How to Mardi Gras Like a Local – Part II

Two children are walking down a street during a parade or festival. One child is wearing a colorful cape with purple, green, and yellow sections, while the other child is dressed in a white dress with gold accents and rainbow-striped leggings. The street is lined with people sitting on chairs and ladders, and there are trees and decorations in the background.
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In part I of our Mardi Gras like a local series, Rachel covered the history, travel logistics, and terminology of Mardi Gras.  Today she dives into the common questions from Bourbon Street to parades. Read on for how to have a great visit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

What day does Mardi Gras fall on?

Mardi Gras translates to “Fat Tuesday” which is the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent).  But while Fat Tuesday is just a day it is an entire season full of frivolity, fun, food and family.

If I see a girl wearing a lot of beads, should I assume she flashed to get them?  And what’s a guy to do?

You could go into the French Quarter with all the other drunk tourists and flash for beads. However you could also just line up along the literal miles of parade routes. You’ll catch tons of beads by just waving your hands and yelling “Throw me something Mister!”

Shouldn’t I head to Bourbon Street to truly experience Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras for a local is a pretty far event from what the national/international media portrays. Ask any local and most will admit that they rarely venture down to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Don’t get me wrong, Bourbon Street and surrounding French Quarter is a beautiful and enchanting area of town. I highly recommend you visit at any other time. Also, the parades do not route there so you’ll miss the best part!

If Mardi Gras is your only chance to come to New Orleans then come early in the day and experience Bourbon. The street will be less packed but you will still easily soak up the atmosphere.

What should I wear?

The weather could swing wildly even during a single day. Dress in layers and preferably in colorful layers of purple green and gold. While it may be 60s during the day it will likely turn quite cool in the evening. My strategy is a short sleeve tee, covered by a rugby shirt, zip up fleece, hat, gloves and scarf. By midday I am usually all the way down to the short sleeve tee, but by nightfall I am putting most of it back on.

mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleans
What we wear.

Wear closed toe comfy shoes. Remember that your main mode of transportation is going to be your own two feet. Mardi Gras is not a fashion show. Wear a shoe that is well broken in. If it is potentially going to be wet and muddy, bring one that you don’t mind trashing after the weekend. My Dad coined the term “Mardi Gras Soup” for the strange muck of beads, beer and mud that is everywhere. Mardi Gras Soup is much worse if the weather is bad.

What if I want to participate?

While you could just stand on the sidelines, part of the fun is being part of the fun and joining in. Paint your face. Dance in the street. Wear a tutu. Clap along to the bands. Chat with your neighbor.

Why do the people next to me keep asking me so many personal questions?

Be neighborly!  If you go early to stake out your spot on the route, greet your neighbors. You should realize that you are going to be standing next to these folks for the next several hours. Strike up a conversation.

I think everyone from NOLA is somehow related.  Don’t be surprised if they ask you where you went to high school and if you are related to so-and-so person. In NOLA people are weirdly obsessed with high school. It doesn’t matter that you may have been a Harvard graduate. They would likely be more impressed if you went to Jesuit High School.   (sidebar from Jen… SO true!  Last night I was chatting with a girl standing next to me. It turns out she is the girl in the photo from yesterday’s post who caught the Muses shoe!)

Why are the police everywhere?  Is it dangerous or are they trying to crack down on partying?

The cops are not the bad guys.  There is a huge police presence all over the city. They want you to have a good time. These officers work long hours and are lining the streets for your safety. If they ask you to do something then just do it.

The best advice for not getting arrested is “don’t urinate in public”.  This goes back to having a bathroom strategy!  If everything is going well then the NOPD has been known to join in the fun. Here is the “Wobble Cop” enjoying some time on the job.

Someone grabbed the beads that I know that rider wanted me to have.  What do I do?

Don’t fight anyone for a throw.  In the heat of the moment that giant plastic spear can seem like the most important thing in the world. Just realize that everyone around you also probably thought that it was meant for them too. If you catch it fair and square then have a moment of victory. But if you see a child with a crestfallen face because they didn’t catch it then be a sport and hand it over. Seriously, what is a 30 year old adult going to do with a plastic sword tomorrow?


Why are there so many people selling food on a stick?

Good things come on sticks at Mardi Gras!  If you head uptown there are plenty of opportunities to eat many delicacies off of a stick.  You will most likely purchase them from a vendor pushing a grocery cart down the street. Look out for unique vendors including the Sugar Love “King Cake on a Stick” vendor.

mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleans
King cake on a stick!

Why do people look at me funny when I say “Nawlins”?  I’m just trying to fit in the locals!

I seriously wish this weird word would go away. No self-respecting local would ever say this. This is some horrible thing made up by a Hollywood writer who tried to “write out” a New Orleans accent.

Can I drink on the street?

There are no open container laws in New Orleans. Adult beverages are sold just about everywhere along the parade route. Feel free to pop a top or mix a cocktail on the street. The only rule that you should follow is no glass containers. You may very well get too excited trying to catch a “throw”. Then you may accidentally drop your drink on the neutral ground. Broken glass is dangerous for everyone so just don’t do it.

What if I have to go to the bathroom?

Map out a bathroom strategy in advance – trust me on this one.  Yes you can drink that cold frosty beverage on the street. But at some point it is going to have to come out. There will be some port-a-potties along the street, but the lines can be long and not so clean.  Hotels are generally only open to hotel guests.  Many bars and restaurants will allow you use of the bathroom if you make a purchase. Some venues will even sell you an all-day “pee pass” for a small fee.


Should I pregame the parades?

If you are in town during Mardi Gras, at some point there will likely be nonstop partying. It will be really hard not to overindulge from the beginning. Realize you need to push through for long stretches of time.  In short, pace your drinking consumption! By all means, have a cocktail (or three). But remember that you want to be able to remember it the next day (and live to Instagram about it)! You don’t have to be a saint (though being a New Orleans Saints is always a good thing!)  You do want to make it and remember your adventure.  Do you really want to “foul out” early in the evening and possibly miss an amazing moment?

Is Mardi Gras something I can bring my family to?

This one is probably the biggest shocker for non-natives. New Orleans folks think of it as a family event  It has been handed down from generation to generation.  To locals, it is not a boob fest on Bourbon Street.

Here are some photos harkening back to the late 70s of my family.

mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleans mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleansIn case you are worried that things have changed in modern times, they have not.  Check out these photos from my high school friend Carrie of her kids enjoying Mardi Gras.

mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleans mardi gras like a local bourbon street parades new orleans

Is there a difference between the day parades and night parades – can kids come to both?

The bigger parades tend to be night parades. Many have high tech fiber optic and light displays. While Mardi Gras is a family event (and I whole heartedly agree with that), at the end of the day kids need to rest.  The night parades are later than their bedtime. This is a great time to allow the grandparents to do what they do best and to dote on the grandkids. You can also allow the kiddos to sleep later that morning and thus enjoy the night parades.  Either way you need to work out what works for your family.

Night parades are often much larger than day parades.  They are also more crowded. I would never say they are more dangerous. But they are easier for you lose to a small child in the crowd or the throngs of a crowd. Only a parent of a child can determine when a child is “old enough” to attend a specific night parade.

Any last tips?

Go with the flow.  You can’t always predict things during Mardi Gras. You can have the best laid plans. But it might all go south at some point. My advice is to grab a cocktail, listen to the music and enjoy the moment.  Now you know you can truly Mardi Gras like a local!

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