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Your Last-Minute Guide to Mardi Gras — The Greatest Free Show on Earth!

Written by Dhinesh Manuel

This blog post was updated on June 8, 2023.

The brass horns and rat-a-tat cadence of second-line drumming, the trinkets and doubloons being thrown in the air, the splattering of purple, green and gold on almost everything, the general sense of excitement and revelry can all mean only one thing in the great city of New Orleans: It’s Mardi Gras time!

Ever since the first Mardi Gras celebration was held in relative obscurity in 1703  in the location that is now Mobile, Alabama (it was introduced to New Orleans much later, with the first organized parade in the city being in 1837), the festival has now grown into a world-famous extravaganza, and a “must-experience” bucket list item for travelers.

For all you travelers who just recovered from the holiday season debauchery, that doesn’t give you much time to plan your trip to the Big Easy. But fear not: we’ve put together a very useful summary of important things you need to know before hitting the Crescent City  — especially with just a few weeks to go!

So hold on to your hats — it’s time for the “Greatest Free Show on Earth!”

Getting There

Flights to New Orleans will be quite expensive the closer it gets to Mardi Gras so it’s essential to plan a bit in advance, and NOT at the very last moment. Thankfully, you’ve still got a few weeks left, and these last minute flight deals may help you find an affordable way to get there in style…without stretching your budget too much.

Once you get to Louis Armstrong International Airport, there are a bunch of ways to get into the city:

  • BEST OPTION: On weekdays, the E-2 bus (Airport Downtown Express  — run by the Jefferson Transit Authority), will charge just $2 to take you from the airport all the way to Tulane and Elk Place, smack in the middle of downtown New Orleans, which is just a short walk to the French Quarter and areas downtown (up to 2 small pieces of luggage and the trip is about 50 minutes). On weekends, the E2 bus only goes as far as Tulane and Carrollton. You’ll have to connect to Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) buses for access to downtown. Make sure to check their respective websites for bus schedules and changes.
  • Only Uber is allowed for rideshare pickups at the airport. It’ll run you a bit less than a regular taxi ($33-50 for a ride into the French Quarter). You’ll have to walk over to the
    Transportation Center which is on the first floor of the Short Term Parking garage to meet your driver.
  • Regular taxi cabs will cost $36.00 from the airport to the Central Business District (CBD) or French Quarter (west of Elysian Fields) for up to 2 passengers. For 3 or more passengers, the fare will be $15.00 per passenger.

Where to Stay

Much of the action will be centered around the parade routes that snake their way through the French Quarter, Downtown/Warehouse District and Garden District, making these neighborhoods the ideal places you’ll want to set up base. However, hotels in these areas tend to book out lightning fast so it’s important to reserve well in advance.

You might be able to find a last-minute deal at the Maison Dupuy Hotel. Perks are that you’ll be amazingly centered in on all the action: The hotel’s just steps from Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park, and the Basin St. Station Visitor Information Cultural Center. The Maison Dupuy is also great for large groups and families, so you won’t be out on the lurch if you want to take the kids along as well.

Also, don’t forget to have a look at the Hotel Mazarin, another gem conveniently located in the French Quarter. This affordable boutique hotel is just half a block away from all the action on Bourbon Street, but gives you the option of quickly retreating to the comfort of your room when you need to. It’s also close to New Orleans attractions like the Pharmacy Museum and Musical Legends Park.

Things You Have to Experience

Hide Your Face, Not Your Emotions

Wearing a mask on Mardi Gras Tuesday is a MUST and it will help in efforts to get more beads and other trinkets thrown your way.

 Interesting fact: By law, float riders must always have a mask on.

If you’re thinking of going all out on a costume, make sure you wear things you can easily take off and carry with you, as all the humidity and alcohol can take a toll on you through the day.

Take a Royal Bite into Some King Cake

From the start of carnival on January 6, you’ll find this tasty sweet treat being enjoyed all around town. King cake is a brioche-based cake that’s ring or oval shaped, smothered in cinnamon and icing and covered in the festive colors of purple, green, and gold (traditionally, there’d be a plastic baby hidden inside one lucky cake, but not so much these days due to it being a choking hazard). Try the apple and goat cheese variety at New Orleans Cake Cafe & Bakery, a chocolate variety at Bittersweet Confections, or a classic at Haydel’s Bakery — all you have to do is ask around for directions to where you can satisfy that sweet tooth.

Get Down with the Right Krewe

A “krewe” or a team that puts together a float for the parade, usually shows off all their hard work during Mardi Gras. It’s important to find the routes of the best krewes so that you can really get the best out of your experience.

Parades during the carnival season keep rolling through the streets from as early as January 6. But the most significant ones to watch leading up to Fat Tuesday will hit the streets from Friday, February 17, when the vibrancy and glitz of the Uptown night parades come into full force.

Try to catch at least a couple of the big boys, like Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus. These krewes they have the flashiest floats and a huge number of throws. Other notable krewes you shouldn’t miss are Zulu and Rex.

Want to be a part of more niche parades? No problem: You can bring your four-legged friends to the Barkus Parade organized by the Krewe of Barkus, or lift your lightsaber to toast the good times with the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus.

Check out our useful parade schedule right here! It’s not comprehensive, but it’s got all the highlights you definitely wouldn’t want to miss!

Spend Some Time at the Backstreet Cultural Museum

Checking out this museum in the Tremé community will give you great insight into some Mardi Gras history and traditions, including African American community-based masking and processional traditions, a great collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes, and more information on jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs.

Mardi Gras Trivia: Who are the Mardi Gras Indians? Mainly from the African-Community of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are based on stylized Native American “tribes.” They compete with each other in elaborate costumes and theatrics. While confrontations between different tribes used to escalate to street-gang-style brawls back in the day, the modern affair incorporates a friendly rivalry with competition and good humor thrown in. Indian parade routes are independent of the main Mardi Gras route.

Don’t miss out on the museum’s Mardi Gras Day Open House, where you can share breakfast and interact with costumed Mardi Gras Indians, the North Side Skull and Bone gang, musicians, culture bearers of the parade, and other important and colorful participants from the community.

Catch Those Beads!

Only at Mardi Gras is it okay to yell and plead for little worthless plastic toys and beads. But to totally get into the swing of things, be that loud adult competing for these little souvenirs!

Mardi Gras Trivia: The tradition of float riders throwing trinkets to the crowds began in the 1870s, and continues today. Typical throws include beads, cups, doubloons, and stuffed animals.

Remember to save some room in your backpack for all the throws you collect!

Important Things to Remember

  • Purple, green and gold are the colors to wear
  • Pace yourself with the alcohol consumption – you don’t want to be that guy who peaks too early and is passed out under a shady tree while the partying goes on till the wee hours of the morning.
  • Relieving yourself of the heat with a cold brew on the streets may be okay, but definitely NOT relieving your bladder — urinating on the streets is a punishable offense. Also, make sure to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer — hotels won’t let you use their bathrooms which will leave you with the option of very messy portapotties and even messier restrooms at bars.
  • Behave yourself: As mentioned earlier, Mardi Gras is very much a family event for Native New Orleans. While Bourbon Street and the Uptown area might get a little wild, remember to always respect others when parading through certain neighborhoods.
  • Make sure you wear some footwear that you don’t value too much. It’s going to be stepped on numerous times and going to be muddied beyond recognition. Make sure it’s comfortable too – there’s a lot of dancing and walking to do!
  • February in the South doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be warm and dry — Bring something light you can layer on if it gets a bit cold for your liking.

As they say in N’awlins round Mardis Gras time – Laissez les bon temps rouler! – Let the good times roll!

Do you have any tips for Mardi Gras 2017? Let us know in the comments section!

About the author

Dhinesh Manuel

Socialite, philanthropist, costumed crime fighter by wait...that's bad ...

Musician, writer, travel junkie, dog lover, and database of useless information. I love to learn about new cultures, experience new cuisines, meet new people, and have a few laughs along the way!

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