Stodgy, middle aged folks wondering how to do Carnivale in New Orleans?
February 3, 2019 7:27 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I will be in New Orleans for five days including the weekend of February 23-24. How best to navigate the pre-Mardi Gras festivities to maximize your enjoyment when we are the type who prefer museums and jazz to drinking and crowds. What do we need to know about watching the parades? Also, for people who have already seen the famous tourist sites, what else do you recommend?

More details: We are staying at the Homewood Suits near that St. Louis cemetery (on the edge of the French Quarter, I think) which should be a reasonable walk to the end point of the Uptown parades. We will not have car.

Some more specific parade questions:
Should we pay for grandstand/toilet access?
How crowded are the sidewalks?
How long do people spend waiting/watching the parades?
How long before and after the parade should we expect to have trouble crossing the street?
It seems like there will be some rain - do people use umbrellas or is that rude on the parade route?
Will we feel odd without costumes that weekend (10 days before actual Mardi Gras)?

Also, would love some food recommendations (aside from Cafe du Monde) for people who don't eat shellfish or pork?

This will be our second trip to New Orleans (but first Mardi Gras) We have already seem most of the top ten tourist site. For us, highlights of our last trip include a cemetery tour, the backstreet cultural museum, beignets and music on Frenchmen Street. What else would we like?
posted by metahawk to Travel & Transportation around New Orleans, LA (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to Mardi Gras, but I can enthusiastically recommend a tour: Confederacy of Cruisers. It's done via cruiser bikes, very easy, as the route you take is flat with a mellow guide. The culinary tour is fantastic.

Restaurants: Peche and 3 Muses are both stellar.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 7:37 PM on February 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

You definitely don't need costumes.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:55 PM on February 3, 2019

1. If you’re at the actual end point of the parades, the floats will likely be out of throws and the people will be tired. Less crowds, though. It’s definitely a trade off.

2. You will not feel odd without costumes, just catch some beads and you’ll fit right in. Feel free to buy some overpriced silly hats from the street vendor if you’re in the mood, of course.

3. If you want to use an umbrella, you should stand toward the back of the crowd and make sure your splatter doesn’t get on them. You might stay drier in a plastic poncho anyway.

4. The Old Coffee Pot makes a fantastic breakfast. Try the cala cakes.

5. Some people barely look as they pass the parades by, some people camp out and watch all day.
posted by Night_owl at 7:56 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Having bathroom access is key. Totally worth paying for.

Grandstand—it depends on how comfortable you are with crowds. It can be really fun to smoosh in the crowds and get caught up in the energy of it. But it can be nice to have space to yourselves.

You don't need costumes. People pretty much only wear costumes on Mardi Gras Day.

Some people get there super early, some show up just as the parades are starting. If you don't have a grandstand, you'll want to get there earlier.

Also, booze is expensive along the parade route, it's not a bad idea to go to a liquor store and buy some provisions. And make sure you drink a lot of water!

You're actually there for a great weekend. There are a lot of parades but it's not totally nutso. Some highlights include:
- Barkus. It's the dog parade. 'Nuff said.
- Femme Fatale. I don't know a ton about this krewe, it started after I left, but it's all-female and I believe all African America
- Nyx. Not sure if you're there through the 27th but if you are, it's a great parade, all female, very fun. One of the first parades I marched in!

One tip—you don't have to keep all the beads! You will be weighed down beyond comfort if you do. Just hang on to the "good" ones (with medallions, fun shapes, etc.) and throws (toys, cups, etc).

(Also, not to nitpick your language, but just call it Mardi Gras. Technically it's "carnival" but nobody says that.)
posted by radioamy at 8:19 PM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another thing that might help you is to learn a bit about Mardi Gras ahead of time. Here's a quick guide I found. Understanding the history and how the parades work might make things less anxiety-inducing.

Also...and I say this as someone who also has an aversion to crowds and is probably a clinically "highly sensitive person"...the best thing to do is just roll with the punches. If you let yourself relax and enjoy the excitement of the festivities, Mardi Gras is insanely fun. The artistry of the floats is incredible, the bead and throws are unique, the marching bands and dancing groups are really talented. I get chills when I think about the electricity you feel during a night parade. There's really nothing else like it. And even though it's crowded, people are generally really nice, you'll probably end up making friends with the people standing next to you!
posted by radioamy at 8:33 PM on February 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here is an article that does a really good job describing a New Orleans Mardi Gras from the perspective of someone who didn't grow up with it.
posted by waffleriot at 8:44 PM on February 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

You may find the Beyond Bourbon Street podcast valuable. Lots of non-traditional and insider tips for tourists not interested in the obvious. I understand it has a companion Facebook page.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:10 AM on February 4, 2019

my partner had a very good dining experience at Coop's Place. if you like beer, i highly recommend drinking an abita brewery offering -- i remember loving their turbo dog.
posted by wires at 4:48 AM on February 4, 2019

My 39th birthday was the day after Mardi Gras, and my fiftieth will BE Mardi Gras. I went there for the 39th, I'm heading there for the 50th. I Have answers.

Some more specific parade questions:
Should we pay for grandstand/toilet access?

.....Depends where you're watching. If you find a place that's reasonably close to your hotel and can slip back to your room easily, I"d just do that.

How crowded are the sidewalks?

It also depends on where you're watching. I was staying at a spot in the Garden District, a block from one of the routes; for one parade I just walked up a block and picked a spot on the sidewalk. I remember it as being a "a few people in front of me and a few behind", but also was able to find a spot to settle in fairly easily. It wasn't like "tons of people elbowing me all over" or anything. (And I ended up standing behind two adorable and enthusiastic Japanese girls who were grabbing up each and every parade throw they could find, and I was just hanging back and having fun watching them; and at some point they saw I didn't have as many beads as they did and both started draping their excess throws on me.)

How long do people spend waiting/watching the parades?

I remember it being about an hour or so before the parade, and an hour or so for the parade itself.

How long before and after the parade should we expect to have trouble crossing the street?

Before: A good hour or so. I was blocked from getting into the French Quarter when I first arrived in New Orleans, because first they shut down the street car and then shut down the buses, and when I tried to walk the rest of the way I was blocked by a parade route and so I just stayed put and watched. (That lead to me asking a cop for a restaurant recommendation when the parade was over which lead to a WHOOOOOOOLE other story involving free beads and a ride home.)

Will we feel odd without costumes that weekend (10 days before actual Mardi Gras)?

I didn't have a costume at all myself. The most I did was wear something with purple in it. I was also working on knitting a long green vest to go with it but didn't finish in time. No one cared.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:58 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you end up in the Riverbend area, have a meal at Refuel Cafe. Really nice brunch/lunch food, grits to die for, chill vibe and nice atmosphere!
posted by mccxxiii at 6:44 AM on February 4, 2019

If you are looking for no shellfish/no pork food you will have to be careful. In a pinch, Popeye's fried chicken has vegetarian red beans (no fooling!)

Mona's has great lebanese food and several locations. The Frenchman St. one is the closest to your location. OMG ALSO Pho Tau Bay has moved to the city (it used to be on the West Bank,) eat there. MMMMMMMM (but I eat shellfish, so you'll still have to be careful ordering)

I have never paid anyone a dime for parade access, maybe it's different watching them so far downtown? My advice would be not to tie yourself down to any one location, just drift until you like your neighbors - there are all kinds of people watching the parades, and you may enjoy some of them more than others. Our old spot was across from Lucky's Bar, a grungy stretch of St. Charles just below the Garden District, and you could use the bar bathroom anytime you felt like buying a drink (terrible drinks, so strong). I don't know, it was a long time ago. There was usually enough room there for a friend to bring his gas grill and we would cook out.

An easy costume: go buy a wig at Fifi Mahony's.

My big advice is, be patient. When the parade is rolling, there's no getting across the street. If you leave yourself time to do nothing, it's all a lot easier. Enjoy yourselves!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:48 AM on February 4, 2019

EmpressCallipygos was particularly lucky on Mardi Gras day because she had bathroom access at my house! :)
posted by radioamy at 12:47 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

And a birthday cake if memory serves. ;-) Plus I got to talk to a dude who was dressed up as the Pink Panther and I'm not entirely sure I remember why he was dressed that way.

To bring this within shouting distance of the topic - what Lawn Beaver says is right, that if you find out what a given parade route is you can sort of meander along the sidewalk until you get to a decent-looking spot and then park there. It's not like NYC Times Square where you're cordoned into one spot for hours and hours waiting for things to happen; you can drift along the sidewalk and find your preferred turf. Other people watching can be fun to talk to as well (the Japanese girls I talked about weren't the only ones who gave me free beads, one woman I'd been chatting with at another parade gave me an especially pretty set when she heard that I was there as a birthday celebration).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:08 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ooooh, a couple more tips.

* The day of Mardi Gras proper you may want to plan carefully when it comes to how much mayhem you want to engage in, and what kind. If you are not looking for hedonism, I would stay well clear of Bourbon Street - or possibly the entire French Quarter - from about 7 pm on. That's when the most hedonistic stuff happens; the people who live there have parties on their balconies that mix with the people partying on the streets, alcohol runs like salmon and might be glimpses of public nudity. I ventured in in the company of a dude from my hotel whom I was looking to hook up with, and even though we kind of played things chiller than the rest of the crowd I still somehow found myself dancing the Time Warp in a bar with 3 girls from Minneapolis and was I think at some point propositioned for a 3-way by another guy with him and his girlfriend while I was waiting for my date to come out of a bathroom. If that kind of whooping it up sounds like something you'd rather spit tacks than do, then steer clear of the French Quarter on Mardi Gras proper.

* Fortunately that same day is when you have most of the smaller parades. The bigger show-offy parades are the ones with the big floats and the celebrity grand masters, run by civic organizations as established "things", and that can be an amazing spectacle; but there are lots of smaller groups that do their own smaller parades just for the flippin' fun of it, like the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus or Cosmic Debris or other groups. These smaller artier groups are just out for a chance to show off a little doing something fun, and that may be more your speed. The parade that Radioamy is referring to was the "truck parade", which she and ColdChef told me was a more DIY parade made up of people who'd fixed up their own vehicles in their garages on the weekends as opposed to having the cash and time for a full-on float.

* Oh, and as for the food....two dishes to track down are chicken gumbo (it can be made without sausage or shellfish) or "gumbo z'herbes". Gumbo z'herbes is an all-vegetable gumbo, mostly made up of leafy greens; there is a delightful tradition that if you're making a batch yourself, each unique kind of leafy green you use will bring you a new friend in the coming year. ....If you do order it out, and are strict about the pork, you may want to discreetly inquire whether they use a ham bone for seasoning, though. I do not have recommendations for restaurants save to just keep your eyes and nose open; the single best plate of red beans and rice I had on my last trip was at a hole-in-the-wall dive bar near my hotel that I wandered into just because it was nearby. they were selling it on a cash-only basis in a room in the back, where a guy sat next to a galley window taking money in a cigar box and an ancient woman stood over three huge kettles in the kitchen; he'd take your money and call the order out to her, and she'd dish your meal up on a paper plate. Spartan surroundings, but that was a damn good plate of red beans and rice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:31 PM on February 4, 2019

The article waffleriot posted is really good. Fuck, it made me tear up, I miss Mardi Gras so much.
posted by radioamy at 2:14 PM on February 4, 2019

I was there before Katrina, and I enjoyed walking along the Mississippi River. There was a fair amount of sculpture and the river traffic is interesting. If there is a memorial or exhibit about the hurricane, flooding and everything that followed, it would be worthwhile, but heart-breaking.
posted by theora55 at 4:40 PM on February 4, 2019

Check out my friend Kerry's blog/social media presence- TravelerBroads. She is selling a Mardi Gras guide and I bet it is totally worth it.
posted by sulaine at 7:07 PM on February 4, 2019

« Older Notify me if something from a film festival gets a...   |   Car purchase guidance before moving to Oregon Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.