If you stopped a stranger on the street and asked them to name the first thing that came to mind when they thought of New Orleans, chances are high that they’ll reply “Mardi Gras.” There are few traditions more intertwined with the essence of their city than Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras is guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience. Understanding the centuries of history and culture that are layered into the festivities will help visitors appreciate this truly one-of-a-kind event.

The Roots of Mardi Gras

“Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday, and it’s held every year on the day before Ash Wednesday. Known in some cultures as “Shrove Tuesday,” it’s a commonly celebrated holiday among Christian peoples. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent when many Christians abstain from meat and other foods for 40 days to mirror Jesus Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Before this time of fasting, people would eat and drink the remainder of their winter stores. This tradition can be seen in New Orleans as well as other areas with large Roman Catholic populations such as Venice, Brazil, and many Caribbean nations.

A French Quarter balcony decorated for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, LA

Mardi Gras and New Orleans

The first Mardi Gras in the United States was celebrated in 1699 when the French explorers Bienville and Iberville celebrated at a spot on the Mississippi River just south of present-day New Orleans. After the founding in 1718 and subsequent growth of New Orleans, the city quickly became the epicenter of French culture in the New World. As a result, it developed many of the Mardi Gras traditions that have lived on to this day. The elite would celebrate the occasion with lavish balls and ornate masks, emulating their counterparts in Paris and Venice. Over time, these social gatherings became formalized as “Krewes,” groups of people responsible for planning balls and parades. The first modern Mardi Gras Krewes trace their history as far back as 1857 and many, like Rex and Comus, are still in existence today.

Mardi Gras Today

Today, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a world-renowned event, drawing millions of visitors every year. In fact, it brought a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors to the city in 2016, according to the New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study. Carnival season kicks off on the night of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. The parades become more frequent the closer you get to the big day, culminating on Mardi Gras day when the entire city turns into a giant street party. Every neighborhood celebrates it a little differently, but the majority of the parade routes start Uptown and go down St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District and the up-and-coming Warehouse District.

Mardi Gras is an experience unlike any other on the planet, and everyone should experience it at least once. Whether you make it for a day or the entire carnival season, you’ll go home with a smile and stories to tell (or not tell). If you can’t make it during carnival season, there are still plenty of ways to experience the history of the celebration (like a visit to the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes & Culture). To get the most out of your trip to New Orleans, contact the local experts at Joieful to learn about our customized concierge services.