During Mardi Gras, at least 1 million visitors take to the streets of New Orleans to participate in the city’s iconic Fat Tuesday parades and festivities. The annual celebration of excess and indulgence is observed everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Venice, but New Orleans’s unique Mardi Gras customs (more on those below) make the city’s celebration particularly renowned.
In 2021, New Orleans officially canceled all Mardi Gras parades due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, the crowds, parades, and parties returned. Mardi Gras 2023 falls on Tuesday, February 21—a little earlier than in 2022.
Whether you’re daydreaming of joining the Mardi Gras festivities, either in 2023 or later, or simply want to better understand this iconic holiday, read on for an extensive explainer that includes everything you need to know about Mardi Gras.
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras—also known as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival—is a debaucherous prelude to Lent, a six-week-long religious fast observed before Easter. The legacy of Mardi Gras can be traced to European Carnival celebrations during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The holiday’s connection to New Orleans dates back to 1699, when explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in Louisiana and declared a plot of land “Pointe du Mardi Gras” upon realizing it was the eve of the holiday.
In 1718, the city of New Orleans was established near the area known as “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras parades and masquerade balls became an annual tradition in the southern city. While Mardi Gras officially takes place on Fat Tuesday—the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent—in New Orleans, annual Mardi Gras festivities start weeks beforehand.
When is Mardi Gras in 2023 and how long does it last?
Mardi Gras day falls on February 21, 2023. However, Carnival celebrations always begin on January 6, a date referred to in the Christian calendar as the Twelfth Night because it marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (and hence the holiday season). Every year, Carnival season kicks off on this date at sundown and is followed by a weeks-long schedule of lively parades and street parties.
Celebrations ramp up especially in the two weeks before Fat Tuesday. Unsurprisingly, this tends to be busiest time to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. If you prefer a slightly quieter trip—and less competition for hotel rooms—aim for earlier weekends.
Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans will still be shorter in 2023
In 2022, the Mardi Gras parade routes had to be shortened due to COVID-related staffing shortages with fewer police officers, medics, and other first responders to handle the crowds. Those shorter routes are remaining in effect for 2023, according to local reports.
With dozens of parades scheduled, it may be hard to pick which ones to attend. Melissa Comardelle, chief concierge at the new Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans and New Orleans native, recommends the all-female Krewe of Muses parade.
“The prized catch is a decorated shoe,” Comardelle said. “I haven’t caught one yet, but I’m working on it.”
At the time of writing, 2023 Mardi Gras parades were scheduled from January 6 all the way through to February 26, according to mardigrasneworleans.com, which lists the full schedule.
Where are the best places to stay during Mardi Gras 2023?
Hotels sell out fast during this popular time to visit New Orleans, so it’s never too early to start thinking about (or booking) your rooms for Mardi Gras. Thankfully, as of November 2022, there is still availability during Mardi Gras season at exciting new hotels like the Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, as well as at reliable standbys like the Ace Hotel New Orleans.
Location is everything if you’re visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras because parking is difficult, and you’ll want to walk if you’re planning to consume alcohol. To remain close to the parades Uptown, stay in the charming Garden District bordered by Magazine Street and St. Charles Avenue. This tree-lined neighborhood is filled with boutique shops, top-notch restaurants, and grand dame mansions, and the French Quarter’s festivities are just a streetcar ride away.
For a quieter—but still exciting—Mardi Gras experience, consider the Faubourg Marigny (commonly called “the Marigny”) and Bywater neighborhoods. These laid-back districts east of the French Quarter will offer a more off-the-beaten-path Mardi Gras experience, (AFAR’s Tim Chester discovered the New Orleans’s downriver delights on a recent summer trip)—but the action of Bourbon Street is still close enough to access without having to drive.
Regardless of where you choose to rest your head during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the chances that a colorful parade will pass through the neighborhood during your visit are strong. Some of our favorite New Orleans hotels include:
- Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, Central Business District
- Ace Hotel New Orleans, Warehouse District
- Maison de la Luz, Warehouse District
- Kimpton Hotel Fontenot, an IHG Hotel, Warehouse District
- Virgin Hotels New Orleans, Warehouse District
- Hotel Saint Vincent, Lower Garden District
- The Chloe, Uptown
- Hotel Monteleone, French Quarter
- Hotel Peter and Paul, Marigny
- Soniat House, French Quarter
Important lingo to know . . .
Before you go, brush up on this Mardi Gras glossary of special terms:
Krewes are the organizations responsible for planning and executing Mardi Gras parades and masquerade balls. In keeping with the allure of original Carnival traditions, several krewes do not reveal the theme of their parades until the night of the events. Equally mysterious, many krewes make sure their participants’ identities are never publicized (which is why krewe members wear elaborate masks during parades).
The Rex Organization, one of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans, established purple, gold, and green as the official Mardi Gras colors as far back as 1892. The three shades are said to symbolize justice, faith, and power, respectively.
In New Orleans, it’s legal to walk the streets with alcoholic drinks in plastic cups—and not just during Mardi Gras. Go cups are exactly what they sound like: “to-go” cups that allow you to take your drink with you from bar to bar (or parade to parade).
Median strips that separate streets are referred to as “neutral ground” in New Orleans. The phrase dates back to the 1800s and referenced the dividing lines between municipalities, but today, Mardi Gras goers use the term to distinguish where they’ll stand along parade routes between the “neutral ground” side and the “sidewalk” side.
Each Mardi Gras krewe creates its own unique set of trinkets to toss at parade goers, who then try to catch the “throws” to take home as souvenirs. Mardi Gras throws have been a New Orleans tradition for more than 130 years and include everything from purses to cups, toiletries, beads, and doubloons, the colorful metal medallions designed with krewe emblems that adorn the signature bead necklaces customized by each Mardi Gras krewe.
The Associated Press contributed to this article. This article originally appeared online in July 2018; it’s been updated several times with new information, most recently in November 2022.