Mardi Gras is one of the most festive celebrations of the year in New Orleans. If you’re heading down to the “Big Easy” to celebrate, you’re in luck. In anticipation of the holiday, Hotels.com asked me to share my tips for planning an epic trip to see the “Greatest Free Show on Earth”. Here I’ll share a brief history, things to know before you go and some tips for saving some money so you can make the most of your trip.
Tips for Celebrating Mardi Gras Weekend in New Orleans
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday,” is a celebration that dates back thousands of years. Some say it originates from ancient celebrations, such as Saturnalia. However, the festivities actually come from the Catholic Church. The initial goal was to discourage people from eating meat during Lent amongst other things.
French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville brought Mardi Gras to America on March 3, 1699. He chose to hold a small gala at Point du Mardi Gras, near New Orleans, on the same day as Fat Tuesday in France. Years later, street parties, masks, and feasts were added to the celebration. Under the leadership of the Spanish, rituals like it were banned. But the fun came back in 1812 when Louisiana became a U.S. state. Students introduced colorful costumes and dancing in the street to the festivities in 1827 and the first parade was held ten years later. The holiday continues to this day.
Upcoming Mardi Gras Dates
When is Mardi Gras?
- Tuesday, February 25, 2020
- Tuesday, February 16, 2021
- Tuesday, March 1, 2022
The Carnival season begins January 6th (King’s Day) but Mardis Gras day is different every year. Most people plan to arrive the Saturday prior to Mardis Gras and stay through Ash Wednesday (the day after).
Fun Mardis Gras Activities
Come early and catch the parades. There are over 80 parades scheduled to take place in NOLA for 2020. The parades include elaborate floats, costumes, beads, and music. If you are traveling to New Orleans for the festivities, arrive a few days early because some of the best parades occur before Fat Tuesday.
Three well-known parade groups, which are known as “krewes”, are Orpheus, Bacchus, and Endymion. On days of parades, make sure to get there early because large crowds gather to get a good view. You can watch the parades from the street, a hotel, bar balcony, or the grandstands specifically built for the occasion.
Find the perfect costume and join a marching krewe on foot. Some groups are led by brass bands through the French Quarter and then the group goes to a local bar to keep the party going. Marching is free and worth the experience. Fifi Mahony’s wig shop in the French Quarter is a favorite spot to pick up a colorful wig to match your style.
Other Things to Do in New Orleans
Taste the amazing food of New Orleans. There is actually a debate as to whether the sweet treat of NOLA, the beignet, is best served at Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet. If you have the time and an empty stomach, I recommend you try a beignet and coffee from both locations and draw your own conclusions. You can access both places and plus some popular NOLA restaurants on a free walking tour.
Breakaway from the city and explore the swamp. Swamp tours require you to drive outside of the city but some companies will provide you transportation or you can drive over to save money. The tours will take you along the swamp so you can look at wildlife natural to the area like wild pigs and alligators. In February, the weather might be a bit colder so some alligators might be hibernating in the mud, but you may have one or two come out to greet you!
For all things New Orleans, listen to this podcast episode with Fender and Maloney from Traveler Broads, two locals who know the French Quater inside and out. For all the resources mentioned in this episode, check out the show notes page here.
Ways to Save
The best way to save on your hotel accommodations in New Orleans near the French Quarter is to book early. Expect increased hotel prices during Mardi Gras weekend, especially if you want to be within walking distance from the French Quarter.
Alternatively, you can stay outside the city in the suburbs and take a 15-minute cab ride to the party each day. Cabs are recommended since parking might be a challenge since many streets are closed down for the parades. A cab driver, more familiar with the area should be able to navigate the streets for you.
Another way to save during your trip to New Orleans is to bring your own cup and fill it up wherever you go. Local law in New Orleans allows open containers for adult drinks so all you need is a plastic cup. Sorry glass and cans are not permitted. Just beware, public restrooms may be limited or require a fee to use. Some restaurants, even fast food joints, may charge a fee for access to their restrooms.
Lastly, since freebies are thrown to pedestrians during the parades, bring a bag and aim to grab what you can. The most covenant gifts are the hand-painted Zulu coconuts and glittery Muses shoe. Beads, cups, stuffed animals, and coins are thrown into the crowds more often. Use your grab bag to store all your treasure.
Chances are you won’t run out of fun stuff to do during New Orleans’ biggest party of the year. Nevertheless, it’s best to plan your weekend so you make the most of it. But also leave yourself a little room to wander off the beaten path and go where the fun leads you.