New Orleans is always a good idea, especially for lovers of food, drink and music. But nothing compares to visiting the Big Easy during carnival season, when 1.4 million revelers flock to the city to carouse in some of the world’s best parades and parties. No matter how you spend Mardi Gras, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience, but follow the tips below to really let the good times roll.
While it’s best to make arrangements for Mardi Gras accommodations at least six months in advance for the best pricing and options, there are still limited rooms available — and, of course, it’s never too early to begin planning for next year.
Conveniently located right between the raucous French Quarter and the flourishing Warehouse District, the city’s Central Business District (CBD) is one of the best places to stay during the carnival season. Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Windsor Court Hotel provides an elegant respite from the masses, offering stunning bay window views of the city and the Mississippi River.
The hotel’s design merges the sensibility of a stately English manor with posh European details like French doors, Italian marble and Swarovski crystal. Rooms are bathed in soothing pastel colors and outfitted with luxe bedding and upholstery, perfect for resting after long carnival days.
When the sun is out, escape to the rooftop saltwater pool deck for a vitamin D revival or take a self-guided property tour to view the latest works of art on display. For an afternoon recharge, enjoy the hotel’s celebrated English high tea to the tune of live chamber music at Le Salon.
If the center of the action is more your speed, stay at the newly opened NOPSI Hotel. Situated right in the middle of the CBD, the stylish property is within easy walking distance to the French Quarter and a breezy streetcar ride to uptown’s Garden District.
The Great Gatsby-inspired lobby — complete with original vaulted ceilings, Corinthian columns and terrazzo flooring — sets the scene for some good old-fashioned revelry, especially once you’ve grabbed a classic cocktail from the retro lobby bar.
While away your afternoon at the rooftop pool and bar or with a bourbon tasting and fresh seafood at Public Service, the hotel’s standout restaurant.
Another well-placed option is the hip, which kickstarted the revitalization of the Warehouse District when it opened three years ago. Still a safe distance from the Bourbon Street masses, the property is housed in a historic French Deco building and features a slate grey, post-industrial interior design plus unique amenities like Music Hall turntables, Pendleton quilts and acoustic Martin guitars. Party like a true VIP in one of the spacious suites, which offer two levels of living area plus a wet bar and outdoor terrace.
One of the best ways to experience the Big Easy is by eating your way through it, and visiting a combination of classics and newer spots is the best plan of attack. The aqua-gabled Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, is one of the city’s most iconic restaurants, known for its refined Southern dishes like sherry-laced turtle soup and shrimp tasso henican. The over-the-top Sunday jazz brunch is not to be missed, but even a weekday lunch becomes a celebration with 25-cent martini specials.
Nearby Magazine Street is a treasure trove of bars, restaurants and shops, including Cavan, a historic mansion serving creative coastal cuisine (think boudin tater tots, pastrami duck breast and satsuma barbecue shrimp) and cocktails.
And when you’ve tired of roux, head to Shaya for fresh, modern Israeli cuisine in the form of composed hummus plates and wood-roasted cabbage with muhammara.
While the French Quarter is home to plenty of touristic establishments, there are many local gems waiting to be found if you know where to look. At Four-Star Bayona, executive chef Susan Spicer creates Mediterranean-inspired, farm-to-table fare in a 200-year-old cottage.
Neighboring Cane & Table serves vibrant Caribbean dishes (like crispy Duroc ribs with pepper jelly papaya glaze) alongside well-crafted tropical libations.
Hot, freshly fried beignets are essential to a New Orleans visit, but massive lines are to be expected outside of the famous Café du Monde— particularly during special events. Head instead to City Park for an early walk or run and stop at Morning Call. The beignets are just as good and require no waiting. We’re actually quite fond of the gumbo there, too.
Do keep in mind that some restaurants’ hours may vary during Mardi Gras week and most are closed on Fat Tuesday. Take the opportunity to stop in Verti Marte, a 24-hour market and deli, for po’boys or Central Grocery, where the first muffaletta was born. These handheld foods are perfect for Mardi Gras sustenance on a day of back-to-back parades and street parties.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without king cakes, which is why you’ll find the festive ring-shaped confections in different forms all over the city. Purists line up at Manny Randazzo for the sweet braided brioche the bakery has been serving to the carnival masses since 1965.
But those looking to get experimental should try Caluda’s Oreo-cream-cheese-stuffed version, Shaya’s cinnamon babka king cake with salted caramel or Cochon Butcher’s “Elvis,” a treat filled with peanut butter and banana, then topped with bacon, marshmallow and sprinkles.
There’s no shortage of alcoholic beverages during Mardi Gras, and you’ll likely find yourself indulging in more than one street daiquiri during your visit. But New Orleans is home to a number of talented bartenders and iconic watering holes you’d be remiss to skip over.
America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac, was invented in the French Quarter in 1838. Though the original spot is no longer open, Forbes Travel Guide Recommended The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s posh Sazerac Bar stirs up an excellent one.
For another sip of history, stop by Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Hotel Monteleone to try a Vieux Carre, said to have been first served in the property’s slowly rotating Carousel Bar in 1938.
The gilded Arnaud’s French 75 bar is another essential stop, this one serving a Ramos Gin Fizz that’s hard to beat.
And not only is Napoleon House one of the oldest continuously operating bars in the country, but it makes a mean Pimm’s Cup and brandy milk punch.
If you like things strong and sweet, pop into Pat O’Brien’s, where the fruity red Hurricane cocktail was invented in the 1940s.
For thoroughly inventive tipples, head to SoBou, where bar chef Laura Bellucci crafts boozy creations like the Honey Buzz Milk Punch (Honey Nut Cheerios-infused rum, honey syrup, holiday pie bitters, milk) and the Boxcar Campout (whiskey, black walnut bitters, granola-infused crème de cocoa, housemade marshmallow, graham cracker rim).
Freret Street’s Cure is also known to concoct some of the most inspired drinks in town, like the Third Time’s the Charm (agave martini with toasted hazelnut, charred corn, chamomile flowers, coriander and Meyer lemon peel) alongside eight classic reserve cocktails, like the 20-year Old Fashioned made with Orphan Barrel Barterhouse bourbon.
With parades happening almost daily until Fat Tuesday (February 11 this year), there is certainly no shortage of entertainment in the Crescent City. In fact, the roster of festivities can be downright overwhelming. Consult the city tourism board’s website to get a feel for parade routes before making plans, and keep in mind that the St. Charles streetcar stops service for most of the festivities.
Most of the parades end with a ball thrown by the organizing krewe, and many of these are private, invite-only affairs. However, super krewes like Orpheus and Endymion open their black-tie blowout events to the public.
Escape the masses for a smaller setting at Preservation Hall, where the renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band puts on five nightly shows. Skip the line and ensure prime seats by purchasing advance Big Shot tickets (note that the venue is closed from February 10 to 13).
In the recovery interim between each party (though they do tend to run right into each other during this bacchanalia), make time to visit Mardi Gras World, where you can learn about the history behind this massive celebration and see how each of the ornate floats is crafted.
Culinary lovers should also check out the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and The Museum of the American Cocktail, where you can learn about the cultural significance of red beans and rice, and experience the only absinthe gallery in the U.S. (abbreviated Mardi Gras hours are noted online).
With all of the walking and celebrating, you don’t want to forget to recharge your body. Book a spa treatment (or two) throughout the festivities — your body will thank you. Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton Spa, New Orleans features several NOLA-inspired treatments, such as the VooDoo Ritual, which includes an incense-infused herbal poultice and a full-body massage using essences of absinthe, cypress, moss and vetiver.
Or, close out the carnival season with Le Charm Romantique, a couples session at the sanctuary involving a praline and coffee sugar scrub, a massage and a champagne toast— one last lagniappe before you go.