Updated: 03/16/20 | March 16th, 2020
As I threw beads over the wrought-iron balcony of Bourbon Bandstand, I looked down at the crowds: strangers in elaborate costumes toasted drinks, laughed, and danced while street bands entertained them with jazz.
“Mardi Gras is certainly wild,” I thought.
As they say here, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (“Let the good times roll!”)
Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday) is the city’s biggest event of the year. While Mardi Gras officially occurs on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, there are tons of parades and celebrations leading up to the big event.
Attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans had been a dream of mine since college. It’s one of the best — and most infamous — festivals in the world.
Seeing pictures in magazines and features on TV made me say, “I want to go to THAT! That seems fun!”
But, the years passed, college became a distant memory, and my days stumbling through streets were long behind me. While the wild party the day brings has little appeal to me, my great American road trip took me to New Orleans during the festival so I decided to suck it up and throw beads with the best of them!
Arriving in New Orleans the Sunday before Mardi Gras, my friend Kiersten from The Blonde Abroad and I raced to catch the famous Bacchus parade. It’s one of the largest parades in the city and is known for its size, spectacular floats, and celebrity hosts.
But Bacchus is just one of many parades.
Beginning in January, New Orleans is filled with daily parades that are an integral part of the Mari Gras season. Like Bacchus, they feature gigantic and elaborate floats, costumes, dancers, and marching bands designed to create a carnival-like atmosphere. As they wind through the city, people on the floats throw beads, toys, and even coconuts at the crowds below.
Local residents line parade routes, creating mini picnic areas complete with lounge chairs, food, and tables. They take up whole sections of the street, arriving early in the morning to claim their spot. Many even come with ladders to get a better vantage point from which to catch whatever is thrown from the floats.
These picnic areas clutter the streets, as onlookers take prime real estate from other onlookers. Normally, cities usually try to allow as many people to view parades as possible and discourage those taking up so much space. But here in New Orleans, no one cared, and I found that that little difference was one of the most interesting parts of the festival.
As Mardi Gras gets closer, the city fills with revelers and parties. The parades bring out the crowds, and music and drinks keep them. In New Orleans, there’s no such thing as closing time.
Then, on the big day, New Orleans bursts into organized chaos.
Beginning early on the day of Mardi Gras, the Zulu parade — famous for throwing coconuts — winds its way through the city. And the Society of Saint Anne — best known for their elaborate costumes — leaves the Bywater for the French Quarter, with revelers joining along the way.
As the day continues, the parties grow in size in the French Quarter, and the streets swell with vendors and partygoers.
I spent my day on Bourbon Street, New Orleans’s most famous drinking street.
My friends and I met a few Italian tourists, bonded over drinks, and spent the afternoon barhopping. The day got fuzzy as the drinks flowed, and at about 9pm I called it a night, went home, and passed out…I mean, went to bed. (There are those who can start their drinking at 1pm and go until dawn. I’m not one of those people.)
Though it was an early night for me, Mardi Gras was as fun and outrageous as I had hoped. Everyone was in a happy, friendly, and welcoming mood. I loved the camaraderie. The spirit of celebration and brotherhood throughout the city made up for the crowds (though there are plenty of areas where you can get away from them!).
It was wild, exciting, zany, fun and festive. In short, it was everything I had hoped it would be.
(Note: All photos except the top one are by The Blonde Abroad.)
Book Your Trip to New Orleans: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Need a Guide?
New Orleans has some really great tours on offer. For an in-depth walking tour, check out Take Walks. They have expert guides and can get you behind the scenes at the city’s best attractions.
If you want a bike tour, use Fat Tire Tours. They have the best and most affordable bike tours in the city (and they have a haunted bike tour too).
Want More Information on the United States?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on the United States for even more planning tips!