Your Guide To Visiting New Orleans During Mardi Gras

Traditionally a Catholic holiday, Mardi Gras is the last day of the Carnival festival. Also known as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras is the precursor to Lent, the season of fasting, that then leads into Easter. This year, Mardi Gras falls on February 21, but the date changes yearly and can span from mid-February to early March. Though it is celebrated in many countries of the world and the United States has celebrations in many of its cities, none in the world compare to that of New Orleans. From the honoring of traditions that date back centuries to blow-out celebrations that span the week leading up to the holiday, New Orleans is the place to be when it comes to Mardi Gras — so much so that the holiday is almost synonymous with the city.

New Orleans during Mardi Gras can be a pretty wild time, as a lot of people travel into the city and locals also take part in events. Preparing for and understanding how New Orleans celebrates the holiday can be valuable in making the very best memories out of the experience, so here's a full guide of what to expect and know when visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

Know how to conduct yourself

New Orleans is a city that goes hard in a lot of ways, and Mardi Gras is the city's biggest and grandest celebration. Not only will there be more people pouring into the city, Louisiana is the only state that gives Mardi Gras federal holiday status, meaning locals will be out in the masses as well. Knowing how to handle yourself in such a chaotic environment will go a long way in setting yourself up for a successful and memorable trip, while also making sure you don't upset the locals.

While you may correlate New Orleans' Mardi Gras with "Girls Gone Wild" and women flashing their goods for beads, this is somewhat of a myth. There are plenty of beads to go around and the only people who will be flashing the crowds are visitors who buy into the stereotypes of New Orleans. Please, do not come to NOLA prepared to bear all — it's illegal and locals look down on it. There's arguably nothing worse than having a nice holiday with the family just to be met with drunk, half-naked tourists diving from balconies for beads.

Alcohol is very present during the holiday, especially with New Orleans being an open-container city. This means that you can bring your own alcohol to celebrations and take drinks from bars. You can still get arrested for being drunk in public, though, and no glass containers are permitted. Also, please be a good human and refrain from littering.

Where to stay in NOLA

Where you stay will depend on what you wish to get out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. If you want to be on top of all the action and don't mind being in the epicenter of where all the crowds will be, you'll want to book in the French Quarter. Hotels are grand and luxurious here, so you'll be spending a pretty penny, especially during Mardi Gras.

Wherever you decide to stay, you'll need to plan and secure your reservations well in advance, because things will go pretty quickly if you're booking during Mardi Gras. There are certainly plenty of great options for New Orleans hotels or short-term rentals in the area, but if you want to get the most out of Mardi Gras, a balcony view of the celebrations is a must, and booking a balcony room in hotels like Bourbon Orleans Hotel or the Henry Howard Hotel. These will be even more pricey and sell out much more quickly

Depending on your budget, when you decide on celebrating the holiday in the Big Easy, and/or your tolerance for late-night party crowds, you may need to book lodgings somewhere outside of the French Quarter. The artistic and eclectic Bywater District and Faubourg Marigny neighborhood are great options, as well as the Garden District and Lower Garden District.

What to pack

New Orleans during Mardi Gras is really a toss up when it comes to weather, and you'll need to check on what the weather is like in the city while you are packing. In fact, bringing clothing that will keep you cool during the day and warm during the night isn't a bad idea, that way you're prepared for long nights spent outdoors or on balconies in the finicky Louisiana air. According to the travel blog Lost With Purpose, incorporating some wacky, colorful and textural clothing into your vacation wardrobe is a great idea, as flamboyant attire and costumes are very welcome during Mardi Gras and are a great way to join in on the festivities in the best way possible.

Make sure to bring a reliable bag to put all your parade catches in as not everything you get will be as wearable as beads. Fanny packs are a great option for people who tend to leave their belongings behind when toasted, as their convenience, versatility, and throwback status have them coming straight out of the '90s and back into style with a vengeance.

Other necessities that are staples on your typical travel packing list, like sunscreen and a portable charger, should be brought along on a trip to New Orleans. In addition, though, it may be beneficial to bring a cooler or portable drink container. Since New Orleans is an open container city, being able to carry your own beverages will save time and money when celebrating, but don't forget the water, too!

Which New Orleans neighborhoods to visit

While Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are pretty much go-to's for Mardi Gras and any other huge event in the city, New Orleans has other lovely neighborhoods and the holiday is one that is celebrated throughout the city. In fact, there is a marathon of celebrations throughout the whole week leading up to Mardi Gras, and the French Quarter is only the crowning diamond on a whole crown's worth of jewels when it comes to parades and events throughout New Orleans.

According to Travel Broads' Mardi Gras neighborhood guide, the Treme neighborhood is the hidden gem during Mardi Gras that a lot of visitors go without. The neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city and full of culture, so much so that it inspired a reflective, four-season HBO series. The Treme's main tradition is a skeleton procession on the morning of Mardi Gras called the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, and it is a sight very worth seeing and experiencing.

The Marigny is another neighborhood that hosts an elaborate Mardi Gras celebration earlier in the day. The area is known as an eclectic place artists and creatives gather, and their costume parade is a perfect example of just how flamboyant their DIY projects can get. Visitors can even join in on the celebrations by making their own garb for the celebration.

The many Carnival parades of New Orleans

If you visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you're not going to be able to get away from the parades. They are everywhere, pretty much all of the time. Whether people are in preparation for a parade or one is ongoing, you will be crossing paths with huge and elaborate floats and people decked out in costumes. There's practically no way you'll be able to hit them all, though, so you'll have to choose carefully which parades you attend.

The celebration of Carnival is a lengthy one in New Orleans always starting on January 6th no matter what day Mardi Gras lands on, and the opening act is an impressive one. The Joan of Arc Parade starts off the celebrations with medieval costumes and a huge paper mache dragon.

Krewes in New Orleans exist solely for Carnival and are groups or societies that get together to march or parade for the holiday. There are many krewes in New Orleans and a lot of them are quite impressive. The all-male Krewe of Bacchus, for example, put on a great parade in Uptown full of costumes and huge, elaborate floats. They also pick a male celebrity to lead the celebration as King each year, past Kings have included comedians, actors, and football stars. It is just one of the many New Orleans Carnival parades happening over the weeks leading to Mardi Gras that are must-sees if in the city.

Understanding throws

Traditionally, it's understood that attending a parade will result in some candy thrown your way. New Orleans does it a little differently when it comes to Mardi Gras and the many Carnival parades. Yes, candy may be thrown from floats, but a whole slew of other objects will be catapulted through the air toward those in attendance. These objects are called throws, and there are plenty of different things to collect during Carnival.

Of course, you have probably heard about the Mardi Gras beads that have become quite famous and available to buy in dollar stores and party shops throughout the country, but parade participants will also throw things like small stuffed animals, light-up rave gear, and doubloons. There are also signature throws, which are special to the many different krewes that celebrate the holiday. For example, the Krewe of Muses is an all-female group that has the tradition of creating and throwing elaborately blinged-out shoes during their parade.

While throws are distributed to the masses during any parades, there is one traditional way to ask a krewe member to give you something a little special. "Throw me something, Mister!" and other variations of that simple saying are cried out from crowds to parade participants in hope of getting something good. Be sure to have the phrase in your back pocket when near a float, as someone may have more than just beads to throw.

Attending balls and special private events

Parades may be the biggest, most noticeable part of Mardi Gras, but New Orleans turns out some pretty epic and elaborate balls as well. While the parades are an affordable way to celebrate as they're typically available to anyone who crosses their paths and there are no cover charges, balls offer a more private and high-end experience, considering they are typically ticket-only events.

Some of the more extravagant balls put together by the krewes of New Orleans are by invitation only, and those who receive an invitation would be sorely remiss by not going. Other krewes put on more public balls, but they are no less formal. If you wish to add attendance to a ball to your Carnival New Orleans experience, make sure to pack a tux or gown so you can look the part at balls thrown by the likes of the Krewe of Orpheus.

If you'd like to attend a ball or Mardi Gras party and feel uncomfortable or out of place in a super formal outfit, Krewe du Vieux's ball encourages party-goers to keep their elaborate costume on for their krewe party instead of donning a tux or ball gown. While most tickets to krewe balls are exclusive and pricey, Krewe du Vieux keeps their Carnival party open to the public with more affordable ticket prices.

How to keep yourself safe

While New Orleans has had its fair share of bad press over crime and safety, according to Free Tours By Foot, the main tourist areas are just as safe as other popular destinations. Of course, the risk of theft increases when you enter crowded areas known for having a lot of traffic, especially when tourists are known to be there in large numbers as well. By sticking to areas not known as hot spots for crime and being aware of your person and the people around you, you will have a fun and safe Mardi Gras experience.

For the most part, if you are traveling to New Orleans to experience Carnival and Mardi Gras, there's not much reason to leave the high-traffic areas. The French Quarter and the neighborhoods bordering and surrounding it will have plenty of festivities to focus on for the holiday. If you do venture outside of those areas, though, be sure to let someone you are close with know your location, know exactly what you are venturing out for, and stick to that plan without much lollygagging.

To keep yourself as safe as possible in New Orleans during Carnival, the local police departments recommend traveling in groups and having a set meet-up place in case you get separated in the crowds. While difficult in large crowds, paying attention to your surroundings is vital in keeping yourself and your group safe.

How to get around

If you can manage it, traveling by foot during Mardi Gras is probably the way to go. Streets will be hectic and full of people, which makes for increased risk and traffic. Bikes are also a great option for travelers who are experienced and have the space to bring them along with them into the city. Street parking is pretty much out of the question during Mardi Gras, as cars will get towed swiftly if there's a chance of them interfering with parades and parade routes, so if you can avoid traversing the city via car, do it.

If neither walking nor biking are great options for your particular needs, though, New Orleans' street cars are a great way to get around and if you absolutely want to go the car route, rideshares are decent enough options. They allow you to get dropped off at a location and do not require the seemingly impossible task of parking. According to Mardi Gras New Orleans, though, street cars will not operate two hours before and two hours after a parade, so you may want a backup transport plan if using them.

Don't miss out on Lundi Gras

Taking place the day before Mardi Gras and logically known as Fat Monday, Lundi Gras is a huge celebration all on its own. Like other days that fall between the start of Carnival and Mardi Gras, festivals, parades, and cultural observations all take place throughout this day. New Orleans will use pretty much anything as an excuse to throw a party, and the many krewes of the city embellish their traditions a little bit every year. This makes some of the annual Lundi Gras celebrations only improve as time goes on.

The Zulu Lundi Gras Festival is a cultural festival and celebration that honors Zulu characters. It is free to the public and takes place pretty much all day along the riverfront of the French Quarter. The Red Beans Parade also takes place on Lundi Gras and consists of krewe members who have created costumes for themselves made out of, you guessed it, red beans. This tradition is to honor the traditional meal of Fat Monday. Interestingly enough, a macabre version of the parade, The Dead Beans Parade, also takes place on this day.

Take part in local traditions

In addition to a whole bunch of parades and festivals, there are other smaller traditions that are very much alive and prevalent in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. You'll find king cakes available throughout the city and a part of Carnival celebrations. The delicious dessert not only comes in the famous Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple but also contains a little plastic baby somewhere within the large, circular cinnamon roll-like pastry. Whoever gets the slice containing the baby is named King for Mardi Gras, and must be the one to bring the cake next go-around.

Another cherished, yet mysterious tradition of Mardi Gras is a subculture within the community. The Mardi Gras Indians are a more secretive group that puts on their own parade to counteract that of typical Carnival celebrations. They are largely made up of Black members that, historically speaking, did not feel welcome in participating in mainstream celebrations. Their route and marching times are never made public knowledge ahead of time, but their intricate and elaborate costumes made up of colorful feathers are a wonderful sight to behold.

Mardi Gras for the whole family

Kids are out of school and a lot of parents are off work for Mardi Gras, which makes it the perfect family day for locals. This means that there are plenty of family-friendly events in the city that are also open for visitors. Most parades and celebrations – save the exclusive balls – during Carnival are family-friendly, if you feel comfortable bringing the kids along and traversing the massive crowds with them in tow.

The traveling couple behind Y Travel Blog not only brought their kids to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but loved every second of it. Their guide for celebrating the holiday with kids includes taking part in wearing wild costumes with them and educating them on all the happenings around the city and what the holiday is all about.

Uptown is a great place to take the whole family, and the neighborhood has plenty going on throughout the Carnival season. The Krewe of Bacchus Parade is centered in Uptown and has over 30 huge floats that kids would love, from their Kong family floats to a dinosaur they appropriately call Bacchasaurus. Funky Uptown Krewe kickstarts Carnival in Uptown on January 6 every year as well, and their parade makes a great time for the whole family.

Local businesses that do Mardi Gras right

Mardi Gras is even more important to the locals than it is to those visiting for the bustling holiday. Local businesses not only see a ton of business from locals and tourists in the packed city, but they see a lot of positivity from the various krewes of New Orleans, as the krewes are active in philanthropy and like to give back to the local community. As such, local businesses tend to honor this time of year in various ways — one local jeweler even gave real pearl necklaces as throws in 2022.

If you have to have king cake during the celebrations, you may as well have a good one, and Tartine does a phenomenal take on the classic dessert (via The Scout Guide) – they even ship them to customers outside of New Orleans as well as offer local pickup and delivery. Businesses tend to go all out with decorating for the holiday as well, helping turn New Orleans green, gold, and purple for the duration of Carnival.

Not only do the shops make themselves look the part for the holiday, but some help revelers do the same. Costume and mask shops are helpful for travelers who didn't pack their own for the celebrations, and can even act as a great memento of the trip. Maskerade and Miss Claudia's are both great shops you can find unique pieces to stand out, and fit in, during Mardi Gras.