It’s carnival time in the Crescent City.
The New Orleanian celebratory equivalent of Christmas, Halloween and the boycott of the Superbowl combined.
Personally, it is my favorite time of year in my beloved hometown. The traditions, the costumes, the food – but most of all, I love how our city seems to extend its arms and envelop every person in a warm hug of hospitality that you can only find in New Orleans.
There’s something magical about our city, and during the weeks and days leading up to the first parade you can almost see it begin to glow.
This intangible feeling is something that is difficult to explain if you have never experienced Mardi Gras – but if you are headed this way for the festivities this year, or it’s on your bucket list for the near future, here are a few insider tips from a self-proclaimed Mardi Gras professional:
- It’s pronounced “New OAR-Lens.” Not “OAR-Leans” and no one calls it “Nawlins” unless you are a cheap t-shirt in a Bourbon street shop.
- Parades do no actually roll through the French Quarter. Due an update to the fire code in the 1970s. However, if you are staying in the Quarter or in the downtown CBD, they roll a few blocks from it. I would encourage if you are staying downtown to make a trip a few miles to the uptown area of the city and see a few of the parades roll down the historic St. Charles Avenue. “The Avenue” is home to blocks and blocks of stunning, historic homes and mansions with many of the parade participants being locals, offering an authentic and unique Mardi Gras perspective.
- We call them streetcars, not trolleys. And when traveling the city, at a $1.25 it can certainly be a more economical (and fun) way to get around. However, schedules are different during parades so make sure to download the RTA app. You can even pay for your fare on your smartphone rather than trying to make sure you have the exact $1.25 in cash. If you are staying downtown, I would avoid taking them due to the high number of parades routes that mirror the streetcar lines. You can also track the parades progress with a number of parade tracker apps and updates.
- You are traveling upriver or downriver. Because of how the river cradles the city, we do not orient ourselves by the traditional North, South, East and West when giving directions. The uptown neighborhood is not actually due north but more northwest – it’s called uptown because it is upriver.
- You stand on the neutral ground side or sidewalk side of a parade. In an effort to continue to be different, we call the median that separates opposite directions of traffic a “neutral ground.” The term originated because it was the land that separated the native French creoles of the city and the new English-speaking Americans in the mid 1800s. When it comes to the parade route, you stand on either the “sidewalk side” or “neutral ground” side, a distinction that makes all the difference when explaining to someone your location on the route.
- Take your drink with you. New Orleans’ open container laws are prolific and one of the many perks tourists enjoy when visiting. Add in the fact that Mardi Gras is the big party before we repent for Lent, and it’s easy to see how many tourists (and locals) can get carried away with the privilege of taking your alcohol “to go.” Take it easy. Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint and for many locals it is a family-oriented holiday. You want to remember and enjoy all the fun to be had on the parade route, and that requires slow sips and lots of food to absorb the cocktails. Also, tip your bartenders.
- Leave your diet at home. Poboys, king cake, fried chicken, jambalaya, beignets, hot dogs, crawfish – it’s hard to choose just one favorite food we eat during Mardi Gras (and even outside of Carnival). Bring your stretchy pants and have your gym membership ready for your return home. Mardi Gras is about celebrating all the joys of life – and for New Orleanians, that always means good food.
- There are plenty of places to pee. Somewhere along the way, a myth began that New Orleans is devoid of restrooms at Mardi Gras. I’m happy to report that it is not true. There are plenty of places to stop in and use the restroom along the parade route and throughout the city. Churches and schools sell bracelets for clean portable restrooms as fundraisers, the city even has a few areas where portable restrooms are available free to the public. So if you feel the need to go, please don’t go on the street. We may be “the city that care forgot” but we didn’t forget public sanitation. Also, relieving yourself on the street is a great ticket to seeing the inside of the Orleans Parish Prison until Ash Wednesday. And given that our police force work overtime through most of the season, testing their patience should not be on your Mardi Gras bucket list.
- Hug a cop. Well, not literally, but as mentioned above, these men and women are working around-the-clock to keep our city safe and the parades rolling. Appreciate the time they are taking away from their families to ensure yours stays safe. You can even “adopt a cop” for the Mardi Gras season to help show your support.
- There are plenty of beads for everyone. No need to fight for the sparkling, sometimes light-up gems thrown from the floats. As someone who rides in a parade, I can assure you there is PLENTY to go around. Enjoy the entire experience of the parade – the marching bands, the costumes, the artistry of the floats. Mardi Gras is the celebration of the joie de vivre (the exuberant enjoyment of life) – it is not the time to take yourself seriously, so leave your worries at home and take it all in!
It is my sincere hope that if you are thinking about joining in the revelry this year or in the future, you make the decision to visit. It may sound biased as a native New Orleanian, but there is no city in America like New Orleans and we cannot wait to share the magic of Carnival with all of you.