Top Festivals in New Orleans: More than Mardi Gras

A large portion of the visitors to New Orleans come for Mardi Gras, but NOLA is a city that takes pride in the fact that it’s the USA's party mecca all year round. Our insider Rebecca Robinson gives us the lowdown on the best ways to get festive, whatever time of year it is!

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is the most festive time to be in New Orleans. In New Orleans, we refer to Mardi Gras or Carnival as entire season, which always begins on January 6th (Epiphany), and ends the day before Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday, rotates every year depending on Easter. It can be as early as February 3rd, and as late as March 9. There are things going on throughout the season, but the large events really start to unfold 18 days before Mardi Gras Day.

With some research and planning, and then some complete disregard for any planning you’ve done, Mardi Gras can be a memorable experience, one that many repeat year after year.

  • Pick accommodation in the area you want to party. Moving around from district to district is difficult.
  • Wear a costume. Every day. Masks are traditionally worn on Mardi Gras day.
  • Take cash (but keep it secure), many of the ad-hoc or pop-up food and drink providers don’t take cards.
  • Big name restaurants fill up quickly. Book well in advance.

Boobs and Beads: Bourbon Street, French Quarter

Downriver from Canal Street is where you get the hooting, hollering, flashing and nudity you’ve seen on TV. This kind of excessive partying is one tiny aspect of Mardi Gras and is confined to Bourbon Street.

There’s nothing really to plan, here. The party is happening, and it’s just waiting for you.

Big Parades: Uptown, St Charles Ave, Above Canal

Mardi Gras parades have been rolling down the streets of New Orleans since at least 1856. The organization that puts on a parade is called a Krewe, and traditionally were wealthy white men.

The first official Krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus held a street procession with maskers, creating anonymity that is still a tradition today. They had slaves and free people of color carry gaslight torches, called flambeaux, lighting the parades.

Parade attendants threw coins to the men to award them for their performance art. Flambeaux is still a part of our big Krewe parades, and as times have progressed, there are now black parading Krewes, female Krewes, and even a female group of flambeaux who call themselves Glambeaux.

Most of the food on the route is generic carnival food like hot dogs and funnel cakes. Check the parade schedule, and put the Parade Tracker app on your phone.

Smaller Parades

In the neighborhoods downriver from the from Canal, you will find a lot of alternative Mardi Gras parades. The festivities come to an abrupt halt at midnight on Fat Tuesday. The following day begins lent, and the city calms down quite a bit. Of course, this is just a snippet of things available to do during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Try a couple this year. You’ll come back for the rest.

Other New Orleans Festivals

Outside of Mardi Gras, festivals in New Orleans and communities beyond, are too numerous to count. Louisiana loves to dance and eat and party, so whenever your visit to New Orleans, there will be opportunity to be part of the fun. Following is a list of some of our multiple-day festivals, most of them music based.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest

Aside from Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is probably the most widely known.

When: Last weekend of April, first weekend of May

Where: Racetrack Fairgrounds

Costs: Gate price US $70/day, more options available

Website: www.nojazzfest.com

The event itself takes place at the Fairgrounds, but there are countless alternative experiences and night shows over a 2 week period that can be a bit overwhelming Jazz Fest can be HOT! Bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat!

French Quarter Festival

Largely focused on local and regional music, Quarter fest takes place in mid April, and is a completely free four day festival. Stages are spread out all over the French Quarter, with fabulous local food spread out between the larger stages.

When: Mid April, usually two weeks before Jazz Fest

Where: All over the French Quarter

Costs: FREE

Website: www.fqfi.org

Again, lodging is really the biggest hurdle here. Both Jazz Fest and Quarter Fest draw in more people than currently live in the city, and many people attend the festivals as a yearly pilgrimage.

Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival

The Tennessee Williams festival occurs over five days in late March. Attendants will be able to observe and participate in a plethora of writing workshops, panel discussions, theater productions, and of course, food and music literary connections.

When: Late March

Where: At multiple venues within the French Quarter

Costs: Specific events vary. All inclusive ticket for five days is US $500

Website: www.tennesseewilliams.net

Bayou Boogaloo

If smaller, more intimate music festivals are more your speed, the Bayou Boogaloo festival in Mid-City may be for you.

When: Mid-May

Where: On the banks of Bayou St John between Dumaine and Lafitte

Costs: FREE

Website: www.thebayouboogaloo.com

Super local, family friendly, and with only four stages.

New Orleans Essence Festival

Summer is extremely hot in New Orleans, and in some ways, the city slows down. But there are still a couple of anchor festivals that draw huge crowds. The most popular summer festival is on July 4th weekend, called Essence Fest (African American magazine).

When: four days over July 4th weekend

Where: Convention Center and Superdome

Costs: free to US $2,700

Website: www.essence.com/festival

Satchmo Summer Fest

Satchmo is the nickname of Louis Armstrong, and no festival season would be complete without a festival in his honor. Satchmo fest usually takes place over the first weekend of August.

When: first weekend in August

Where: French Quarter

Costs: FREE

Website: www.fqfi.org/satchmo

Just Across the New Orlenas River: Gretna Fest

Humidity breaks in October, and everyone comes back out of the woodwork, people return from their summer adventures, and the weather is absolutely perfect. Gretna Fest happens around this time.

Gretna is a town on the West Bank, just across the river from New Orleans.

When: first weekend in October

Where: downtown Gretna, across and upriver from the French Quarter

Costs: US $20+

Website: www.gretnafest.com

New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience

Voodoo fest is a huge festival taking over a portion of gigantic, beautiful City Park in mid-city, and has absolutely nothing to do with Voodoo, with exception of naming an area the Loa Lounge.

When: Halloween weekend

Where: New Orleans City Park

Costs: varies depending on how far in advance you purchase tickets. Right now it’s US $125 for a 3-day pass. It goes up exponentially, with VIP passes, as well as posh camping.

Website: www.worshipthemusic.com

Christmas in New Orleans

Christmas New Orleans style really encompasses a lot of different events. Check the schedule for music at St Louis Cathedral. Free concerts go on for much of the month of December.

When: Entire month of December

Where: Varies

Costs: Varies, with a lot of free options

Website: www.fqfi.org or www.holidays.neworleansonline.com

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