5 tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras

While New Orleans seems to celebrate Mardi Gras all year round, it is at this time of the year–the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday (in French: Mardi Gras) and the beginning of Lent–that the city earns its hard partying reputation.

It happens every year. And all kinds of people take the time to lose track of time in this city of soul and spook. Fascinated by the stories and legends of Mardi Gras and its raucous joy, I visited New Orleans in February 2009 and 2010 and I absorbed all that I could of Carnival culture.

My initial distaste for Mardi Gras had been a product of misleading media stories and drunken lore. Without much interest in forcing myself into remembering the only year of college I spent on campus, I eschewed the city’s famous annual ongoing party, genuinely disinterested in what I thought it was. But a friend I made while touring through Alabama, a true Southern Belle with a killer taste for rock ‘n’ roll, tempted me with attractive tales of Mardi Gras–an event she made sure to attend every year she could.

Through her I learned that Mardi Gras isn’t all breast-flashing belligerence and so-forced-it’s-sickening salaciousness. Through her I learned that Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the city, by different people with different backgrounds and different views on How to Party Hard. And when she decided to move to New Orleans a few months before the weeks of Mardi Gras 2009, I ignored my doubts, bought a plane ticket, and tried out Mardi Gras with a local as my guide.

Admittedly, she was new to living in the city, but her relatives there were hardened New Orleans veterans who quickly passed on their torch of insight.

Girlfriend, first of all, you gotta stay away from Bourbon Street“, she instructed me.

She’d learned the ins and outs of Mardi Gras enjoyment during the years prior, the years she spent making the 2-3 hour commute from Mobile in order to do it up with her family and friends in the city. I was privileged enough to do it up with them.

And, as I blearily boarded my departure plane that sunny Wednesday following my first real Fat Tuesday, I wasn’t looking forward to arriving back home in it’s-still-winter New York. I wanted to stay forever in warm, colorful, indulgent New Orleans.

I went back the following February and I’m making plans to return again in a few weeks. But my returning is for the sake of the Mardi Gras I know. Here are five tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras–without all of its famous obnoxiousness.

1. Move beyond Bourbon Street.
I’m not going to advise you to ignore Bourbon Street completely. Like Times Square, this tourist destination has its place. You’ll find some good bars on Bourbon Street–hell, one of my lady friends tends bar at Molly’s on Toulouse. But by and large, you’ll experience the Mardi Gras I fell in love with outside of Bourbon Street. Spend some time in the East Quarter, for instance. Everyone there is also celebrating, costumed, and singin’ and dancin’, but you’ll find more locals in the East Quarter than on Bourbon Street. Tip: Look for a sublet or rental in this neighborhood with the help of Airbnb. If you have your own spot to call home in a good area where you can actually get some sleep when you need it, your entire experience will be better.

2. Perfect your costume.
There’s a true art to assembling the perfect Mardi Gras costume. Be creative and spend time getting your costume just right. Part of the Mardi Gras allure is the bold and beautiful color displayed emphatically by those reveling and relishing in the season. Tip: Masks and feathers are tried and true standards, but anything goes. When in doubt, wear a blonde wig and no pants for a quick-fix Lady Gaga. You might get thrown some beads with this get-up, but here’s another tip: don’t take off your clothes for beads. Firstly… because they’re just beads. Secondly because people are probably going to throw them to you no matter what.

3. Drink responsibly.
I say this not to reiterate the words of your nagging, oppressive mother, but rather because Mardi Gras is an experience worth remembering. Instead of joining in on the parade of puking drunks stinking up the streets, be mindful of how much you drink and take home some memories you’ll have for the rest of your life. By all means, drink. Drink and be merry–but leave it at that. Solicitous strangers might come to your rescue if you need to be scooped up off the street and sent home in a taxi, but don’t count on it. Tip: It’s a good idea to carry water with you at all times. It’s just not a good idea to mix cheap tequila, 600-calorie pina coladas, box wine, and all that fried food with dehydration.

4. Hang with locals.
You might not know any local New Orleans residents when you arrive, but making small talk is easy in a town as lively as this one. Chat up locals and pick their brains for recommendations of where to spend your time. Their spots will most likely trump tourist spots. (Not every time). And hey, if you’re lucky you might make some friends. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a good ol’ fashioned Mardi Gras house party over frat boys doing body shots at a bar with a $10 cover any night. Tip: Don’t be shy. Diffidence won’t yield for you the trip of a lifetime and besides, most people can respect a traveler who wants to avoid tourist traps.

5. Eat well.
When I say ‘eat well’ during a story about New Orleans, I mean two things: 1. Eat delicious Cajun food and savor every last bit of it. 2. Counteract the rich meals with simple, wholesome foods every chance you get. Believe me, New Orleans’ citywide buffet of fried food is worth digging your paws into. But if you don’t balance all of this heavy stuff out with some healthy options here and there, you’ll be sabotaging the quality of your vacation. Tip: You’ll probably be out for large chunks of time every time you’re out, so throw an apple, granola bar, or any other simple and healthy snack in your bag to make healthy eating automatic.

Have your own tips that will help Mardi Gras attendees enjoy the festival? Share and discuss with us in the comments.