Mardi Gras is drawing nearer, and if you’re planning to attend one of the biggest celebrations in the world, you’ll want to be prepared to make the most out of your trip to New Orleans. But when it comes time to make these plans, do you want to party like a tourist? Or do you want to experience it like a local? Here are a few ways you can tailor your Mardi Gras experience to be more like how the locals do it—and thus, probably a lot more fun and memorable.
1. Catch the Smaller, More Unique Krewes
Massive krewes (an organization that puts on a parade or ball for the Carnival season) like Endymion, Bacchus, Rex and Zulu may get a lot of the Mardi Gras parade accolades. But the emergence of smaller krewes that parade off the typical routes are becoming more popular for locals to enjoy, especially as the major parade routes have become so choked with tourists. Krewe du Vieux, whose parades in the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods, is probably the best-known and most popular of the smaller krewes. This snarky and often raunchy krewe sparks many a Mardi Gras conversation with its creative and downright hilarious float concepts—definitely not for children.
Another smaller krewe, you might look into while you’re in town, is Krewe of Kolossus. They pull small floats made with repurposed materials and bikes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which they call “art bikes.” ‘tit Rex is not a small krewe in just number of floats or revelers—it also is physically small, as in all floats must start with a shoebox as the base. The parade rolls through the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, which are known as the more “alternative” and artsy parts of town. Mardi Gras Day has several different ones, and there are many, many more—ask a local if you want help finding them all.
These smaller krewes generally have much smaller, but still ornate, floats that are pulled by your typical truck rather than tractors, and these are interspersed with local and usually lesser-known marching and dance groups. Even the throws are unique in that many are made locally rather than the cheap plastic beads from China that larger krewes throw by the millions. These include coffee, snack bags and pralines from local businesses, keychains, eco-friendly cups, decorated oyster shells and wine corks, bottle openers and sustainable beads made locally from recyclable paper. These types of throws are often much more coveted than anything you’ll catch at one of the bigger parades.
2. Practice Parade Etiquette
During Mardi Gras, few things spoil the experience more than a bunch of lame people—locals or tourists—who have no parade etiquette and make the parades less fun and more taxing to deal with. If you’re setting up a spot with tents and furniture, don’t section off an obnoxious amount of space that makes it impossible for other people to pass. It’s one of the single most frustrating parade bloopers you can do or experience.
Another is not pushing people out of the way for beads, and especially not jumping in front of kids on ladders just to get a cheap throw. That stuffed animal means a lot more to that little kid than it does to you, who will probably immediately throw it away once you leave either the city or even the parade. So don’t be rude and spoil a child’s good time.
As for food and drinks, don’t steal from other parade-goers who were smart enough to bring enough for their sustenance. Also, glass bottles are not allowed on the parade route, so do the right thing and only drink from cans or plastic bottles. Glass bottles are often left lying around and can be a hazard to everyone around you, so don’t risk having them in the bustling crowds.
Finally, don’t litter and don’t urinate in the streets. These are two of the most common Mardi Gras fouls committed particularly by tourists, and it’s just not acceptable or the right thing to do. Garbage trucks and workers do come by to clean up a lot of the mess following the parades. But they simply can’t collect it all, and visitors should have more respect for the city they’re in than to pollute it. People live here, so don’t treat it as your own personal carefree party zone.
3. Patron Local Food and Beverage Establishments
It can be tempting to want just to pick up a case of your standard domestic beer and head to the parade route. However, if you want to party like a local, you’ll want to shelve that case and pick up something locally brewed instead. Abita has even started selling several of its beers in cans just for the occasion, as have other local and regional breweries.
The same goes for food. Instead of running through a fast food joint, why not hit up one of the local restaurants or food trucks nearby to spend your money in a better place? Locals like to patron the businesses of New Orleans and its surrounding areas, and when you come down for Mardi Gras, you’ll want to too.
Another related caveat to enjoying Mardi Gras like a local is to dive into parade foods that a local has made herself back home and brought to the parade route to share. If you’re staying with or know a local who’s doing this, all the better. But if not, you could always try to make friends on the parade route—friends who may offer their smorgasbord of food they’re eating with family and friends. New Orleanians tend to be very friendly and generous with food, so be cordial and fun to be around, and you never know what can happen on the parade route.
4. Avoid Mardi Gras Altogether
Mardi Gras is not only a time of cultural celebration for locals and visitors—it’s also a time for locals to get out of dodge. The holiday brings an influx of tourists, the street closings and traffic that make it nearly impossible to navigate the city, immense amounts of litter and all the other less than enjoyable aspects of Mardi Gras. Because of this, many tourists leave the city altogether, particularly for the second weekend leading into and after Mardi Gras day.
New Orleanians know how to party, but they know how to party right, so you would do well to learn from locals just how it’s done when you visit this amazing city. You can do Mardi Gras in many ways, but to enjoy it like a local, follow these steps to create a worthwhile experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.