Your first Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans should be memorable, so I’m sharing my first experience along with things you should know and other ways to celebrate while in town so you know what to anticipate and can plan ahead.
Would you believe I was afraid to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
Despite looking so fun, the idea of being squished between hundreds of strangers did not appeal to me. Little did I know that Mardi Gras in New Orleans was so much more than huge crowds.
Having been our ninth visit to New Orleans, we have enjoyed so much of what the city has to offer and did not think we could love it anymore. That is, of course, until we experienced our first Mardi Gras parade.
Continue reading for more on what Mardi Gras is, what to expect, and some other fun tidbits about this festive season.
Check Out The 2023 New Orleans Parade Schedule Here
Mardi Gras Celebrations Last More Than One Day
That’s right! When I was younger, I thought Mardi Gras only happened one day a year. I’ve since learned it’s a multi-month-long celebration full of festive balls, many parades, festive decor, king cakes galore, and lots of other festivities. We left the Saturday before Fat Tuesday and even though we left before the big day, we still got to experience a lot. I’ll be honest, though, I did not want to go home, it was so much fun! Keep reading for more of my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans experience below.
So, What Is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras encompasses the celebrations that happen during Carnival, a Christian festive season that occurs before Lent. Rio de Janeiro holds the Guinness World Record for the largest carnival parade but when it comes to Mardi Gras I feel most people think of New Orleans.
Mardi Gras traditionally begins on January 6th, known as Epiphany, and goes through Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. It is a month-long celebration before the season of Lent begins. While the start date is the same, Fat Tuesday often fluctuates based on when Easter lands each year. Sometimes it ends in February, sometimes it ends in March.
That’s just the surface of the celebration, I encourage you to read more about it to learn the rich and fascinating history of this festive season as I can not do it justice in a few paragraphs on my blog. Read on for more of my personal experiences being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season for the first time.
What My First Parade Was Like
My first parade experience was exhilarating and heartbreaking.
We attended an evening parade hosted by the Mystical Krewe of Nix, an all-female krewe of 80 parade floats that was cut short due to the tragic death of a parade-goer who got caught between some floats. This tragedy cut the parade in half, something we did not realize until well into the procession.
We stood in a crowd of people, but I felt like there was ample room, which made me feel good. There were people of all ages, and to my surprise, the adults seemed to be the most into it. There were people with rakes, nets on sticks, signs, and bags ready to catch the best throws for their ever-growing collections.
We were down the street from our hotel and I had my husband run back to get my jacket as it was a bit more chilly than I expected.
The Parade Begins
There were vendors walking up and down the street with carts full of novelties, feather boas, and masks. As the evening progressed, the crowd built up. It felt like forever until we finally saw the first parade float creeping its way down St. Charles Ave. and the excitement began to increase.
The next hour or so was a blur of music, dancers, floats drawn by tractors, and the sudden urge to catch all the best throws even though I know I have no use for any of it past the novelty of it. I wanted the best beads, the cool light-up alligator, the purse, and the random things they threw. It felt like a friendly competition. I found myself watching out for the little kids making sure people didn’t push into them, giving them many of the cool things I caught. Most of all it was just the most euphoric feeling of joy that I can’t explain.
The time flew by and before we knew it, our necks were loaded with the stinky plastic beads and we were starving and amped up from the excitement hoping we could find another parade before we left New Orleans.
What Should You Wear?
Mardi Gras parades happen during January and February and sometimes in early March. While New Orleans is in the south, the weather can still fluctuate so it’s best to pack layers. You know how you react to the cold and heat best, so use your judgment. Here are some of my recommendations below.
Save The Sparkles And Bright Colors For The Day
At night, it gets chilly, crowded, and harder to see the colorful and sparkly attire. You may end up with a jacket over your sparkles, or possibly damaging that amazing sequin top while you’re jumping around, squeezing between people trying to catch beads and throws. I would consider this advice based on what you plan on doing, as with everything there are always exceptions.
Packable Rain Jacket
It can get rainy in the Big Easy. A thin, packable rain jacket or poncho you can fold up small and easily carry is never a bad idea. Light rain will not affect most parades; only severe weather will force them to cancel.
If you are going to a night parade it is more than likely going to be chilly, with a cool breeze. Consider layers you can wear in case it gets too hot. During the day, a light jacket should do the trick.
You know best how your body reacts to temperatures and changes. I tend to wear a cami, a t-shirt, and a long-sleeve either a sweater or jacket. This allows you a lot of flexibility in adjusting your attire.
Think about how you feel standing around for long periods of time and wear the right shoes for you. I recommend closed-toe, comfortable tennis shoes that you aren’t very concerned with how dirty they get.
You should probably avoid wearing jewelry and long, dangly earrings unless you’re okay with possibly losing, damaging, or breaking them while trying to catch beads tossed off the floats. Or even worse, pulled out of your ears. Ouch!
A Phone Ring Or Hook
I am a huge fan of those finger rings you can attach or buy a case with for your phone. When you’re moving around and in between lots of people, this gives your phone an extra bit of security. You can also look into those wrist loops you can attach or a Bandolier phone strap and case.
Limited Personal Items
As a tourist, I’d suggest minimal personal items to avoid losing them. If you’re going in a larger crowd of people and feel comfortable with larger personal items, do your thing. I always err on the side of less is best.
A Belt Bag Or Backpack
Because there are so many people, it’s an unfortunate reality that pickpocketing happens with ease. My best recommendation is a small purse that easily sits in front of you, a belt bag that rests on your front center or hip, or a bookbag that isn’t easy to unzip without your awareness. Another option is to make sure your pants have deep front pockets so you can keep wallets and phones there. I’ve never had something stolen myself, but after one experience walking into a packed club where I felt someone’s hand slide in my back pocket, I took this advice seriously.
Looking for the best New Orleans photo ops? Check out my post on Photographing New Orleans 15 Things You’ll Want To Capture
What To Expect At Your First Parade
It’s Very Crowded
Some parades may be more crowded than others. While we only officially went to one parade which was packed full of people, we ran into several daytime parades that ranged from packed to sporadic amounts of people.
There’s A Lot Of Energy
There is so much energy going on during the parades. In addition to floats, you may see groups parading like bands and dancers. The crowd is going wild the entire time, cheering and hollering at the Krewes on the floats to toss them something. It’s a good kind of chaos, that’s the only word I can think of that encompasses how the parades felt.
You’ll End Up With Lots Of Stuff
Unless you avoid it, you’re going to catch a lot of throws from the parades. These are little trinkets, bead necklaces, and other items. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something really cool like a huge or intricate beaded necklace, something with lights that blink… and if you’re lucky, you’ll get the coveted prize. Each Krewe has its own signature throw. Zulu has coconuts, Nyx has purses, Muses have decorated shoes, and so on. Oh, and if you see a doubloon tossed into the crowd, good luck. Those are also highly desired throws.
It Can Get Very Competitive
In a fun way. You’d be surprised how badly you want to catch the throws Krewes toss off their floats. Some come with rakes (clever!), nets on long sticks, and bags in preparation for capturing the goods. You might find yourself with bags of beads and trinkets by the time the parade is over. It wouldn’t hurt to have a bag to store items in unless you plan to wear them all.
There Is A Lot Of Color
The floats, the throws, some people get dressed up in varying levels from adding face paint or glitter to their face or wearing colorful outfits.
It May Be A Little Chilly
The parades take place in the first 2-3 months of the year where the temperature fluctuates and can go from chilly breeze to really toasty sun.
IT WILL BE SO MUCH FUN
Truly, as someone who doesn’t really like large groups of people (but oddly is okay with concert crowds) I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. The floats, the throws, and how competitive I got to grab little trinkets I had no idea how I’d even get home, and just the good energy all around.
Mardi Gras Themed Things To Do
Looking to learn more about Mardi Gras? Here are a few places to check out anytime you are in town. See parade floats, elaborate costumes and masks, ball invitations, and more.
751 Chartres St. | Tickets: $7 | Parking: You might find a street park, or could park nearby lots
When looking at the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, to your left is one of two identical buildings bookending the church called The Presbytère. Inside you’ll find two impactful exhibits: Living With Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond, and Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time In Louisiana! along with other rotating exhibits. While the hurricane exhibit is sad, it’s worth a visit to see what an impact it truly has had on the region. I’d check this out first and then make your way to the Mardi Gras exhibit. Both were packed full of interesting artifacts and pieces of history.
Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Place | Tickets: $14-$22 | Parking: On-site for $20
A huge warehouse on the outskirts of town where you can get a Mardi Gras experience where they create floats for over 40 parades. This place has been on our to-visit list so I don’t have firsthand experience, but I’ve heard it’s a great place to get up close to Mardi Gras floats and see what goes into making them.
Mardi Gras Museum in Arnaud’s Restaurant
813 Rue Bienville | Tickets: Free to the public during restaurant hours | Parking: Lot or street park
Another place on my to-do list is to visit the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum in Arnaud’s Restaurant. There are costumes, photographs, masks, favors, and invitations in this beautiful museum that explains the history of Mardi Gras for free! After visiting the museum, stop in the French 75 Bar for a classic New Orleans cocktail or grab one of the delicious beignets next door at Cafe Beignet.
Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes & Culture
1010 Conti Street | Tickets: $15 | Parking: Lot or Street
The largest personal collection of costumes for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Currently looking for a new location
This museum focuses on African American history and culture in New Orleans from Second Lines, Mardi Gras Indians, and beyond. They are currently looking for help funding their new location as the original was damaged from Hurricane Ida.
House of Dance & Feathers
1317 Tupelo Street | Visits by appointment, donations appreciated
A museum with the goal of preserving and sharing the culture and traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, and Skull & Bone Gangs that parade during Mardi Gras season.
Mardi Gras Terminology
As a tourist, you might hear a lot of different terms relating to Mardi Gras. Here are some of the more popular things you may hear and what they mean. A lot of the Mardi Gras celebrations revolve around religious occasions, but I assure you that you do not have to be religious to celebrate and enjoy the festivities.
A season of celebration that begins each year on the Twelfth Night and ends at midnight on Fat Tuesday.
Twelve days after Christmas is known as Twelfth Night, or The Epiphany, and also known as Three Kings Night. This all ties into the story of Jesus and the Three Wise Men who visited him. This date is the first day of Carnival.
A French term for Fat Monday, it’s the day before Mardi Gras and celebrated with activities run by the Rex and Zulu Krewes.
The Tuesday that lands right before Ash Wednesday is commonly referred to as Fat Tuesday, or as it translates into French; Mardi Gras. This is the last day before the Lenten season takes place where one sacrifices and fasts. The date changes each year as it follows the lunar cycle that Easter follows.
The median that separates roads is often grass-covered. Many parade-goers prefer this side.
Literally, the side of the parade that the sidewalk is on. There’s not as much space on this site.
It’s legal to drink alcohol on the streets of New Orleans as long as it’s not a glass container. Many bars and restaurants have plastic go-cups to give patrons who are ready to leave before their drinks are finished.
A generic term that represents the secretive and tradition-focused organizations in New Orleans. Krewes host Balls, celebrations, and parades throughout Mardi Gras.
These are the fun little items that riders toss out to parade watchers. Common throws are beads, cups, doubloons, feather boas, small stuffed animals, and toys.
Highly sought-after aluminum coins tossed from parade floats with the krewes mark on one side and the parade theme on the other.
“Throw Me Somethin’, Mister!”
A common term you may hear shouted during parades.
Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler
Cajun French saying that means “Let the good times roll”.
Staying Safe In New Orleans
I’ll start by saying in the 9 times I’ve visited New Orleans, I’ve never once felt unsafe. From walking the historic streets at night to squeezing my way through a parade. However, I know that all major cities, especially heavily touristed cities like this one, have their struggles with crime, especially petty crimes. Use your common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and you should be fine. Here are a few things to keep in mind during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Stay in the crowd. During our first parade, way away from us, someone was killed by running across the street the parade was going through. They weren’t seen and were crushed by the parade float. Horrible, and so sad. Keep yourself back behind barricades and wherever you are guided to stay behind.
Those tasty frozen cocktails and drinks in novelty glasses can pack a strong punch you might not be used to or expect. Just be mindful of how many you have, and if you do plan to imbibe a lot, make sure you aren’t alone. It would be easy to get lost in a city full of people when you’re intoxicated or lose your belongings… and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to try to fly home without my wallet or cell phone!
I’ve noticed this scam near Jackson Square and Riverfront Park. Someone may walk by you and say “I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes” and the answer is “on your feet”… if you play and obviously lose, you may have someone hassle you to be paid for guessing right. My go-to move is to just say “No thanks, I’m local”… that seems to do the trick. Some other scams involve spelling your last name, cards, and making a rap for you.
Think about it, thousands of people squished together celebrating, jumping around, lots of movement… the perfect scene for someone to pick your pocket. I find it best to keep as minimal personal items on you as possible. You don’t really need that huge purse (and if so, carry it so it’s in front of you). I’d also recommend keeping your phone and wallet in your front pocket. My go-to? A very small sling purse, or a belt bag.
There you have it, my first parade experience and helpful tidbits about Mardi Gras in New Orleans! Hope this helps with your planning. If you feel I missed anything feel free to share in the comments.
ANUKRATI DOSI says
Saying that you are a local actually saves you from falling into so many scams.
Jen @ Local Love & Wanderlust says
It truly does! I learned that early on in my visits to New Orleans – it’s almost instant that they give up. 🙂
Next time I visit New Orleans, I will have to time it for Mardi Grad.
Jen @ Local Love & Wanderlust says
Yes! I highly recommend… and if the huge crowds are too much, go a little earlier in the season. So much fun!
I would love to be in New Orleans at this time of the year! It looks like so much fun and a great experience all around.
Jen @ Local Love & Wanderlust says
It truly is, I cannot wait to go back again someday soon!