabama.

Despite what you might have heard, Mardi Gras actually is a family-friendly event. Image courtesy of Mills Baker via Flickr.

2. Carnival Veterans Go Long, Not Hard

Given that Mardi Gras is the culmination of a month-long party, any skillful local will avoid drinking the whole keg in a single night. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of drinking going on though. On any given day, a Carnival goer might see several parades, attend multiple parties and even see a concert or two, or three. This requires some basic planning and locals will moderate their alcohol consumption over a long period of time. There's no need to binge since drinks are available absolutely everywhere at any time of day or night. Losing your buzz at 6:30am? Stop by a Bloody Mary stand on just about any street corner downtown (and yes, there are pop-up drink stands on city streets). The important thing is to pace yourself. Because why should you spend potentially thousands of dollars to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans if you aren't going to remember any of it?

3. You Can Wear Whatever You Want

Dress standards are difficult to pinpoint and some people end up spending thousands of dollars on elaborate and traditional masks and robes — the Mardi Gras Indians sometimes spend an entire year hand-gluing suits, for instance. And then there are the frat guys in golf pants and Walmart onesie penguin costumes. All are welcome here. Just plan to keep your clothing on if you're at a parade. That whole "show your boobs" thing is a practice that was born and died on Bourbon Street — this is, after all, a family event. House parties are another story, though, and clothes may or may not be optional depending on which ones you end up going to — just do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and contain yourself until you get there.

Want to dress as a human flower pot? Go right ahead! Image courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr.

4. It's The "Greatest Free Show on Earth"

If you've landed in New Orleans and someone tries to sell you a "ticket to Mardi Gras," turn around and walk in the opposite direction — quickly. There are no tickets to Mardi Gras. Every parade is a highly public affair, put on by social clubs that spend the whole year preparing for a single day. Millions are spent annually on the event, all pro bono and for the greater good. Many Carnival clubs, officially referred to as Krewes, also fulfill philanthropic goals. If you do want to buy a ticket to something great, consider one of the myriad concerts taking place around the clock in dozens of music halls and venues throughout the city. If you are really looking to throw it down, buy a ticket to one of the Carnival Krewe Balls. Every parade has a destination, and that destination is usually a grand party — the Krewe of Endymion, for instance, throws one of the biggest parties of all inside the world famous Louisiana Superdome.

5. Mansions Line the Parade Route, and Some Are Beckoning

For most Americans, the thought of walking into a formal party uninvited is an affront to civility. But during Carnival, many of the most extravagant parties you've ever seen — complete with extensive open bar selections and smorgasbord buffets — are held in gallant antebellum mansions, and are open to all, as long as you don't make yourself unwelcome. Don't assume that every party is open, but if there's an open gate and an open door, it surely won't hurt to poke your head inside. If a party is private, there may be a doorman or you might be asked to leave. But fear not, there's bound to be another adventure no more than a few doors down.

Don't forget to admire the mansions along many of the parade routes, like this one in the Garden District. Image courtesy of pileckis via Getty Images.

6. Whatever You Do, Don't Pick up the Beads

One of the great tenets of Mardi Gras is "Do whatcha wanna" ... unless you want to pick a string of beads off the floor. Not only is this practice gross — as you can imagine, the streets aren't in the most pristine condition during the height of the celebrations — it may also end up putting you in the path of an oncoming parade float.

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7. Get Uptown

Most hotels in New Orleans are clustered in two neighborhoods, the famous French Quarter and the Central Business District, or CBD. These neighborhoods are generally convenient, but are far from the best places to watch a parade. The traditional route begins uptown, about 3.5 miles up St. Charles Avenue from Canal Street, that is. While Canal Street's downtown tends to be overcrowded and over-drunk, its true pageantry comes to life the further up this street you get. Crowds are more evenly distributed, house parties are close at hand and the barricades that make life downtown miserable all but vanish. Here, the streets are open and parade-goers can walk right up to carnival floats for a better chance at some of the most prized "throws."

It may come as a shock, but Bourbon Street (pictured here) really isn't the best place to watch parades. Image courtesy of jcarillet via Getty Images.

8. Plan Your Escape

In 2017, an estimated 1.5 million visitors will descend on New Orleans throughout the carnival season, effectively quadrupling the city's normal population. At the same time, the city's single largest public transit line, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, is shut down because parades run alongside the tracks. Given the convergence of these circumstances, getting around the city — specifically from an uptown parade route back to the downtown area — can get very complicated and often means traveling on foot. Here are three ways to avoid getting stranded:

  1. Chart a course from St. Charles Avenue to Magazine Street. The two streets are six blocks apart and run parallel to one another. While St. Charles becomes a swamped mess after parades, Magazine remains a bustling six-mile stretch of restaurants and bars. It's also one of a few places near the parade route where you might find a cab.
  2. Get a bike. There are a few places you can rent one in New Orleans' downtown and within the French Quarter — there are also a number of places where secondhand bikes can be purchased very, very inexpensively. With streets gridlocked and public transit reduced to shuttle buses, bikes are often the easiest and most reliable form of transportation.
  3. Bring your walking shoes. You'll probably see a troop of drunken revelers following the end of a parade down St. Charles. Get yourself a cocktail and put your walking shoes on. This is sometimes the most straightforward way to get back downtown.
Have a plan if you want to eventually escape the masses. Image courtesy of jcarillet via Getty Images.

9. Don't Mess With the Parade Route — or the Police

One of the more beautiful aspects of New Orleans Mardi Gras is the intimacy. In Rio, Carnival goers watch parades from the grandstand, but here, the parades roll unobstructed through several neighborhoods, making the crowd as much a part of the parade as the riders. One of the most fateful sins of Mardi Gras, however, is obstructing the parade route. There are 33 parades running down St. Charles Avenue alone in 2017, some of which extend for miles, so the slightest disruption makes a long night for the legions of volunteers and New Orleans Police Officers who work overtime to facilitate it. Drunkenly obstructing a parade route in front of an agitated cop could land you in handcuffs, or worse, the Orleans Parish Prison. Only approach floats when they are stopped and, if you must, only cross a parade route when there is plenty of clearance — if possible, get permission from a police officer first.

10. Be Prepared to Party

Mardi Gras is hard. Depending on when you arrive, you may be exhausted by the time Fat Tuesday finally arrives. Partiers, drunks and inexperienced revelers are often reeling from their wounds at this point. This is the time when the true spirit of Carnival comes alive. As a neophyte, I took some ill advice from aloof classmates and decided, after staying up the entire night before basking in the street party atmosphere, spent Fat Tuesday recovering. Big, big mistake. Not only are the parades on Mardi Gras Day arguably the most authentic and beautiful, the atmosphere in the French Quarter, Marigny and other New Orleans neighborhoods borders on psychedelic. Legions turn out in all types and genres of costumes while bands and DJs steak out street corners and a great time is had by all. Fat Tuesday is a true holiday, sanctified in the laws and ordinances of the state of Louisiana and observant nations around the world. Everyone is at their happiest, most revelrous demeanor. And everyone is there for one reason: lasseiz les bon temps rouler, to let the good times roll.

Whatever this guy is dressed as, it's working. Mardi Gras day is the most fun you'll ever have dancing in the street. Don't miss it. Image by Dillon Mike, friend of the author.

Have you ever attended Mardi Gras? Share your own tips in the comments section, below.

Featured image by Image courtesy of Daniel Grill via Getty Images.