18 top things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras

Read about 18 of the best things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well as tips for planning your trip, staying safe, and how to experience Mardi Gras on a budget with the help of Worldpackers.


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Kimberli

Feb 17, 2020

I recently quit my day job to travel full time and chase my dream of being a freelance writer.

things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is arguably the best party you'll find in the United States.

Every year over a million people travel to New Orleans to join in the fun during Carnival season, which begins on January 6, known as Epiphany or Twelfth Night, and lasts until Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday." The actual date of Mardi Gras changes yearly since it is based around Easter, but it is always celebrated on the day before Ash Wednesday.

Carnival season in New Orleans is a city-wide celebration so there are tons of things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras throughout the season, but most of the parades take place in the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras Day.

I've been lucky to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans twice, and today I'm going to share with you 18 of the best things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well as some tips for planning your trip and some ideas for how to attend Mardi Gras with the help of Worldpackers.

Top 18 things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras

1. Attend the parades

2. Make a "throw" bucket list

3. Eat king cake

4. Stop in for a café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde

5. Tour Mardi Gras World

6. Join the after party on Bourbon Street

7. Witness the "Bourbon Street Closing"

8. Pick out a Mardi Gras mask at the French Market

9. Try authentic cajun and creole food

10. Visit The National WWII Museum

11. Soak up the atmosphere in Jackson Square

12. Enjoy a peaceful stroll through City Park

13. Explore Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square

14. Take a guided tour of the French Quarter

15. Explore the spooky side of New Orleans

16. Get up close and personal with alligators on a swamp tour

17. Spend a day at Barataria Preserve

18. Tour a Civil War era plantation

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1. Attend the parades


Best things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: attend the parades

Obviously the best thing to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is attend the parades.

Each parade is named after the krewe, or organization, that sponsors it. Each krewe chooses its own theme for their parade, and parade routes are scattered around the city. 

Read up on each krewe to see which ones interest you most and check the parade routes in advance. On the day of the parades, you'll want to get there pretty early to get a desirable spot along the route.

All of the people riding on the parade floats are required to wear masks, and many parade goers choose to join in the fun and wear masks or even full costumes themselves, but this is not required. 

I do highly recommend that you wear closed toe shoes and bring a bag to carry all of your beads and other throws in. I promise you'll end up with more than you can carry, especially if you've been a good planner and get there early enough to get a good spot near the front.

2. Make a "throw" bucket list


Things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: make a "throw" bucket list

Everything that the parade float riders throw into the audience are known as "throws."

Aside from the standard Mardi Gras beads, many of the New Orleans krewes have signature throws. There are the decorated shoes passed out by the Krewe of Muses, purses from the Krewe of Nyx, and the coveted hand-painted coconuts given out by the Krewe of Zulu, which aren't actually thrown at all anymore but handed to members of the crowd after quite a few parade goers were injured by the thrown coconuts.

A ton of time and creativity goes into designing and decorating parade throws, and they make excellent one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Do a little research on the different throws passed out by each krewe and make yourself a bucket list of throws you'd like to try to collect while you're in New Orleans for Mardi Gras!

3. Eat king cake


Things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: eat king cake

One of my favorite New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions is eating king cake! King cakes are actually more like giant pastries than cake, and they come with a variety of fillings. 

The most delicious king cakes I've ever eaten come from Randazzo's. Seek them out. I promise you won't regret it!

4. Stop in for a café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde


Things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: stop by Cafe du Monde

So you've been out partying and you're about ready to call it a night. Take my advice and make one last stop before going back to your hotel. 

Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and a café au lait and plate of beignets is the perfect snack before heading to bed after a night of Mardi Gras fun!

5. Tour Mardi Gras World


Top things to do during Mardi Gras: tour Mardis Gras World

If you're really interested in the history of the Mardi Gras parades, you should definitely check out Mardi Gras World

Mardi Gras World is the site of all of the float building action, and they offer tours where guests can learn about the history of Mardi Gras and the process of building the spectacular parade floats. You can also see some of the floats up close while they're being built. The tour really helps guests appreciate all of the hard work and dedication that the krewes put into the parades every year!

Mardi Gras World offers complimentary shuttle service from a handful of pick up sites, which can be found on their website. They are closed on Mardi Gras Day and close early on the three days leading up to Mardi Gras Day so you'll want to book your tours in advance to make sure you have a spot!

6. Join the after party on Bourbon Street


Best things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: party on Bourbon Street

This is your fair warning, Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras is total madness, but that's probably what you came to Mardi Gras for in the first place, right? 

Get there early and score a spot on one of the Bourbon Street bar balconies to throw beads to passersby below. It's a fun way to get rid of some of those Mardi Gras beads that you scored from the parades. 

I promise you'll have way more beads than you'll ever want to check in your baggage when you fly home!

7. Witness the "Bourbon Street Closing"


Bourbon Street Closing, Mardi Gras, Image Credit: Skip Bolen/Getty

At midnight on Mardi Gras Day, hundreds of police officers walk, drive, and ride on horseback down Bourbon Street. 

This practice is meant to symbolically signal the end of Carnival season. It will force most party goers indoors to make way for the "parade" of policemen so a balcony is a great place to be at this time if you want a good view. 

Fear not, the party will resume once they've passed.

8. Pick out a Mardi Gras mask at the French Market


Top things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: pick out a mask at the French Market

The French Market is a large marketplace where vendors sell food and all manner of New Orleans souvenirs throughout the year. During Mardi Gras you can pick out your own Mardi Gras mask to wear to the parades. It's also a great place to buy a bag for all the parade throws you catch. 

It's located in the French Quarter right next to the Mississippi River.

9. Try authentic cajun and creole food


Best things to do in New Orleans: try cajun and creole food

New Orleans is a fantastic city for hardcore foodies and casual food lovers alike, and no trip to New Orleans would be complete without trying some of the many local dishes. 

Gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish etoufee, po' boys, the list goes on, and they're all delicious! The Gumbo Shop on St. Peter is my favorite French Quarter restaurant. They serve fantastic creole food in a lovely courtyard at reasonable prices. The macque choux corn is a must!

One of the best things about being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is that it's crawfish season! If you've never tried crawfish, it deserves a place on your bucket list!

Alligator is another New Orleans treat for adventurous foodies. But regardless of how adventurous your taste buds are, you're sure to find something in New Orleans that you'll enjoy!

10. Visit The National WWII Museum


Things to do in New Orleans: visit the National WWII Museum

The National WWII Museum is consistently praised as the best tourist attraction in New Orleans and has been designated by Congress as the official WWII museum of the United States. 

The beautifully curated exhibits bring the realities of WWII to life, and you can easily spend a half day here. The museum is closed on Mardi Gras Day but is otherwise open seven days a week.

11. Soak up the atmosphere in Jackson Square


Best things to do in New Orleans: visit Jackson Square

Next to the French Market is the iconic Jackson Square, one of the best places to be in New Orleans. Here you'll find tons of street performers, from musicians to mimes to knife jugglers, local artists selling their work, and of course, a handful of psychics and tarot readers. 

Jazz music fills the air, the atmosphere is lively and fun, and I can't think of a place that more fully embodies the spirit of New Orleans.

12. Enjoy a peaceful stroll through City Park


What to do in New Orleans: visit City Park

Once you're all partied out and searching for some peace and quiet, make your way to City Park. 

One of the oldest urban parks in the country, City Park spans 1,300 acres and is a wonderful respite from the chaos of Mardi Gras. Stroll through the grounds admiring the beautiful live oaks and tranquil ponds, and you'll feel as though you've left the city.

There are several activities at City Park, but my absolute favorite is Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Besthoff is home to some truly impressive and thought provoking art, and best of all, it's free! 

Besthoff is closed on Endymion Saturday (the Saturday before Mardi Gras), Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), and Mardi Gras Day.

13. Explore Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square


What to do in New Orleans: explore Louis Armstrong Park

Another great park to visit in New Orleans is Louis Armstrong Park, built to honor its namesake, jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong Park is not nearly as large as City Park, but it is within easy walking distance of the French Quarter.

The park features a rose garden, various sculptures throughout the park, including a beautifully detailed sculpture of Mardi Gras Indian Chief Tootie Montana, a nice duck pond, and historic Congo Square. 

Although it has been somewhat modernized with paving stones, Congo Square's historical significance dates back to the 18th century, when enslaved people and free people of color would meet here to commune with each other on Sundays.

14. Take a guided tour of the French Quarter


Top things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: tour the French Quarter

I always love to take a guided walking tour when I first get to a new city, and New Orleans has some really ones! The city has a rich history, and taking a guided walking tour of the French Quarter is a wonderful way to become acquainted with it.

If history doesn't pique your interest, there are some really fun haunted tours (you can't throw a stick in New Orleans without hitting a ghost according to my haunted history tour guide) and delicious food tours as well!

15. Explore the spooky side of New Orleans


What to do during Mardi Gras: explore the spooky side of New Orleans

Speaking of ghosts, New Orleans is the ultimate spooky city! In addition to its abundant ghost population, visitors to New Orleans can also explore its unique cemeteries, voodoo shops, "vampire" culture, and Museum of Death.

The most popular cemetery tour, St. Louis No. 1, is the purported final resting place of voodoo icon Marie Laveau as well as the future resting place of Nicolas Cage, who has a quirky pyramid-shaped tomb waiting for him there. 

To tour St. Louis No. 1 you must have a tour guide, but the other cemeteries in the city are free for you to explore on your own. My personal favorites are St. Roch I and II, where you'll find beautiful mosaics and a lovely little chapel with a particularly creepy room full of offerings to St. Roch.

Pro tip: I was told by several locals during my time in New Orleans that the only authentic voodoo shop open to the public in New Orleans is Voodoo Authentica on Dumaine Street.

16. Get up close and personal with alligators on a swamp tour


What to do in New Orleans: take a swamp tour

One of the most popular things to do in New Orleans is taking a swamp tour. You have a few options of how you'd like to tour the swamps, by kayak, by airboat, or by pontoon. I've done all three, and I enjoyed all three for different reasons.

If you're feeling brave and are confident in a kayak, it's pretty cool to be able to say you've kayaked with alligators. But believe me when I say that you will literally be kayaking right alongside alligators, an unnerving experience to say the least.

Airboats are able to travel in shallower waters than pontoons and are smaller in general so you'll enjoy a smaller tour group and be able to reach more remote areas of the swamps. The downside is that the propellers on airboats are super loud, and you'll need to wear protective earmuffs while the boat is moving.

If you're looking for a peaceful boat ride to enjoy the beautiful swamp, pontoons are your best option. You'll still get plenty of alligator and other wildlife sightings but from a comfortable distance!

17. Spend a day at Barataria Preserve


Things to do in New Orleans on a budget: explore Barataria Preserve

If you prefer to stay on mostly dry land or you're on a tight budget but would like to experience the Louisiana wetlands, a trip out to the (free!) Barataria Preserve is a great compromise. 

There are several really nice hiking trails and boardwalks throughout the preserve, and the visitor centers host educational events at various times. Alligator sightings are not unheard of from the boardwalk and trails but are in no way guaranteed here. 

All trails and visitor centers are closed on Mardi Gras Day, and though it's just a short drive, you'll likely need access to a car to get there.

18. Tour a Civil War era plantation


Best things to do in New Orleans: tour a Civil War era plantation

Rounding out our list of things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is taking a trip out to River Road, where you'll find several of the most well-known Civil War era plantations in Louisiana.

You'll have a choice of which one(s) you'd like to tour, but my personal recommendation is Whitney Plantation. While many of the other plantation tours focus on the plantation owners or the homes themselves, Whitney Plantation focuses on the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation. 

It is both an educational and, at times, emotional experience that I highly recommend!

How to stay safe in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and other things to know before you go

Police presence during Mardi Gras is really heavy. There will be police officers everywhere! 

Don't worry, they're not there to rain on the parades, and many of them can even be seen dancing and joining in on the Mardi Gras spirit. But parades are considered family-friendly events so if you get too unruly you may find yourself in trouble. Keep your behavior kid-friendly until the after party on Bourbon Street!

New Orleans has some of the laxest alcohol laws in the country. You are allowed to drink in public and carry open containers of alcohol around with you. The only exception to the rule is glass containers, which are not permitted to be taken outside of bars. Drugs of all kinds, including marijuana, are illegal in Louisiana.

Transportation can be a bit of a headache during Mardi Gras since many major streets will be closed for the parades several hours ahead of time. This means there will likely be interruptions to bus and streetcar schedules. 

I don't recommend renting a car in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, unless it's for a single day trip out of the city. Public parking is scarce and expensive and trying to navigate unfamiliar streets while also dealing with road closures and heavy pedestrian crowds is a terrible idea. When in doubt, Uber is your friend.

Be aware of your surroundings and follow simple travel safety tips. Pickpocketing is a real concern. Yes, there are police everywhere, but they are still vastly outnumbered. Definitely leave your valuables at your hotel or hostel.

When you arrive in New Orleans ask someone from your hotel or hostel which areas are safe for tourists, and stick to those areas, especially at night. Even in the touristy areas, there are a handful of common scams unique to New Orleans. 

It's best to educate yourself on them before you arrive to avoid trouble. If you do find yourself duped by a scammer's riddle about shoes, pay up and move on. Seriously.


Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Tips for experiencing Mardi Gras on a budget

It is definitely hard to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans on a budget, but with Worldpackers it's possible.

Accommodation will be your biggest expense. Hotel and hostel prices skyrocket this time of year, and cheaper options book up several months in advance. The most obvious way to enjoy Mari Gras on a budget is to volunteer with one of our New Orleans Worldpackers hosts

I myself volunteered in New Orleans with Site 61 Hostel, and it was easily one of the better travel experiences I've had. In addition to saving money, I enjoyed more culturally enriching stay in New Orleans, met tons of incredible people, and learned the ins and outs of budget travel.

Transportation, too, will likely be more expensive than usual during Mardi Gras since public transportation will be interrupted on parade days. Hiring an Uber every day adds up fast! 

The only way to combat this is to try to stay within walking distance of the parade routes, which will mean higher hotel prices. I told you it was tricky. Again, plan ahead and book as far in advance as possible or try to take advantage of the Worldpackers hosts in New Orleans.

If you're trying to do Mardi Gras on a budget, you should take advantage of the open container laws during the day by bringing your alcoholic beverages with you to parades. It's much cheaper than purchasing alcohol from vendors or bars once you're there.

Don't bother purchasing Mardi Gras beads. You'll get plenty for free during the parades.

Take advantage of the free activities in New Orleans during your trip. Parades, City Park, Louis Armstrong Park, visiting most of the cemeteries, and hanging out at Jackson Square are all free and fun things to do.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans can be intimidating, but it can also be a really fantastic time! Don't forget to check out our Worldpackers hosts in New Orleans to save loads of money on accommodations. Use your smart traveler senses when it comes to drinking and safety and you're sure to have an unforgettable experience! 


6148f652d26ab3c3efcdb851d22c6c42

Kimberli

Feb 17, 2020

I recently quit my day job to travel full time and chase my dream of being a freelance writer.


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