The Big Easy from a newb’s perspective
When a friend, a recent New Orleans transplant, asked if I wanted to swing by for Mardi Gras this year, I didn’t think twice. I pooled my miles and bought the first ticket out there.
If you’re thinking about checking Mardi Gras in NOLA off your travel bucket list, here’s a quick rundown of the festival, as well as some survival tips gleaned from my fledgling pilgrimage to this wacky annual affair.
Mardi Gras 101
Traditionally, Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” en anglais) is the last, gluttonous hurrah before the fasting season of Lent, and Carnival makes up the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras. In New Orleans, it’s also been synonymous with parades, balls, and even debuts for the society set since the 1830s.
For outsiders like myself and NOLA insiders alike, Carnival revolves around the parades. They determine both your social itinerary, as well as traffic patterns and how to get to where you’re going on the path of least resistance. There’s even a Parade Tracker App. Each parade is put on by krewes, secret-ish societies that pay annual dues to create floats, don masks, roll down the parade route, and toss various swag (“throws”) to the eager crowds below.
Throws can be anything from the iconic beads to cups to doubloons to t-shirts and even hand-decorated (and much coveted) shoes (from the all-female Krewe of Muses).
The night-time parades are lit by gentlemen called Flambeaux, who both bear torches after each float and perform for tips.
Pro-tip: Head’s up! Some throws can pack a punch. I got a wee black eye from a bead catching mishap, and apparently it’s not that uncommon. War wounds like that are well worth it.
All that said, New Orleans during Mardi Gras is intense. Here are my top survival tips.
LET THE LOCAL HOSPITALITY IN.
New Orleanais are nice. Like, really, genuinely nice. Mardi Gras is chaotic (to say the least), but you’ll be in good hands. The locals are always ready to give directions, share some throws, pump up a flat bike tire, and even help you cross the parade route with said bike an (ill-advised) half dozen times through crushes of people when you’re trying to make your dinner reservation. What could have been a panic-inducing nightmare turned out to be a lesson in humility and a restoration of faith in people.
DITCH THE HURRICANE, SIP A SAZERAC.
It’s no secret that Mardi Gras, New Orleans, and booze go hand in hand in hand, but it takes the right kind of booze to make or break the experience. Ditch the Hurricanes or those ridiculous blue concoctions and savor a Sazerac, a sip-worthy drink of rye, bitters, and sugar, finished with absinthe. Give it a try at The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone — rumor has it not only is the hotel haunted, but also it’s one of the few bars that uses real absinthe.
EMBRACE THE HEALING PROPERTIES OF PHO.
There’s a huge Vietnamese population in New Orleans, and their signature soup dish, pho, is one of the greatest saviors for weary, bleary mornings after late night festivities on Frenchmen’s Street or in the Quarter. They can be found everywhere — uptown, downtown, Mid-City, the Bywater — so just grab a spoon and some chopsticks and let the broth work its magic.
Alright, revelers! Stay safe, be aware of your surroundings, never drink and drive, buckle your seatbelts, and get ready for quite a trip.
Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!