The city of New Orleans is known for its delicious food, world-famous cocktails, and, of course, wild Mardi Gras celebrations. More than one million spectators throng the French Quarter each February for the colorful costumes and an excuse to party -- but that’s only a small portion of what the city has to offer during Mardi Gras. Look beyond the vividly colored feathered boas and tourist-filled bars lining Bourbon Street to discover that the locals have plenty of other great ways to celebrate. Here are some insider tips to help you experience a more authentic Mardi Gras in NOLA, like the locals do. Let the good times roll!
Plan ahead. There are dozens of krewes that hold parades in the days and weeks leading into Mardi Gras. Find one that seems most interesting to you, check the parade schedule, and add it to your itinerary!
Get to know your krewe. Many krewes have been in existence for decades, each with their own unique histories and annual themes. All host their own parades at varying schedules throughout Carnival season, making the entire city festive even before Mardi Gras day takes place. Local favorites include:
Krewe of Bacchus: With over 1,000 members, 33 animated floats, marching bands, ceremonial escort groups, and a celebrity “king” acting as a stand-in Bacchus, the Krewe of Bacchus, started in 1968, is widely considered as one of the more spectacular krewes of Mardi Gras. The Krewe of Bacchus parades the Sunday before Mardi Gras, drawing a crowd of several hundred thousand spectators along its route on St. Charles.
Krewe du Vieux: Known for its political satire and adult themes, Krewe du Vieux has kept the wild spirit of Mardi Gras alive and well since its inception in 1987. The locals love their art-inspired floats and some of the city’s best brass and jazz bands often march with them from the Marigny neighborhood through parts of the French Quarter onto O’Keefe and Lafayette Streets.
Krewe of Saint Anne: Founded in 1969, the Krewe of Saint Anne is a marching club known for its elaborate costumes and open participation -- just make sure you come dressed for the party. With the core group starting in Bywater at around 10 a.m. Mardi Gras day, New Orlean’s own Storyville Stompers provides the music as the group continues its march onto Canal Street, picking up additional costumed marchers along the way. The Krewe of Saint Anne eventually winds their way into the French Quarter to meet up with the famed Rex Parade.
Krewe of Endymion: Created in 1979, the Krewe of Endymion is one of the three “super-krewes” known for their stunning floats with state-of-the-art technology and over-the-top visuals. Past celebrity Grand Marshals include Dolly Parton, John Goodman, Kevin Costner, Chuck Norris, and Marisa Tomei. Their parade is one of the largest of all during Mardi Gras season, with the majority taking place along Canal Street.
Krewe of Muses: Named after the daughters of the Greek god Zeus, the Krewe of Muses was established in 2000 to quickly become a city favorite with their funny and scathing parade themes. The philanthropic krewe is a collaborative one; the design for their throw cups is selected through a contest for local students and the masks are created by students, senior citizens, and those in rehabilitative centers who may not have the chance to attend the parades.
Arrive early. While most parade routes travel throughout entire neighborhoods, some of the more popular krewes are known to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, leaving very little prime seats available. Securing a good viewing spot requires time and plenty of patience. Locals stake out their parade viewing seats hours ahead of the start time. For the more popular parades, plan to arrive four hours prior. For the massive Bacchus parade on Sunday before Mardi Gras, smart locals are on the street by 6 a.m. to secure their spot for the 6 p.m. parade. For smaller krewe parades, one to two hours beforehand will suffice. (Don’t worry, there will be plenty going on while you wait.)
Bring an extra pillowcase. Part of the Mardi Gras fun is trying to catch all the memorabilia thrown from the floats and krewes. Having a pillowcase is an easy way to store all your goodies, including beads, cups, doubloons, and stuffed animals.
Take only what you catch. People may get overzealous for the Mardi Gras throws, but there’s no point in fighting over it. There are plenty of floats coming by and you’ll have more opportunity to add to your stash. Be careful not to reach down to pick up throws from the ground. No one’s looking at where your fingers might be and you run a high risk of getting hurt.
Pack some food. The restaurants along the parade routes will be open for business, but they'll all be extremely busy. Make reservations in order to guarantee seats. If the establishments do not take reservations, expect a long wait. Otherwise, buy food from the street vendors or pack your own snacks. Don’t forget water!
Have a preselected meeting place. The events in New Orleans during Mardi Gras are massive and it’s incredibly easy to get lost or separated from your group. Designate a meeting point in case you get split up. Make sure that it’s an easy place to reach, everyone knows where it is, and how to get there.
Talk to the locals. Most people would be surprised to find themselves invited to a local’s home for a Mardi Gras party or two -- yet it seems to be a common occurrence. NOLA natives are a friendly and welcoming bunch, and during the Carnival season, most wouldn’t think twice before inviting new friends into their homes for a Mardi Gras ball.