Mardi Gras is a special time of year in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans . Also known as Fat Tuesday, this famous carnival marks the coming of Lent, a religious observance for Catholics prior to Easter that is a time of sacrifice and prayer in preparation for Easter. Weeks before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras takes off in full force with the celebratory finale on Fat Tuesday.
There is no other place in the world to truly experience Mardi Gras like the New Orleanians. Parades, king cakes, fresh boiled seafood, hurricanes (the drink, I mean), music and a non-stop party are just a few of the reasons why you should visit this grand city filled with culture and history.
Mardi Gras is famous for its parades and gorgeous, elaborately decorated floats from which you may catch a ton of those plastic beads with just a simple raise of your hand and the phrase,” Throw me something, mister!” The fun does not stop there though. If beads aren’t your thing, then you can take a chance of snagging at of those highly coveted coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu or a pair of shoes (yeah, that’s right) from Muses. It would help if you stand out in the crowd in order to be seen by one of the krewe members by adorning an eye-catching costume, holding up a sign with a catchy phrase or just plain acting the fool (oh come on, you know what I’m talking about).
Mardi Gras parades are not exclusive to the inner city. If you venture towards Uptown on St. Charles Avenue or the Garden District around Washington Avenue, you will find some amazing parades that are much more family-friendly. While these locations are still crowded and you will still have to get there early to grab a good spot on the parade route, these crowds are way more manageable and the people are much more friendly.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music, and the best place to sample a few tunes from its rising stars is Frenchmen Street. This popular street is known for its restaurants, jazz clubs and people-watching. There are many places that feature new as well as experienced musicians that make the streets of the Big Easy come alive with their vibrant music.
Food (king cake and beignets)
I don’t think I’ve experienced any “bad” food in New Orleans. Just about everything is delicious (but not necessarily healthy). Gumbo, boiled and/or fried seafood, poboys, beignets and king cake are just a few of the foods you would encounter down in the Big Easy during Mardi Gras season. One of the best parts is that you can find any of these tasty dishes just about any time of day–breakfast, lunch or dinner–it’s a winner any time!
One place worth mentioning is the infamous Cafe du Monde located just down the street from the French Market and Jackson Square (the most photographed spot in New Orleans). These pillows of fried goodness are worth the wait, but don’t fret if you don’t get around to sampling a bite of this delicious New Orleans staple. There is a cafe in Louis Armstrong Airport with usually little to no wait that allows visitors to get their beignet fix before their grand exit.
If you slept in and missed breakfast and are looking for some brunch to help cure that hangover you got from last night”s shenanigans, head on over to Commander’s Palace for their not-to-be-missed jazz brunch. This popular, award-winning restaurant is award-winning because it’s well…just that good, of course. There’s something on their menu that will appeal to everyone. They even offer some “hair-of-the-dog” options if you are looking to start the party early.
It is well-known that there is a lot of public drinking going on in New Orleans at any time of year, but this is especially so during Mardi Gras time. Any visitor in search of the infamous cocktail known as the hurricane may be tempted to go to Pat O’Brien’s since it is the most well-known place in the Big Easy to order one of these bad boys, but there are other very good and comparable options that will take up a lot less of your precious time since you may find yourself waiting in a line the size of one you would find at Disney world in the summer time (don’t do that to yourself). Alternatively, stroll on by to Felipe’s Taqueria in the French Quarter or Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar on Bourbon Street.
If you are thrifty like me and cannot see yourself spending $20 (or more) for one cocktail, then make your own, pour into a Yeti, and you (and your friends) should be good for a while. Check out my recipe to recreate this famous drink here. If you are feeling lazy, and you don’t want to make this drink from scratch, then you can buy Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Cocktail Mix. Just add equal parts rum and cocktail mix, pour over ice, and you’ve got yourself a party in a glass!
Warning: Do not be fooled by the fruity, delicious taste of this cocktail. It packs a category-5 punch, and if you guzzle this bad boy like you would a Diet Coke, then you may not make it to the parade that evening. This drink is for sipping while snacking, and that is speaking from experience.
If you reside in a place where it is generally cold in February, then coming to New Orleans for Mardi Gras may be a bit of a reprieve from the nasty winter weather you are used to. The weather during Mardi Gras can range from cold to hot as Hades (sometimes in the same day), so it’s important to wear layers because if you are in it to win it, you will probably be outside most of the day sightseeing and experiencing all that New Orleans has to offer. Generally, you will find moderate temperatures, ranging from the mid to upper 60’s during the day to the lower 50’s or upper 40’s in the evenings. Not too bad, right?
During this festive time, everyone gets special permission to dress-up in elaborate or homemade costumes. It’s carnival time! New Orleans is a city that loves to “let the good times roll” and that usually involves dressing up, dancing late, eating great food, drinking some strong cocktails or local beer and just letting loose. If you are not into costumes (I realize it’s not for everyone), then you can fit into the crowd by adorning the traditional colors of Mardi Gras–purple, green and gold. Mardi Gras is a great opportunity to people-watch. Even if you are not into catching beads, you are sure to be entertained by just watching the spectacle of costumes from your very own lawn chair parked on the side of the street.
I have experienced Mardi Gras almost every year for as long as I can remember, but my parents never took me to parades in New Orleans. I did not actually experience a New Orleans Mardi Gras until I was in college. Instead, we would raise our hands to the krewe members at the parades in New Orleans’ neighboring communities.
Like I stated earlier in this post, you can find some really great parades that are beyond the borders of inner-city New Orleans. These parades are where you will find the most locals and a lot less drunken tourists. You will probably walk away with a lot more loot too because the competition is much less, which makes it more enjoyable for the little ones (and big ones). We all get excited when we catch a pretty, long bead and there is just much more opportunity for that at these parades, particularly in Metairie.
This suburb is great and well-known for its restaurants and bakeries, such as Gambino’s. At this famous bakery that has been serving king cake since 1949, you can score some of the best king cake in the area for just under $20 for a traditional style (no filling). Can’t make it to Gambino’s? They also bake and ship (yes, ship) king cakes straight to you house year around. After all this talk, I’m craving one right now!
Have I convinced you to pack your bags and book your flight to New Orleans yet? Perhaps you have already been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and I’ve brought back some fond memories. Southern Louisiana will always be the place I call “home” regardless of where life takes me, and the celebration of Mardi Gras will always bring back fond memories of great times with family and friends.
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