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Guide to an Unforgettable Mardi Gras in New Orleans

by Gizelle Lau
January 28, 2009

Mardi GrasPlanning on a Mardi Gras getaway to New Orleans this year?  There's no better time to travel and there's no better place for unlimited entertainment, partying and fun activities.  After all, Mardi Gras is known as the "greatest free show on earth."  

Read on for's Guide to an Unforgettable Mardi Gras in New Orleans for everything you need to know to be on top of the revelry and celebrations: what to expect, where to go, the best time to visit, info about beads, fattened calves, the elusive Rex, flashing and nudity.

Want more great travel articles from  If you're looking for the best travel deals for 2009, then read up on our Top 10 Travel Deal Predictions of 2009.  On the other hand, if you're looking for a whirlwind winter getaway, check out our article on Tips for a Budget Ski & Snowboard Trip this Winter.

Mardi GrasWhen is the best time to party during Mardi Gras?

The beginning of the Carnival period starts on January 6th (Twelfth Night or King's Day) and continues until the Lent period begins on Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras (or "Fat Tuesday") takes place on Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday - as the final party and event where you can go "all out" before the solemn period of Lent begins.

So, for optimal partying and parades, visit New Orleans (or any Mardi Gras destination!) any time from the Friday that falls five days before Mardi Gras up until Ash Wednesday.  This year, that means February 20 to the 24th, 2009. 

During the week leading up to Mardi Gras, there's something like 50 parades taking place throughout New Orleans and 10 on Mardi Gras.  The celebrations continue all the way until midnight when police begin to empty the streets.  Don't come the day after Mardi Gras hoping to catch hordes of people in the streets - you'll have missed the party!  

It's all about the parties!

Neighbourhoods, clubs, societies, workplaces and schools all participate in throwing parades, events, balls and parties for Mardi Gras.  Many events are free, while some organizers and business ownders charge for admission tickets to their event or for a spot on their patio.  Your best bet for the most exciting places to be during Mardi Gras are the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, where you can watch a drag queen costume contest and plenty of nudity.  Stay away if you're looking for a more family-friendly crowd.

In New Orleans, many private balls and galas are thrown by clubs called "krewes."  Like many society clubs, Mardi Gras krewes are often exclusive.  They're named named after characters in Greek mythology, for example the Krewe of Bacchus or Krewe of Pegasus.  Some krewes participate in the Mardi Gras parades and have their own floats with their own mock kings, queens, duchesses and etc.  Good luck trying to crash a krewe's party! 

Get ready to eat King Cakes!
No Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans is complete without a taste of a King Cake: a rich cake of Danish origin covered with a sugar topping and the Mardi Gras colours: purple, green and gold.  The cakes are produced when the Carnival period begins and are given away and shared between friends and families.  Items like coins, beans or toys like a plastic baby are hidden inside.  The person who finds the treasure is crowned King or Queen for the day and must provide the next king cake.  

The Rex FloatHail Rex, King of Mardi Gras
The King of Carnival or Mardi Gras is known as "Rex." Each year, a new Rex is named and is usually a prominent businessman from the New Orleans community. 

Tradition tells that every year since 1872, the Rex declares the date of Mardi Gras and calls his subjects to gather and celebrate in New Orleans.  He arrives by boat on the Mississippi River and parades through the city. 

Today, the Rex Parade is the busiest and most popular parade of the Carnival season and it takes place on Mardi Gras.

Worshipping the fattened calf or "Boeuf Gras"
Like a story out of pagan ritual, the fattened calf takes a prominent place in Mardi Gras parades.  During the middle ages, the Lent period that began on Ash Wednesday would signify the commencement of a 40-day fast of meat.  A fattened calf would be the "last supper" of those about to begin their 40-day fast.  Today you'll see the Boeuf Gras at the head of the Rex Parade on Mardi Gras.

Purple, gold, greenPurple, green and gold; Masks, feathers and costumes!
Purple for justice; green for faith; gold for power.  These colours and their symbolisms were first chosen in 1872 and have stuck around since.  From beads to costumes, masks and clothing, don't be seen at a Mardi Gras party without these colours!  

A Mardi Gras parade or party isn't complete unless you go all out!  That's right, masks, feathers, head pieces, costumes, glitter hats, anything that glitters or lights up and of course, beads. 

How to leave with a bag full of Mardi Gras beads and other "throws"

So, are the stories true?  Do you have to get naked or flash everyone and anyone for Mardi Gras beads?  Not really - it's just more fun for everyone if you do! 

If you're walking around the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, beads are currency for kisses, hugs and flashes.  But be wary.  Although flashing is generally permitted in the Quarter and on Bourbon Street, family-oriented parades and neighbourhoods don't allow it.  

The best way to get beads is to go to a parade and stand within throwing distance of the floats.  Each float tosses hundreds of "throws," into the crowds, including beads, toys, noisemakers, costume jewelry and more.  You'll have no problem collecting a bag full of beads by the end of the festivities!

For the newest fad in "throws," be sure to grab some doubloons - coins bearing the colours and insignia of a krewe or company.  Of all doubloons, the Rex Doubloon is the most coveted of Mardi Gras keepsakes.  

Other great destinations to party away your Mardi Gras holiday

  • Americas: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Colombia; Mazatenango, Guatemala; Mazatlan, Mexico;
  • Europe: Venice, Italy; Belgium; Nice, France; Dusseldorf and Cologne, Germany
  • Nearly every island in the Caribbean, but especially: Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Asia-Pacific: Goa, India; Sydney, Australia; Cebu, Philippines

Great travel deals for Mardi Gras & Carnival, February 2009

For more information, parade times, tips and ideas, visit the Official Mardi Gras New Orleans website:


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Gizelle Lau icon

Gizelle Lau

Gizelle Lau is a freelance writer & photographer in Toronto, Canada with a passion for food and travel. 

Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: cities, culture, food/wine, paths-less-travelled, photography, wildlife

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