“Bon Ton Roulet” at Mardi Gras in New Orleans
David and I had both been to New Orleans before but had never experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During our 8 days in New Orleans, we did a lot of things that were not related to Mardi Gras but we planned a full agenda of Mardi Gras activities. If you didn’t make it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you can follow this detailed journey through the festivities. If you are planning a trip to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, you can review our top 10 tips for planning your Mardi Gras trip.
As they say in New Orleans, “Bon Ton Roulet” or “let the good times roll”!
What Is Mardi Gras in New Orleans
“Mardi Gras” is a direct French translation that means “Fat Tuesday”. As such, Mardi Gras really should refer only to this one day, however, most people refer to Mardi Gras as the whole party time leading up to the actual Mardi Gras day. Mardi Gras occurs right before Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. As such, Mardi Gras provides the venue for decadence, fun and feasting before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins in earnest.
For a great introduction to the details and history of Mardi Gras, see the blog written by Cheryl and Lisa of “What Boundaries Travel”. This was an interesting read to put the whole Mardi Gras experience in context.
Everything Was Decorated For Mardi Gras
We arrived in New Orleans a few days before the big party weekend. But it was easy to see that everyone got into the Mardi Gras spirit.
As you walked or rode around town you could see houses and statues all decorated in the Mardi Gras colours (green, purple and gold), strung with beads and decorated with masks. If you landed in New Orleans without looking at your calendar, it would not be hard to know you had arrived at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
So Many Were Costumed To Celebrate
When planning for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, one of the people on a Twitter chat told me “don’t forget your costume”. I certainly knew that costumes were a big part of Carnival in Venice but I hadn’t planned on costumes for New Orleans Mardi Gras. Since we didn’t have anything at home, we landed in New Orleans unprepared.
As you wander around the shops in the French Quarter, you will quickly find that you can be-deck yourself with accessories in Mardi Gras colours (green, purple and gold) to appear somewhat costumed for the event. If you didn’t think you would get enough decoration from things tossed from the parade floats, you could find yourself decorations from the roving carts going up and down the parade lines.
Brightly coloured wigs were a big favourite as were “wigs” made of strings of beads. Hats of all sorts could be found – ball caps, jester hats, Panama straw hats. In case you were not confident you would collect enough beads, you could buy strings of beads in all sizes and colours. David found a great bead “tie”, that along with his fedora hat, was his major decoration on many outings.
And of course there were the masks. You could get cheap plastic masks meant to make it through a few days. Some masks like one of the ones I bought had bright LEDs that flashed. There are a bit more expensive decorative masks that with some care could be used on other occasions. There was no excuse not to have a great mask for Mardi Gras in New Orleans!
We found several shops that specialized in real art masks. The artist showed amazing creativity in crafting almost any vision into a face mask. There was a small number of traditional Venetian masks, a number of almost full face costume masks (e.g. animals) and a huge assortment of detailed decorated masks. We bought two medium price range masks to bring home. You never know when a party may break out!
While many people used accessories to create an illusion of decoration, many people were fully in costumes for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While it was cold while we were there, some costumes barely covered bare midriffs while others were colourful warm onesies. You could tell that some people put a lot of effort into creating a full persona. And people wore their costumes everywhere as they walked about.
Make sure to think about your costume for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The more colourful the better. If you think you are being too flamboyant, think again. The more noticeable you are, the more you will get noticed from the floats and increase your chance of catching the “throws”. And you too can pose for tourist pictures!
In the end I got a great toy flashing mask and a headpiece that also flashed. I had quite a collection of beads after my first parade and daily I would don my day’s selection. David had his bead tie and bought a white Panama hat that he decorated with beads. If we do Mardi Gras again, we will spend more time and imagination on better costumes. But if we go again when it is cold, it needs to be a costume we can put several layers on underneath!
Fun At The Parades
The Mardi Gras in New Orleans parade schedule this year ran from January 6th through February 9 and culminated with the super parades on Fat Tuesday. Each parade is run by a Krewe. Krewes range in sizes with the Endymion Krewe including over 3,000 members.
We saw 5 of the bigger parades – 2 at night standing up on St Charles Street, 1 in the local neighbourhood where it originated and 2 in paid seats in the stands on St Charles Street. If you plan to see a number of Mardi Gras parades, make sure you read our 10 tips first!
In addition to a wide selection of themed floats, every parade included a colourful troupe of marching bands with cheerleaders, mascots on horse back, walkers carrying lit torches that often looked dangerously like they would set the walkers on fire, walking mascots, a few cars and a wide selection of themed floats.
Our first parade exposure for Mardi Gras in New Orleans was on a very cold night, huddled into a corner beside the bleachers at the Intercontinental hotel on St. Charles Street. The Knights of Babylon was established as the Jester Club in 1939. The Chaos parades were filled with satirical themes with topical political themes.
For our second parade day, we headed out into the local neighbourhood where the super crew Endymion parade originates. This is an all-male Krewe but it does select a local queen and maids in addition to a king. The parade ran past us for 3 hours with some of the largest and most ornate floats you will see. Some floats had 3 large sections that just barely made it around the wide corners in this outer area of New Orleans. We had no idea how some of these floats made it through the downtown streets.
We followed our own tips for Mardi Gras and watched our final set of parades from the stands on St. Charles Street on the actual Mardi Gras day. The Zulu crew is named after the fiercest of the African tribes. People are looking to get the coveted Zulu coconut. Rex is the “King of Carnival” and the oldest parading krewe (since 1872). They are responsible for the official Mardi Gras flag and purple, green and gold colours.
There were a lot of other parades for Mardi Gras in New Orleans that we didn’t get to attend. Iris and Muses are both Carnival organizations for women and we were told they had some of the most desired parade throws (shoes and handbags).
Mardi Gras Throws
Everyone who goes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans expects to come home with souvenirs collected from the parades. When the floats roll past, everyone gets crazy to catch the “throws” that are tossed from the parade floats.
Everyone thinks of beads when you think about things that get thrown at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While most people think that you need to bare your breasts to get thrown beads, everyone can catch the beads thrown from balconies or the parade floats. I accumulated well over a hundred strands of beads and was able to keep myself covered. Good thing given how cold it was while we were in New Orleans!
While beads are a big part of what gets thrown, the “Throws” from the parades are much more varied and interesting than just beads. Most of the krewes at Mardi Gras in New Orleans have a distinctive throw that the crowds are looking for.
We did manage to get a flashing Endymion medallion that commemorated their 50 year anniversary but we missed on getting a Zulu coconut. Rex threw our beads with little medallions representing the various floats. All of the krewes threw commemorative coins that were harder to catch but interesting in their detail.
The biggest thing we caught was a light sabre although I really wanted to catch one of the bright Mardi Gras parasols. There were small stuffed animals thrown and on one float they teased the crowd with a giant clown fish. We collected our share of krewe decorated footballs, frisbees and flashing toys. Two t-shirts that we caught actually made it home with us.
We collected a huge range of things from the parades at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In the end we sorted through what we wanted as souvenirs for us and our friends and the rest we left behind. We hoped that the hotel would find a way to re-cycle the pounds of beads that could not possibly go home with us.
A Great Time At Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a big festival lasting 5 days. The city is dressed up in Mardi Gras colours, the people all join in the fun and the parades are not to be missed. Our experience in New Orleans for Mardi Gras just whetted our appetite to work through the rest of our Carnival wish list. We will have to see if Rio or Venice make the planning deck next!
It was great to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. But we also discovered that New Orleans is a great place to visit any time of the year! We know that we will be back to explore more of what New Orleans has to offer.
Could you just imagine Mardi Gras in New Orleans as your read this blog? Did we miss anything that you wanted to see for Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
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Glad to have stumbled upon this post! Can you recommend a room, hotel, hostel with a balcony to watch the parades go by? Also, if I have a limited time, what is the best time to visit during Mardi Gras? I enjoy your blogs a lot and thank you so much for always helping and answering questions! Xx
Trisha, We stayed at the outskirts of town in a guest house. It was nice. But too far from the action so I would not stay there again if we were coming for Mardi Gras. Unfortunately I don’t have another recommend for something closer to the action. I would visit during the peak time right around the actual Mardi Gras Tuesday. Parades start a few weeks early but I would come in on the Thursday or Friday before the Tuesday big event (in 2021 the Mardi Gras Tuesday is Feb 16). That means you are there for the big parades. If you can stay a few days after Tuesday, you will see New Orleans in a different light without people. Lots more on the blog about New Orleans. Linda
I was not knowing about Mardi Grass festival and this New Orleans festival really looks very interesting and colorful. I love festivals and that too if they are very colorful. Wow those large and small beads are very tempting and I would surely buy them. I loved the parade and even they take political jokes as theme in their parades. It must be really funny and enjoyable to see this parade with colorful and funny characters.
Yukti, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is always such a fun time. We loved that we had several days to enjoy every aspect of the celebration. Linda