Learn how NOT to look like a tourist at Mardi Gras. (Photo: Alamy)
First, lets get a few things out of the way. Your breasts: They need to stay in your shirt (or, if you’re at the right parade, be colorfully body-painted). Don’t have ’em? Don’t ask to see them.
Mardi Gras, contrary to media portrayals, is family friendly. Much of the parade route looks like a big family cookout with coolers and grills, grandma sucking down Sazeracs and kiddos perched atop colorfully painted ladders (the better to catch beads).
Second, it’s a party, yes. But it’s a party with a whole lot of culture and a whole lot of history. If you confine yourself to Bourbon Street, you’ll miss out, big time, on the most beautiful procession of human creativity that we’ve seen maybe ever.
So what should you do?
Stay near a parade route…and be prepared to walk.
As a Mardi Gras novice, I expected to roll up to the front door of my hotel with my big old suitcase and check right in. What actually happened?
All surrounding streets within a six block radius were closed and I had to drag my behemoth of a suitcase down sidewalks thronged with parade-watchers while discarded beads caught in the wheels and smacked me in the face. Street closures are the norm and can be unpredictable, so call your hotel when you land to figure out the best route. And pack light, there’s a chance you’ll have to walk.
Roll deep with your krewe.
Riding in a parade (or “rolling” as locals call it) is, bar none, the ultimate Mardi Gras experience. Picture this: You’re soaring two stories up above a gleeful, thronging mass of costumed humanity. You lock eyes on one lucky soul, launch a glittering stream of beads, and they land in your new friends hand to screams of thanks.
You repeat this over and over, owning the delight of the crowd, sandwiched between brass bands and drinking the endless stream of cocktails filling your float’s coolers till the party train rolls right into the center of a black tie Mardi Gras ball. This is what they call “winning.”
Though most parades are open only to members of local social clubs called krewes, you can pay to ride with the Krewe of Orpheus, one of the city’s best, which was founded by Harry Conick Jr.
The daylong experience will run you more than $500 but includes your costume, throws (beads and other assorted goodies to toss), and entrance to the ball, which always features seriously big-name musical guests.
Because of street closures and crowds, it’s difficult to get around. And you’ll likely be doing it on foot. So comfy, closed toed shoes are a must as is a backpack for toting around snacks and for stashing the beads and throws you’ll catch during the parades.
You should also plan ahead–pick a parade watching spot near a bathroom and within walking distance of where you’d like to go to dinner. And for heaven’s sake be sure you’ve made a reservation. Waits can be several hours long after the parades pass by.
Follow the Saints and the Indians.
Our two favorite Mardi Gras experiences occur on Fat Tuesday. The first? St. Anne’s Parade. Though it may not have traditional floats, what it lacks in grandness, it more than makes up for in ragtag creativity.
Grab a drink mid-morning in most any bar in the funky Marigny neighborhood, and you’ll start to see wildly outlandish characters–astronauts and fairies, time travelers and showgirls–processing with brassbands through to the lower French Quarter.
Half of the revelers end up heading down to Frenchmen Street for an outdoor party (we saw a roving tiki DJ booth hooked up to a trailer on the back of a lawn mower) and the other half head down to the river, where the ashes of NOLA residents that had passed away that year are set free amid celebratory dancing and impromptu singing.
Equally impressive are the Mardi Gras Indian parades. Because black residents were unable to participate in parades back in the day, they developed their own celebrations, with different neighborhoods forming their own tribes. Each tribe spends the entire year making wild costumes that can cost thousands of dollars and weigh upwards of 100 pounds each.
The tribes process and stage mock battles to settle scores with other tribes. Although the routes are always kept secret, if you head in the morning to areas like the intersection of LaSalle and 2nd Streets or Claiborne and Orleans and start to ask around, you should easily find out where they’re headed.
A word on beads.
Know how you can spot a Mardi Gras newbie? They’ve go 50 strands of tiny beads around their neck. Seasoned vets hold out for the special beads and for other throws, which can include everything from dubloons (fake coins) to stuffed animals to, in one parade, bedazzled shoes.
And beware, though I failed to take this advice, walking around with dozens of beads around your neck all night will result in some seriously sore muscles the next day. But, depending on the number of Sazeracs you downed, your neck will just be one part of a symphony of aching body parts.