Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French, and represents the season of Carnival celebration. Every year, Mardi Gras begins on Twelfth Night, which is January 6. Twelfth Night represents the Christian holy day of the Epiphany. The season, which represents a time of celebration before Christian Lent, lasts until Fat Tuesday. The length of the Mardi Gras season varies, but it typically lasts anywhere from a month and a half to three months. For a list of future Mardi Gras Day dates, see here.
Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans the day Iberville stood on our land in 1699. Since then, balls have become a tradition of the season to represent members of society. From the past to the present, Mardi Gras is full of traditions.
Mardi Gras balls began in the 1700s and still exist today. At the Twelfth Night ball, a king cake was cut, and whoever found the bean (a precursor to today’s baby) inside would host the next ball. This would continue until Mardi Gras evening. Numerous balls still exist today, although they are often affiliated with various parades, organizations or krewes. The first ball was held in 1857 by the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Comus hosted the first parade, followed by Rex in 1872, which debuted the king of Mardi Gras. The Rex parade gave Mardi Gras the official colors of purple to represent justice, green to represent faith, and gold to represent power. The three colors were to represent the “king.”
In 1872, the city of New Orleans was struggling through years of Reconstruction. To help the city and promote tourism, proclamations of Mardi Gras were posted at train stations throughout the country. Rex commanded his subjects to gather and celebrate Carnival in New Orleans. From there on, Mardi Gras became a sought after tourist attraction.
Lundi Gras, which means Fat Monday in French, is the day before Mardi Gras day. Some parades roll that night, including Proteus and Orpheus, while the day is often filled with festive lunches and celebrations, including the wonderfully creative Red Beans Parade. Zulu and Rex historically meet on this day as well and host various celebrations. To read more about Lundi Gras traditions, click here.
It is fun to be in New Orleans throughout the Mardi Gras season, but the biggest celebrations and parades begin the Wednesday before Fat Tuesday. On that Wednesday, the larger krewes (also known as parades) begin to roll. Prior to that Wednesday, various parades roll in neighborhoods across the city on weekends-- beginning on Twelfth Night in January. Flights and hotels fill up fast, so plan your trip ASAP!
Mardi Gras is a free event! No tickets are needed to view parades. For a full parade schedule, see here. However, balls are invitation only or ticketed. You can also buy passes to watch parades on grandstands, located all along the route.
The most historic parades include Proteus on Lundi Gras, and Rex and Zulu on Fat Tuesday. The largest parades are Endymion on the Saturday before Mardi Gras and Bacchus on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Other fan favorites include Muses (an all-female krewe) on the Thursday before and Tucks, which rolls during the day on the Saturday before.
Where you stay during Mardi Gras depends on what you’re interested in seeing and doing. Parades roll in various neighborhoods, but the main route is from Napoleon Avenue in the Uptown Neighborhood to Canal Street in the Central Business District (just on the edge of the French Quarter). It is difficult to get around during Mardi Gras, so walking or biking is your best bet. You should look into a hotel or bed and breakfast along the route. Look for St. Charles Avenue or Canal Street.
If you're coming with your family, the Uptown neighborhood is recommended for lodging and parade viewing. Some hotels closer to downtown offer balcony viewing or stands for guests.
Restrooms are hard to find during parades, although some port-a-potties offer a toilet for a fee. Having a room close to the route is a bonus for this reason. You can also usually find bathrooms at churches and schools along the routes for a small fee.
The mega-krewe Endymion rolls through Mid City and into downtown, while Krewe du Vieux and other smaller, walking parades, roll through the Marigny/Bywater and the French Quarter.
Contrary to popular belief, none of the major parades roll down Bourbon Street. Adults are still often found on the popular street in their own revelry. The Friday before Fat Tuesday is a popular time to hit Bourbon Street for various celebrations like Greasing of the Poles and festive lunches.
Krewes historically represent the members of various organizations that celebrate the season through parades and/or balls. Each krewe has their own history and traditions. Some are men only, some are women only, and some are open to all! They often have a captain who leads the organization, which is a big honor. Krewes often have courts which are made up of a king, queen, maids, and dukes. The court usually changes each year. They are chartered as non-profit entities and financed by dues and fundraising.
Krewe parade themes usually change each year and are inspired by history, stories, legends, the news, mythology, entertainment, and beyond. Some of the most popular parades are known for their satire and political comedy. The throws of each parade often reflect the theme or the krewe’s symbols.
For in-depth information regarding the various krewes, see here.
The Rex Organization was founded in 1872, and hosted the second official parade behind Comus. It is the longest parading organization, as Comus no longer rides. The organization is credited for creating Mardi Gras royalty: Rex and his queen. Rex means king so he is known as the King of Carnival. You can spot the homes of past kings and queens of carnival by the large Rex flags hung outside. The organization is also credited with naming Mardi Gras’ official colors of purple, green, and gold, and the official royal anthem, “If I Ever Cease to Love.” The song is heard at the Rex ball, which officially closes out Mardi Gras each year. Attendance to the ball is invitation only, but many gather outside on Canal Street. The ball can also be watched on New Orleans’ local PBS channel, who also livestreams the event on their website. More information on the Rex Organization can be found here.
Zulu is a Social Aid and Pleasure Club that dates back to the early 1900s. Social aid and pleasure clubs were a form of financial help for members of the African American community. The club went on to create a Mardi Gras day parade that first rode in 1915, but their major route of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street did not appear until 1968. Before then, the parade could only travel through “back streets” in African American neighborhoods. The official costume of all riding members of Zulu is black face paint, wigs, and grass skirts. From the beginning, the members threw coconuts, and today, they are highly sought after - although to prevent head injuries, coconuts must now be handed down instead of thrown into crowds. They were first painted gold, silver, or black to represent gold, silver, and coal, but today, they are hand painted in elaborate colors and designs. No two coconuts are alike! The parade’s success over the years is due to the dedication of their members and community involvement. They host a Lundi Gras celebration to prepare for the big day. Zulu rolls at 8 a.m., so if you want to catch the whole thing (and for a better chance at a coconut), plan to get there early for a good spot. For more information on the history of Zulu, see here.
Yes! Mardi Gras is truly a citywide celebration, and you’ll find everything from quirky, satirical floats pulled by horses in Krewe du Vieux (warning: the themes of this parade are definitely risque and meant for adults only), to the North Side Skull and Bones Gang who roam the streets of the Treme beginning at dawn every Mardi Gras morning. Other notable favorites are the tiny shoebox floats of the Marigny-based ‘tit Rex parade and the delightfully nerdy Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. There’s truly something for everyone–even dogs, who parade the streets of the French Quarter alongside their owners as part of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus.
When you hear people talk about throws, they’re referring to anything that is thrown from float-riders or krewe members during a parade. Throws include beads, toys, cups, and doubloons. Doubloons are colorful aluminum coins stamped with the parading organization's name or theme. Many krewes have signature throws such as the Muses shoe or Zulu coconut. Throws that light up, such as blinky beads and LED-adorned headdresses, are often coveted as well. The best way to catch items from a float is to make eye contact with a rider and yell “Throw me something, Mister!” And while you may have heard that flashing will get you beads, it’s not only widely looked down upon by locals, but also illegal.
For more information on Carnival krewes, parade themes, and throws, see here.
Masking is a tradition during Mardi Gras. Masks were first worn to escape society and class constraints. Today, float riders are required to wear masks by law to keep in tradition and mystery of who is in which krewe. Float riders often wear a costume as well that matches their float’s theme.
Parade-goers may be seen wearing masks as well, although that is not necessary. Costumes, however, are very common for parade-goers. Whether you’re decked out in purple, green and gold or just something fun, your costume will add to the celebration. Costumes are especially encouraged on Fat Tuesday. Otherwise, dress comfortably with closed-toe shoes!
Beginning in 1857, flambeaux's were used to light the Mardi Gras parade. They are still used in parades today as tradition. A flambeaux is an iron pole that lights fire on either side of it. They are carried by brave walkers, who are thrown change as a thanks. More information can be found here.
King Cake is the official food of Mardi Gras. The festive Mardi Gras dessert is eaten for breakfast, afternoon snacks, and throughout the parades. The name comes from the Biblical story of the three kings that bring gifts to baby Jesus. It is a blend of coffee cake and a cinnamon roll with purple, green, and gold icing or sugar. Sometimes, they are also filled with cream or fruit. Within the cake, a plastic king cake baby is hidden for fun. Tradition says that whoever finds the baby has to buy the next king cake!
King cakes are usually available to purchase beginning on Twelfth Night until Mardi Gras day. However, some bakeries have begun to sell them year round. For a list of where to purchase one or how to make one, see here.
In New Orleans, there is no open container law. Grab a drink to go and hit the streets! Keep in mind, no glass bottles though. The plastic cups thrown at parades are great to put to use. If looking for a place to grab a beer or cocktail along the parade route, look no further than here.
Mardi Gras is incredibly open and welcoming - it’s a citywide celebration of everything that makes New Orleans great. The LGBT community has put their own stamp on Mardi Gras with LGBT krewes, balls, and organizations. The Bourbon Street Awards, named the most famous drag queen contest in America, takes place every Mardi Gras Day and is a sight to see! To be closer to the action, LGBT visitors may want to book accommodations in the French Quarter, Marigny, or Bywater.
Locals grow up going to Mardi Gras--it is absolutely family-friendly! The Uptown section between Napoleon Avenue and Jackson Avenue is recommended for children. Although, there are some stands downtown at hotels that are suited for children as well. You can view our Mardi Gras for Families guide for more information.
For more information on Mardi Gras, view our Mardi Gras Bucket List and FAQs. To get prepared, see our Mardi Gras Lingo. And explore more of everything that goes into making Mardi Gras in the video below: