Carnival season in New Orleans draws crowds for popular parades like Zulu, Rex, Endymion, and Bacchus, but there are also lesser-known experiences that let you enjoy the good times along with savvy locals, who prefer to remind Carnival tourists that “the season is a marathon and not a sprint.”
Each year on the evening of January 6, the Phunny Phorty Fellows, a group of about 50 costumed men and women, trumpet the official opening of Carnival season by riding a decorated streetcar along the St. Charles Avenue line. Accompanied by a Dixieland band, the group feasts on king cake and tosses throws to delighted onlookers. The date never changes, so catch it next time if you missed it this year.
1. Check Out a Small Parade
It’s worth arranging your itinerary to view the popular small parades in the days leading up to Mardi Gras. Noted for its wild satire, adult themes, and political comedy, Krewe du Vieux’s 2017 theme is The Crass Menagerie, and it rolls from the edge of the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods through the French Quarter and to the central business district. This year, it took place on February 11.
2. Swap the Daiquiri for Some Vino
Celebrating wine, food, and fun, the Krewe of Cork blazes a wine-soaked trail through the heart of the French Quarter during its annual parade (February 17 in 2017). While New Orleans is known for its cocktail culture, it’s also a great spot for fans of wine. Before the parade, duck into the Wine Institute of New Orleans, locally known as WINO, for tasting in the self-service bar. Another great way to enjoy your vino in the Crescent City is backyard-style in the Ninth Ward at Bacchanal, where you can spend time in the courtyard sampling the wine selection, Mediterranean cuisine, and some of the best jazz in the city.
If you need a quick break from Carnival, head out of the city to Pontchartrain Vineyards, on the north shore of the New Orleans metro region for a walk through the vineyards and visit to the tasting room. Back in town, a handful of wine shops offer free weekly tastings, including Faubourg Wines, Pearl Wine Co., Martin Wine Cellar, Swirl Wine Bar & Market, and Bin 428. No glass containers are allowed on the street, so just pour your wine into a plastic go-cup like everyone else.
3. See an Even Smaller Parade
Taking an opposite approach from huge super-krewes and gigantic floats, ‘tit Rex is a micro-parade (‘tit is the Cajun abbreviation for petite), with elaborately decorated shoebox-sized floats that are wheeled through the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods. The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a Star Wars–themed walking parade in the French Quarter, is beloved for its creative costumes and handmade throws. In 2017, both ‘tit Rex and Chewbacchus roll on February 18.
The canine Mystic Krewe of Barkus is a family favorite, with plenty of costumed pups to pet. Its 2017 theme when it rolls through the French Quarter on February 19 is "Pirate Tales of the Crescent City: Barkus Tells Tales of Jean LaFleabag," so be prepared to see a lot of salty dogs. Barkus is all about equality, with all dogs eligible for membership “without regard to their social, educational, or family backgrounds. All colors, coat types, tail sizes, and body mixes accepted. Cosmetically and non-cosmetically challenged dogs are welcome. Bluebloods and previously homeless dogs encouraged to participate.”
4. Start Really Early in the Morning
On Mardi Gras Day (February 28 in 2017), people flock to Rex and Zulu parades, but try to catch the North Side Skull and Bones gang, which roams through the Sixth Ward, continuing a nearly 200-year-old tradition of waking up New Orleans before sunrise for Mardi Gras. It’s an African American/Creole ritual filled with songs, dancing, and the ceremonial knocking on doors—well before the first parade begins. The skulls and crossbones serve a visual purpose of the gang’s goal, which is to warn people, particularly young people, to stay away from negative influences in the streets.
The Society of Saint Anne gets started in the morning on Mardi Gras in the Bywater neighborhood, and while it doesn’t publish a set start time, if you hang around the R Bar in the Marigny, you’ll catch them as they make their way to the French Quarter. Afterward, swing by the Backstreet Cultural Museum, an important repository of black New Orleans culture that serves as a default gathering place where you’ll rub elbows with the North Side Skull and Bones gang, Mardi Gras Indians, and Baby Dolls—all highlights of Mardi Gras Day.
5. Don’t Stick Around Bourbon Street
Mardi Gras doesn’t linger. At midnight, the New Orleans Police Department clears Bourbon Street (you should be over on Frenchmen Street anyway), and it’s Ash Wednesday. That gives you enough time to recover and do it all over again next year.