Part 1: Is Mardi Gras Really the Best time to Visit New Orleans?
If you’re American, then you likely know a little bit about Mardi Gras – the parades, King Cake, and party atmosphere of the French Quarter are all pretty legendary here in the States. That’s why we wandered down to check it out for ourselves. What we found was much more than a big party. Because we chose a time outside the chaos of Mardi Gras, we were able to get a better understanding of the people, food, and history in New Orleans. As a result, we found a city full of flavor and warmth that wholly embraced us . . .
Founded by French colonizers in 1718, New Orleans quickly became a cultural melting pot of various ethnic groups, languages, and religions due to its prime trading location at the outflow of the great Mississippi River that splits the North American continent in half. As a key center of commerce and trade, not only between the eastern and western parts of the continent, but also with European and South American nations, it naturally developed a lively music scene, delicious cuisine, and unique architecture that continues to the present.c
First, a little history of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras 2023 will fall on Tuesday, February 21 and is usually in mid-February every year. But just in case the concept of Mardi Gras is new to you, let’s start with a bit of history. Mardi Gras is a festival that is celebrated in many parts of the world but is perhaps most closely associated with the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The festival, also known as Fat Tuesday, is known for its colorful parades, lavish costumes, and lively atmosphere:
- The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to ancient Roman pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Lupercalia. These festivals were celebrated in mid-February and were marked by feasting, drinking, and revelry. With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, these pagan festivals were replaced by the Christian holiday of Carnival, which takes place in the days leading up to the season of Lent. Learn more.
- The word “carnival” comes from the Latin “carne vale,” which means “farewell to meat.” This refers to the practice of abstaining from meat during the 40-day period of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. In the days leading up to Lent, people would indulge in rich, fatty foods and celebrate with parades and parties. This tradition was carried over to the New World by some European settlers, and eventually evolved into the modern-day Mardi Gras festival.
- The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was held in 1837, and the festival has been a part of the city’s culture ever since. The locals celebrate with parades, balls, and street parties. The parades are organized by “krewes” made up of members who design elaborate floats and costumes. Each krewe has its own unique theme and traditions, and many have been around for over a century. Watch the Krewe Of Chewbacchus hold their 2023 parade.
- The Mardi Gras parade is led by the “king of the krewe,” who is selected each year to preside over the festivities. The king is usually a prominent member of the community and is often a celebrity or politician. The king is crowned at the start of the parade and leads the procession through the streets of the French Quarter. Check out photos of all the krewes in this year’s festival parades!
- Mardi Gras is also known for its signature throws. These are small trinkets, toys, or other items that are tossed from the floats to the crowds lining the streets. The most famous of these throws are the colorful plastic beads that are a ubiquitous part of the festival. Other popular throws include doubloons (coins with the krewe’s emblem), stuffed animals, and custom-designed items. Check out the throws each krewe will be handing out this year.
For the locals we met in New Orleans, the festival has become an integral part of the city’s culture and identity. But for us, New Orleans became much than a party and ranks as one of the best foodie trips chock full of things to do that we’ve had during a lifetime of global travels. That’s why we rank New Orleans as a top weekend trip (3-4 night stay) for couples.
The best time of year to visit New Orleans
Many people love the chaos of February when Mardi Gras is in full spring. But few appreciate the sweatbox New Orleans becomes in August. And most are too busy with the holidays to consider the fall and winter.
However, there are six reasons I consider January the best time to visit New Orleans. “January??” you say. The most boring month of the year? Well, the truth is that is the perfect time to escape to the wanders of a city like New Orleans. Break the boredom and leverage the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday for an extended weekend adventure. But also consider January because:
- It is the month before the chaos of Mardi Gras
- But still technically in the Carnival season
- So the city is electric with anticipation and prepping for Mardi Gras
- The weather is generally good and . . .
- The crowds are small.
It’s hard to argue with those reasons. Plus, we were able to leisurely stroll the streets and alleyways of the French Quarter without being hassled since the pickpockets and other troublemakers hadn’t arrived yet.
We were also able to see the Mardi Gras floats before anyone else by visiting the large portside facility where they are built and stored. And best of all, we never had to wait in a line. If I couldn’t make it in January, then March and April would be a close second for many of the same reasons.
How long to stay in New Orleans
I feel New Orleans makes a great weekend destination. Three to four nights, if possible, will give you the most relaxed and rewarding approach. Couple it with your MLK holiday and you can enjoy the four full nights.
You’ll find New Orleans is a very walkable city so we suggest passing on a car rental and just Ubering it for the few times you’ll need a ride. There is also a great little trolley system (maps at link) that takes you up and down the spine of downtown, including to the St. Louis Cemetery and its unique history and architecture.
The best place to stay in New Orleans
We highly suggest staying on the western edge of the French Quarter rather than in the suburbs or in the French Quarter itself. While we enjoyed the Quarter, it is not the best place to get a restful night’s sleep. Plus, prices can be a bit exaggerated with little benefit other than saving you a few steps.
Like any city known for a vibrant nightlife, crime can be of concern. New Orleans is no exception. We wandered throughout the French Quarter during the daytime and after dark. While we were experiencing the same spaces, we were definitely experiencing the same activites around us. The French Quarter in daylight is safe. Centrally linked security cameras and other resources make sure of that. But night brings a different character to the area. That’s why I recommend staying on the western edge of the district where less criminal activity tends to pop up.
How safe is the French Quarter?
During our nightly strolls through the French Quarter we did observe petty crime, excessively aggressive behavior, and police activity to quell it all. Be aware: this is not a theme park or resort. The French Quarter is a living, breathing part, the heart in a sense, of a major metropolitan area ripe with people who wish to leverage all that means to their benefit.
I suggest avoiding Bourbon Street after 11pm. There aren’t really any reasons to be there that late other than those that can get you in trouble. As a couple, my wife an I stuck to lighted streets with alot of foot traffic. We also took note of where the local police district office was (just in case we needed to report an incident). Of course, this is just all common sense. But, as I’ve stated in other posts, common sense is in short supply these days.
Remember that crime can happen anywhere, even Disney World (where it actually happens a lot). So it can definitely happen in the French Quarter. Stay alert, stay close to your partner(s), and you’ll be fine.
I encourage you start getting familiar with the area by using this great interactive French Quarter map full of historic sites, hotels, dining and more to help you get a better feel of walking distances.
Next up in Part 2, we’ll reveal the Top 10 things we enjoyed during our trip to New Orleans and think you will as well. And then reveal the Top 10 places to eat in Part 3.
And lastly . . .
“Always remember, you’re not a tourist on this planet. You’re a wanderer – one seeking the truth. And that’s what life and every little thing in it is all about. Truth.” -Kenneth R. Dodson, Wanderer