Mardi Gras is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of New Orleans culture. Sure, it can be a debauchery-filled fest on Bourbon Street, but really, Mardi Gras is as wild or as family-friendly as you want to make it. To locals, Mardi Gras is a season that begins the day after the Epiphany and ends on Fat Tuesday. During this time, people in New Orleans decorate their homes with purple, green, and gold. They eat King Cake and attend Mardi Gras balls. And some of the best parades, such as Krewe du Vieux in the French Quarter, roll weeks before actual Mardi Gras day.
Most parades in the city start uptown and travel down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street. The closer to the French Quarter you get, the more crowded the streets become. If you’re looking for a safe place to bring your kids, a better chance at catching throws, or just a less stressful environment, try watching the parades uptown on St. Charles Avenue, anywhere before Lee Circle. There are plenty of hotels right on the St. Charles parade route, such as Avenue Plaza, Garden District Hotel, and the historic Columns Hotel. The St. Charles Guesthouse and Marquette House Hostel are both only one block off the parade route and rent rooms for much cheaper than places directly on the Avenue. You can still drink and dance in the streets here, but you’ll catch more beads, be able to see the parades better, and, since there are no police barricades, you can run right up to the floats and yell “throw me something, Mister!”
If you still want to check out the French Quarter but don’t want too much of a crowd, simply avoid Bourbon Street and head for Decatur or Frenchmen Street. Or, go to the Quarter a few days before Fat Tuesday. In fact, coming to New Orleans for the weekend before Mardi Gras is a great way to have the experience without as many people. Some of the best parades are not on Mardi Gras day. The party really begins on the Thursday before Mardi Gras. This is usually the night of Muses, the beloved all-women parade. On Friday, Krewe d’Etat always gives a good political parade, and on Saturday, the Krewe of Tucks puts on a day-time parade with plenty of bathroom humor – in fact, they’re famous for throwing miniature plungers, toilet paper, and tiny, squirting toilets. Sunday and Monday, watch the beautiful, nighttime parades of Bacchus, Orpheus, and Morpheus with their incredible, fiber-optic floats.
On Mardi Gras day, you may have to force yourself out of bed early for Zulu, the historically-African American parade, followed by Rex, the king of parades. You can have a great time watching from uptown, but if you want to see some fabulous costumes, head to Jackson Square. The St. Ann’s parade, a group of costumed revelers, wander on their own route through the French Quarter while people dance and perform in front of St. Louis Cathedral. If you’re really brave, you can check out Bourbon street, but you’ll be sure to see just as many amazing costumes on other less-packed streets. And that’s what makes Mardi Gras in New Orleans so fun. You can be as wild as you want – it all depends on where you go.
[Photo: Eva Langston]