Mardi Gras is many things, so many that it takes every letter of the alphabet to explain. It’s dance krewes and king cake, beads and marching bands, Rex and Zulu. Here’s a look at Mardi Gras, from A to Z.
The king of Mardi Gras himself, Arthur Hardy is your go-to guy for information on parade routes, krewes, Mardi Gras royalty, and everything in between. You can find it all in the Arthur Hardy Mardi Gras Guide, which has been published since 1977 and contains 160 pages of facts, photos, and fun. Order your guide here.
They’re a dime a dozen during Mardi Gras and the iconic symbol of the season. Mardi Gras beads come in a variety of different colors, shapes, and sizes, and have only gotten more elaborate over the years, but catch three simple strands, one in purple (justice), one in green (faith), and one in gold (power), for the trifecta.
Part of the fun of Mardi Gras is that it’s basically Halloween: round two. With plenty of chances to costume, locals take pride in their looks that include wigs, headdresses, jewelry, socks, and plenty of sequins. Don’t be caught on the parade route in layman’s clothes. Check out more costuming tips here.
In between the floats that roll and the bands that walk, dance krewes are another element of each and every Mardi Gras parade. I mean, there’s even a book about it. With groups like the 6-10 Stompers, the Pussyfooters, and the Beyjorettes, you’ll want to line up just to seem them pass.
With its own special Mid-City route, Krewe of Endymion rolls the Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras Day in true Super Krewe fashion. With upwards of 3,000 riders, there’s a reason why locals block off their calendars whether they’re headed to the parade or not. Larger-than-life floats make revelers gasp at the sight of it, including “Pontchartrain Beach, Then and Now,” which is known as the largest float in Mardi Gras at over 300 feet long with over 250 riders. The parade ends with a ride through the Superdome, the only krewe to do so, for the Endymion Extravaganza with food and live music.
A common misconception about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is that it’s only for adults. With most parades far far away from the revelry on Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras is a family and community celebration. You’ll see plenty of children and families out on the Saint Charles Avenue parade route, some on ladders, some on shoulders. Mardi Gras is a fun experience for people of all ages. Day parades are a great option for younger kids, but even night parades tend to have an earlier start time, giving you plenty of time for celebration before bed times.
The open container law in Louisiana is like a gift from the Mardi Gras gods. It makes sense that the krewe-branded go-cup is a major throw along the parade route is. Some days during the Mardi Gras season contain a marathon of parades, and hey, you gotta stay hydrated. A handy dandy go-cup will do the trick.
If you ask us, the real highlight of parades isn’t the floats or the throws, it’s the hard-working individuals that fill the streets of New Orleans with music. From the St. Augustine Marching 100 to Southern University’s Human Jukebox, these bands will rock you to your core, knock you off your feet, and put the soul back in your body. The best way to enjoy the bands is to take a step back and listen; trust us, you don’t want to get plowed in the face with a trombone.
One of the most mysterious, fascinating, and colorful pieces of New Orleans’ cultural quilt belongs to Mardi Gras Indians. A unique and historic subculture of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians and their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native Americans helped shield runaway slaves. Today, they work year-round crafting hand-beaded and sewn suits, bringing the streets to life when they parade. Keep an eye out on Mardi Gras Day to spot them.
The official start date to the Carnival season, January 6 is Epiphany, better known locally as The Day To Begin Eating King Cake. Let us explain below.
It’s cinnamon, it’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s meat - that is, if you get Bywater Bakery’s boudin king cake. The traditional Mardi Gras treat is a twisted brioche dough filled with cinnamon sugar and topped with icing, colorful purple, green, and gold sugar, and the king cake baby. Listen, the variations are no joke - you could try a different king cake each day from January 6 until Mardi Gras Day and still not try them all. But once the season is over, don’t test the fates by sneaking in one last slice. Locals will tell you it’s bad luck, so we take no chances.
Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras, isn’t a day of rest in New Orleans; it’s a day for gathering with celebrations all over town. Start the day with the Greasing of the Poles, a long-held tradition at the Royal Sonesta in the French Quarter. Mid-day, the Krewe of Red Beans will take to the streets with walking parades and costumed revelers. Later on at Riverwalk, Spanish Plaza comes alive with live music, the arrival of Rex, King of Carnival, a ceremony featuring Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and the King of Zulu. We can’t forget about the parades that roll that night, Proteus and the super krewe Orpheus.
Everyone knows about the super krewes of Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus, but micro krewes are our best kept secret. ‘tit Rəx, the shoebox parade, rolls through the Bywater every Mardi Gras with tiny decorated floats that pack a punch. Inspired by the school-age tradition of transforming shoe boxes into works of wonder, you might need binoculars to see this parade, but you certainly won’t want to miss it.
It’s a little like coffee or tea, still or sparkling - neutral ground vs. sidewalk side is all about preference. The neutral ground is the wide grassy median where the streetcar runs Uptown. Sidewalk, is, well, the sidewalk. Both sides provide a great vantage point for watching the parade and catching throws. Take your pick!
Super krewe Orpheus is the brainchild of Harry Connick, Jr., Harry Connick, Sr., and Captain Sonny Borey. Together, they have created one of the most anticipated parades of the season, known for its celebration of live music. The party continues with Orpheuscapade, the black-tie event that draws thousands of revelers to the Convention Center where the parade concludes.
Before you head out the door, you’ve got to know your Mardi Gras parade routes. Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide is great for those who want a physical guide, and apps like WDSU Parade Tracker offer information in real time. Trust us, you’ll want to know if your parade gets delayed, and parade tracker apps are great for that.
Carnival royalty, the queens and kings of Mardi Gras, are a uniting factor of every krewe. Some are New Orleans natives, others are celebrities from afar, but all bring the pomp and circumstance to an otherwise informal time. There’s typically a toast with the Mayor of New Orleans, a key to the city presented, and lots of scepter waiving involved.
Founded in 1872, Krewe of Rex is among the oldest groups in Mardi Gras history. Known as King of Carnival, Rex rolls directly after Zulu on Mardi Gras Day, but on a slightly different route through Uptown New Orleans. The monarch of the krewe, Rex, changes every year, and his identity is kept secret until Lundi Gras Day.
Among the lesser-known Mardi Gras traditions, the North Side Skull & Bones Gang rises bright and early on Mardi Gras Day to go door to door and wake the people of Tremé, spreading a message of peace. The tradition dates back to 1819 and has roots in African spirituality. For all the hubbub and loudness of Mardi Gras, Skull & Bones is a quiet reminder that we’re more than just beads and booze.
A Zulu coconut, Muses shoe, Iris sunglasses - signature throws are the name of the game during Mardi Gras. Not all krewes have them, but due to their rarity, parade-goers line the streets with signs, costumes, anything to get the riders’ attention. Other throws you’ll see are beads, of course, cups, doubloons, stuffed animals, light-up rings, and moon pies. You really never know what you’ll catch at a Mardi Gras parade in NOLA. (Bonus T: Testing! The National Guard has set up three drive-thru testing and vaccine sites open throughout Mardi Gras. The sites are open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. every week, and only closed on Sundays, Lundi Gras, and Fat Tuesday. See here for more information).
For most Mardi Gras parades, you’ll see that the route flows through Uptown New Orleans. Starting at Napoleon Avenue and Prytania Street, and then turning onto St. Charles Avenue, you’ll see dozens of people lined up to catch the parade with chairs, ladders, tents, and even couches. We recommend getting out there well ahead of time to stake your spot and enjoy the atmosphere of Uptown during parade season.
Mardi Gras celebrations spread throughout the entire city, but it should come as no surprise that NOLA's most historic and famous neighborhood is ground zero for a lot of Mardi Gras revelry. While the larger parades and floats don't grace the streets of the Quarter, smaller krewes such as Chewbacchus, Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc, Barkus, and Krewe du Vieux (see more below under "X") are all signature neighborhood events of the throughout the season. There are the storied balconies of Bourbon Street, celebratory afternoon-long luncheons that spill out from white tablecloths into the streets, and traditions that locals know and love, like the annual Greasing of the Poles at the Royal Sonesta Hotel or the Bourbon Street Awards on Mardi Gras morning. It's the intersection of first-time tourists and lifelong locals and is for sure worth checking out at some point during your Mardi Gras experience.
Mardi Gras is a citywide event, with parades stretching from neighborhood to neighborhood. You’re sure to do plenty of walking, and standing, so be sensible with your shoe choice before heading out. Go crazy with your costume - just maybe tie it all together with a pair of arch-supported sneakers.
Okay okay, so while most of Mardi Gras IS family-friendly, there’s one parade that isn’t. Krewe du Vieux rolls early in the season, through the French Quarter, and is known for its political satire and overall raunch. Leave the kiddos out and have a fun, adults-only time at Krewe du Vieux.
In 2021, Yardi Gras was born out of a time where Mardi Gras couldn’t happen. Though parades are now rolling again, locals still partake in the new tradition of decorating their houses as floats. Find the official map of house floats here. Then, grab a cup of hot cocoa and take a walking tour tailored to you.
Rolling bright and early on Fat Tuesday, Krewe of Zulu dates back to as early as 1909 and has since remained an integral part of the Mardi Gras tradition. A pillar of the Black community, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has persevered through adversity and has given back to the people of New Orleans through it all. The highly anticipated parade rolls through Central City, Uptown, and downtown New Orleans and features their signature throw, the Zulu coconut.