Let the good times roll year-round in the Big Easy, home to Mardi Gras and an endless list of fun festivals.
It’s no secret—New Orleans loves to party. From Mardi Gras and carnival season to Jazz Fest and a seemingly endless list of other New Orleans events throughout the year, any time is the right time to plan a New Orleans vacation if you’re looking for a reason to celebrate and let the good times roll. There are more than a dozen New Orleans festivals annually; here are a few highlights, starting with information for those planning a Mardi Gras vacation.
Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French) is the last day before Lent, the final opportunity for feasting and partying before getting serious in the days before Easter. But the celebration itself has roots in pagan rituals marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans dates back to the early days of the city’s founding, in the late 17th century. Parading for Mardi Gras was begun by a group of people who formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus in 1857. After the Civil War, more and more groups formed to parade during carnival season—resulting in today’s massive celebration.
Carnival season begins on Jan. 6. (Twelfth Night) each year, the day that marks the end of the Christmas season and starts the march towards Lent. Since 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers have kicked off the season on this night with a masked ball. They share the evening with the Phunny Phorty Phellows, who ride along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line and announce the beginning of carnival season. The parades, balls and other festivities gradually ramp up from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, with the real action beginning two weeks before Mardi Gras—always the Tuesday 47 days before Easter and one day before Ash Wednesday (in 2009, Mardi Gras is on Feb. 24).
Krewes are groups of people whose members organize and participate in carnival parades and balls. Their membership fees and individual support pay for the parades, so there’s no commercial sponsorship. More traditional, or old-line krewes (Rex is the oldest of this group), have balls where they elect their annual carnival king and queen from their own membership. Some more recently established groups are referred to as Super Krewes (such as Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus), and have huge parties after their parades in place of the balls. Super Krewes also tend to have celebrity kings. The only “King of Mardi Gras” is Rex; other kings are merely kings of their krewes.
While St. Charles Avenue in the Uptown area of New Orleans is regularly referred to as the parade route, that doesn’t mean every parade takes place there. Some routes are in Mid-City, Downtown, Metairie and the West Bank. To keep yourself from showing up in the wrong place, check the Mardi Gras schedule and maps before you head out.
Those who stand close enough to the street during the parade may come away with some cool trinkets, called “throws.” From simple strings of Mardi Gras beads (often referred to as “tree beads,” because people tend to throw them up into trees) to plastic cups to doubloons, elaborate medallion beads and the painted coconuts of Zulu, a wealth of carnival booty is yours for the taking. Step on the throw you’re claiming if it lands in the street. and watch your head—zinging cups and medallion beads can hurt.
One of my favorite carnival traditions is the king cake—a sweet oval pastry with icing in Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold). You can almost get cavities just by looking at one. The Mardi Gras king cake tradition came from French settlers and was used in 1870 by the Twelfth Night Revelers to choose the queen of their ball—something they’ve done ever since. The first king cakes of the season emerge from bakeries across the city on Twelfth Night. Inside each king cake is a pink, plastic baby. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby (chew carefully) is responsible for buying the next cake.
Besides the Mardi Gras parades, there are other wonderful highlights of the carnival season. Here are some of my favorites:
Mardi Gras Indians. African-American Mardi Gras Indians began “masking” as early as the mid-19th century, in costumes inspired by Native American designs. Their suits—dripping with feathers, sequins, faux gemstones, pearls, cowrie shells, velvet, satin and other materials—take the better part of a year to construct (all by hand), can weigh up to 150 pounds and cost thousands of dollars to assemble. If you miss them during the festival, catch the spectacular display of costumes year-round at the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
Krewe du Vieux. Known for its satire and mule-drawn floats, the Krewe du Vieux parade roams in costume through the lower French Quarter and nearby Faubourg Marigny. The full name of the group is Krewe du Vieux Carré—named for their parade grounds, the French Quarter. The 2009 parade takes place on Feb. 7, themed: “Krewe du Vieux’s Stimulus Package.” It’ll definitely take your mind off the economy for the evening.
Mystic Krewe of Barkus. A fanciful dog parade (where most are in costume), Barkus is a must-see event. The 2009 parade (with the theme “Battmutt: The Bark Knight”) is on Feb. 15, and begins at Louis Armstrong Park, near the French Quarter. Barkus donates ball profits and parade registration fees to animal welfare groups.
The New Orleans party doesn’t end with Mardi Gras. In fact, it often seems that there’s a festival or celebration every week of the year. This list of the most popular events only scratches the surface, so if you want to find out if something’s going on when you’re in the city, be sure to contact the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival started in 1970 as a celebration of the city’s jazz legacy. It has since grown to become the second largest festival in New Orleans after Mardi Gras and spans two full weekends at the Fair Grounds, with a variety of concerts during the weekdays in between.
Jazz is indeed at the heart of the festival, with traditional and contemporary jazz tents, but Jazz Fest offers a little something for everyone, with zydeco, R&B, gospel, reggae, Latin and rock added in for good measure. Local art, crafts and food are also featured. If you show up at the Fair Grounds hungry, I guarantee you won’t leave that way. With choices ranging from a plate of boiled crawfish to creole’s stuffed bread, oyster po’boys to crawfish Monica, snowballs (snow cones) to jambalaya and more—you may need to try everything at least once.
The festival takes place each year in late April/early May. The 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival dates are April 24 to 26 (first weekend) and April 30 to May 3 (second weekend). Festival schedule and tickets are available at www.nojazzfest.com.
If you want to experience Jazz Fest on a smaller scale and for free, try the French Quarter Festival, which always takes place in April prior to Jazz Fest. With 450 musicians performing on 18 stages packed into the three-day weekend, you’re getting more than enough bang for your unspent buck. The Festival also features the “World’s Largest Jazz Brunch,” with nearly 70 food vendors serving up local cuisine. The 2009 French Quarter Festival dates are April 17 to 19. www.fqfi.org/frenchquarterfest
The three-day Essence Music Festival, which takes place each year around the July 4 weekend in the Superdome, celebrates African-American music and culture. Beyoncé performs at the 2009 festival. Besides top-notch music, speakers and empowerment seminars are also featured. www.essence.com
The Satchmo Summerfest is an annual tribute to New Orleans’ native son, Louis “Satchmo” Armstong, held at the Old U.S. Mint on the edge of the French Quarter the first weekend of August. Four stages feature traditional and contemporary jazz, brass bands and music for kids. Yummy food booths keep you from walking too far away from the party. During the 2008 Satchmo Fest, I caught an incredible second line parade from the nearby Tremé neighborhood to the U.S. Mint. Admission is free. www.fqfi.org/satchmosummerfest
Each November, the Audubon Zoo hosts Swamp Fest, which celebrates Louisiana Cajun culture. When you’re surrounded by the city of New Orleans, it’s easy to forget that Bayou country is close by. This family friendly festival features music, food, crafts, cultural demonstrations and even swamp critter encounters. The festival is included with Audubon Zoo admission (free for members, $13 for adults, $10 for seniors aged 65 and up, $8 for children ages 2 to 12). www.auduboninstitute.org
The Voodoo Experience, usually held the weekend before Halloween in City Park, is known for featuring high-profile national acts (the 2008 Experience included Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M., Lil Wayne, Panic At the Disco and Wyclef Jean), but includes great New Orleans artists as well. www.thevoodooexperience.com
Destinations: New Orleans
Activities: Arts and Entertainment
Feast of Festivals I'll admit, media coverage of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras made me not want to go. But knowing that I can still participate in Mardi Gras while avoiding Bourbon Street is great.