Insider’s Guide to Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras season in New Orleans is now officially underway, culminating on Feb. 28. To ensure you make the most of it, we asked local experts and those-in-the-know for their best insider tips and secrets.
Catch the Northside Skull & Bones Gang Parade
Jake Kelston, an operations manager at Beyond the Bayou Tours, says it’s worth waking up early to catch this tradition, which dates back to 1819. It’s not well known outside of NOLA, and involves the Northside Skull & Bones Gang, the oldest of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, parading through the streets of Treme in the wee hours of Mardi Gras morning (a.k.a Fat Tuesday). Dressed as skeletons, the members roam the neighborhood dancing, drumming and knocking on doors with the dual purpose of getting the party started and reminding people of their mortality. In order to observe the spooky spectacle, wait for the gang to emerge from the Backstreet Cultural Museum around 6 a.m.
Find more Mardi Gras Indians
The Mardi Gras Indians are a longstanding tradition, which, unlike other parades and krewes, don’t advertise their appearances. Kelston of Beyond the Bayou Tours advises looking for them in the Treme and Central City neighborhoods, the Sixth Ward, and around Claiborne and St. Claude streets. He says you can also spot them at Zulu events. To learn more about about them, visit the House of Dance & Feathers in a backyard in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Visit the other Mardi Gras museum
The comprehensive Mardi Gras World isn’t the only Mardi Gras museum in New Orleans. Annie Seeger, a concierge at Hilton New Orleans Riverside, also recommends the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum. This small yet intriguing museum resides above iconic Arnaud’s, which has been around since 1918 and is also one of the city's great cocktail destinations. It features elaborate costumes worn by Arnaud Cazenave and his family, including his daughter Germaine, whom the museum is named after. Carnival masks, invitations, costume jewelry and photos round out the collection. The best part? The museum is free and open seven days a week.
Eat king cake at New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery
"A close-up of a King Cake on a yellow background. A King Cake is a festive and traditional Mardi Gras treat more specific to New Orleans, LA. It tastes like huge cinnamon roll (you cut it in pieces just like other cakes) dripping with LOTS of icing and colored sugar on top (in green, purple and yellow -- the official Mardi Gras colors). YUM!"
Eating king cake, a pastry decorated in purple, gold and green, is a Mardi Gras must, and you can find it everywhere. However, head to New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery for some of the best. Michael Murphy, author of "111 Places in New Orleans That You Must Not Miss," highlights its apple and goat cheese king cake.
Identify bathrooms in advance
This is a key part to surviving Mardi Gras. John Price, the general manager of New Orleans’ Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, advises buying a $5 day pass to use the portable toilets at Sacred Heart Academy. "They are the best in town and just across the street from Fat Harry's," he says. It’s worth noting that Fat Harry’s is a local hotspot as it’s right on a popular parade route.
Grab a prime spot at the Zulu parade
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 04: Memebers of the Krewe of Zulu parde dispite ther rain Mardi Gras day on March 4, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Fat Tuesday, the traditional celebration on the day before Ash Wednesday and the begining of Lent, is marked in New Orleans with parades and marches through many neighborhoods in the city.(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has been marching since at least 1909, so obviously this is one of the most popular parades around. But the krewe is equally famous for its coveted coconut throws, which are decorated by hand. Kelston of Beyond the Bayou Tours advises, "The best way to view this parade is along Jackson Street, before it reaches St. Charles. This area is easier to get to, less crowded and has more of a local community vibe. Because of the local crowd and early spot on the parade route, it will give you better chances of catching a coconut!"
Use apps to track parades
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 07: Actor and native New Orleanian Anthony Mackie tosses Mardi Gras beads to fans as he reigns as King of Bacchus XLVIII in the 2016 Krewe Of Bacchus parade on February 7, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mackie is the first African-American monarch for the krewe. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)
Parade apps are a game-changer since they track the real-time location of many parades, which comes in handy whether you prefer to wait at a bar, are dealing with antsy kids, or simply want to avoid the parade route altogether. Blogger Jessica Norah of Independent Travel Cats found the Mardi Gras Parade Tracker App useful during her visit; it currently tracks 67 parades all over the city, as well as some suburbs. (Norah notes that nearby areas such as Metairie and Covington tend to have more family-family parades.) Local Andy Myer of Andy Myer PR likes the WDSU Parade Tracker app; besides providing parade schedules and routes, it also offers videos, maps and related news. New features include route updates and float numbers.
Venture outside of New Orleans for Mardi Gras events
EUNICE, LA - FEBRUARY 17: Costumed revelers dance during the Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras chicken run on Fat Tuesday on February 17, 2015 in Eunice, Louisiana. The traditional Cajun Mardi Gras involves costumed revelers competing to catch a live chicken as they move from house to house throughout the rural community. (Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
Yes, New Orleans is most commonly associated with grand Mardi Gras parades, but consider heading beyond city limits to find authentic traditions and family-friendly parades. For example, Norah of Independent Travel Cats also recommends Baton Rouge. Its krewes include Southdowns, known for its flaming torches and dancing girls, Artemis, an all-women’s parade; and Mutts, which, you guessed it, consists of dogs dressed in Mardi Gras finery. Or head into the Cajun Bayou for your choice of 17 parades and Mardi Gras events. At its heart, Lafayette holds one of the biggest Mardi Gras parties around, complete with parades, beads, balls, king cakes and Mardi Gras Indians. It’s also a good place to experience Cajun traditions, such as Courir de Mardi Gras, where costumed horseback riders go door to door in the countryside in search of ingredients for gumbo. (Chasing a chicken is also par for the course.) In case you can’t make it to Lafayette, this spectacle happens throughout Cajun country as well.