It's not just the Mardi Gras you see on TV
When my wife and I tell people we are going to Mardi Gras, one of their first responses is, “are you taking the kids?” Our response is “of course, Mardi Gras is much more than what you see on TV.”
My first trip to this annual celebration in the Big Easy was in 1995. My friends (who are New Orleans natives) invited me to visit and it was hard to pass up the opportunity. Since then I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve been to Mardi Gras. Each year, the countdown to Mardi Gras is probably more anticipated than Christmas.
Having taken in Mardi Gras so many times, we certainly know the ropes, so if you’re thinking about reveling in this grand celebration here are a few things to know before you go.
Mardi Gras is one day … Carnival is the whole season
Many people think of Mardi Gras as one big party that starts on "Fat Tuesday." Well, if you go down to New Orleans thinking that, you'll miss most of the party. The Carnival season begins on January 6th, and depending on when Ash Wednesday falls, can last until the first of March. (All the celebrations end when Ash Wednesday begins).
New Orleans’ history, architecture and location make it a destination for travelers all around the world. With that in mind, remember that during the Mardi Gras season, more than a million people will be joining you for the festivities. Crowds are hard to avoid during this time of year, but there are ways to avoid the largest crowds, especially if you take in the earlier parades of the season or ones in the suburbs of the city.
Everyone loves a parade
When I went to Mardi Gras for the first time, I knew I would be going to a few parades, but really I had no clue what a spectacle some of them could be. Now when we go down, we might take in as many as 15 parades between Thursday and Mardi Gras day. and spend hours upon hours in the same spot along the parade route.
Parading begins on January 6th and picks up steam each weekend through the big day. At times it can be mind boggling just how many choices you have when it comes to seeing a parade, so you should visit sites like mardigras.com to come up with a game plan.
The commercial nature of American parades isn’t something you’ll see when you come to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Each parade is put on by a krewe, which is a private club. You won't see corporate sponsorships or anything of the sorts. The Krewe of Bacchus and the Krewe of Endymion each have several thousand members and as “superkrewes” present the largest parades not only in New Orleans but in the world. These parades can last for several hours, include dozens of floats and bands and a few celebrities too.
When you come back from NOLA with lots of beads, people think you must have done something lewd to get them. However, there is little you have to do to bring back a big haul. One just needs to look around our house and you’ll realize once Mardi Gras comes into your life it’s going to be there a long time. (We even transform our Christmas Tree into a Mardi Gras tree).
Beads come off the float fast and furious at times, but that’s not all. Other coveted throws include cups, stuffed animals, toys and doubloons (special coins usually tied to the theme of each parade). Just stake out your place on a parade route, throw your hands up in the air and if you want shout out "throw me something mister!" and before you know it you’ll have bags filled with FREE Mardi Gras souvenirs.
Mardi Gras is not all a drunken boob fest
Many times when I talk to people about going to Mardi Gras and taking the kids, they think I'm out of my mind. For most people unfamiliar with the celebration, the images from Bourbon Street are what usually comes to mind.
Mardi Gras is actually an event that entire families come out to enjoy, especially the children. What happens on Bourbon Street usually stays on Bourbon Street or at least stays within a few blocks. At times, things in the middle of the French Quarter can get a little out of hand, so just avoid it at night during Carnival and on Mardi Gras day.
Take time to enjoy the food
Since you're likely going to spend a lot of time on a parade route, you'll want to stock up on food since you might not have a lot of choices of places to eat along the parade route. New Orleans cuisine is unlike any other place. Grab some Zap's Spicy Cajun Crawtator Chips, a King Cake, and some mini-muffalettas to snack on as you wait for the parades to pass. If it's in season, pick up a couple of pounds of crawfish, some fresh Gulf shrimp and stop for Cafe du Monde beignets on the way to the parade route. In New Orleans, you can also pick up a gallon sized daiquiri at a drive-thru.
Walking through New Orleans
Many cities go crazy decorating for Christmas, but in New Orleans it's hard to go anywhere during the Carnival season without seeing a bunch of purple, gold and green adorning homes and businesses. Take a stroll through almost any neighborhood including the Garden District and the French Quarter and take in all the festive colors and the unique architecture.
Mardi Gras is something that should be on your bucket list. And if you do plan on coming down, you’ll need to book your lodging well in advance if possible. If Mardi Gras isn’t your thing a visit to New Orleans another time of year should be on your bucket list. There's almost always a festival going on and if not, the city is always alive with a festive spirit.