How to survive your first Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
In 2016, me and seven friends went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras - this was a bucket list trip that I had been itching to do for years and somehow (this was a miracle in itself) all of our schedules lined up to make it happen! After a few months of planning, we flew from different corners of the world to meet in the Big Easy aka NOLA aka "Nawlins" for the trip of a lifetime!
Sounds cliche, but New Orleans was everything I’d expected and so much more. Have you ever felt like you know a place before you've even been? That was how I felt the first time I had visited New Orleans a couple years prior to this trip. It somehow felt familiar, yet it was like I was immersed in a movie. If I had to put it into words, I'd encourage you to imagine this; walking around the streets you’d find the most unbelievably talented jazz musicians jamming away constantly - it's like a soundtrack that resonates deep into your core. You are surrounded by beautiful french-inspired buildings with wrought-iron balconies, each building unique and colourful, commanding your attention in it's own right. Every corner that you turn, you are hit with the smell of mouth-wateringly delicious food (even if you’re not hungry, trust me - you eat!!) New Orleans, and the South in general have some pretty dark history and you'll find hidden amongst the dazzling parades and vibrant street parties that there are some extremely unusual traditions. Now mix that with the craziest non-stop street party you’ve ever seen, and THAT’S Mardi Gras!
I've called this a "Survival Guide" not because there's anything to survive exactly, but because Mardi Gras is not a trip that I would recommend for the timid traveller. To have a good time, you will need to have open mind and be ready for experiences like no other. I have seen things in New Orleans that I have not seen anywhere else in the world and it is truly fascinating. It's also a little exhausting - for such a small city, there is a LOT to see and when I say the party is non-stop, I mean it. But hangovers, lack of sleep and voodoo aside, this trip is is a major contender for your bucket list.
One of the things that took me by surprise, especially with The States having such a strict law against drinking until the age of 21, is that in New Orleans you can drink in the streets and it’s completely legal. Not only that, but most bars sell drinks in to-go cups so there’s always a drink for the road. As great as the bars are, most of the fun is happening in the streets, so it's great to be able to grab a drink and spill out into the party. Side note, but definitely worth noting - the drinks concoctions over there are insane, I’m definitely no stranger to a cocktail, but their drinks took me to another planet! They may taste like liquid sugar, but don't let that fool you. Drink with caution to save your dignity.
The food scene in NOLA is one of my favourites in the world. There are two nationalities that dominate the city and they both offer a different style of foods - Creole and Cajun. The great thing is that the Big Easy being the giant mixing pot of that it is, means that you get to sample the absolute best of both worlds plus the over-sized portions of greasy all-American food that us Brits can't wait to tuck into. Additionally, you'll notice quite quickly that entertainment is often part of your dining experience. For example, me and the girls went to Willies Fried Chicken at the end of a heavy night to get some junk food to soak up the cocktails we had consumed. I've been to a lot of chicken shops in my time, but not one that had a live DJ, smoke machine and disco lights and a huge crowd who were in full party mode. We ended up staying for a lot longer than expected, eating crispy, juicy fried chicken and dancing to Big Freida.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, the streets are where the party is - but I don't think I have emphasized the magnitude of this party. Bourbon Street is world famous, with good reason; The entire street is lined with dive bars, authentic Creole restaurants, fancy cocktail bars, street food, live music venues and great places to stay if you want to be in the thick of it. This is why it attracts crowds of over 1 million people throughout the days of Mardi Gras. There are street performers who form some of the best jazz bands I've ever seen, people wearing costume masterpieces dancing around, unforgettable moments with fellow Mardi Gras attendees. One of my highlight moments was a huge speaker on one of the corners of Bourbon Street, and the whole street dancing the Cupid Shuffle whilst the music vibrated through the streets. There's so much rhythm and passion and everyone wants to have a good time, there's no judgement and everybody is welcome. That's the thing I love most about Mardi Gras.
The traditions are both confusing and fascinating. For example, one that always surprises me is that to take part in any Krewe (The groups that are on the parade floats) you have to wear a mask - and some of these masks are pretty scary. The parades start running prior to the main days of Mardi Gras, but the most popular ones pass through Canal Street between the first day of the celebration and Fat Tuesday.