As I threw beads over the wrought-iron balcony of Bourbon Bandstand in the French Quarter, I looked down at the crowds: strangers in elaborate costumes toasted drinks, laughed, and danced with each other as streets bands performed jazz. Everyone moved as if part of a well-rehearsed stage production performed countless times before.
“Mardi Gras is certainly wild,” I thought.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (“Let the good times roll!”)
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the day before Lent, on which you live like it’s your last and indulge in the temptations of life.
Attending New Orleans’s Mardi Gras had been a dream of mine since college. Seeing pictures in magazines and features on TV made me say, “I want to go to THAT! That seems fun!” But the years have passed, college is a distant memory, and my days of stumbling through streets are 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. The floats are covered in elaborate designs and lights.
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.
(Note: All photos except the top one are by The Blonde Abroad.)
Beginning early on the day of Mardi Gras, the Zulu parade — famous for throwing coconuts — wends 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. This is where all the tourists go and, while not the most “local” of places, was always a place I’ve wanted to see.
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 9 p.m. I called it a night, went home, and passed out… I mean, went to bed. (There are those who can start their drinking at 1 p.m. 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!).
Though that was probably my one and only visit (there are countless other celebrations to see), Mardi Gras — with all the parades and zany costumes — is one fun, festive, and slightly weird event worth making the effort to see.