Living the Big Easy Life – Mardi Gras 2023
Mardi Gras is traditionally the height of New Orleans festival season, wrapping up to an end on Ash Wednesday. The decorations around the city start coming down, the city cleans up the assorted throws that filled the streets, and the pace of the city slows down just a little. While there are still more events to look forward to in the city in the coming weeks and months, there is no question that Mardi Gras represents the city’s yearly climax of revelry. Mardi Gras means different things to different people. For many, the parades that march through all sections of the are the defining characteristic of this time of year. For other’s it the chaotic nightlife that takes place on Bourbon Street. Other’s simply enjoy seeing travelers from across the world congregate in New Orleans to soak in the city’s culture. I was able to enjoy a little of each of these facets and wanted to share my story and experience for those who have a New Orleans Mardi Gras on their bucket lists.
Being able to have a positive Mardi Gras experience requires planning ahead. For starters, if you are planning on getting around the city via car you might want to come up with an alternative plan. Major roadways throughout the city are shut down for the duration of the parades as well as the street car lines that run along St. Charles Avenue. Because of this, it is best to choose the area of the city you want to stay in during the parades and hunker down. Once the parades end, then moving around the city becomes possible again, however this may not occur until 9 or 10 pm on certain days, depending on what parades are scheduled for that day. Even then, it is best to utilize ride sharing apps such as Uber to get around at this point. The street car lines are filled to the rim with people trying to commute between Uptown and Downtown so you may either have to wait for several streetcars to pass a stop before getting a seat or you might need to be ready for a ride with very limited personal space. Trying to use your own car to get around will pose additional problems as well, especially if you aren’t familiar with the roads in the city. The primary issue with using your own car to get and forth from the French Quarter is the limited amount of parking available as well as the high price of the parking that is available. The majority of parking lots around downtown New Orleans can be reserved and paid for via the “Premium Parking” app. This app uses dynamic pricing algorithms to adjust and raise parking prices during peak use times and Mardi Gras easily qualifies as such. To be fair, although I believe Uber is the ideal choice for getting around; also expect to pay a premium price for this as well.
As for the parades themselves: the majority of the parades during Mardi Gras start in one of three locations around the city. Either the Uptown/Garden District, City Park/Mid-city, or Marighny regions. All these parades eventually wind up downtown going down Canal Street. If your goal is to view every single of Mardi Gras then downtown along Canal is where you want to be but be ready to be surrounded by a sea of people. Given that Bourbon Street is nearby, I would expect to encounter a fair share of drunken revelers during this, so this may not be the ideal location to bring a family with small children too and definitely not an ideal location for those who want to maintain any semblance of personal space. That’s not to say that you should avoid the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. If being surrounded by people from all around the world and sharing a few drinks appeals to you, then this is definitely where you want to be. If you want an alternative that is more family friendly than I would recommend heading Uptown and find a favorite spot somewhere along Napoleon Street or St. Charles Avenue. While there are several notable parades that you will not get to see, many of the most prominent parades will go down this route such as the Krewe of Tucks, Muses, Bacchus, and Orpheus. This route does still tend to get very crowded during the weekend parades but the ones that take place during the weekday are far more manageable.
Getting a good spot if you are with a large group will also take pre-planning. Parade-goers who want to stake claim to their choice spots along the route will setup at 3 or 4 am the previous night. This typically involves laying out a tarp at your chosen location. While not official, in my experience all the people along the route respected the unofficial rules of the tarp and avoided moving or disturbing a tarp once it is set up. In addition to tarps, it is not uncommon to see people camping out along the route to ensure their spot. I recall one night when I was returning home from Bourbon Street after 5 am and there were already people grilling and setting up booths for their groups at that time despite the parade being 12 hours away still. Bringing food and water with you is a must. The parades can be all day affairs lasting from 10 am to 10 pm with limited breaks in between each parade. Trying to find a restaurant to eat that is along the parade route will prove to be difficult. A common restaurant we normally go to is Superior Grill that is located at the heart of the parade route, on the corner of Napoleon and Superior. For comparison, we normally are able to get a table there on most nights with no waiting but when we attempted to do so during the parades; we were informed there would be a 3.5 hour wait. Superior Seafood is a great restaurant so I do recommend visitors to give it a try, however I would not suggest anyone wait that long to be seated at any restaurant in New Orleans; there are simply too many incredible places to eat in the city. Rather than trying to find one along the main parade route, I would instead recommend walking a few blocks away. If you are enjoying the parades in Uptown as I have recommended, walk a few blocks towards the River until you come across Magazine Street. This is a very long commercial street that is filled with boutique shops and restaurants. During Mardi Gras, we wandered into a small Thai restaurant on Magazine called Pomelo that had no wait at all but was among the best Thai food we had ever enjoyed. Magazine is filled with restaurants like this of a variety of food such as Israeli, Ethiopian, dim sum, and local Cajun cooking.
Once the parades are over, many take to New Orleans nightlife scene with the most popular choice being the bars and clubs along Bourbon Street. The lack of personal space that I warned about on the parade route applies to a much larger extent in this case as well. Getting from one side of the street to the other can turn into a 30 minute ordeal. As before, I do not say this to scare anyone off from giving Bourbon Street a try; I am just providing you with an idea of where to set your expectations. Most bars and clubs on Mardi Gras weekend will be either completely packed or at least very full. A few of the clubs may even have waits to get in, which is not a common site on most nights on Bourbon Street. A common stereotype for Bourbon Street, especially during Mardi Gras is beads getting thrown down from the balconies for anyone willing to show skin. This is a completely true stereotype in this case but for anyone who wants to make sure they leave New Orleans with beads please remember, there are tons of beads thrown at each parade with no expectations that come along with it. Go to a few parades and you will easily walk away with more beads than you can fit in your luggage that will be freely thrown from all of the floats driving by.
As far as safety goes pickpockets are an unfortunate occurrence whenever this many people are gathered in a such a small space. Be aware of your surroundings and try to not carry more than you need when you are going out. Especially if you plan on drinking. While on Bourbon, make sure to stay where there are people, lights, and music. Like any large city, New Orleans does have a crime element and like any large city, the key to avoiding this element is be aware of your surroundings and practice some common sense. Avoid dark alleys, don’t wander off alone, if you notice you are somewhere where no one else seems to be; it’s likely a good idea and turn around and head back to where there are people present.
While Mardi Gras is likely my favorite time in the city, New Orleans offers so many fantastic events to visit for. Shortly following Mardi Gras, the St. Patrick’s day parades and celebrations begin followed in short order by the French Quarter festival and Jazz Fest among other events. If I had to pick my second favorite time to be in New Orleans, it would likely be Halloween but that is a matter of personal preference. There is no other city in the world quite like New Orleans and I look forward to illustrating why that is in future articles. But those will be stories for another day…