A Beginners' Guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans

An Intro to the World's Biggest Party

Crowd celebrating Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Ray Laskowitz / Getty Images 

If you were born in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, one of the world's biggest parties, is in your bones, and you probably can't imagine living anywhere that doesn't celebrate the event. However, if you are a visitor, you might need some explanation and guidance.

French for "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras is always celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, so the date changes every year. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and for Catholics in New Orleans, that means sacrifice, so Mardi Gras is the last bash before Lent. But in New Orleans, one day of partying is simply not enough.

The Carnival Season

Technically the Mardi Gras season, called Carnival, begins every January 6 on the Feast of the Epiphany, with balls: elaborate, invitation-only, formal tableaus (with people in costume acting out a living picture using props). This is when the royalty of the individual group or "krewe"—one of the private clubs that put on Mardi Gras and Carnival-related events—is presented.

Mardi Gras Parade Details

Several types of parades start about two weeks before the day of Mardi Gras. Different krewes throw their bashes throughout the season, which extends from January to March. Expenses of this monumental party are paid by the individual members of the krewes; there is no commercial sponsorship for Mardi Gras parades.

Some parades are put on by "old-line" krewes, the traditionalists who have the tableau balls, and a king and queen elected from within the group. These krewes date back to the 1800s and are credited for establishing the Mardi Gras traditions still occurring today in New Orleans. The Krewe of Rex is one such group that represents the oldest of the lot, dating back to the year 1872. Typically, Rex parades take place on the day of Mardi Gras, and the King of Rex is the official King of Carnival.

The parades put on by the more recently-founded "Super Krewes" are much larger in scale, with floats often several times the size of those in the old line parades. Instead of balls, the Super Krewes have lavish parties immediately after their parades and feature celebrity kings. The Super Krewe parades usually start the Saturday before Mardi Gras. Two examples of super krewes are Endymion and Bacchus. Both were founded in the late 1960s, making Bacchus and Endymion the "granddaddies" of the Super Krewes.

Parade Locations

Almost all of the New Orleans parades head down St. Charles Avenue and into the Central Business District. Sometimes krewes may travel into the Central Business District from Canal Street. The parade routes and schedules are subject to change every year. Very few parades go into the French Quarter because the historic section of town has narrow streets. To see a parade, you have to leave the French Quarter, or at least go to Canal Street at the edge.

Mardi Gras Throws

One thing all the parades have in common is that the riders throw items to the crowd, the most famous being the classic Mardi Gras beads. Visitors to New Orleans may also receive plastic cups and doubloons (gold coins) with the date and the krewe's theme for the year. Some of the parades have throws unique to the krewe, such as the Krewe of Zulu, which makes hand-painted and beautifully-decorated coconuts. Although city law makes it illegal to throw these hefty objects, the riders are still allowed to gently hand one to you. A Zulu coconut is probably the highest prized throw in Mardi Gras, and if you're lucky enough to get one, you get bragging rights.

Activities for Children

Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is kid-friendly. Most New Orleans families who don't mind crowds are on St. Charles Avenue somewhere between Napoleon Avenue and Lee Circle, where you will find picnics and barbecues all along the parade route.

Float riders carry special throws, like stuffed animals, for the small children along this part of the parade route. Because this is traditionally a family area, you can expect the mood to be friendly and G-rated as usual.

Smaller children who may have trouble seeing the festivities may be perched on special seats bolted onto ladders. This makes sure they're safe and able to see what's going on. By law, these structures must be as far back from the curb as they are high, and an adult must stand on the ladder with the child at all times.

It All Ends at Midnight

No matter what goes on during the carnival season and specifically on Mardi Gras day on Bourbon Street, it all ends exactly at midnight, when Lent begins and the party officially ends. Mounted police leading a parade of large street cleaners clear Bourbon Street, so it's best to be on your way before midnight rather than get caught up in the fray.