New Orleans (NO) is one of my favorite cities in the US and I’ve visited it more than any other city in the world! I’ve never had a bad time in the Crescent City (so named because the original town – Vieux Carré, aka the French Quarter – was built at a sharp bend in the Mississippi River) and if you’ve not been yourself, I highly recommend visiting ASAP.
I’ll tackle my recommendations for things to do in New Orleans in a future post, but today is a special day in NO as it’s Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday” in French. Mardi Gras has been a legal holiday in Louisiana since 1875 and like Christmas, it’s a season, not just one day. Festivities are marked by numerous parades hosted by various “krewes.” A krewe is an organization you elect to join and you pay fees in order to pay for a parade, ball or both. Fees for high end krewes (such as Rex or Bacchus) can run into the thousands with entry reserved only for family members of current members. Smaller krewes or marching clubs are more open to membership and can cost less than $100. Typically the less you pay, the more you have to do for your parade (the higher end krewes hire professionals).
Festivities this year kicked off in early January with the Krewe of Joan of Arc parade and continuing every weekend through the first of Fat Tuesday. Although the early kick-off starts with one parade, by early February, you can have 3, 4 or 5 parades (from different krewes) back to back. Perhaps now you understand New Orleans’ reputation as a party city!
If you visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, here are a few traditions worth knowing:
- The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple (symbol of power), green (symbol of faith), and gold (symbol of power). Wear any combination thereof and you’ll look like a native.
- It’s all about beads. How do you get beads? One of three ways: 1) catch them as they are hurled off a float, 2) flash the “girls” as your walking through the French Quarter or 3) buy them at any retail store in all of New Orleans (although don’t tell anyone you did this – it’s strictly forbidden!).
- Bring a large bag to haul away the trinkets thrown from the floats. Certain prizes are more treasured than others (skulls are the famed trinket from the famous Zulu Social Club parade which kicks off every Fat Tuesday at 8 AM).
- That said, be prepared to brawl for the trinkets! It’s not Mardi Gras if you don’t get an elbow in the face as someone tries to snatch a goodie from your grasp (and vice versa!).
Now, a few words of caution for any first-timers:
- Be prepared for absolute drunken assholes. Yes, that’s right. The French Quarter is busy on most nights throughout the year, however Mardi Gras brings out the awful in people. I typically gravitate to other areas in NO during Mardi Gras although the occasional jaunt to Krazy Corner is a must.
- I’m not sure I would bring children to the French Quarter. Outside of Mardi Gras season it would be fine (although they will still see some interesting characters most any given night). Bourbon Street is packed and based on item #1 above, I just don’t think it’s suitable for young children (unless you don’t mind explaining a lot of crazy stuff to them afterwards!).
- The crowds in the French Quarter are staggering (this from a woman who lives in NYC) so have a plan before you go in on where you’ll meet at a certain time (in case you lose your phone).
My love affair with the Big Easy started in 1990 during my first trip to the city during Mardi Gras season. A vendor of mine invited me on their annual pilgrimage and I met friends still dear to me this day! I was enchanted with the laid-back atmosphere and “check your morals at the mailbox” vibe. That worked for me right out of college and oddly enough, it still works for me today!
I’ve been to three weddings in the Quarter, at least a dozen Mardi Gras weekends, three professional conferences at the NO Convention Center (I noticed attendance was lower when presenting here!), I departed on a cruise out of the port of NO and I’ve been probably taken twenty non-Mardi Gras visits in my lifetime. Yes, I truly love New Orleans!
Here are just a few of my favorite memories!