Explore New Orleans

New Orleans Mardi Gras Unmasked

A peek beneath the spectacle

The parades, the parties, the bead-strung balconies along Bourbon Street: That’s what Carnival season is all about, right? Yes…and no. Granted, Fat Tuesday is known as “the biggest free party on earth” and dozens of parades will take to the streets between Jan. 6 and March 5, but there’s more to Mardi Gras than merriment and mayhem. Before heading out on the parade route, brush up on the city’s colorful Carnival culture.

Carnival Atmosphere

The Louisiana State Museum’s “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” exhibit is the perfect place to start. Located in the Presbytère in Jackson Square, the permanent exhibition traces local Carnival customs from the early 1700s, when French explorers celebrated in nearby swamps, to Louis Armstrong’s 1949 reign as the king of Zulu to Cajun country’s Courir de Mardi Gras traditions. For deeper insight, sign up for the museum’s annual Hidden Treasures tour Feb. 19 and 21, a guided, behind-the-scenes look at rarely seen Carnival costumes, float sketches and related artifacts.

Louisiana State Museum
The Hidden Treasures tour provides a peek at more than 500 costumes included among the Louisiana State Museum’s massive Carnival collection. (©Shawn Fink)

The art of dress-up is also explored at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture, while Mardi Gras Indian traditions are the focus of the Backstreet Cultural Museum and the House of Dance and Feathers.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Not able to catch any parades? You can still experience them. At 300,000 square feet, Mardi Gras World clocks in as the world’s largest float-building facility. The giant warehouse, where the majority of the season’s moving marvels (and Chic-fil-A’s 3D billboard cows) are made and decorated, offers tours year-round and the opportunity to see artists in action, bringing the massive creations to life. The hour-long exploration begins with a video overview of Carnival history…and a slice of king cake, naturally.

Mardi Gras World
Many of the city’s floats are designed and stored at Mardi Gras World. (©Mardi Gras World)

A Taste of Tradition

Over the course of Carnival season, you’ll stumble upon members from various krewes stumbling out of pre-parade luncheons at local restaurants, a number of which feature Mardi Gras-themed rooms. Antoine’s offers its regal Rex, Proteus and the Twelfth Night Revelers rooms, which showcase royal regalia from over the years, along with the Hermes Bar. Rex memorabilia is also found in Brennan’s elegant King’s and Queen’s rooms, while the downstairs main dining room is lined with murals of Proteus parades past. 

Antoine's resturant New Orleans
The King of Carnival presides over numerous annual events in Antoine’s Rex Room. (©Antoine’s)

Take a spin through of the upstairs Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum at Arnaud’s, check out the Chaos Room at Red Fish Grill, where the krewe was founded in 2000, and raise a toast to the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus beneath the shrine to “the Sacred Drunken Wookiee” at Dat Dog on Frenchmen Street. Step into the International House Hotel Feb. 20-March 4, and be transported back to the 19th century. Inspired by the whimsical “Five O’Clock Tea” sketches of Carlotta Bonnecaze (the first woman—and Creole—to draft designs for Mardi Gras) from the 1896 Proteus parade, the hotel’s Loa bar pours a spirited tea, from 5 to 6 pm, served by a costumed Victorian jackass. 

Arnaud's Mardi Gras Museum New Orleans
Arnaud’s Mardi Gras Museum showcases costumes once worn by Germaine Cazenave Wells, who reigned over 26 Carnival balls. (©Arnuad’s)

Grab a Needle and Get Your Glue Gun

For all of the “royalty” and ritzy egalia associated with larger Carnival krewes, Mardi Gras is really a DIY affair for the majority of maskers. Members of the city’s Mardi Gras Indian tribes spend months (and big bucks) hand-beading their elaborate suits. The Mardi Gras Indian Experience lets novices try their hand at the craft during its Sip & Sew gatherings. Participants (who are encouraged to bring their own fire water) are provided with all materials, hands-on instruction and a performance by the Young Maasai Hunters Indians. 

Nationally acclaimed bead artists Betsy Youngquist (check out her surrealist sculptures at Gallery 2), Nancy Josephson and Jan Huling have joined forces with Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters tribe to host a beading workshop Feb. 14-16 at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture. The three-day affair includes a tour of the museum as well as of the House of Dance and Feathers.

Music Box Village likewise hosts a variety of costuming workshops throughout the month of February, from cape-making to bicycle-decorating. Artist Ellen Macomber is best known for her map-print textiles and paintings on glass, but its her annual Mardi Gras headdress workshops that really draw crowds. Looking for a cool Carnival keepsake? You’ve found it.

An example of intricate Mardi Gras Indian beadwork. (©Shawn Fink)