The 15 Essential Dos and Don'ts of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is legendary fun, but it can be intimidating, especially for first-timers. And though it has a reputation as a laissez-faire anything-goes extravaganza, there are some rules, both official and unspoken, that keep the party fun for everyone. Follow them and you’ll have a grand time!

  • 01 of 15

    Don't Buy Beads

    Uptown Magazine Street, New Orleans
    ••• Richard Cummins/Getty Images

    This is the biggest rip-off in the New Orleans tourism industry, I think. Schlocky souvenir shops always have beads for sale, usually at an absurd premium. Y’all, they literally throw them off floats for free by the millions. Go to any parade; you’ll likely catch more than you can possibly wear.

     

  • 02 of 15

    Do Arrive in Town Early

    mardi gras parade, new orleans, la
    ••• Wendell Metzen/Getty Images

    The biggest, most fun days of the Carnival season happen in the several days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Krewe of Muses, with its fabulous feminine throws, rolls on the Thursday before; the Super-Krewe of Endymion, with its unique Mid-City parade route, rolls on the Saturday before; the wild Krewe of Bacchus, with its enormous animatronic floats and celebrity monarch (Hugh Laurie in 2014) and dozens more.

    Remember, the Carnival season is done at midnight on Mardi Gras. That’s it. Lent begins and the party is over, and this is enforced by the local police. Lent can be a really lovely, quiet time of year in New Orleans, but if you’re looking for a party, come before Mardi Gras, not after.

  • 03 of 15

    Do Get to the Parade Routes Early, Too

    Crowd watching parade, New Orleans Mardi Gras.
    ••• Ray Laskowitz/Getty Images

    If you plan on watching the parades, go find a spot on the route and get comfy. Some locals will arrive early in the morning for some of the bigger parades, but a couple of hours should do in most cases. Don’t worry, it’s not boring: the people-watching is golden.
     

  • 04 of 15

    Do Bring Your Kids

    Really! Just keep them out of the debauched French Quarter. Head uptown and watch the parades like all the locals do with their kids. It’s not only family-friendly, it’s really made for families. The only major downside is really that bathroom facilities can be tricky. Your best bet: set up your crew near a restaurant or store that’s selling bathroom privileges (yes, this is a thing, and yes, it’s absolutely worth the $5 or whatever for unlimited bathroom runs). If you’re from elsewhere, make your kids a paperboard sign that says so — riders love to shower out-of-towners with throws, so play it up!

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  • 05 of 15

    Do Bring Cash, But Skip the Purse

    Mardi Gras, like any event that draws enormous numbers of people, also brings out a bad element, and pickpocketing and purse-snatching can be a problem. You’ll need cash for food and beverage vendors (they largely don’t take cards), so bring some and tuck it in your front pocket, or better yet, a money belt under your shirt. Backpacks are a good idea for carrying bottles of water and wet wipes, but don’t put your cash or valuables in there.

  • 06 of 15

    Do Put it in a Cup

    2011 Mardi Gras Celebration - Fat Tuesday
    ••• Skip Bolen/Getty Images

    Public consumption of alcohol is (mostly) legal in New Orleans, but you can’t drink out of bottles or cans in the street. Use a plastic go-cup or, ideally, a lidded insulated travel mug. Plastic cups are a popular throw during parades, which has been known to come in handy.

     

  • 07 of 15

    Don't Run Into the Street During a Parade

    Don’t cross it, don’t “run in real quick” to pick up a cool throw that landed on the ground, just don’t go there. Floats are huge. You don’t want to get run over by one.

  • 08 of 15

    Do Dress for the Occasion

    New Orleans street performer
    ••• Romeo Banias/Getty Images

    First off, wear a costume (or just a wacky combination of clothes and accessories). It's fun and it ties you to the roots of the holiday. “Masking” is one of the oldest Mardi Gras traditions -- on a holiday that sees revelers enjoying a cornucopia of sin before the period of Lenten repentance, sometimes anonymity is necessary. Fun fact: according to Louisiana Code of Ordinances Section 54-313, it’s illegal to wear a mask in public in the State of Louisiana on any day but Mardi Gras (with a few exceptions, of course).

    Under your costume, though, dress in removable layers -- Mardi Gras can be frigid and it can be scorching, sometimes on the same day. Also, wear comfortable shoes that you don’t love too much. The ground gets muddy and beer-soaked and disgusting, especially in the French Quarter, and shoes can get funky. But you’re going to be doing a lot of walking. A soon-to-be retired pair of gym sneakers is ideal.
     

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  • 09 of 15

    Don't Park Stupidly

    Parking is, as you might imagine, a hot mess in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. (It’s not exactly a cinch the rest of the time, either.) If you can avoid having a car in the city at all, you’re better off for it. You can walk pretty much everywhere. If you do bring a car in, consider just ponying up for a pricey private lot. The car will be safer and it’s still much cheaper than a ticket. Parking anywhere on the parade route, on the neutral ground (median strip), or on any of the dozens of streets that are temporarily closed to parking (sometimes with little to no signage) is just asking for a tow. Don’t do it.

     

  • 10 of 15

    Don't Take Your Shirt Off for Beads

    At least not outside the French Quarter. It is illegal in the State of Louisiana (even on Mardi Gras), and if you flash your goods anywhere other than Bourbon Street and its immediate environs, you will be arrested. Nothing like a lewd conduct charge on your permanent record (or pictures of you floating around on the internet for all eternity)! If you want beads, once again, go to a parade and catch ‘em. And fellas, please keep your pants on. For all the reasons mentioned above and more. Nobody needs to see that.

  • 11 of 15

    Do Make Your Reservations Early

    Commander's Palace Restaurant, New Orleans
    ••• Kylie McLaughlin/Getty Images

     his is especially true for hotels and inns, many of which book up years in advance. It’s also true, though, of many of the town’s iconic restaurants. Many of them close on Fat Tuesday proper, but they’re inundated with people the weekend before. Get early reservations for dinners and save yourself the hassle of wandering the city in search of an open table.

    Need ideas? Get a taste of classic Creole cuisine at the city’s famous old-line restaurants, treat your sweetie to an elegant meal at one of the French Quarter’s most romantic restaurants, or taste some of the best red gravy you’ve ever had at one of New Orleans’ Italian Creole restaurants.

  • 12 of 15

    Don't Get Drunk and Obnoxious

    Wait, but isn’t that the whole point of Mardi Gras?” Well, kind of, yeah. It is a final chance for troublemaking and hijinks before the 47-day long Lenten season, so yes, getting your ya-yas out is part of the fun. But there’s drunk and then there’s drunk. And extreme examples of the latter will quickly send you to the drunk tank at Central Lockup.

     

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  • 13 of 15

    Don't Pee on the Street

    Yes, finding a bathroom is an absurd hassle. Yes, the port-a-potties on the streets are disgusting. Yes, drinking a lot of beer has unfortunate consequences. Still, peeing on a building (or anywhere outside) is an infraction that, should you be noticed by a cop, will get you arrested. People live here, after all, and don’t want their doors covered in urine. Restaurants and businesses along the parade route often offer $5 wristbands that allow unlimited use of their facilities throughout the day. It's worth it! 

  • 14 of 15

    Don't Spend Your Whole Trip in the French Quarter

    Mardi Gras 2015 - Krewe Of Bacchus Parade
    ••• Skip Bolen / Getty Images

    Yes, it’s a big fun wild party, and yes, it’s worth seeing at least once. But don’t miss the opportunity to see the amazing parades (which haven't rolled through the Quarter on Fat Tuesday in decades), not to mention taking some time to travel around the city seeing our amazing museums and beautiful cemeteries, eating all of the delicious foods that are native to New Orleans, hearing live music, and just enjoying the city for what it is.

    Now, on Mardi Gras day itself, most everything else is closed, so sure, spend some time in the Quarter if it appeals, but do consider heading Uptown or out to the Marigny to see Mardi Gras the way locals do it, instead of just spending your whole day with drunken tourists.

  • 15 of 15

    Don't Fall for the Scams

    From the old “betcha I can tell you where you got dem shoes” guys to Three Card Monte throwers, there are classic scams a-plenty just waiting for a sucker to fall for them. Ignore, ignore, ignore. Do not engage. Easy enough.

    Another scam to avoid, perhaps an even more devious one, is hyper-inflated taxi pricing. The New Orleans taxi scene is sort of notoriously insane anyway (there’s no central dispatch, for starters, just a million or so smaller companies), and even more so during big events. You should be fine, but make sure you negotiate fees before you even get in the cab and save yourself a big surprise later.