Although Mardi Gras celebrations happen all over the U.S., no city does it like New Orleans.
“Carnival” describes the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday). It's the day before the beginning of Lent, the Catholic time of atonement. And while some in New Orleans use that term, most just call all of the season of revelry “Mardi Gras.” It actually begins on Epiphany, January 6; but the big celebrations and major parades really happen in the last two weeks leading into Mardi Gras Day (which is a city-wide holiday in NOLA).
You can watch the parades anywhere along the route, but locals do tend to stake out space. No matter what your spot though, you’ll be showered with beads, doubloons, boas, cups, stuffed animals, mini-footballs and more the minute you hit the street during a parade. And learn the lingo, too: always say “Happy Mardi Gras!” to everyone you meet, and when you want to get thrown to, make eye contact with the rider and yell the traditional line, “Hey, mister! Throw me somethin’, mister!”
One of the biggest delights of Mardi Gras season is getting to costume up and transform into someone else for a day. But be prepared: New Orleanians are the best (and cleverest) costume makers on the planet, so the competition is fierce. Most people don’t dress up beyond beads, boas, wigs and hats in the days leading up to Tuesday, but everyone dresses on Mardi Gras Day. If you’re not in costume, you’re not experiencing the real Mardi Gras, it is as simple as that. Plan to do it up big with an over-the-top costume and you won’t regret it; just wear shoes that you can walk in all day.
Make sure to be near Bourbon and Dumaine Streets at about noon, when the annual Drag Queen Costume Contest culminates. The costumes at the show are a must-see! There’s also a big street dance party outside Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon at St. Philip and also over on Frenchman Street in the Marigny, too.
Mardi Gras is the world's largest free party — the whole city joins in on Fat Tuesday, and the celebration lasts well into the night. Along St. Charles Avenue and into the French Quarter winds a river of people, all jovial, friendly and having a wonderful time. While it is true that Rex, King of Mardi Gras, is chosen from an exclusive club to ride through the streets on his throne and toast his queen, there is also some truth to the local saying that on this day, everyone can be a king or queen.