Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Mardi Gras: Magic, Music, and Mayhem in New Orleans

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French Quarter Mardi Gras

New Orleans enchanted me from the moment I arrived.

This was my first stop on the #SouthUSA road trip and my first real stop in the South. I knew I would love it, and right away, I was fascinated by the musical city before me.

After arriving late the night before, I set out in the morning to discover what this city had in store for me in the days leading to Mardi Gras.

What did I find?

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Beignets at Cafe du Monde, dusted generously with powdered sugar.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Street musicians on almost every corner, some of them dressed up in garb of centuries past.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Voodoo shops, vampire shops, witchcraft shops, and paranormal shops bursting out from every angle.

And the beauty of New Orleans…

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

I had never seen a city that looked like this before. The soft colors, the wrought-iron balconies, the old-fashioned shutters, the lamps that flickered in the night

Being in New Orleans was like being in a dream. I was intoxicated from the moment I arrived, drifting in and out of reverie as I strolled the French Quarter.

Then came Friday.

Suddenly brightly costumed women were hanging off balconies, throwing beads to outstretched hands below. College marching bands blasted “Get Lucky” and crashed their cymbals in unison. And you couldn’t just sit down at Cafe du Monde — the line for beignets stretched outside the restaurant.

This was Mardi Gras.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Muses

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Before coming to New Orleans, I had assumed that Mardi Gras was a one-day affair — the name translates to “Fat Tuesday,” after all. Well, that wasn’t true at all — the parades start weeks in advance and the partying builds to a crescendo.

So it turned out that I had inadvertently booked myself in New Orleans for seven straight days of the city’s biggest festival.

Was that a problem? Not at all.

Kate Mardi Gras

I dove straight in, jumping for beads doled out by the Krewe of Morpheus, sipping bright purple Voodoo Daiquiris that tasted like Dimetapp mixed with booze, grooving and dancing along with every marching band that came through the place.

This was Mardi Gras — and I LOVED IT.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Welcome to Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street — world-famous for bars that never close. No open container laws. A constant party, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

I’ve partied in Vegas and the Thai islands. I was a regular on Boston’s club circuit for years. I spent two full weeks in Vang Vieng in the days of tubing. But in terms of sheer mayhem, nowhere tops what I saw on Bourbon Street.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Bourbon Street was crazy and stayed crazy 24/7. Bars blast music from morning to midnight. Strip Clubs don’t charge a cover and instead invite people right in. Even Hugh Laurie and Harry Connick Junior are regulars in one of the piano bars. This is also where you’ll find the most obnoxious people at Mardi Gras, and where you’re most likely to see someone puking on the street.

Bourbon Street can be fun. But there’s far more to Mardi Gras, and to New Orleans.

Garden District

Garden District

I spent a wonderful afternoon away from the craziness, just exploring the gorgeous homes of the Garden District. Mark Twain partied here, Jefferson Davis died here, and Anne Rice still lives here to this day. If you are as crazy for architecture as I am, you must come see these homes!

The Garden District is located along the St. Charles Ave. parade route, so you can tie in your visit with a glimpse of the parade. This is where you’ll find the family-friendly side of Mardi Gras, and kids are far more welcomed here than in the French Quarter.

Cajun Cookin

Uptown

I didn’t get to see much of Uptown — not beyond a nice dinner at Jacques-Imo’s — but a short stroll showed me that there’s lots to see in this neighborhood. Being close to Tulane and Loyola New Orleans, it has a big student population and therefore you’ll find plenty of cool cafes and nightlife. Do try to get here at least once.

Faubourg-Marigny

Faubourg-Marigny and Frenchman Street

Just east of the French Quarter is Faubourg-Marigny, known as New Orleans’ hipster zone, filled with tattoo parlors, vintage shops, and endless live music venues, especially along famed Frenchman Street.

People will tell you that Frenchman Street is where the locals go — but after years of that tip being shared to the masses, Frenchman Street now has a mix of tourists, locals, and Mardi Gras regulars who don’t fit completely into either category.

If you want a fun nightlife scene, a place where you can let loose without the complete debauchery of Bourbon Street, Faubourg-Marigny is the place.

Faubourg-Marigny Mardi Gras

Faubourg-Marigny Mardi Gras Faubourg-Marigny Mardi Gras  Faubourg-Marigny Mardi Gras

Night markets filled with one-of-a-kind jewelry. Jazz and blues bursting out of clubs as crowds spilled onto sidewalks. This was my scene.

Over the next few days, I rotated between the different neighborhoods but spent the bulk of my time in the French Quarter, getting to know Mardi Gras as best I could.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras Tips

If you’re going to Mardi Gras, here are my best tips:

Come early. The Thursday before Mardi Gras was so different from the rest of the days — spirited as opposed to raging. I’m so glad I got to fall in love with that side of New Orleans. Coming early is also the best time to eat at popular restaurants that don’t take reservations, like Jacques-Imo’s and Mother’s.

Be extra careful with your belongings and extra vigilant toward thieves. Like many other festivals around the world, Mardi Gras is a hotbed for petty crime. Don’t go out with expensive jewelry; don’t take your full wallet. Just take enough money for the day and your ID.

Use a moneybelt or at least a purse that you can hold close to you. If you’re taking a camera, hold onto it closely.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Additionally, a friend of mine warned me of a scam that her son was a victim of a few years ago — his debit card was copied and stolen after using an ATM that had a tracking device was installed on the card slot. I checked every ATM I used closely and made sure there wasn’t a small device attached.

Pee strategically. There are long lines for bathrooms everywhere you go, so the moment you think you might have to go, get in line. It’s a good idea to carry toilet paper around with you, too.

Keep in mind that you can and will be arrested for public urination. The NOPD are very strict about this.

Mardi Gras

Dress for comfort and wear good shoes. Most of the time, my Mardi Gras weather was warm in the sunshine and cold in the shade, but once the weather took a turn for the worst, it was rainy and miserable. Layer up and dress for comfort. Oh, and wear your most comfortable yet ugliest shoes, because the ground gets disgusting in no time.

Heisenberg and Heisenberg

Bring costumes. No matter how you dress up, it will be heartily welcomed at Mardi Gras, especially if it’s green, gold, or purple. Tutus, wigs, and feather boas are especially popular, but really, anything goes. I was especially happy to pose with these Breaking Bad cosplayers!

You can also buy costumes in New Orleans, though be prepared to pay through the nose, especially in the French Quarter. Beads are ubiquitous and you don’t have to bring any with you.

Mardi Gras Float

Download a parade app and arrive early. A few New Orleans news stations have apps containing the parade schedule, routes, and GPS positioning of the location of the parade, which was fantastic. Just search for “Mardi Gras parade” on your app store and you’ll find a few of them.

If you want to be able to catch beads or the other swag thrown my the krewes, get to the parades early — one to two hours in advance. The prime spots get taken several hours in advance, but you should be able to get a front row spot if you’re punctual.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

Take your time — it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to be out all day, every day. If just a few hours a day satisfies your Mardi Gras curiosity, that’s fine. If you’re partying, you don’t want to go too hard too fast.

There are lots of things to do — I loved exploring the Garden District, attending a burlesque show, checking out the paranormal-themed shops, taking a vampire tour, chatting up random strangers on the street, and just wandering quieter parts of the French Quarter.

Naked Cowboy, Naked Cowgirl

My single best tip: stay within safe walking distance of the French Quarter. Getting a taxi is nearly impossible during Mardi Gras. When I called for taxis it would take me about 50 calls to get through to the operator, they would dispatch the taxi, and it would never come. This happened several times in a row. Trying to hail one down on the street could take as long as an hour.

There no way around the taxi situation — Uber is not available in New Orleans. If you’re coming to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you need to stay within a safe walking distance of the French Quarter. New Orleans is a checkerboard city in terms of more-safe and less-safe areas, and locals told me to avoid walking through some of the neighborhoods surrounding the French Quarter at night.

Which brings me to my next point.

Country Inn New Orleans

Where I Stayed — Country Inn and Suites, New Orleans French Quarter

For my first stay of the #SouthUSA road trip, Country Inns and Suites hosted me in their downtown New Orleans property, a beautiful 19th century building just a few blocks from the French Quarter.

It was a sanctuary. Having a sanctuary during a festival as long, loud, and crazy as Mardi Gras is critical for your sanity. Especially since after five days in New Orleans, the weather had turned cold, the crowds had become suffocating, and a chilly rain had begun to pour down.

Country Inn New Orleans

It was SO WARM. The most comfortable bed. Tons of space. Free hot breakfast, including eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy. Warm cookies were a mainstay of the front desk.

And most importantly, it was very safe to walk home from the French Quarter at night. For that reason, I’ll be staying at this Country Inn when I come back for my next Mardi Gras.

French Quarter Mardi Gras

The Takeaway

While I’m not a big fan of bucket lists (if your deadline is death, it’s not a priority!), Mardi Gras is something you should try to experience at least once in your life. Though after you go once, you’ll soon be planning your return! I’m already starting to think about costumes for next time and different people I’d like to take.

New Orleans needs to be seen to be believed, and it has quickly found its way into my list of favorite cities, though I’d love to return and continue exploring it outside of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras has earned a place in my top three festivals of all time, alongside Up Helly Aa in Shetland and Songkran in Thailand. That’s an extremely high distinction, and it takes a lot to earn that distinction in my book. Mardi Gras is truly spectacular.

Essential Info: Mardi Gras takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, usually in February. Find out more information here.

Rates at the Country Inn and Suites New Orleans French Quarter during my Mardi Gras stay were $220; low-season rates start at $138.

The #SouthUSA campaign is brought to you by Country Inns and Suites by Carlson and Holiday Autos. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Mardi Gras? Is this your kind of party?Mardi Gras, New Orleans

Comments

42 Responses to “Mardi Gras: Magic, Music, and Mayhem in New Orleans”
  1. What a funky city, I’m sure you had lots of fun! I’d be curious to explore New Orleans and see what Mardi Gras is all about over there!

  2. Jen says:

    Looks like you had an amazing time Kate. I’d love to visit NO someday and possibly at Mardi Gras time if I can. I wonder how many strings of beads they go through each year.

  3. Hannah says:

    I NEED to go next year. Would it be insane to go alone, if I can’t find anyone who’s free?

    • It can be done alone — almost anything can be done alone, and I’m an advocate for going alone! — but in my opinion, I think Mardi Gras is the kind of event that is much better when you’re with at least one other person.

      • Hannah says:

        Thanks for your reply 🙂

        • Aude Gori says:

          Hi Hannah!

          I really really want to go to Mardi Gras in 2015. None of my friends have time or money to join me. Still looking for a travelbuddy to join me.. I’m only going to New Orleans for one week 🙂

          Grtz from Belgium

          Aude

  4. Rebekah says:

    That’s looks pretty awesome. I’m usually more of a fan of traveling to mountain ranges or oceans… but I could make a change for something like that. Also super good to know you can’t pee publicly. Portland maine is all about just going when the spirit moves you.

  5. I’d really like to get there and listen to some live jazz. Those club musicans are multi-generational, some playing in the same clubs their grandfathers did. Thanks for taking on the not typical Mardi Gras topics (everyone knows them) Pee strategically, lol, love it.

  6. Amanda says:

    New Orleans has just rocketed to the top of my must-visit list for U.S. cities I haven’t been to yet! I’ve always wanted to go, but now I feel like I NEED to go!

  7. Natalie says:

    What a wonderful story about Mardi Gras! I’ve always been a little hesitant to visit, but you’ve presented it in such an appealing way I may have to dust off my costume and head down there next year!

  8. Michelle says:

    I went to New Orleans with family twice when I was a teenager, and since I didn’t have the opportunity to party, my days were spent exploring the city. I fell in love with everything about New Orleans.

    Of course, I was young, and my mom allowed me to walk through Bourbon St one night for all of 5 minutes before ushering us back to the hotel. I still remember the smell of Bourbon St the next morning (even though it was disgusting, it’s a fond memory). I know I have to go back and experience it again.

  9. This looks like an awesome trip! I’m admittedly kind of terrified of Mardi Gras, but am hoping to make it down to New Orleans for JazzFest.

  10. I absolutely love New Orleans! I went to Mardis Gras a couple of weeks before Fat Tuesday and it was the perfect time to go – still saw parades, partying through the streets, but like you mentioned, could still get into the restaurants we wanted to. The famous Spotted Cat bar on Frenchman Street is an all-time favorite live music spot – did you get a chance to check it out?

  11. NZ Muse says:

    Mayhem indeed! I can’t even imagine. I don’t think this is my scene but enjoyed reading about your experience 🙂

  12. You are truly an inspiration! I’m actually planning on doing the same, quitting my job at 27 to go travel and blog my adventures. I love this post too. New Orleans is a ton of fun! I’m actually going again in May. I’ll have to check out some of the places you mentioned. I never made it out to the Garden District on my last trip out there.

  13. What an amazing experience! I absolutely need to get to Mardi Gras in New Orleans one of these years. It looks like such fun.

    And New Orleans looks like such a beautiful city!! Glad you had a great time 🙂

  14. James Earl says:

    Whoa so much culture ah ha hoooo! Pretty incredible stuff. New Orleans, eh? I think they’d love me down there ha hoooo! Surprised there’s no Uber they need to get on that…

  15. Victoria says:

    I’ve never been to Mardi Gras or even New Orleans, but this town sounds like my kind of place. Me thinks it’ll be time to take a trip back to America!

  16. Laura says:

    This is such a fun collection of photos – you definitely capture the crazy atmosphere! New Orleans has been high on my travel list for a while now, and this post is reminding me why.

  17. Alouise says:

    I love New Orleans. I’ve been there twice, and I can’t wait to go back again. Glad you were able to check out this unique city, and I love your tip for staying close to the French Quarter for Mardi Gras. I was there Halloween weekend a couple years ago, and it was hard enough getting a cab then, I can only imagine how crazy Mardi Gras would be.

  18. It isn’t exactly my scene, but I’ve always wanted to visit just for the experience. It’s amazing to see all of the different types of people that come out to celebrate. Your pictures are beautiful and it looks like you had a wonderful time. Sounds like a win!

    All the best,
    Laura

  19. Laryssa says:

    And a note that may be afraid or intimidated by the madness of Bourbon Street — it IS pure chaos (as you said) and it’s about 99.1% tourists — Mardi Gras is fantastic experienced ANYWHERE in the city. Uptown is a great place to go for a local’s perspective, although that requires a bit of strategizing…

    Glad you had fun, Kate – it’s impossible NOT to love New Orleans. 🙂

  20. Renuka says:

    A great account as usual. Mardi gras is certainly electrifying, however, not sure if everything is really cool as it appears. I mean I can see they have quoted a Bible verse. Is it to spread the word of God or just for fun. If it’s for fun, it shouldn’t be so! Anything from the word of God should be respected.

    • Renuka, that sign actually came from the religious protesters that lined Bourbon Street. You tend to see them at festivals and big events — mostly glaring middle-aged men holding signs stating that everyone here will be burning in hell.

      For what it’s worth, I also met some absolutely wonderful Christian missionaries who purposefully came to Mardi Gras — not to convert people or admonish people who aren’t Christians, but just to help clean up and spread some joy.

  21. Alyssa James says:

    I loved New Orleans! I went about 10 years ago, just after Mardi Gras (and just before Hurricane Katrina), on a school trip. We also did a really creepy cemetery walking tour. The guide took a photo with a polaroid and showed us all the ghosts he had captured in other photos. Creeeepy.

  22. Katie says:

    I’ve commented a handful of times but just wanted to say I loved this post and your well-rounded (for lack of a better word) Mardi Gras review. My boyfriend is from New Orleans (we live in Boston) and it’s his personal mission to show everyone the local, non-Bourbon side of MG. I went to MG for the first time this year and absolutely cannot wait to go back!

  23. Naomi says:

    My dad has been and I so, so badly want to go! Although I just want to do travelling around the South US in general so I don’t know how I would fit it all in!

  24. Christina says:

    I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans. After reading this and seeing your photos I’ll have to put it on top of my list!

  25. Ryan says:

    Love New Orleans! One of my top favorite places to visit in the USA. Ahh, Cafe Du Monde, brings back memories! I think I had it 13 times in my 5 day stay. and I went to that exact voodoo shop. Thats for the flashback =)

  26. Sounds like a blast! Thanks for all the details + insight, Kate! I will definitely be adding this to my life list!

  27. Kyle says:

    That looks awesome! I like how you put pictures in your post to give your readers a good visual.

  28. Catherine says:

    Really enjoying your blogposts, Kate. Am wanting to travel, as a solo female from New Zealand so have found your advice invaluable. Love this article. Doubt that I’d have the moolah to stay at that Country Inns joint, but sounds idyllic!

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