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A Local’s Guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Making the Most of Carnival Season

So, you want to come to see a Mardi Gras parade? We’ve got all the tips and tricks to help you experience New Orleans Mardi Gras like a local.

First, let’s get some basics out of the way. Mardi Gras always falls on a Tuesday, but it’s a different date every year. For 2023, Mardi Gras day is February 21, 2023. In 2024, it will be February 13. One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s just one day – really, the Mardi Gras season lasts for weeks.

Carnival season officially begins on January 6 (the Epiphany or Twelfth Night) and runs until Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. There are plenty of Mardi Gras festivities to enjoy all season long, in addition to the actual Fat Tuesday.

Float during a Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans
Charlotte Smith Hamrick / Flickr

So while Mardi Gras day is a specific day on the calendar, you can catch parades in New Orleans all throughout carnival season, which is essential to know in case you wanted to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans while on a budget. In addition, you can get the full list of the parade schedule to help you plan your experience of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Although Mardi Gras is mostly associated with New Orleans, all of Louisiana joins in on the fun. So while we’ll just be covering Mardi Gras for New Orleans, keep in mind the party is all over the Pelican State!

Mardi Gras Terms

To experience Mardi Gras like a local, you’ll need a few Mardi Gras terms in your vocabulary:

Krewe

This is the organization responsible for the planning of the specific Mardi Gras parade. Every parade has its own krewe. While we generally think of a krewe as just the folks on the float, it’s actually a much more complex process with many individuals in Mardi Gras behind the scenes working year-round to ensure the parade can roll.

Some Mardi Gras krewes can reach 3,000 to 5,000 people easily. Each Mardi Gras krewe has a unique theme, which changes every year. Some krewes have been around for ages, while other krewes are newer.

The oldest Mardi Gras krewe is the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which was founded in 1856. While the krewe is still around, it hasn’t rolled a parade since 1991. 

Learning the krewe history of your favorite parade will give you a new appreciation for how intricate Mardi Gras is. It’s a bit of a secret society at times!

Every krewe has a royal court that leads the parade. The king can be a notable New Orleanian or a more famous figure, but generally, their identity is closely guarded or never revealed.

This bleeds into the secret society and krewe history, but all you need to know for now is that there is an entire royal court for each Mardi Gras krewe. The exceptions to this are the celebrity Grand Marshalls, typically reserved for the super krewes like Endymion and Bacchus.

Super Krewe

While there’s no official definition, it’s generally agreed that a super krewe needs to have at least 1,000 active members and at least 500 riders for its parade. The three super krewes in New Orleans are Endymion, Orpheus, and Bacchus. Also, the floats to these parades are extremely extravagant, with LED lights and all the bells and whistles.

They also have to own their own floats (it’s pretty common to reuse the floats from one parade to another, especially for the smaller krewes). These krewes also all have signature floats, like the Bacchasaurus float that rolls with Bacchus.

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Mardi Gras Masks

Mardi Gras Mask
Caitlin Regan / Flickr

This is one of many Mardi Gras traditions that is protected fiercely. On the floats, it’s actually a law! Yep, by law, float riders are required to wear a mask, which is a tradition back from the early days of Mardi Gras. Originally, the masks were meant as a way for different economic classes to blend together.

Today, masks are required for all riders, and outside of the occasional sip of a beverage, you won’t catch a rider without one. You are welcome to wear masks, dress up, and wear costumes on your own, and you’ll see plenty of costumes on the street level as you walk around. It’s a celebration, so feel free to go nuts with your costume!

Throws

Mardi Gras Zulu coconut
Mensch18 / Flickr

Throws are what the float riders give out. Mardi Gras beads, doubloons, and Mardi Gras cups are the standard, but as the carnival season evolves, we’ve seen stuffed animals, toys, and so much more come from floats. Every parade has a signature throw, like Muses’ iconic shoes and Zulu’s hand-decorated coconuts, so know the throw before the parade and hopefully, you’ll come home with a special throw! Everyone has their own idea of what’s the best throw, but really, it’s the cups. IYKYK.

Mardi Gras beads can hurt when you catch them. Due to their design, they tend to have a whip-like effect when caught, and if you’re not careful, they’ll smack you right in the face. Years ago, I watched my best friend get her tooth knocked out from a bead that swung around and hit her in the mouth, immediately halting everyone’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

This is also the reason that many of the signature throws, like the Zulu coconuts, must be passed to the individual rather than thrown. In case you’re curious, yes there were several decades when coconuts were allowed to be thrown into the crowd, but it got too dangerous.

The old-school rule is that if it touches the ground, it doesn’t count. Now, we’ll let you decide based on the throw if you’d like to adhere to that rule, but generally speaking, it’s fine to grab a throw from the ground.

Neutral Ground/Sidewalk Side

Pubs and bars with neon lights in the French Quarter
f11photo / Shutterstock

Basically a New Orleanian version of the driver side or passenger side. Locals have a preference, for sure, but where it comes in handy is if you know someone riding on a float, that’s how they will identify themselves.

For example, if you know a rider on Bacchus, they’ll tell you they’re on Float 11, neutral ground side, and then their rider number and what level they’re on (if the float is a double-decker). Then, good luck counting the riders to find your friend! When everyone is wearing masks and dressed identically, this information is crucial to finding your friend!

In the Box

You’ll need to look at the Uptown parade route to understand this one, but basically, the Uptown route creates a “box” which bottlenecks traffic for anyone trying to leave the parade route. As someone who lives “in the box,” it becomes very tricky to leave home during Mardi Gras! This is something to keep in mind if you plan on driving yourself to a parade. Parking in the box can be tricky, both getting in and leaving, so plan accordingly!

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Mardi Gras Traditions

Mardi Gras Zulu Krewe
Miguel Discart / Flickr

There are a lot of Mardi Gras traditions that take place both on the route and at the balls. The balls are one of the most iconic Mardi Gras traditions. Each krewe has a ball, a lavish Mardi Gras celebration somewhere in the city.

Many balls are invitation-only, but there are a handful of balls that are ticketed events and open to the public. Pay attention to the dress codes! Some Mardi Gras balls require tuxedos and ballgowns and will deny you entry if you’re not up to the code!

Throughout the Mardi Gras season, king cakes will pepper every countertop you see. This sweet, cinnamon roll-like pastry dons the traditional Mardi Gras colors and comes with a little plastic baby that’s hidden inside the cake. Traditionally, whoever receives the slice with the baby is crowned king for the day and also is responsible for purchasing the next king cake.

Ask a New Orleans local who makes the best king cake and you’ll get a different answer from each person. But honestly, each one is as delicious as the next and they come in several different flavors, so be sure to take a bite out of one of New Orleans’ most delicious Mardi Gras traditions so you can properly weigh in on who makes the best king cake.

One of the oldest Mardi Gras traditions is the Flambeaux. Before electricity was as easily accessible and the floats were pulled by horses instead of tractors, night parades needed a way to light the parade routes.

These men were called the Flambeaux, taking their name from the French term for a torch. Originally, the men carried very basic torches with pine tar rags to illuminate the parade, but today, they take a much more modern (and safer) approach.

While the tradition began out of necessity, it evolved into an art form and is a beautiful part of the Mardi Gras celebration that often goes unnoticed if you don’t know the history. Even though we have no problems lighting the parades today, Flambeauxs will still be a part of most night parades, and many will put on dazzling performances. It has always been a tradition for parade participants to give the performers money, with dollar bills replacing coins in recent years.

What Do I Wear To Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras Costume
James Cage / Flickr

The short answer is anything you want. Mardi Gras parades do not have a dress code (Mardi Gras balls, on the other hand, are a different story), so feel free to bust out unique costumes and be as colorful as you want. The traditional Mardi Gras colors and their meanings are purple, green, and gold and they represent justice, faith, and power.

Any variation of these traditional colors will do! One thing you will absolutely want to wear is comfortable shoes. We can’t stress this enough. You will be walking a lot during Mardi Gras.

You will be on your feet a lot. There are big crowds and you may be stepped on. Wearing comfortable shoes during Mardi Gras in New Orleans can make or break your day.

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What Should I Bring to Mardi Gras?

Group of happy people in carnival costumes dancing and having fun during Mardi Gras festival on the street.
Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Once you’ve checked the parade map and planned a spot to watch the parade, you’ll want to bring some gear. Think of this like when you’re going to the beach. Parades can be two, three, and sometimes even four hours long (and longer if another parade rolls right after it), so you may want to bring some folding chairs.

Don’t forget to bring a cooler with your favorite beverages, food, snacks, a king cake, etc. You’ll also want to bring a bag or two with you, so you have somewhere to store all your throws. If you’re going to a day parade, sunscreen is a lifesaver!

Where Should I Watch Mardi Gras In New Orleans?

Mardi Gras Float
Miguel Discart / Flickr

Once you’ve seen the parade routes, you’ll start to pick up on the pattern. There are only a handful of parade routes, and each Mardi Gras parade takes one of the routes. No matter which parade you attend, you’ll find a section that feels right for you.

Somehow, the route organically takes its own pattern, so as you’re walking down the route, you’ll see family-friendly sections (look for the ladders), college-age sections, and so on. Plan accordingly! Even though the French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street, is a popular spot during Mardi Gras, you’d be surprised to learn that very few parades actually pass through the Quarter.

What Mardi Gras Parades Are The Most Fun To Watch?

Crowd watching parade in New Orleans
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Every parade is unique, but over the years, some parades have become more popular than others. Beginning the Wednesday before Mardi Gras, you can expect the production value of these parades to increase exponentially, with multiple parades rolling one right after another. For example, the Thursday before Mardi Gras, Uptown has Babylon followed by Chaos and then the always incredible Muses, an all-female krewe known for their hand-crafted shoes.

If you’ve got the stamina, the four days leading up to Fat Tuesday will be your marathon of the main Mardi Gras parades. Saturday is Endymion, Sunday is Bachhus, Monday is Orpheus, and then Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, it all culminates in an epic chain of parades that you’ll want to wake up early for. Zulu parade rolls at 8 a.m. followed by the King of Carnival, Rex, and then the truck parades, Krewe of Elks and Krewe of Crescent City, round out the day.

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How Much Does Mardi Gras Cost?

It doesn’t cost anything to watch the parades, generally speaking. Our advice is to walk along the route and find yourself a place that feels right.

You can always change your mind and walk further up or down the route! You can easily get through Mardi Gras without paying for anything other than food and beverages…and maybe a bathroom.

That being said, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “upgrade” your experience. There are several places along the parade route where stadium-style seating is installed on the street and you can purchase tickets to enjoy the parade, but it’s not required. This gives you a solid home base to watch the parade from and often comes with bathroom access.

Otherwise, businesses on the parade routes often sell bathroom passes where you’ll get a wristband to allow you in, so unless you’ve got a friend who lives on the route, this is something to prepare for. There’s a famous song by Benny Grunch & The Bunch called “Ain’t No Place To Pee On Mardi Gras Day” and truer words have never been spoken.

Where Is The Best Place To Stay For Mardi Gras?

Best Western French Quarter Hotel in New Orleans
Best Western French Quarter / Booking.com

Hotels and vacation rentals for Mardi Gras week sell out months in advance. If you’re planning to attend, book your accommodations by September or October of the preceding year, and find a hotel in the French Quarter for easy access.

Last-minute travelers may luck out, though, and sometimes you can snag a last-minute room or rental in the French Quarter. Take a look at our top recommendations below and book a hotel close to Mardi Gras before they’re all gone. Each of these hotels offers a comfortable stay in the heart of the action.

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General Tips & Proper Etiquette

Band at a Mardi Gras Parade
Miguel Discart / Flickr
  • Be careful around Mardi Gras floats, and never cross the street between floats. Unfortunately, people have been injured or killed by floats in the past. Keep an eye on your fellow Mardi Gras participants. We’re in this together, y’all.
  • Never cross the street in between band rows. These kids are some of the most talented musicians in New Orleans, and they walk for miles with their instruments, giving you an epic soundtrack to listen to the parade. You do not want to incur the wrath of a band chaperone!
  • Pay attention to street closures that start about two hours prior to the parade. This is especially important for those “in the box” or if you’re trying to cross Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue.
  • If you’re using a ride-share program, be prepared to walk. Your driver will try to get you as close as possible, but you’ll most likely end up hiking a fair bit to your destination.
  • Download a Mardi Gras app on your phone that will update you in real-time on where the parade is, and whether it’s running on time. This might just be the best advancement in Mardi Gras history, trust me.
  • Visit Mardi Gras World, located next to the Convention Center. This is where the magic happens! You’ll get a tour of the facility, learn all about how the Mardi Gras parade floats are created, and meet some of the artists.

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