Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, commemorates the last day of Carnival, a celebration of excess that precedes Ash Wednesday. 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 other states such as Texas and Missouri.
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 to celebrate the end of winter.
Every February, hundreds of thousands of people flood into New Orleans to watch the Mardi Gras parades, indulge in Cajun delights, dance, drink, 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 include a packed schedule of events.
In Lafayette, a two-hour drive from New Orleans, the events begin two weeks before Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday is packed with multiple parades throughout the city occurring from morning until night. Lafayette is one of Louisiana's best small towns and its Mardi Gras celebrations are worth the trip, especially if you're looking to avoid the craziness and hotel price-gouging that goes on in New Orleans at the same time.
In Lake Charles, a three-hour drive from New Orleans, Mardi Gras events kick off in early January with the Twelfth Night celebration, a parade that features extraordinary costumes. The parties and parades continue until Fat Tuesday. Other notable events are the World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-Off, which will be your best opportunity to experience the delicious tastes of Mardi Gras and Cajun cuisine.
Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, is the oldest Carnival celebration, 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 several parades and events in Mobile leading up to Mardi Gras. They begin celebrating two weeks before the actual date and the streets are always 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.
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, complete with floats, food, and music. There are also parades and parties in honor of the festival in Dallas and other major cities across the state. Another Texas destination worth checking out is Port Arthur in southwestern Texas, which has been hosting a family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration since the 1990s.
St. Louis claims to have the biggest Mardi Gras event outside of New Orleans. It all goes down in Soulard, 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 and has plenty of highly recommended restaurants where you can enjoy it. 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.
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—and, of course, there's plenty of Cajun food to go around.
Also in Florida, Pensacola 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) held from January until Ash Wednesday.
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 bars and restaurants offering discounts and dropping cover charges.