The Ultimate Guide to Experiencing Mardi Gras Like a Local

Go beyond the deadly cocktails and beads of Bourbon Street, and dig deep into the culturally-rich New Orleans tradition.

Mardi Gras
New Orleans Mardi Gras | New Orleans Mardi Gras
New Orleans Mardi Gras | New Orleans Mardi Gras
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There are many places around the globe where you can celebrate Carnival, from Rio de Janeiro to Venice, but there’s a reason that Mardi Gras in New Orleans is listed among the most famous of these debaucherous and outlandish traditions—it is just a rollicking good time.

Steeped in tradition and hosted in one of the most hospitable and interesting places in the world, Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, even if it wasn’t the first place in the United States where it was celebrated. (Many believe that honor belongs to Mobile, Alabama, but it’s still fair to say New Orleans perfected it.) That reputation is a double-edged sword. Many believe that the holiday is all about women baring their chests for cheap plastic trinkets and everyone downing sickly-sweet and deadly-strong cocktails on Bourbon Street.

The trouble is, all of that is true. But to limit New Orleans to that tiny, tawdry sliver of understanding is to deeply degrade and dismiss the cultural value and texture of a complicated but glorious city-wide celebration that’s as much of a good time for tourists as it is for the locals who teach their children to carry on the traditions.

But this is your year to dive in head-first, to truly understand and experience this unique New Orleans custom. Here’s your guide on how to go all out and soak in Mardi Gras like a local.

What is Mardi Gras, and why does New Orleans celebrate it?

Time to crack open the history books, kids. Back in the decades before the United States was formalized, New Orleans was founded by the French, planting Catholic roots deep in the swampy soil. Mardi Gras itself is a blend of Pagan and Christian traditions, amplifying overindulgence before the strictures of Lent kick in on Ash Wednesday. Over the years, the tradition evolved with begging and debutante rituals, and it came to include street parades, costumes, formal balls, and bead-tossing. Today’s version in New Orleans still incorporates much of that, with dozens of street parades, high society debutante presentations, beads and trinkets thrown from floats drawn by mules and tractors, marching bands and dance teams, and general revelry overflowing the streets.

When is Mardi Gras?

Carnival officially begins on the Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day), which always falls on January 6. Mardi Gras formally ends on Ash Wednesday, which is also tied directly to the Catholic calendar, 46 days before Easter. That means the date of Mardi Gras and, thus, the length of the season, shifts every year. The biggest weeks are the final two weekends before Mardi Gras Day, which is February 21, 2023.

Learn the lingo of the holiday

Not to get semantic here, but locals and visitors alike refer to the entire season colloquially as both Carnival and Mardi Gras. Don’t worry too much about it, except to know that you can enjoy parades and revelry throughout the season. Krewes are the organizations that host the parades and celebratory balls. Throws are the trinkets, beads, stuffed animals, and light-up toys that are tossed from the floats.

Where to stay during Mardi Gras

When you travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, there is perhaps no bigger decision than where you’ll stay. Most parades travel the same route from Napoleon Avenue, down St. Charles Avenue, and into the CBD. Depending on how much work you have to put into getting around, and what kind of party might be outside your door, will determine where you want to stay. Want to unleash your inner party goblin? Look for hotels in the French Quarter or Central Business District, which will put you within walking-distance of major crowds, Bourbon Street, and dozens of restaurant options. Hoping for midweek jazz shows or something a touch more cultural than Hand Grenade cocktails? Opt for boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, or Airbnbs in the Marigny. If you’ve got family in tow, or you’re hoping to maximize your parade time, stay at a boutique hotel, or Airbnb along (or close to) St. Charles Avenue.

Mardi Gras Parade
Mardi Gras | Getty Images

How to dress the part

Costumes and outlandish attire are always encouraged, but on Mardi Gras Day, they’re practically gospel. But think less Halloween, where you’re dressing as something or someone, and more like avant garde art class. If it sounds a little weird, that’s because it is. Unless you’ve got a clever idea that cheekily nods to local culture, politics or circumstances, you’re better off dressing in, say, head-to-toe monochrome sequins or as a bouquet of flowers than Peppa Pig.

Dish at Couvant New Orleans
Couvant New Orleans | Couvant New Orleans

Savor the City

New Orleans’ world class bars and restaurants are at their best during Carnival, when tourists (and their tips) can fill the room nightly. We’ve got a ton of recommendations for what andwhere to eat in New Orleans, but there are three rules to know. First, if you want a reservation during the height of Carnival season, call now—like, right now—and you may get lucky with a table. Second, drinking on the streets is A-Okay, as long as you’re doing it out of plastic or aluminum.Lastly, be patient and tip well.

Don’t get arrested

The hinges on the doors of the local NOPD offices get some real exercise during Mardi Gras, often because of tourists who can’t handle their business. Locals knows how not to get in trouble during this season, when the concept of legality feels a little flexible, and that means 1) follow directions, especially if it’s a doorman or a uniformed cop giving them to you, 2) pee in bathrooms, not on the street and 3) don’t hit a police horse. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc. Royalty
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc. | Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc.

How to Rule Like a King (or Queen) for a Day

If you’re going to do Mardi Gras, you can easily travel to the city, pack lunches for the parades, and be in bed by 10 pm every night without missing a beat. Or you can plan multiple costume changes, get tickets for public balls and concerts, and power yourself on Popeyes Chicken, cafe au laits, and 20 ounce margaritas from Superior Grill. Here are a few ways to really level up your Mardi Gras:

Rent a balcony: Why be part of the crowd when you can be above it? Call hotels along the parade route or on Bourbon Street and ask for balcony bookings, which perch you above the mayhem and give you a great view to either toss beads to shouting crowds below, or get a great view of the parades as they pass.

Extend your stay: Coined a few years ago by Dominique Lejeune, “Deep Gras” refers to the final Wednesday to Ash Wednesday of Mardi Gras, and a stay through this week gives you ultimate immersion, from the opportunities to see hyper-local krewes with unplanned routes roaming the French Quarter to the multi-million dollar parades like Endymion or Bacchus that light up the night and anchor the final weekend.

Ballin’: While many krewes restrict attendance to their membership rosters and high society notables, some krewes offer ball tickets to the public, which mean tuxedos, ball gowns, and headliner-worthy performing acts. Look for tickets to balls thrown by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Krewe of Orpheus or those thrown by marching krewes, like the Pussyfooters’ Blush Ball.

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Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, who formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist. Follow her on Twitter @cabrasted to find out how actually cool she is.