History of Mardi Gras
While the first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is believed to have begun in New Orleans on March 3, 1699, the origins of this celebration date back thousands of years to the Roman festivals celebrating spring and fertility. Following the introduction of Christianity to Rome, the festivals became a prelude to Lent, the time of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
On the days before Lent, people would binge on food and live in excess to prepare for the several weeks of fish and fasting. It was this tradition that gave birth to the celebrations that would evolve into the Mardi Gras celebration we know today, complete with its elaborate parties, costumes, alcohol, masks and parades.
The first informal society, or krewe, that hosted the celebrations was formed in 1711 and is referred to as the Boeuf Gras Society. However, it was not until 1857 when the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which was comprised of businessmen from New Orleans, led a Mardi Gras parade with bands and floats that parades led by krewes became a lasting tradition. As time passed, the traditions celebrated on Mardi Gras have become synonymous with New Orleans itself and have come to represent the slogan, “les bons temps rouler,” or “let the good times roll.”
Now, the most popular sights on Mardi Gras are the colorful costumes in purple, green and gold, the long bead necklaces caught from parade floats, kids with their families throwing balls, fun music, delicious food and the enormous crowds that move around between parades.
Not sure what to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras? Below we’ve listed a few must-do activities as well as a few must-know tips for navigating The Big Easy during Mardi Gras season. And make sure you pack your travel pillow and comfort accessories before you go!
What To Do in New Orleans on Mardi Gras
The parades are one of the most well known attractions of the Mardi Gras celebration and feature people in elaborate and colorful costumes and floats. Parade floats can be elaborate, beautiful, colorful, and satirical. These floats often cost thousands of dollars and are made in secret “dens” around they city. The makers of these floats, also referred to as “krewes,” often have a theme to their parade and create their floats around that theme or idea.
Trinkets, beads and coins are often tossed from floats. However, protect your fingers! Because the crowds are often rowdy, reaching down to pick up a coin from the ground can be dangerous and you can wind up with smashed fingers. Instead of immediately trying to pick up a coin, first step on the coin to claim it and wait for a safe chance to pick it up.
For the bigger parades that occur on the weekend before Mardi Gras, plan on getting to your preferred viewed spot about four hours before the parade begins. Parade routes can appear empty at first, but the crowd can increase exponentially within the hour or two before the parade, making it difficult to obtain a good spot to view the costumes and floats.
Antoine’s Restaurant is one of the oldest French-Creole fine dining restaurants in New Orleans and is operated by Antoine Alciatore, the fifth generation relative of the original founder. Featuring 14 lavish dining rooms adorned with photographs and heirlooms, impeccable service and delicious food, Antoine’s unparalleled dining experience has created a legacy that has survived for over 176 years. Hundreds of celebrities have dined at Antoine’s over the years, such as George Bush and Bill Clinton to Brad Pitt and Bing Crosby.
Each of the 14 dining rooms have a unique history and charm, making them the perfect place to host a private party or event, and an unforgettable experience. The Main Dining Room and Large Annex are beautiful open rooms filled with many of the original decor and fixtures. The Mystery Room acquired its unique name due to the fact that it secretly sold alcohol during the time of Prohibition.
One of the more famous dining rooms is the Rex Room, which features classic 19th century architectural details, including an original wrap-around balcony, which is the perfect place to view the parades that pass by on the streets underneath. The 1840 Room is fashioned in a charming dining salon of the time, while the Roy Alciatore Room has walls taken from the old capitol building in Baton Rouge. The Last Room or the Tabasco Room has only one table and is rumored to be one of the most popular locations for engagements in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras Balls
While the Mardi Gras parades are well known for their charged atmosphere of chaos and debauchery, there are more subdued and elegant traditions that exist, such as the Mardi Gras balls. The King and Queen of each krewe work together to produce a spectacular ball, and they keep their identities secret to add to the mystery of the event. Most of the balls are formal and private affairs featuring ball gowns, formal attire, dancing, drinking and fine dining, much like the traditional balls of the 18th and 19th century. Debutantes are introduced at the ball as a formal introduction to society and a select number of women receive “call-out” cards to be invited to dance with the krewe member who sent the card.
Some of the large parades produce what is called a “super krewe” ball, which are open to the public, despite being formal affairs. The three “super krewes,” Bacchus, Orpheus, and Endymion, put on the best and most extravagant balls with superb entertainment for the tens of thousands of attendees.
The older, aristocratic balls are highly exclusive and require an invitation. These invitations are originally printed in Paris and are often considered to be valuable works of art. Many prominent people, such as governors, do not receive an invitations, so don’t feel too left out if you are unable to get your hands on one.
Mardi Gras Travel Tips
All of these events are fun and interesting, but the stress of planning and travel can take away from the fun and exciting atmosphere that is Mardi Gras. Here are some Mardi Gras tips to help you make the most of your experience!
Plan Hotels and Flights Ahead Of Time
A hotel can make or break a vacation experience, and a hotel that suits your budget and is located in a place you are comfortable in is important so that you are able to enjoy your experience to the fullest. Though Mardi Gras is in either February or March, hotels are often fully booked by December, so it is extremely important to reserve flights and hotel rooms in advance. Once you check in, you can slip on your Midnight Magic® Sleep Mask to catch some necessary zzz’s before hitting up the parades.
Transportation is also something important to consider. During the Mardi Gras weekend, the French Quarter is closed to vehicular traffic and only residents and hotel guests of the French Quarter with special parking passes are allowed past the police barricades. In addition, parking in off-site commercial parking lots can be expensive, fill up quickly and taxis are difficult to find.
If you are staying in a hotel, it is unlikely that they will be able to provide you with transportation to the parade routes or more popular areas like the French Quarter.
Using public transportation can be just as difficult. During the celebration season, bus and streetcar routes and schedules often change, so make sure to plan ahead and know when and how to get there.
To make sure you don’t get lost, it is a good idea to get a map of the city and study the areas you plan on visiting. The more familiar you are with the new area, the less likely you will get lost. In addition, your hotel concierge or front desk can assist you with route times, traffic and parking to help you move around the city.
To save yourself from the exhaustion of walking, bring a bicycle. Bicycles are great forms of transportation in areas where cars are not allowed. Just be careful when you enter big crowds and be sure to bring a chain to lock up you bike when you are not using it.
Plan Your Parades
Because parades move through New Orleans on different routes and at different times, it can be easy to miss the ones you might want to see. In addition, the rowdy crowds can make it difficult to move from one parade route to the other. To enjoy the parades to the fullest, it is important to check the times and locations of the parades you are interested in to make sure that you don’t miss them.
Before the parades begin, be sure to arrive early and find your optimal viewing location. To find the location that works best for you, consider the following questions:
- What is most important to you during the parade?
- Do you prefer to sit or stand?
- Is there a bathroom nearby?
- Is there a prime spot for your children to view the parades safely?
Thinking about these questions will ensure that you will be able to find the perfect spot to enjoy the colorful floats and costumes that make Mardi Gras an unforgettable experience.
And don’t forget your Fold N’ Go Blanket & Case to use as a cushion or to warm up – winter in New Orleans can be wet and chilly!
Know Which Areas to Avoid
If you are planning on bringing children with you to the celebration or you would prefer crowds that are less rowdy, try to avoid Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is well known for its rowdy drunks, flashing and sweaty, drunken mayhem. Although the French Quarter is often highlighted by the news and social media as a notable place to experience Mardi Gras, it actually does not have anything to do with the larger Mardi Gras celebration and no parades occur there.
Even though local residents may have a particular attachment to the French Quarter, it is not the only place to experience the spirit of Mardi Gras. In addition, during the Mardi Gras season, the French Quarter is usually an adult area where risque behavior is tolerated such as revealing costumes and flashing for beads. It is not necessary to visit these areas to enjoy Mardi Gras to its fullest.
If you want to enjoy Mardi Gras with your family, research the areas you wish to frequent or to avoid and which areas are more family friendly than others.
Stay Cozy with Cabeau
To prepare for the long, late nights of celebration, it is a good idea to get as much shut-eye on the way to New Orleans as possible. Most parades begin in the evening, and the celebrations run long into the night. And most likely, you will need to spend a few days catching up on some much needed rest afterwards. The flight home can be a great opportunity to rest and recover.
At Cabeau, we have a wide variety of items that can make the trip more comfortable, from award-winning travel pillows to must-have comfort accessories to ensure you’ll get the rest you need before and after you’re trip to The Big Easy.