America’s biggest, loudest showstopping party goes down in New Orleans, Louisiana every year between January and March (depending on the calendar year). This unruly scene is best known for its elaborate floats, colorful beads, live music, and French and Spanish food influences.
Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday. However, the celebration starts 12-days prior with three-story floats parading around the city.
I’ve been in New Orleans for Mardi Gras two times. Once in my last 20’s with my husband (awesome) and once for work while six months pregnant (less awesome).
Mardi Gras is a truly unique experience and a trip that requires some strategic planning if you want to experience all the event has to offer.
So I’m here to give you all the details on how to party in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Here’s how we spent four days we will never forget…
DAY ONE – BOURBON STREET & LIVE MUSIC SCENE
We had a late flight that landed in New Orleans at 9:30 p.m. We checked in at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street. We were happy with the hotel’s location, a short walk to Bourbon Street and the heart of the Mardi Gras activity.
It was too cold for us to enjoy but the hotel has a nice rooftop pool. We did take advantage of the Pelican Bar and the Starbucks, both located in the lobby, during our stay.
We quickly dropped our bags and were ready to experience the infamous New Orleans nightlife. We headed to Bourbon Street and spent hours hopping in and out of bars listening to music and checking out the party scene.
New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz in the late-19th-century and continues to be a premier destination for music festivals and showcases.
While Bourbon Street is best known for its notorious party scene, it also offers the opportunity to hear an eclectic mix of quality music performances.
I think the best way to experience Bourbon Street is to use your ears and be draw in whatever direction the music takes you.
Our favorite bar of the night was The Famous Door which had an awesome cover band, drink specials and lots of dancing. Of course, our first night we needed to try out a hurricane cocktail at Pat O’Brien’s and enjoyed making some new friends at the outside patio bar. Apparently New Orleans is also famous for a cocktail called the hand grenade, which had gin, vodka, rum, some kind of fruity liquor and 190 proof grain alcohol. If you’re going to the biggest party in America, you need to do it up, right?
There are beads literally everywhere at Mardi Gras. They throw them from the floats, and you’ll get them from your bartender or friends you make as your night unfolds. You can also buy a bunch from Amazon and bring them along in your suitcase to get you started.
We spent the rest of the night on one of the iconic Bourbon Street balconies people watching and tossing beads to partiers below. We lasted until about 2 a.m. and called it quits knowing this was just day one of the ultimate party weekend.
DAY TWO – FRENCH QUARTER, DELICIOUS EATS & MORE MARDI GRAS PARTIES
My husband had been to New Orleans once before for a bachelor party and told me we had to go to the best brunch spot ever – Ruby Slipper. Man spoke the truth – still the best brunch spot ever. Period.
There’s often a wait to get a seat (about 15 minutes for us), but it is worth every second. Also if you’re cool with sitting at the bar it will save you some time.
We watched them make us two mimosas which used a full bottle of champagne. This is Mardi Gras, people.
The breakfast options are endless, including signature dishes with local flavors, unique pancake combinations and nine different types of eggs benedict. Be sure to check out their seasonal menu too. You won’t be disappointed.
Afterward, we seriously needed to walk off that breakfast so we headed on foot to the French Quarter, about a 10-minute stroll.
We had a beautiful day and enjoyed taking pictures in Jackson Square, one of the most famous parks in New Orleans. We enjoyed watching street performers and artists, and just taking in the energy at the heart of this city.
By then it had been about two hours since our last drink, so naturally, we headed to a bar. We walked to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, one of the oldest bars in the city that has been in operation since the 1700s. The bar was dimly lit and very low key, so it’s a great spot for anyone looking to escape the Mardi Gras mayhem.
Speaking of mayhem, it’s parade time! What an absolute madhouse. We planned to catch the Krewe of Cork parade going through the French Quarter. Note that parades going through the French Quarter and the Marigny are walking parades, not the traditional large float parades.
We enjoyed watching the costumes, dancing to the music and jumping in the air to catch the coveted krewe beads. Read on for all the details on how to prepare and plan for the parades during your trip to Mardi Gras.
After being jostled around for a while, we decided to watch the parade from a balcony after they turned the corner onto Bourbon Street. I personally think it’s the most enjoyable way to take in the scene.
We grabbed po’boys and jambalaya at Oceana Grill, before heading back to Pat O’Briens to soak up some sun at the outdoor patio.
By then we were wiped and ready for a break, so we headed back to the hotel for nap, shower and regroup before heading out for the night.
A friend of ours happened to be traveling through while we were there, so we met up with him for another fun and crazy night out.
Again, we loved bar hopping around the French Quarter and popping in whatever bar had the best live music.
DAY THREE – CAFÉ DU MONDE, SWAMP TOUR AND MORE PARADES
We had an early start and went for a morning stroll back to Jackson Square to wait on line for the famous beignets and coffee at Café du Monde. It was a beautiful day out so we didn’t mind the 20-minute wait for the to-go window.
If you are someone who hates waiting online, the best way to skip the line at Café du Monde is to go at odd hours, like late afternoon, late evening, and very early in the morning. They’re open 24 hours, but especially if you want to get a table you do not want to go during the breakfast crunch.
We found a bench right on the river and enjoyed our glorious beignets and hot coffee watching the riverboats go by. I loved taking in the beauty of the city and enjoying a moment to sit and relax, a contrast to the bustling party scene going on around us.
We walked over near Julia Street Cruise Terminal to catch our shuttle to a swamp tour. We booked our tickets on the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour which was a two-hour tour through the heart of Southern Louisiana’s swamplands.
We meandered down the bayous in a swamp boat and was all kinds of wildlife, including turtles, birds, feral pigs and dozens of alligators. Ryan took advantage of the opportunity to hold one of the alligators.
We loved taking in the beauty of the protected Jean Lafitte National Park and learning about Louisiana’s untamed wilderness.
We dined at House of Blues for lunch and enjoyed a sunny seat at their outdoor patio. They didn’t have live music while there, but I’ve heard from others that it’s a great place to hear some of the best talent in town. The jalapeño cornbread will blow your mind.
We headed back to our favorite spot – Pat O’Briens for some more chill time at the outdoor patio (we got so lucky with the weather when we were there).
We ended the day watching a parade on Canal Street. This one was fully done-up with massive floats, musical performances, and an insane amount of throws (beads, cups, stuffed animals, light sticks, and Lord knows what else!).
Let’s talk details on how to navigate these Mardi Gras parades. We took a more relaxed approach to the parades, but if this is a priority for you and your experience in the city, here are some tips to know before you go:
- Download the Mardi Gras Parade Tracker app. Not only will this provide you with the parade schedule, it also gives up-to-the-minute details on the parade location. New Orleans during Mardi Gras is congested and difficult to navigate, and this app will show you the exact location and route for the parade you want to see, in every inch of the city (including French Quarter, Uptown, Metairie, West Bank Chalmette, Houma, Thibodaux, and Covington).
- Get there early. Parade routes can look empty, but the crowd size can swell fast within an hour or two of the parade, making that front-row spot four or five people deep. If you really want a front seat, you’ll need to get there three-four hours ahead of time to get yourself a good spot for the premiere parades.
- Plan your transportation. Traffic is insane during Mardi Gras, so if you are traveling on vacation it’s best to book a hotel near the French Quarter or the parade routes. Even if the cost of the hotel is higher than other areas, you will save hours of sitting in traffic (and forget about Uber being an option). Even public transportation can be difficult with bus and streetcar routes being disturbed by the parades. Your best option is to walk whenever possible.
- Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue are great spots to post up for the best parade views.
DAY FOUR – THE GARDEN DISTRICT
We had breakfast at our favorite spot – the Ruby Slipper – and hopped on a streetcar to the Garden District. This is the best way to travel Uptown and includes a scenic ride down St. Charles Avenue and at a cost of less than $2.
The Garden District will make you feel like you’ve stepped foot in an entirely different state. We enjoyed getting lost wandering the streets looking at all of the grand mansions, colorful row houses and charming cottages that date back to the early 19th century.
We also took a walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which sounds morbid but it is one of the oldest city governed cemeteries and the ancient tombstones offer a rich history of some of the first settlers from Ireland and Germany. (Note that the cemetery was recently closed for maintenance so be sure to check that it has re-opened before visiting).
The stunning architecture and magnificent plantation homes made it a great way to end a somewhat exhausting and party-filled trip.
We loved experiencing Mardi Gras and all it has to offer for an outside traveler.
I encourage you to embrace the mayhem, the shoving, the debauchery and the chaos for what is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Get ready for the party of your life!
Have you done it up in New Orleans for Mardi Gras? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
Looking for other trip ideas this year? Check out my list of top places to visit in 2020.
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