Every February, 100 miles upstream of where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, an extraordinary celebration of culture and chaos spills out into the streets. While its blast radius extends throughout Southern Louisiana (with small murmurs extending as far north as St. Louis, Missouri) its white-hot epicenter can be found only in New Orleans.
The vestiges of Mardi Gras as a New Orleans institution can be traced as far back as the year 1699. However, the most visible of Mardi Gras festivities, the city-street parades, didn’t start rolling until 1857, and in 1875, Louisiana officially declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday. Mardi Gras is a microcosm of the culture of New Orleans. It represents, in many ways, the best of what the city has to offer – an old world charm rubbing elbows with a decidedly modern sensibility. A contagious spirit of selflessness abounds, represented by the mere fact that much of the festivities are free and open to the public – one simply need show up. Because so much of Mardi Gras takes place in the vast public space endowed to the city, it is also, in someways, an architectural tour.
Parades cascade down the oak-lined street of St. Charles, historic antebellum mansions giving way to contemporary glass and steel condominiums. Costumed revelers dance on Mardi Gras Day outside Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest surviving structures in New Orleans.
Revelers often descend upon the city with a preconceived notion of what Mardi Gras will entail; however, the city never ceases to surprise. And while countless articles (this one included) purport to tell you the best way to take in the numerous sights and sounds of the city during Carnival, the truest way of experiencing Mardi Gras can be found in taking the advice of the city itself, expressed via a simple adage:
"Laissez les bon temps roulez – let the good times roll."
In doing so, one might come to realize what Mardi Gras has come to mean for so many in New Orleans – an opportunity to take a moment from business as usual and celebrate the business of living.
A Mardi Gras Guide by EDR
Following is a brief guideline towards enjoying Mardi Gras to its fullest. It by no means represents an exhaustive list, but should provide you the briskest of overviews into the Carnival season. It also happens to feature a few of our favorite projects!
The Ace Hotel, epitomizing the old world charm of New Orleans with a modern makeover, offers a prime location equidistant to the main thoroughfares of action.
Located in the historic Warehouse District, the hotel is easy walking distance to both the French Quarter (ground zero for Mardi Gras Day costumes) and St. Charles Avenue (where most of the parades make their route, truncating at Canal Street).
Nearby restaurants abound in the Central Business District. Sharing a city block with the Ace Hotel, Balise represents a modern spin on classic Louisiana fare with European accents. For a celebration of all things pork, visit Cochon (French for “pig”), Donald Link’s Cajun-Southern exploration of traditional Louisiana cuisine.
If you've had your fill of New Orleans/Southern cuisine (and that tipping point can come quicker than you think), stop by Tsunami, upscale Japanese and sushi in a modern, inviting interior.
Find a way to experience the season-specific dessert known as King Cake. One of the city's favorites comes from Sucre, an artisanal dessert and bakery shop. If you happen to be the unlucky participant to find the plastic baby inside, you buy the next one!
Catch as many parades as you can, but make special effort for some newcomers. Chewbacchus, aptly named for the cultural collision of the revered Star Wars character and the God of Wine, offers a modern spin on the traditional costumes and culture of Mardi Gras. Muses, the first all women parade, offers an experience reflective of the participants involved –fantastic self-made glittered shoe-themed throws.
Arise early Mardi Gras Day for Zulu, and one might catch sight of the elusive feathered Mardi Gras Indian (an experience akin to catching Santa on Christmas Eve).
It wouldn’t be a proper New Orleans experience without some dancing. Make like a local and find your way to Frenchmen street, an anchor of the New Orleans music scene. And of course, go with the flow. Mardi Gras can be anything if not chaotic, and the best experiences often result from an easygoing willingness to take what life throws at you.
Laissez les bon temps roulez!