Mardi Gras in New Orleans is most certainly centered around the numerous parades that begin rolling on January 6 and nearly overwhelm parts of the city leading up to Fat Tuesday, but it’s not all about the parades. It’s about revelry of all kinds, as New Orleans becomes a city of controlled chaos each year. Here are some of the best Mardi Gras experiences you can have if you visit New Orleans during this extra festive season.
THE GREASING OF THE POLES
The unofficial kickoff to Mardi Gras weekend, the annual Greasing of the Poles harkens back to a tradition of keeping drunken revelers from shimmying up to the famed balconies of the French Quarter, specifically at the Royal Sonesta New Orleans.
More than 50 years later, it’s now a full-on spectacle that involves two local notables competing to grease their poles with the most panache while a panel of judges looks on. You can get in on the action yourself with the recently added people’s choice award, determined by screams and applause.
Commander's Palace Restaurant sign; Photo courtesy of Cheryl Gerber/NewOrleans.com
COMMANDER’S PALACE KICKOFF
Commander’s Palace is a New Orleans landmark, in operation since the late 19th century and still beloved today. A newer edition to the Mardi Gras calendar, the annual Commander’s Mardi Gras Kickoff luncheon is a collaboration Fringe + Co., known as local pizazz ambassadors, who bring on the sparkles, sequins, and all things dazzling.
You’ll have to be in town early to catch this kickoff, as it usually runs in January, but those with reservations will score a 3-course meal with bubbles, a welcome cocktail, and a sparkly gift—all in a festive atmosphere including music, drag performances, and/or other fun diversions.
THE NORTH SIDE SKULL AND BONE GANG
Away from the pomp and glitter of most Mardi Gras parades is the macabre march of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang. A good distance from the St. Charles Avenue hub of most parades, this 200-year-old tradition begins before dawn in the neighborhood of Tremé, where skeletons patrol the streets. Banging on doors to wake the neighborhood while chanting ominous warnings, the “menacing” gang caution children to behave or suffer terrible consequences.
What began as a tradition of African spirituality when Black residents were unwelcome in sanctioned parades is now a New Orleans must-see for any visitor willing to wake up early enough to experience a true piece of local culture and history.
King cake; Photo courtesy of Joyce Bracey/NewOrleans.com
PASTRY, PASTRY, PASTRY
Café du Monde isn’t the only name in the beignet game, but it’s certainly the most famous. You can eat these any time of day (locals do), so try some wherever you find them and develop your own preferences—this is a time of condoned indulgence!
The beignet may be the most iconic pastry of New Orleans, but the, well…king…of Mardi Gras pastry is the king cake. Locals may insist on at least one from Manny Randazzo King Cakes each year, but you’ll find these all over the city, too. Experiment with flavor updates like lemon, praline, and bacon.
Guests dancing at Endymoin Extravaganza; Photo courtesy of Rebecca Todd/NewOrleans.com
DANCE AT THE ENDYMION EXTRAVAGANZA
Super krewes offer the crème de la crème of Mardi Gras parades, often followed by an large and lavish ball, but you’re not invited to most of these epic after-parties. The Endymion Extravaganza is the exception. This krewe not only boasts one of the largest nighttime parades, but its ball is open to anyone who ponies up for a ticket, making it nearly your only chance to throw on a tux or gown and live it up with Mardi Gras royalty for a night.
The krewe claims this mega event as “probably” the world’s largest indoor party, boasting more than 20,000 guests. Endymion’s parade and ball are held the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and have included entertainers like KISS, Britney Spears, and Diana Ross.
Mardi Gras float; Photo courtesy of Gourmet Reise/NewOrleans.com
RIDE ON A FLOAT
If getting into a ball is hard, getting onto a float is improbable, but not impossible. Look for brands that have a float presence in super krewes, like the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, which participates in the Orpheus parade headed by Harry Connick Jr.
Most years, you can score a promotional deal that might just get you into the parade itself without being an actual member of the krewe. Sheraton, for example, has offered packages that included a stay in an executive suite, costumes and beads for the parade, and tickets to the coveted after-party with celebrity performances.