Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, commemorates the last day of Carnival, a celebration of excess that precedes Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season. Famously, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, puts on the biggest Carnival in all of the U.S., but it's not the only place where you can celebrate in style. Other cities in Louisiana like Lafayette and Lake Charles have their own celebrations, not to mention the parties held in neighboring states such as Texas and Missouri and as far away as California.
No matter where you choose to spend Mardi Gras, you'll be able to find somewhere to feast on Cajun cuisine, see extravagant parades, admire colorful costumes, and dance to traditional music.
In 2021, Fat Tuesday falls on February 16. However, most Mardi Gras celebrations and parades are canceled in 2021. Even if you can't take part in the parades, you can still get in the holiday spirit by purchasing a king cake from a local bakery to enjoy at home while dressing up in the traditional colors of gold, purple, and green.
New Orleans is home to not only the most famous Mardi Gras parade in the U.S., but one of the most famous in the world. Every February, hundreds of thousands of people flood into New Orleans to watch the Mardi Gras parades, drink Hurricane cocktails, dance in streets, and soak up the Big Easy's particular brand of lively hospitality. You don't have to be in New Orleans on the very day to enjoy the parades of Mardi Gras, though. These festivals are put on by various "krewes," or party clubs, and the two weeks before the last day of Carnival typically include a packed schedule of events.
To limit the number of people coming into the city, the Mardi Gras parades and events in New Orleans are canceled in 2021. However, the parade schedule for 2022 is already available so you can start planning your next trip.
If you want a traditional Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration without the rambunctious New Orleans crowds—or the exorbitant New Orleans prices—drive two hours west to Lafayette. The party is still wild, but not quite as over-the-top as New Orleans. Mardi Gras events begin two weeks before Fat Tuesday, but the final day is packed with multiple parades throughout the city occurring from morning until night.
Even though the typical parades were canceled for 2021, you can still see the floats by taking your own tour on February 5. The theme for the 2021 festival is "Oh the Places We Didn't Go," and each krewe plans to set up its float in a designated location so visitors can drive by and get a taste of Lafayette Mardi Gras.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
In Lake Charles, a three-hour drive from New Orleans, Mardi Gras events kick off in early January with the Twelfth Night celebration. Over 50 krewes that call Lake Charles home present their royal courts at this inaugural event, and the following weeks are filled with parades throughout the city leading up to the biggest celebration of all on Fat Tuesday: the Krewe of Krewes Parade. The entire community comes out to watch the parade, catch doubloons, and chow down at the Gumbo Cook-Off.
The 2021 events in Lake Charles were canceled, but there are ways to enjoy Mardi Gras from home. You don't have to be in a krewe to win a prize for best float, since the city is hosting a shoebox float competition that anyone can take part in. You can also support a local bakery by ordering your traditional king cake to eat at home.
Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, is the oldest Carnival celebration in the U.S.—even older than the one in New Orleans. The first known Mardi Gras celebration in the United States took place in this coastal Alabama town in 1703, and the town prides itself on being the birthplace of the American Mardi Gras tradition.
There are typically several parades and events in Mobile leading up to Mardi Gras. They begin celebrating two weeks before the actual date, and the streets are full of marching bands, dancers, and performers of all kinds. While you're in town, don't miss the Mobile Carnival Museum, where you can learn more about the history of the festivities.
The big celebrations in 2021 were canceled, but you can make your own parade route by taking part in the Mobile Porch Parade. Homes around the city are extravagantly decorated, and you can drive around in your own vehicle at any time throughout the season for a bit of Mobile Mardi Gras.
Not a lot of people associate Texas with Fat Tuesday, but Galveston is actually home to the third biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country. Not only can you celebrate with the typical floats, parades, Southern food, and drinking, but do it all with the sand between your toes on this scenic Gulf island.
Not far from Galveston, another Texas destination worth checking out for a family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration is Beaumont. If you want to travel a bit farther, there are also parades and parties in honor of the festival in Dallas and other major cities across the state.
The Mardi Gras events in Galveston, Beaumont, and Dallas were all canceled in 2021.
St. Louis claims to have the biggest Mardi Gras event outside of New Orleans, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors when the weather permits. It all goes down in the historic Soulard neighborhood, St. Louis' Mardi Gras hub, but there are a number of other balls and parades that take place all over town. St. Louis prides itself on the New Orleans-style cuisine it offers during Mardi Gras, so you can eat jambalaya and beignets as if you were in Louisiana. If you'll be traveling with kids, try celebrating at the St. Louis Zoo: Admission is free and kids can make masks, listen to music, and join in a special parade.
The biggest Mardi Gras events were canceled in 2021, but some activities are taking place virtually, such as a home cook-off and a shoebox float competition.
One of the most popular Mardi Gras parties in the country is hosted by Universal Studios Orlando. It lasts for a whopping 50 days and features a parade with fantastic performers every night. On special nights, Universal hosts headliners for massive Mardi Gras concerts. The parties inspire people to throw lots of beads into the air, although in a more family-friendly manner than the bead throwing in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios in 2021 won't feature the usual fanfare with parades and musical guests, but you can still get a taste—literally—of the celebration. From February 6 to March 28, 2021, enjoy the International Flavors of Carnival event, where visitors can taste typical dishes from countries that go all out for the holiday: fried pholourie from Trinidad, shrimp stew from Brazil, mofongo from Puerto Rico, pretzels from Germany, and much more.
Another city on the Gulf of Mexico with strong Mardi Gras traditions, Pensacola, Florida, hosts two spectacular Mardi Gras parades, one at night with floats that light up, and one during the day that features unique and extravagant costumes. The parties also include events like chili cook-offs, balls, and charity functions (food and diaper drives), usually held from January until Ash Wednesday.
Pensacola Mardi Gras was postponed until May 21–29, 2021.
San Diego, California
California is not left out of the Mardi Gras celebrations: San Diego has one of the most notable fetes on the West Coast. The Gaslamp Quarter is home to a massive masquerade parade and celebration every year during Carnival. This parade brings over-the-top floats, music, and tons of energy. On the weekend leading up to Fat Tuesday, you'll find celebrations all over the neighborhood with restaurants offering discounts and bars dropping the usual cover charges.
The San Diego Mardi Gras festivities were canceled in 2021.