Each year during Mardi Gras, approximately 1.4 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.
Before you plan a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, read on for an extensive explainer that includes everything you need to know about the holiday, including how best to enjoy it.
What is Mardi Gras?
The legacy of Mardi Gras can be traced to European Carnival celebrations during the 17th and 18th centuries. Carnival has traditionally been celebrated as a debaucherous prelude to Lent, a six-week-long religious fast observed on the days before Easter.
The holiday’s connection to New Orleans dates back to 1699 when explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived to Louisiana and declared a plot of land “Pointe du Mardi Gras” upon realizing it was the eve of the medieval holiday. The city of New Orleans was established in 1718 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 that marks the start of Lent—in New Orleans, Mardi Gras festivities begin up to a month in advance.
When is Mardi Gras in 2019?
Mardi Gras celebrations begin on January 6, 2019, with free parades and street parties continuing through Fat Tuesday on March 5, 2019. If you’re in New Orleans at the start of 2019 Carnival season, don’t miss the Phunny Phorty Phellows Streetcar Ride, beginning at 7 p.m. on January 6. Every year, this group of about 50 costumed men and women trumpet the “Carnival Countdown” and mark the official opening of the season by riding a decorated streetcar along the St. Charles Avenue line while tossing Mardi Gras beads to onlookers.
Where are the best places to stay during Mardi Gras?
Location is everything during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, as parking is difficult and walking is imperative 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, but the action of Bourbon Street is still close enough to access without having to drive. Regardless of which New Orleans hotel you choose to rest your head in during Mardi Gras, the chances that a colorful parade will pass through the neighborhood during your stay are strong.
Krewe: These 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).
Purple, gold, and green: 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.
Go cup: 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).
Neutral ground: Medians 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.”
Throws: 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.