Updated: Apr 12, 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.
The parades were not what I expected, they moved quite fast down the street and the masked Krewes took me by surprise. A famous "myth" is that if a woman flashes her breasts at the floats, or at any point in Mardi Gras, she will be given a beaded necklace. I'm sure that this does happen, however I can assure you that there was no need for any of us to show our boobs to receive beads. They are thrown from every balcony, every float and even as soon as we touched down in NOLA airport, beads were placed around our neck.
Not only will beads be thrown from floats, but I also saw sandwiches, a box of chicken, a G-string and sweets get thrown from the floats too. It's a bit of a hazard all these things flying through the air, so keep an eye out for falling objects at all times.
On Fat Tuesday, we wanted to ensure that we got a great view of the Mardi Gras King getting crowned, so we booked tickets for a spectator seat. This meant that we wouldn't have to sit in position all day, we had nearby toilets and we had bench seating with a great view of the parade. In my opinion, I'd recommend doing this at least one day if you're interested in seeing the parade properly. We saw some incredible cheerleading squads, jazz marching bands, many extravagant parade floats, and we were up close to see the Krewe of Rex crown the new Mardi Gras King, this is usually a prestigious NOLA businessman - Plus this was the day I got most of my beads!
We decided before the trip that as much as we wanted to be there to enjoy Mardi Gras, we also wanted to make the most of our time in this unique city so we made time each day to do something a little different;
- Jazz Music Clubs - At the top end of Bourbon Street you will find Frenchman Street. This is still part of the French Quarter but a completely different vibe. There are some venues that from the outside look like dive bars, however they feature unbelievable live music from raw talented musicians. My favourite place there was The Spotted Cat, and we went there a few times during our trip. There's even a piano in the bathroom!
- Pepper Palace Hot Sauce Shop - We stumbled upon this purely by accident when on our way to the French Market. Imagine a supermarket where every item on every shelf is a jar of hot sauce. I do like a bit of spice, but this was beyond anything I've ever experienced. You are able to taste the hot sauces with tortilla chips in the store; each sauce is rated in spice from 1 to 10, and there are a few that go higher than 10 that you have a sign a waiver form before tasting. We (stupidly) decided to taste a sauce that was 10+ and the only way I can describe it was that it felt like somebody was oven-roasting my internal organs. We raided the fridge in the store for water, I had tears streaming down my face and my taste buds had been burnt off. My advice, take a bottle of milk into the shop with you if you want to try the sauces. And do not touch your eyes.
- Voodoo Museum - This is certainly not everybody's cup of tea, but I wanted to understand a bit about why New Orleans has such a strong connection with voodoo. It's only a tiny museum - more like a house, but I'd recommend visiting if you are interested to find out a bit more about the history of this unique city. Just be sure to protect your energy.
- Plantation & Swamp Tour - This was one of my favourite excursions ever! First of all, it was the perfect opportunity to escape the craziness of Bourbon Street after a few days. We booked with Crescent City Tours (Ask for Brian!) and we had a blast as well as learned a lot about New Orleans itself and it's dark history. Visiting Oak Alley plantation was difficult and hard to believe, I won't go into the full details but it really does hit hard. The Plantation was huge and beautiful and the tour guide told us that it was built brick by brick by the slaves - They even made the bricks. I would recommend doing this as a two-part tour to help lighten the mood afterwards. After Oak Alley, we went on to visit a huge swamp and sat in a hovercraft whilst we coasted through the Bayou. Every now and then our tour guide would spot a gator in the distance, but none got close enough to be fed - if you want the gators to get close, the best time of year is spring/summer.
- New Orleans Taster Menu - Not far from the French Market, there's a restaurant called Coops Place, and this is somewhere that I would recommend for every New Orleans beginner. They offer a taster of some of the traditional NOLA dishes all in one affordable meal; red beans and rice, gumbo, rabbit and sausage jambalaya, fried chicken, gator on a stick. You'll leave here feeling like a local and you'll actually know what people are talking about when they mention these dishes on your trip.
- Try Beignets - Another must-do foodie hot spot is Cafe Du Monde. There is only one food item on the entire menu and the whole cafe tends to be jam packed all hours of the day. Beignets are deep fried balls of dough that are sprinkled (or saturated) with mountains of powdered sugar. They are delicious! You have to try one before you leave New Orleans. Note; they are very sweet so a portion for a couple friend to share should do the trick. Cafe Du Monde also do the most incredible hot chocolates and is open 24/7.
It has been a while since my Mardi Gras trip, but I have noticed there's been a recent peak of interest in this jazzy city so I wanted to take the time to share my unforgettable experience. I've also decided that I'm overdue a visit, so me and the girls have planned a 2021 trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Watch this space, the Girls Trip sequel is pending...