A Mardi Gras Triptych

When I was originally putting together my itinerary for 2024, while I knew I wanted to spend a month in New Orleans, Mardi Gras wasn’t really on my radar. I decided that February was the month that made the most sense to be here before I realized that February is also when Mardi Gras is. So it was serendipity more than planning that put me in the city at the right time to experience Carnival.

Even if I had been more aware of the timing, I don’t believe that it would have impacted my planning. I’ve never really thought of myself as being the sort of person who really wanted to participate in a celebration like Mardi Gras. At least not enough to go out of my way to be around for it. Ultimately, though, I’m glad that the timing worked out like it did because I really enjoyed it.

Before I get into details on my experience, though: a disclaimer. I’ve only been in the city for a handful of weeks, and don’t really know much about Carnival, much less how New Orleans celebrates it. So while I’m going to make some observations, they’re very much my own and I can’t really speak to how common or universal they are. Basically, you should take what I write here more as a reflection of what I saw and thought than an authoritative description of Carnival.

I feel fortunate to have experienced the celebration from three distinct viewpoints. Given that we live in a complex world, the idea that Mardi Gras is different things to different people should have been obvious, and should have popped right through my “this isn’t for me” feeling to remind me that some part of it probably was for me. It didn’t, though, so I ended up feeling surprised by what I experienced.

First up, a friend of mine’s sister lives in New Orleans, and I was invited to tag along to their Saturday parade viewing at the beginning of February. (Something I hadn’t really realized before I arrived in the city: the parades start weeks before Mardi Gras itself, which is awesome.) I rode my bike out to a residential neighborhood near the parade route. The group I was introduced to were mostly staged at the house of one of the locals, but some of them were holding down the fort out at the street of the parade route where they had their folding chairs and cooler set up.

As the parades got started, we walked over to join them, and it was a very chill time. I’d describe it as very tailgate-y. Food and hanging out, relaxing and watching the parade go by. A lot of the locals knew people who were in the parade, and there were a lot of “hey, how’s it going?” exchanges as the various floats rolled by. Kids yelling and running up and down the street tryin to get thrown some specific thing that they had their eyes on.

I sort of hate the idea of things being “family friendly”, since it’s a weird sort of euphemism, but things really did have that vibe. A fun way to spend the weekend chilling with your friend and family, relaxing but with something to do.

This was also the parade that I watched and thought to myself: I could see myself being a part of this if I were a local myself. In fact, I saw the 610 Stompers come by in the parade I felt myself nodding and thinking “yeah, I’d definitely do something like that once a year if that was an option”.

610 Stompers
Krewe of Dolly

Second, while there are a lot of parades in the lead up to Mardi Gras, and a lot of parade routes, only a couple went by my building. One of those was the parade on the Saturday evening before Mardi Gras. I get the impression that there aren’t a ton of parades that go after dark, but this one explicitly was sundown. This meant that everyone in the parade was prepared for to parade in the dark.

The floats were all lit up, and so were a lot of the marching bands. (I’d never seen lights on band instruments before, but it was really cool to watch.) Given the hour, the people on the parade route skewed older, and definitely had a rowdier feel. It felt like this was the start of the night for a lot of people who were planning to go hit the clubs and bars once the parade was over.

It lent the thing more of a bacchanalia feeling. Which was reinforced when I decided to take a walk down to Bourbon Street after the parade ended, and it was wild. It’s already a pretty rowdy space most nights, but this was something else. The street was packed with people to a point where it was actually difficult to manage (and this is a street that’s closed to vehicle traffic at night, so pedestrians get the sidewalks and the street itself). Everyone was yelling and partying (and drinking, of course). There were clumps of people stopped in the street waving up at the balconies on either side where people were set up with beads and other things to throw down, and everyone was having a blast.

A very professionally shot video of a parade at night

Third and finally, the final parade on Mardi Gras itself (a Tuesday, remember) went right by my building. I was able to go up on the roof to watch and film some of it. I also went out a couple of times to get food while all the crowds were around, which let me get a fun ground-level view of things.

While my first parade was something like a tailgate, and my second was one long party, this time things felt like a post sporting event celebration. The streets were packed with people yelling and having fun as the floats went by. These were the densest crowds I’d encountered around any of the parades, and all sorts of food trucks and carts had set up along the route.

Marching bands are pretty sweet
A view from the roof of my building
A view from the street

Obviously, as I mentioned at the top, it should have been obvious that different parts of the celebration would feel different from one another. It was a good reminder that few things are just one things. I also just thought it was really cool that I sort of stumbled into three such different views of Mardi Gras. I don’t know if I’d recommend a trip to New Orleans just for Mardi Gras for most people, but if you have a chance to spend a longer period of time in the city during the season, it’s well worth spending a number of different days exploring all the various faces that Mardi Gras can wear.






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