For many, visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras, is a bucket list item. But without the right insider know-how, the whole experience can descend into a touristy debacle in a flash.
Though unruly revelers and wild parties are part of what makes this celebration famous, Mardi Gras represents much more. For locals, the season is also about pageantry, elaborate parades, masquerade balls, food, family and tradition. It’s a time of celebration that brings people of all backgrounds together to showcase what is wonderful and unique about the city.
The heart and soul of New Orleans is on full and glorious display during Carnival. When done like a local, the festival can provide the fun you seek while also showcasing the city’s true essence.
Here are 11 locally-infused tips to ensure your Mardi Gras experience is well-rounded:
1. Be Flexible
As unlikely as it may seem, you will need shut-eye at some point. With the city’s abundance of hotels and Airbnb offerings, there are always rooms available. However, be prepared for higher rates and minimum-night stays and be flexible when it comes to the neighborhood. Everyone loves the French Quarter, but with parades spanning the city, it’s a great time to be Uptown, in Mid City, Marigny or the Bywater.
2. Get Connected
Most festivities are concentrated within the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, the culmination of carnival season. With multiple parades daily, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. Thanks to handy apps like the highly rated WDSU Parade Tracker navigating the chaos is easier than ever. From parade routes to traffic updates, you’ll be able to follow the action and keep up with any changes or delays. Don’t stress, it’s Mardi Gras. As they say: “laissez les bons temps rouler.”
3. Park It
There are no rules during Mardi Gras, except this one: don’t drive after you arrive.
Current road construction projects make the normally chaotic task of navigating the city even more nuts. Throw in giant floats, marching bands, hordes of revelers and more than a few drunken spectators and it’s a Louisiana-in-August hot mess. Take the streetcar every chance you get. It may be slow and crowded, but it’s less frustrating when you aren’t the one driving. Plus, it’s a fun way to see the city. There’s also a multitude of buses serving parade neighborhoods, which become rolling parties themselves as the day progresses.
Not a fan of public transportation? Renting a bike is a great way to experience the city and move easily between viewing locations. Just note, a heavy duty bike lock is vital. Almost as many bikes are lifted during Mardi Gras as there are glass beads being tossed from floats. Photographer and New Orleans resident Elise Smith, frequently seen shooting photos from her bike during carnival, recommends Camp, Chestnut or Baronne as good bike routes to travel uptown. The nonprofit Bike Easy is a great resource for more tips.
4. Have a Parade Plan
NOLA local Elise Smith recommends hitting the streets before the first daytime parade begins. “Day parades are more of a local and family scene than the heavy-duty party parades at night and offer more of an opportunity to explore and take in the floats and costumes.”
5. Get in the Spirit
Don’t make the mistake of thinking elaborate costumes and masks are only for lucky float riders. Get creative and wear something outrageous and fun, preferably in the carnival colors of purple, green and gold. You’ll be surprised how easy making friends along the parade route becomes. Also, you’re sure to get attention from float krewe members, which means, more throws and more loot. Grown adults clamoring for flashing trinkets, doubloons and moon pies—one of Mardi Gras’ most entertaining and endearing sights.
Locals pull out all the stops for this, their favorite time of year, hosting (mostly daytime) house parties with music playing, crawfish boiling and libations flowing. Exploring the streets just off a parade route allows you to soak up a neighborhood’s atmosphere and, through friendly conversation as you pass by, the chance of scoring a party invite which happens more often than you think.
7. Dine Out
You might assume getting into a restaurant during Mardi Gras is impossible, but it actually isn’t. Locals are attending house parties and avoiding amateur hour. Visitors are busy staggering along the streets, dealing with booted tires or searching for missing bikes. For a full NOLA experience, make reservations at one of the city’s famed restaurants-just leave the costume and beads in your room for tomorrow’s parade.
With all the drinking and crawfish eating, you’ll need something sweet to make the meal complete, and Mardi Gras’ famous king cakes will do the trick. To be thorough, try the French, Vietnamese and traditional versions. New Orleans Eater is a good resource for plotting your sugar fix. Remember, if the cake is traditional, there’s a baby inside. Whoever finds the prize buys the next king cake and/or throws the next party.
9. Feel the Rhythm
The marching bands you will hear during the day are a great intro to New Orleans music, emphasis on the word intro. Save some energy to dance the night away to live music at NOLA’s famous clubs. From Tip’s and The Howling Wolf to Maple Leaf and the venues on Frenchman, the city is alive with celebratory tunes until the wee hours. To see what’s on the schedule, check out Satchmo.
10. Keep Going
If the phrase “hair of the dog” wasn’t coined in New Orleans, it should have been. In this city of excess, it’s perfectly fine to drink on the street, (for those 21 and up) so grab a bloody mary in a to-go cup, make your way to the day’s first parade and you’ll be back in the saddle in no time.
11. Take Care of Yourself
Pace yourself. The city offers enough temptations to keep even the most sensible traveler running all day and dancing all night on any given weekend. Take pit stops during the day to recharge, get in a few good meals throughout the day and hydrate as much as possible-packing a refillable water bottle for the weekend is smart.
Jess is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for all things travel, art and the outdoors.