When I was 22, a friend and I decided we'd had it with Valentine's Day, so we saved our money and went to Mardi Gras instead. Mardi Gras is something everyone should experience at least once. The best Mardi Gras getaways include immersing yourself fully in the food and festivities with a "when in Rome" attitude.
Mardi Gras, also know as Fat Tuesday, falls on Feb. 28 this year. The event is a carnival of extravagant celebrations, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day), and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday (Fat Tuesday). Fat Tuesday refers to the practice of the last night of eating decadent, fatty foods before the ritual of fasting for Lent.
Where I grew up, in a Polish-Catholic city in Ohio, this meant eating as many pączkis as we could without getting sick. These deep-fried pieces of delicious dough are shaped into flattened spheres, stuffed with sweet filling, and covered with powdered sugar, icing, or glaze. The next day we would go to school, get anointed with ashes, and vow to give up something near and dear to us for the 40 days of Lent. But, you don't have to be religious to get in on the fun; the food and celebrations are for everyone.
The best way to experience Mardi Gras is to head to New Orleans the weekend before Fat Tuesday (Feb. 24- 28) so as not to miss the most popular parades, like Endymion, Bacchus, Zulu, Rex, and all of the festive celebrations throughout New Orleans. But whenever you go, you're guaranteed to have an amazing time.
On my trip to the Big Easy, my friend and I rented a hotel room just off Bourbon Street with no real plans aside from a commitment to go with the flow. The city of New Orleans has a magic energy that permeates everything. There is so much to see and experience, it's impossible to do it all. Here's a breakdown of how to maximize your time.
Watch a Parade
No Mardi Gras experience is complete without hitting at least one parade. The major Mardi Gras parades begin Feb. 17 and continue throughout the carnival. Getting to a parade can entail some pre-planning. Decide which one you want to go to, and then hatch a plan. If you want a good viewing spot you'll need to camp out early, similar to going to Time's Square on New Year's Eve.
Of course the best place to watch a parade is from one of the balconies on Bourbon Street. This is what we did, and I highly recommend it. You can buy tickets to watch from the balcony at myriad restaurants, jazz clubs, and bars along the parade route.
Attend a Ball
According to the Mardi Gras New Orleans website, Mardi Gras balls were exclusive events closed off from most people outside of New Orleans society until a krewe (organization or association that stages a parade or other event for a carnival celebration) revolutionized the event in 1949 by creating a carnival ball open to tourists, which means you can go! The balls feature entertainment, food, spirits, and more.
Even if you're an introvert, making friends with other carnival goers is key to your survival and enjoyment at Mardi Gras. We ended up falling in with a group of people from Europe who were traveling on a business expense account.
Throughout the week we moved from event to event together, and barely spent a cent (thanks to the expense account). Mixing and mingling will help you meet some amazing people who can share tips, the best routes around the city, the best places to eat, and of course the best jazz clubs.
Get Into Costume
Mardi Gras is an excuse to dress up in feathers, boas, masks, glitter, wigs, and fabulous dresses. It feels like being at a vintage masquerade ball, and who doesn't want to do that? Many of the items you'll need are available from vendors and stores in town.
You can also get your face painted (we did), and dress it up with a feather boa if you don't want to get into full costume. Also, don't forget to take in all of the spectacular costumes donned by parade participants and your fellow carnival goers.
You're most likely going to go home with hundreds of strands of beads (I filled up three huge flower vases), and you don't have to lift up your shirt to get them. Beads rain from the balconies during Mardi Gras. You can also buy beads from local shops, and toss them from balconies yourself if that's your jam.
Can't Get Away? Find a Celebration Near You
Most major cities will have some sort of Mardi Gras party (my dad met his wife at a Mardi Gras party in Florida). Search for Mardi Gras in Facebook events then filter for events near you.
If you can't find an event, consider throwing your own Mardi Gras bash. Ask your guests to come dressed up for a masquerade ball, and give beads away at the door.
Offer traditional Mardi Gras cuisine like King Cake, classic Cajun dishes, and Creole favorites like gumbo, jambalaya, and hurricanes.
Whatever you decide to do for Mardi Gras, make sure it's over the top. Fat Tuesday is go big or go home.