Everything You Need to Know About Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

From where to get costumes and king cake to the official Mardi Gras parade schedule.

Mardi Gras parade float
Photo courtesy of New Orleans & Company
Photo courtesy of New Orleans & Company

From Venice to Rio, Carnival is celebrated all over the world—but Mardi Gras in New Orleans is one of the most famous celebrations for good reason. While the first Mardi Gras held in the U.S. was actually in Mobile, Alabama, the festivities in New Orleans are without a doubt the biggest in the country, and the holiday has become synonymous with the Crescent City.

The chest-baring and drunken debauchery in the French Quarter that many associate with Mardi Gras does happen. But to fully appreciate the holiday, visitors must understand the traditions that go back centuries. There are festive foods to eat, massive balls and other parties that fly under many tourists’ radar, and dozens of krewes to learn more about before you can truly celebrate Mardi Gras like a local. So before you head out to the route to collect beads, here’s everything you need to know to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans this year.

What is Mardi Gras?

First, crack open the history books. New Orleans was originally founded by the French, planting Catholic roots deep in the swampy soil. The history of Mardi Gras 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 debutante rituals and formal balls, and it came to include all the street parades, costumes, and bead-tossing we associate with the holiday today. Modern Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations are bigger than ever (especially after taking a couple years off due to COVID), with thousands of parade participants, amazing marching bands, over-the-top krewes, fabulous parties, and to-die-for king cakes.

When is Mardi Gras?

Carnival begins on January 6, also known as King’s Day, Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (it’s the 12th night of Christmas). Mardi Gras is February 13 this year, but it changes each year because Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. While festivities will take place around the city throughout all of January and into February, the most action-packed period of Carnival season is the two-week stretch before Mardi Gras when most of the parades roll.

Mardi Gras parade float
Photo courtesy of GTS Productions/Shutterstock

Mardi Gras Parade Schedule

Carnival season kicks off on January 6, or Twelfth Night, with a batch of parades featuring some of the quirkiest local krewes. Uptown, the Phunny Phorty Phellows—a krewe whose origins date back to 1898—will ride the St. Charles streetcar line, followed by the newer Funky Uptown Krewe. The Krewe of Joan of Arc will march through the French Quarter, one of the few to do so during Carnival. While the Société Des Champs Elysée will parade along the Rampart from the Marigny to Canal Street.

Once Carnival season is officially underway, the remainder of the parades are held within the last two weeks before Mardi Gras, with a few outliers. Krewe du Vieux, Krewe of Barkus (the annual dog parade), Krewe of Chewbacchus, krewedelusion, ‘tit Rex, and Krewe of Red Beans are all walking krewes that traverse parts of the Marigny, French Quarter, and beyond in the days leading up to Mardi Gras.

The bigger parades with floats pulled by tractors primarily originate Uptown and roll up Napoleon Avenue to St. Charles Avenue before turning onto Canal Street. One exception is Endymion, which starts out in Mid-City. There are parades in Metairie, the West Bank, and Chalmette as well. Mardi Gras day brings the mighty pair of Krewes Rex and Zulu, plus small walking krewes meandering through the Quarter in a day-long party. To find the full parade schedule with maps, bookmark this site.

Make it to midnight in the French Quarter and you can witness the symbolic end to Mardi Gras as the NOPD sweep Bourbon Street on horseback, letting everyone know that the holiday is officially over. If you do it right and make the most of the festivities, you’ll be reminded that it’s truly a marathon, not a sprint.

Marching band in Mardi Gras parade
Photo courtesy of Mardi Gras New Orleans

Mardi Gras Parade Tips

Diving head first into the world of Mardi Gras can bring up a lot of questions for travelers, so here’s everything you need to know about attending your first parade.

The first thing to note is transportation will be tough. Roads are closed, parking will be difficult, streetcars and buses in the area stop running before the parades, and taxis and rideshares will be expensive and hard to come by. So plan ahead and know hitting the pavement will be the most reliable mode of transport.

While you’re situated along the parade route, be on the lookout for beads and other throws. Krewes toss out everything from tubes of face glitter and stuffed animals to toilet plungers (yes, really). Take a minute to admire the floats too—these colorful creations are handmade by skilled float builders. You can’t miss the marching bands, so be sure to cheer them on and show your appreciation, especially for schools like St. Augustine and Warren Easton, which have some of the best marching bands in the city. And last but not least, you’ll see lots of dance troupes roll on by, so keep an eye out for groups like the 610 Stompers, Camel Toe Lady Steppers, Pussyfooters, Rolling Elvi, and a bunch of dudes on motorized La-Z-Boy chairs dubbed the Laissez Boys.

Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, is a celebration in its own right. There are a handful of parades around town including the Red Beans Parade, where revelers craft outfits made out of the iconic local food, and other parades from Proteus, the city’s second oldest krewe, and Orpheus, the krewe founded by Harry Connick, Jr. The Lundi Gras Festival, hosted by the Krewe of Zulu, also takes place at Woldenberg Park with plenty of music and food to enjoy before King Zulu and his entourage arrive by boat on the Mississippi. Later, Rex (the King of Carnival) arrives and the mayor symbolically hands over temporary control of the city to let the grand finale of Mardi Gras festivities begin.

Mardi Gras Costumes

Full-on costumes are primarily reserved for Mardi Gras day, but feel free to dress up whenever the mood strikes. On other days of celebration, you’ll quickly get decked out in beads, kitschy sunglasses, and other items thrown from parade floats. Shops like Miss Claudia’s, Uptown Costume, Funky Monkey, or Fifi Mahony’s offer extensive selections of Mardi Gras costumes. And when in doubt, simply throw on some purple, green, and gold—the colors of Mardi Gras.

Where to Stay During Mardi Gras

There are plenty of accomodation options in New Orleans, but where you should stay during Carnival depends on which part of the action you want to see. The big parades roll Uptown, through the CBD, then finish on Canal Street at the edge of the Quarter. The most raucous celebrations are in the French Quarter, while the further Uptown you go along the route, the more family-oriented it becomes.

If you want to be close to the action (but still find a quiet place to rest after the revelry), choose from stunning boutique hotels The Chloe or Columns, which are just off the start of the parade route on St. Charles. The Pontchartrain Hotel and Hotel Tonnelle are situated right on the parade route, but the area will be fairly calm once the parade passes.

In the CBD/Warehouse District area, which is smack dab between the parade route and the Quarter, hotels like Virgin Hotel, Maison de la Luz, Hotel Indigo, or Kimpton Hotel Fontenot are all great options.

If you want to be in the thick of it, the French Quarter has plenty of options, plus easy access to restaurants, bars, and other entertainment during the festivities. The Royal Sonesta is a prime spot, with balconies overlooking Bourbon Street, and it also hosts the annual Greasing of the Poles ceremony, when local celebs lube up the hotel’s front poles to prevent revelers from climbing up. Other popular options in the French Quarter include the Hotel Monteleone, Ritz-Carlton, W Hotel, and Omni Royal Orleans.

Lynne Ann Mitchell/Shutterstock

King Cake and Other Mardi Gras Eats

Most associate drinking with Mardi Gras, but you have to fill up on food at some point too. First thing’s first: You can’t do Mardi Gras in New Orleans without having king cake. Between January 6 and Mardi Gras—no sooner, no later—these iconic cakes can be found at bakeries, restaurants and pop-ups around the city. From traditional brioche cakes topped with purple, green, and gold sugar to creative versions stuffed with everything from praline to boudin, king cakes are a sweet highlight of the season.

King Cake Hub at Zony Mash Brewery sells cakes from dozens of notable sources all in one handy spot. Other top traditional options include Tastee Donuts, Gambino’s, Dong Phuong, and Haydel’s, while you can find over-the-top versions like the Elvis (peanut butter, banana, bacon, and marshmallow) at Cochon Butcher or the Pontchartrain (strawberries, chantilly cream, Bavarian cream, and almonds) at Maurice French Pastries.

Going out to eat during the days leading up to Mardi Gras can be tough, as an influx of tourists often leads to longer wait times and other inconveniences. Many of the city’s best restaurants are still open but may be extra busy, so be patient and make a reservation. Visitors will find that for locals, DIY is the way to go. Families set up along the parade route with grills, crock pots, and picnic spreads.

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Gerrish Lopez is a contributor for Thrillist.