Beads, beers, and Bourbon Street are the stock images that come to mind when conjuring the frivolity and merrymaking that explodes in New Orleans's antiquarian streets during the Carnival season. But if you make the trip to the City That Care Forgot to enjoy its pre-Lenten events, there are plenty of other customs and traditions you should know about. Here are seven secrets that will help make any outsider feel like an insider during Mardi Gras.
Score bespoke King Cake
The appearance of king cake, a braided cinnamon brioche slathered with purple, yellow, and green icing, marks the start of the Mardi Gras for thousands of Louisianans. Rouses, New Orleans’ local supermarket chain, seems to hawk them by the pallet—even Walmart sells a version. But the best ones are still made by beloved local bakers, like the classic Haydel’s, Randazzo’s and Gambino’s. Uptowners are particularly fond of those from Tartine at 7217 Perrier Street—a French breakfast and lunch bistro owned by New Orleans native Cara Benson. Cakes cost $20 and are best ordered in advance.
Join a Walking Krewe
Many visitors to New Orleans have heard that Mardi Gras krewes are members-only, secretive organizations responsible for parading floats and organizing elaborate formal balls. But there are also parades anyone can join by just showing up. These gatherings, known as walking krewes, are seemingly disorganized affairs that somehow organize themselves every year. Case in point: The Krewe of Saint Anne. On Mardi Gras morning, crowds assemble in the Bywater neighborhood along Burgundy Street (between Clouet and Piety Streets) for a march into the French Quarter. Many of the marchers are artists with witty or elaborate costumes. It's equally fun just to watch (gather on Royal Street in the Marigny for a good view of the fun). On the other hand, Fat Tuesday itself needs little organization. Anyone can dress up and head to the Quarter for a day of merriment.
Dine like (Mardi Gras) Royalty at Antoine’s
Tradition is important at Carnival, and nowhere is that more evident than on the walls and tables of Antoine’s. At 176 years old, it's the oldest family-owned restaurant in the country, the oldest running business in the French Quarter, and the progenitor of such classic dishes as Oysters Rockefeller and Baked Alaska. The august restaurant—an unfolding series of rooms on two floors—keeps colorful Mardi Gras memorabilia from the Historic New Orleans Collection on display. Your waiter will serve as your guide, and when unoccupied, guests can tour the Rex and Proteus Rooms, named for the secretive and aristocratic Mardi Gras krewes. If available, you can reserve them at no extra cost, according to Rick Blount, Antoine’s owner. “New Orleans will see you as one link in a long tradition,” he says. “Every family has a Mardi Gras tradition. Start your own.”
Carnival Parade Apps
Mardi Gras parade routes stretch for miles, but they often run, or, in local parlance, “roll,” later than scheduled. To monitor their progress, savvy Carnival goers use smartphone apps for up-to-the-minute updates. Local TV stations, such as WDSU (NBC) and WWL (CBS), also feature the most popular parade trackers. They provide maps and live updates to keep you in the know—one more example of the holiday’s adaptability. In the 19th century, for example, the term “float” referred to a mule-drawn wagon that was used to transport cotton. Over time, the name of the wagon became synonymous with the colorful display upon it, and by the early 20th century the four-legged beasts were replaced by internal combustion engines.
Pssst: The Party isn’t just Fat Tuesday
If you want to avoid the biggest crowds and loudest revelers on Mardi Gras, consider visiting New Orleans during either of the two weekends preceding the climactic day. This year’s Mardi Gras season begins January 6, 2017, on Twelfth Night, and marches through weeks of preparation. Saturday, February 11, is the bawdiest of all Mardi Gras parades: Krewe de Vieux. The parade rolls through the Marigny and French Quarter neighborhoods more than two weeks before Fat Tuesday. Parents beware: The floats feature sexual themes and political satire. The following weekend, however, there is plenty of family fare. Oshun and Cleopatra roll Uptown on Friday, February 17, while five parades hit St. Charles Avenue on Saturday, February 18. Dates change from year to year, so for a complete parade schedule visit NewOrleansOnline.
Return to an Earlier Time
New Orleans has been crafting phantasmagorical visions for Carnival ever since 1857 when the Krewe of Comus organized the first Mardi Gras parade to feature floats and costumes. Get a glimpse of what costumes were like in the 19th century in the lobby of the International House, a boutique hotel in the city's Central Business District. The hotel is hosting an exhibition featuring 21 whimsical ensembles from 1896, which were created by Carlotta Bonnecaze, a Creole costume designer from that era. Order tea—or something a bit stronger—in the hotel’s Loa bar. Such sustenance may propel celebrants into the French Quarter to continue their Mardi Gras history lesson with the in-depth exhibits on display at the State Museum of Louisiana, located in the Presbytere on Jackson Square.
Find an Escape Hatch
When it’s time to beat a retreat from Mardi Gras, if only to collect your wits, every New Orleanian has a favorite bolt hole. Some are dark and intimate like Bar Tonique, found on on Rampart Street in the Quarter. Others are cool and light like Kenton’s, an Uptown restaurant known for its bourbon and oysters. Should the crowds and commotion along Canal Street become overwhelming, try sinking into a soft leather chair at the Polo Club Lounge at the Windsor Court, a hotel in the Central Business District. The Polo Lounge is a sort of secret retreat on the second floor, and beloved by NOLA’s movers and shakers. It offers an assortment of custom cocktails and bar snacks, but perhaps the best thing on the menu is a civilized refuge from the Carnival craziness.