Beyond the Bayou’s Guide to Mardi Gras
Visiting New Orleans at Mardi Gras time can be an overwhelming experience between the crowds, the overindulgence and the lack of available transportation. But if you know when to go, where to go and how to get there you can have an authentically local Mardi Gras experience soaking in culture and tradition while seeing the most beautiful parts of the Crescent City. Though not widely known, Mardi Gras is just the final day of a month-long Carnival season packed with unique parades. This piece will fill you in on the off-the-beaten-path highlights of that season, the best ways to go about seeing them, and some unique ways to experience Louisiana and a culture that goes far beyond Bourbon Street and the French Quarter.
Carnival Season originated in medieval times as a festival of the fatted calf (Boeuf Gras) before the beginning of Lent. The tradition passed through Rome and Venice, eventually showing up in the French House of the Bourbons and continued on through Catholics in the French Colonies that are now the Gulf South. The Festival begins on the Twelfth Night and slowly progresses in intensity until the day before Ash Wednesday, which can be any Tuesday between February 3rd and March 9th.
We highly recommend renting a bicycle during the Carnival season, the closer you are to Mardi Gras day the more important it gets. This will allow you to get around easily without having to worry about traffic, parking, and police. It is the ideal way to get around this town; there are many places to rent including Bicycle Michael’s on Frenchmen Street and BikeNola at 1209 Decatur St in the French Quarter.
Early Season Parades:
Let’s start at the beginning of the Festival Season: January 6th, Twelfth Night. As the season kicks off, go watch the Joan of Arc parade at 6 pm in the French Quarter. This medieval-themed walking parade with jugglers and knights and saints on horseback is done as a tribute to Saint Joan of Arc’s birthday, known as the patron saint of France and the unofficial patron saint of New Orleans. You can also head uptown to watch the Phunny Phorty Fellows, a krewe that has been heralding the beginning of Carnival season since 1878. Meet them at 7pm at the Carrollton Streetcar Station for silly costumes, champagne toasts and a ribbon cutting ceremony before the krewe boards the streetcar for a celebratory ride through the city.
Krewe du Vieux is a very popular early celebration, and many would call it the best parade of the year. This event is known for its handmade floats, made by krewe members and not outsourced to professional float makers. The displays are sexually suggestive and politically satirical, and there is no shortage of outlandish costumes, making for plenty of laughs and a night you’ll never forget. It happens this year on Feb 11th @ 6:30 pm. Get ready for rowdy good times and plenty of characters.
The nice thing about traveling during this early portion of the Carnival season is that the crowds will be smaller, the city will be easier to get around and most importantly: Second Line Parades are still happening! These traveling block parties featuring elaborate matching costumes, dance crews, and brass bands are guaranteed to get your blood pumping with loud music and street vendors firing up their grills, selling drinks and offering a variety of savory and sweet foods. Put on your most colorful outfit, visit WWOZ.org and check out their “In the Streets” page for the route and start time. Each weekend is a different parade with a different route, but it’s always an awesome time and makes for great photos.
Mid Season Parades:
On February 18th, bring your magnifying glass over to the Krewe of ‘tit Rex parade. This parade belongs to New Orleans’ only “Micro-Krewe”, and they make an assortment of miniature floats that they parade through the streets. The event starts this year at 5 pm at the corner of St. Roch and St. Claude.
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus also has its annual parade this year on Feb 18th, starting at 7 pm at Press and Royal and continuing through the French Quarter. This Krewe started as a ragtag group of Science Fiction enthusiasts and has grown into a massive celebration featuring well-known characters and creatures from other galaxies. The popularity of this parade has grown steadily each year, and now boasts 800 members and crowds of over 20,000 people.
The next day, Feb 19th, catch the Barkus parade, which begins and ends at Armstrong Park starting at 2 pm. This unforgettable parade of pups in silly costumes will provide plenty of laughs and opportunities for hilarious photos. Catch it at the beginning or end to avoid the massive crowds in the Quarter.
Late Season Parades:
On Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), head down to Waldenburg Riverfront Park for a festival put on by the Krewe of Zulu. This party hosted by New Orleans’ original black parade Krewe features numerous musical acts, food, drinks, and presentations of the 2017 royalty. Beginning at 11 am on Monday, Feb 27th.
To see some incredible handmade costumes on Lundi Gras, head to the Marigny Opera House at 2 pm to catch the beginning of the Red Beans and Rice parade. These intricate handmade costumes all made from beans and rice will amaze you. New Orleans is home to some very talented and artistic folks and their skills are on full display at this event.
Early on Mardi Gras day, starting at 6 am, the Skull and Bones Gang roams the Treme in their skeleton costumes, playing music and waking up the neighborhood. This is one you will have to search for, but it often begins at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and it is a unique tradition dating back over 100 years. During the course of Mardi Gras day, keep your eyes peeled for Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition that originated as a tribute to the Native Americans who helped escaped slaves survive in the swamps. Tribe members in their famous colorful suits of beads and feathers roam the streets, most often in the Treme and Central City neighborhoods. Look for them at Zulu events and wandering around the Sixth Ward as well as near Claiborne and St. Claude streets.
Don’t miss the Zulu parade at 8 am on Mardi Gras day, which first marched in 1909 as a parody of the Rex parade and a humorous take on stereotypes. The Zulu Social & Pleasure Club is now one of the most established societies in New Orleans and their parade always has a huge turnout, with thousands of people fighting to catch one of their famous painted coconuts or “golden nuggets”. These throws are among the most sought after in Mardi Gras and are custom painted by Krewe members. The best way to view this parade is along Jackson Street before it reaches St. Charles. This area is easier to get to, less crowded, has more of a local community vibe. Because of the local crowd and early spot on the parade route, it will give you better chances of catching a coconut!
Beginning at 10 am at Bud Rips bar in the Bywater and traveling onwards through the Marigny, the Societe de Saint Anne parade features more wild handmade costumes than you have ever seen in your life. The creativity and artistic talent of New Orleans is on full display at this event. It is a full day affair, roving slowly through the streets with music and large floats and thousands of costumed revelers. This tends to be a younger and trendier crowd, but it is a celebration open to anybody who embraces the eccentric spirit of New Orleans.
Music and Tours:
Make sure to catch some music while you are in town. New Orleans has the best Jazz, Blues, Funk and Soul in the world. For some downtown shows with big crowds and funky music check out the post-parade concerts at Howling Wolf. They feature great local talent at affordable prices. The room and bar leave something to be desired, but there is reliable quality music available after the major parades.
If you want something more old-school local check out the calendar for shows at Tipitina’s Uptown. This venue is famous for hosting the best concerts in town since 1977 with artists like The Meters and Professor Longhair, and you can definitely feel the history in the building. With 3 bars and 2 levels for viewing (get there early to grab a spot along the railing upstairs!), this is the go-to spot for great shows in New Orleans.
For more low key vibes and quality jazz, check out Dos Jefes uptown on Tchoupitoulas. They always have great local artists playing, but it is a cigar bar so expect the indoors to be a little fragrant. You can always go hang on their patio for some fresh air.
The Maple Leaf on a Sunday is a must do when visiting town, for their incredible music and Crawfish Boil. Get there a little before 10 so you can get a spot at the table before they pour out the steaming crawdads, surrounded by potatoes, corn, rabbit, boudin, smoked sausage and all sorts of savory spicy morsels. After the food is gone the concert will start, the Joe Krown Trio featuring Walter Wolfman Washington and Russell Batiste Jr. These world-class blues, funk and soul musicians kill it onstage every Sunday here on Oak St. We also recommend getting a light dinner next door at Jacque Imo’s before the show, you can’t beat the soul food and ambiance at that joint. Leave plenty of room for the Crawfish Boil though!
Make sure to take some time to learn about the history and culture of Louisiana apart from Mardi Gras, and to see scenic swamps and plantations outside of town. At Beyond the Bayou Tours we offer New Orleans’ only true Eco-Tours, and our expert guides have unparalleled knowledge of the history, culture, and ecosystems here. Paddle through a swamp and spot alligators, turtles and rare birds. Take a guided tour through the Treme neighborhood, or around Whitney Plantation, the only memorial to the slave trade in the US. We also offer 2 and 4-day tour packages up to Cajun Country, where you can experience an entirely different Louisiana culture! Transportation and a driver guide are included in all packages.
These tours will definitely be a highlight of your time here, and you will get so much more than the typical tourist trip offered here in New Orleans. Small groups ensure a truly educational and personalized experience.
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Enjoy your travels in New Orleans, and have a happy Carnival season!