This is a special Carnival edition of the blog. The goal of these articles is to highlight inexpensive, fun activities that also get your body moving. Well, even though this is not a Florida adventure, it fills all the other criteria.
Many people come to New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest). Well, I consider that the wealthy tourist’s holiday – damn, those tickets are expensive! I love Mardi Gras season because it is there for everyone to enjoy. You can have no money and no home and you can be right there in the crowd to watch the parades, catch the throws, and maybe get a lagniappe piece of fried chicken and a beer from your fellow paraders. Read about the history of Mardi Gras here
Mardi Gras is celebrated differently around the world, including the dates associated with the carnival season (for example some cultures only celebrate the day or week before Mardi Gras). In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is the term used to describe Carnival season. Carnival starts on the Twelfth Night (January 6th – 12 nights after Christmas). On January 6th, enjoy the Jeanne d’Arc parade or Phunny Phorty Phellows and get a big pile of fresh spicy boiled crawfish somewhere.
Now you can start greeting strangers with “Happy Mardi Gras” and start bringing king cake to work. Actual Mardi Gras is the Tuesday 47 days before Easter and Easter is based on the March Equinox moon celestial cycles – therefore Mardi Gras Tuesday will be a different day every year in February or March. Between the Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras Tuesday is my favorite time. This is a period of weeks of king cake and crawfish everything with building festiveness all around. There are probably a hundred parades between the rolling and walking groups on the South and North Shores. This schedule from this year doesn’t include the many walking parades you might run in to.
My First Mardi Gras
I moved to New Orleans in January 2007 to join a practice with one of my intern-mates. We worked the ER service, which unfortunately meant that we worked opposite each other. So while my friend was working, her husband would bring me out to the parades for company. The first morning of this, he picked me up before 6a! I thought, “Oh the parade must start around 8a”. Little did I know that we were venturing out to stake our claim on a curb side spot on the neutral ground for the uptown night parades (that start between 5-6 PM!!). Wow, those were some long and cold days. Even though this sounds like an incredibly boring day, I met so many really nice people who shared hot jambalaya, spiked hot chocolate, and the key to the portapotty. These long days were also spent educating me on the food I should be eating, the activities I should be checking out, and general parade history and etiquette. I learned a lot that year – Thanks, Joey!
Speaking of learning – here is some language. You will hear much of this lingo every day – study up so you know what people are saying to you.
Here is some geography. Study up so you know where you’re going. Our dream is to live in a house on the uptown parade route – anyone have some winning lotto numbers for us?
This is going to reflect my personal opinion. Much of it is unspoken and widely appreciated by the locals. I’m sure not everyone will agree with everything though…
Be nice! I mean, everything really just follows from this.
Greet people with a smile and “Happy Mardi Gras”
Share your space, your stuff, your food and libations. Every time you offer a lagniappe to a stranger, a 610 Stomper gets his gym shorts 🙂
Talk to people. Ask how they are. Are you from here? Man, this weather! Play ball with the kids. Whatever – be friendly
Let the kiddos and grannies up front to catch throws.
DO push past sturdy adults to get to the good stuff. Chase that float for the glass beads, coconut, shoe, purse, toilet brush, or whatever gets you revved up.
Get out of the way for the marching bands – hop up on the curb so they have room to pass. Never cross through the band to the other side of the street – be patient and wait until they pass. Cheer them on like they are rock stars, because they ARE the rock stars of these parades. Almost no one is more hard core than a constantly dancing majorette or marching tuba-player working it for miles, parade after parade, sometimes in 40-degree weather and rain.
If you have kids on ladders, please keep the ladder the required distance from the curb so that other people can get to the front. This goes for chairs, too. Don’t be a dick and block the entire passage way from one crowd to the other side of the street. This goes along with the principle of sharing your space.
Don’t be a jerk and come out a week early to lay out tarps and ladders and then just leave it there. I can respect reserving an early spot a lot more if you actually camp out there the whole time to save your space. Work for it, for goodness sake!
If a rider is clearly trying to give someone else something, don’t take it. If you pick it up, graciously hand it over. ESPECIALLY if it was going to a child. Don’t be that Mardi Grinch who stole the stuffies and swords.
Got multiples of cool items? Share with the people around you.
Show your enthusiasm and appreciation to the float riders. Scream, wave, and beg for stuff. The more pumped you are, the more likely you will be to get what you want.
Keep your shirt on. The parades are no place (and anywhere but Bourbon on Mardi Gras day) for flashing your boobs to anyone.
Don’t get sloppy drunk
How to do the parades
First, decide what kind of reveler you are. Jeff is hard core and leaves early in the morning to stake out spots and will watch every parade possible. He will sometimes catch the end after getting the beginning so he can get more stuff. Then he will go out to watch live music or meet friends until the wee hours of the morning. I would turn into a big blob on the couch after a few days of this, so I have to balance things out by not staying out after the parades or sometimes skipping a day. Other people just pick 1-2 favorite parades.
When you know what you want to watch, decide where on the route you want to be. I like to start near the beginning of the routes. I love seeing the floats and bands lining up and the Flambeaux getting lit. I also love getting home by 9p while other people might still be out several more hours (when you’re hitting the end of the route instead). I also really like the family-focused areas (like along Magazine Street) where there are kiddos everywhere and there is a much friendlier atmosphere. The areas near the college and where mostly grownups congregate are more likely to have people not reigning in bad behavior.
You will also need to pick a spot with bathroom options. The city does put out lines of port-o-potties in some places. There are bars scattered around (be polite and buy a drink if you are using the facilities) but many of these routes are in neighborhoods, so there won’t be easy bar access. The local school and churches capitalized on this by offering parking, snacks, and bathroom access in exchange for fundraising money. Finally, know where your friends are living and staying and work your way into their bathroom access options. You don’t want to be out there 10 hours in without a place to pee!
What are you going to wear? You will stand out if you don’t have one or more of the purple, green, and gold or black and gold combos. Better yet, put on a costume, a wig, some glitter – lots of glitter! DO wear comfy shoes, though. DO dress in layers or otherwise prepare for rain, cold, heat, or whatever weather is heading your way. Ponchos are god-send and are light and small enough to fold into a pocket or bag. That is obvious, but this is a secret I will share with you: when it is cold out, stop by CVS on your way to the route and pick up Thermacare heatwraps (warmer and longer-lasting than the generic!). Get the wing-shaped neck wraps and put one on your lower back under your pants and one across your shoulder blades under your bra strap area. You will feel the heat soaking into your body while everyone is freeze their butts off. You’re welcome!
What are you going to bring? It depends on how far you have to walk, how long you will be standing up, how many pounds of throws you will be carting home afterwards, etc. I like to have these basics:
Comfy layered clothes with pockets – be practical but add some beads, wig, fun makeup, or whatever makes you feel festive.
Cross body bag with an internal zip up pocket for my important stuff and room for doubloons and fun small throws
Phone and extra batteries (Dude! Can I tell you how much I love just popping a new charged little battery (fits in my wallet) to take my phone from 6% to 100% in 10 seconds??!!)
Weather appropriate accessories – mittens, Thermacare, poncho, sunscreen, hat, etc.
Consider some extra toilet paper or small Kleenex pack – I have actually never needed this, but you never know!
A bag to carry home your favorite throws.
Stuff you want to eat and drink. This cross body insulated bag works great for a 6-pack.
Bring a small child to hold up and have all the good stuff rain down on both of you 😉
Then you will need to sort out parking. It is easy to assume an Uber can take you anywhere, but sometimes Uber can’t get to you. If you want some semblance of independence, you might drive yourself – you absolutely cannot do this right before the parade starts and expect to park within a mile of the spot to want to be. Get there are few hours early and take this time to explore and enjoy the area before the parade starts. Beware of yellow zones, drive ways (even if they don’t look used), reserved spots (cones, garbage cans, chairs, etc) in front of houses, fire hydrants, and the corners – if you are too close to the corner, you will get a pricey ticket or might get towed. Don’t be that person that parks to block someone’s driveway or double parks – you should have planned ahead. Finally, if you drive, be prepared for crazy traffic afterwards. Be patient and don’t do anything stupid trying to get home faster.
If you have access to the city bus – TAKE IT. It costs $1.25, is reliable, and usually empty. People WAAAAAY underestimate the bus system!
When you pick your parade spot, don’t sit under a tree (your throws will end up hanging from the branches). Watch out for puddles and mud. Don’t bother to bring a chair. If you must have one for the time between parades, please bring a folding one and put it away so people have room to move around.
What to watch
These are some of my favorites
A sci-fi and fantasy based parade. Get out your comicon outfits and join the party!
A parade of tiny shoebox floats – reminds me of our grade-school shoebox diorama projects we used to have.
An adorable parade of costumed dogs by the Louis Armstrong Park
One of the ladies parades – get yourself a purse!
Another ladies parade – this one handing out shoes
A political satire parade – always entertaining and relevant
The big Mid-city parade – the pinnacle of a day-long party in the neighborhood.
An irreverent toilet-based parade. Tucks and Endymion are unfortunately on the same day and it is not easy trying to see both of them. This sets of a kind of Westside Story situation where people will fall into one camp or the other – I am an Endymion person through marriage. Jeff has amazing access to a big sheltered, bathroomed, food-filled party with his parents Saturday morning. After we fill up on Five Happiness and killer Mai-tais, we walk along the parade route and catch the porch concerts before the big concert on the mainstage in the neutral ground. Then when parade time approaches, we join some of our other friends a few blocks down from the beginning to watch the parade. These are primo viewing areas – we are so lucky to have this access and an excuse to spend a fun day with people we don’t get to see very often. It has been incredible seeing the kids growing up over the last decade – how time flies! So this means, I only have one picture of Tucks that I could find from the one year that Endymion was rained out and rescheduled for a different day.
The big Sunday parade after a day of three other morning parades.
The big Monday night parade with floats full of pretty flowers.
All walking parades!
Most of these are scheduled and many are recurring yearly. I think new ones crop up all of the time, so you might see more than one by accident on days when you are wandering the French Quarter.
Mardi Gras Day!
The hard core folks will get up early and stay out all day. Some of the city boycotts this day to recover from the previous few weeks and to avoid the tourists. The balance of these two is to spend a little while out in the festivities and then head back home to get ready for work the next day.
When I first met Jeff, he introduced me to a bicycling krewe that rolls first thing Tuesday morning. The Krewe of Bikeus lived on formally for 15 years before it disbanded ceremoniously. You might still hear the cries of “Haaaaaail Bike-US!” floating in the crisp Mardi Gras morning air from some colorful folks passing on bikes.
2008 – My first year riding with Bikeus. I was the Reading Rainbow (a made-up character based on my “Reading is for Awesome People” rainbow shirt) and Jeff was Roger Workman from Lost.
2009 – The year we got engaged during opening ceremonies. I was the solar system and Jeff was Vince the Sham Wow guy.
2010 – The year my mom visited. I got the flu that blew up after Orpheus ball so I stayed home with Mom while Jeff was Saints football Pacman (Pac Dat!). I was supposed to be Amelia Earhart.
2011 – The year we were king and Queen. Mom and Dad were there as Egyptians and I was the Recyqueen (my outfit was made out of grocery bags, cans, foil, etc) and Jeff was the Pun-king and a bobble head version of himself.
2012 – I was the ocean and Jeff was baby on a ladder (NOLA folks will get that one)
2013 – It was so cold and rainy this year and I didn’t have much time for crafting. I was the US Mint (when they were talking about making a trillion dollar coin) and Jeff was the baby in a king cake.
2014 – It was even colder and rainier and I had the flu. We didn’t have time for costuming so I went as Jeff and Jeff went as me.
2015 – Somehow we only have one picture of us. Jeff chose mashup costumes for us. I was Kim Jong Un Kardashian (thanks, butt pad!) and Jeff was Wrath of Khanye West. Complete with masks that had moving mouth pieces.
2016 – To honor my move to Florida, I was a flamingo and Jeff was clown Mayor Mitch Landrieu – complete with parking meter to honor the recent rate hikes
2017 – Alas, I could not get the time off for this Mardi Gras and Jeff went solo as Alf – perfect for cold weather and coconuts!
2018 – Jeff and I went as Fleetwood Macintosh
2019 – I was MIA for Mardi Gras again this year. Jeff was The Meg (the shark) Griffin (Family Guy reference). Have you noticed that he loves mash-ups?
Plan ahead because when you are ready to go home and eat some Popeye’s and fall asleep, there will be no one open to sell you anything.
What do you want?
Things that are highly coveted:
Ceramic medallion themed beads
Miscellaneous unusual items (t-shirts, cool toys, Zaps potato chips, vintage throws from decades past, etc)
**By the way, during St Pats parades, I LOVE that they are throwing cabbages, carrots, ramen, potatoes, and lots of other tasty goodies that I can use to make stew 🙂
Aaaannnnnd – heads up! All. The. Time. The moment you look away will be the moment you get clocked in the head by a bag of beads, then everyone feels embarrassed and contrite and you have bead marks on your face.
Don’t pick up plain boring beads that hit the ground.
Do pick up “good” throws from the ground.
Don’t be afraid to toss wrappers and other debris on the ground. New Orleans has the most amazing clean up krewe I have seen in my entire life. An hour after a parade, you would never believe it was strewn with beads, wrappers, and empty beer/soda cans.
While it is horrifying to think of all of the debris generated every year, consider that much of this gets recycled to the next years of parades and there are people working on making biodegradable beads that should be available in the near future. Until then, look for beads filling the city potholes, jazzing up a boring fence, or throwing some flair in your friend’s house – like in our “bead table” that I made a few years ago.
Mardi Gras Ball time!
Some of the parade Krewes put on a ball. I was lucky enough to get invited to the Orpheus parade ball. I can’t speak for the other balls, but this is a grown-up level prom that is BYOB. You’ll see people decked out in tuxes and floor-length gowns toting roller coolers behind them. Orpheus is so fun because the parade ends inside the convention center and the riders shower you with the good stuff. It’s your own private parade and you can walk around and check out the floats at your leisure afterwards. We always left early (2a) because we had to wake up between 5-6a to get to our starting spot for Mardi Gras morning.
Watch out for the Mardi Gras Scrooges that hate the traffic, the crowds, the tourists, and everything Mardi Gras. Just greet them with a smile and let them move along – no need to have a grumpy person bring you down J
Then Wednesday rolls around – Ash Wednesday. Time for church and more crawfish.
Then weekly Friday crawfish boils, then St Patrick’s Day parades (two weekends worth!), then Easter with parades, then Jazz Fest and all of the summer festivals, then SAINTS season with weekly football parties with Voodoo Fest, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and then it’s Twelfth Night all over again!
You might want to know what to do outside of the parades. This are my general suggestions whenever anyone asks me what to do when they visit NOLA.
***As an aside, I have learned that the expensive restaurants like Commanders Palace only taste marginally better (or sometimes not as good) compared to the less expensive options. Even a gas station poboy from Brothers will be overstuffed with moist fried shrimp and crispy bread for like 5$. You will arrive back home fat and happy without expensive dining.
2. Walking around the French Quarter
*Bourbon street is pretty cheesy – good to just walk a stretch to see and smell it (hold your nose in some parts)
*Royal street and other near streets on either side of Bourbon have lots of art, antiques, beautiful buildings to look at.
3. Get coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde near the river
4. Walk through the French Market stalls
5. The Pharmacy Museum is inexpensive and interesting – maybe more to someone like me but I think even Jeff found it pretty neat
7. Walk along Magazine street and windowshop
9. Go geocaching all over town
10. The Jean Lafitte nature park is not too far away and can be very nice to walk through.
Things that are touristy but do cost some money:
1. World War II Museum – very good, very serious
2. Audubon Aquarium downtown
3. Insectarium downtown
4. Audubon Zoo uptown
5. Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World is pretty cool for looking at the Mardi Gras floats and seeing the art in progress
6. Taking a cemetery tour
7. There are lots of other tours – haunted, foodie, cycling, etc.
Check here to see what is happening when you arrive:
DBA and Spotted Cat on Frenchman street have good music pretty regularly. Look out for Paul Sanchez, Susan Cowsill, John Gro, Bonerama, Twangorama, Jimmy Robinson, Andrew Duhon – these are some tried and true favorites. I also love Vox and the Hound (man I loved The City Life), Shamarr Allen, Sweet Crude, John Boutte (his voice makes my heart melt), Alex McMurray….really anyone is bound to be very good. And the cover is super affordable compared to New York or Chicago prices. Please come support our local talent! I just can’t believe that some of these people aren’t uber-famous for how incredibly talented they are (watching Jimmy Robinson on the guitar will blow your mind!)
Cochon – the fancy restaurant and the Butcher lunch version are both delicious
Seed is good for vegan food
Parkway PoBoys are delicious!
Jacques Imo’s – try to get reservations here or wait a long time!
Lola’s was very good for Paella
Parran’s on veterans and pretty much any old school looking New Orleans style restaurant is good (Giorlando’s is another example)
Superior Grill for NOLA mexican-ish food
Cafe Degas – very good brunch!
Popeye’s fried chicken – get the blackened chicken fingers for a spicy lower-calorie alternative.
Pick up a daiquiri or a snowball from one of the many stands all over town.
For fancier more expensive food, consider (reservations advised when possible):
Drago’s has super yummy grilled oysters
There is so much good food everywhere and there are new restaurants all the time, so it is hard to keep a good running list. Bottom line:
Stay away from fast food unless it is Popeye’s or Raising Cane’s.
Don’t feel you have to spend a lot of money on good food unless you want to.
Check out reviews and ask your friends what they like.
It is not easy to eat low-cal here! Thankfully spicy boiled crawfish and corn is low calorie and delicious. You can also get sugar free snowballs, grilled fish, raw oysters, no sugar added king cake, and some similar alternatives to the delicious daiquiris, fried food, jambalaya, char-grilled oysters, po-boys….mmmmmm, I’m getting hungry!!
1. Bring a sweater for the air conditioning! New Orleans folks like it ICE COLD
2. If someone asks you if you want your sandwich “dressed”, it means do you want lettuce, tomato, etc? – basically “with everything”
3. If you are at the snoball place, getting it “stuffed” means it will
have ice cream in the middle of your slushie (just don’t call it a slushie! These are some of the yummiest I have had (great key lime
4. “Who Dat!” is our Saints battle cry and general greeting – no one from New Orleans really watches any other sport – they will be wistfully waiting for football to start again. The Baby Cakes (minor league baseball team) and Pelicans (basketball) are other sports options. You have to check out the story of the Pelican’s mascot’s facelift here.
5. A lagniappe (lan-yap) means to give a little extra. We got extra biegnets when we went to the Mandeville Cafe du Monde after parades – this is a lagniappe to us from the staff 🙂 Refer again to the list of general lingo including street pronunciation (like Calliope is Cal-ee-ope instead of Cal-eye-oh-pee).
6. There are new microbreweries popping up all over NOLA
7. There are also lots of good cocktail and wine places. Cure is very fancy and delicious but be ready for expensive drinks
8. In addition to beignets, king cake is a big deal in New Orleans – more so during Mardi Gras season but some places might serve some all year. When we went to Haydel’s for king cake, there was a PILE of amazing treats that will make you forget to be sad about missing king cake if they don’t have it off-season.
9. NOLA attitude is kind of Caribbean slow sometimes, so you will often have to be ok not being in a rush, especially if you are somewhere like Popeye’s or similarly less-tourist oriented business.
10. Finally, I don’t want to scare you, but there has been an uptick in crime over the last decade. Be ever mindful of your surroundings and pay attention to things like your wallet. Especially at night, be sure you are walking in well-lit relatively well-populated areas. There are taxis, Uber, Lyft available to get you places safely.
Get on out there and have a good visit any time of the year!