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A Local's Guide to Mardi Gras

Do you want to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but you're worried about the suffocating crowds, intense noise, and overall craziness? Or maybe you've done Mardi Gras before and want a different experience the next time around. Luckily carnival in New Orleans is way more than giant Mardi Gras parades and boob-filled Bourbon street. Locals and New Orleans lovers know that by going off the beaten path, you'll find better music, tastier food, cooler people, and a Mardi Gras that is way more interesting.

The Mardi Gras that most tourists see, and what most people picture, is streets full of large, decorated floats filled with bead-throwing krewes. Bourbon street packed with sloppy drunk tourists. Folks flashing their private parts for beads, and, no matter where you turn, chaotic crowds of people. If this is your scene, have fun. But it saddens me that this is the only version of Mardi Gras or New Orleans for so many, because there are a lot of ways to celebrate with this town's one-of-a-kind culture, music, and food during carnival season.

How to do Mardi Gras in New Orleans

I spent almost two decades in New Orleans slinging drinks for locals and tourists alike. Nearly every day in the bar some friendly (or opinionated) local would tell a tourist what he or she should be doing. Not surprisingly the misconception locals were most eager to dispel was that Bourbon Street and big parades were the best way to experience New Orleans. Bourbon street is where most tourists go, so the music, drinks, and food are made for tourists. Locals who know what New Orleans can offer have higher expectations, so the most important piece of advice is sure, check out Bourbon Street, but then spend most of your time off the beaten path.

Likewise, avoid the large float parades, where you're likely to find yourself 20-deep in a crowd of people clamoring for the opportunity to catch a fist-full of beads in the face. Watching large crowds devolve into primal behavior over plastic trinkets makes me start to twitch and look for a way out, so to me walking parades are one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of Mardi Gras. Instead of floats that tower over your head, you will be surrounded by revelers in intricate homemade costumes. Beads are gently tossed to onlookers.

Mardi Gras revelers marching in the Society of St. Anne parade in New Orleans.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

My personal favorite is The Society of St. Anne parade. As they parade down Royal street on Mardi Gras morning, you can be a spectator, but to truly enjoy the Mardi Gras experience, make yourself a costume (anything goes) and join in. Anyone and everyone can walk with this Krewe. While they do not have a set route, you can usually find them Mardi Gras morning in front of the R Bar, one of the few stops. Have other plans for Mardi Gras day? Look into the Krewe of Red Beans. They have three different walking parades on Lundi Gras.

For a little darker Mardi Gras experience, head to the Treme. Early Mardi Gras morning-5 am early-you can watch the tradition of The North Side Skull and Bones Gang. Starting in 1819 and resurrected in 2003, they walk the streets of the Treme dressed in what they call "Dead Man Suits," carrying large bones. They knock on doors singing and chanting. One thing you will see and hear is their general theme, " You're Next," as if to say this could be you if you don't live right. It is a lot of entertainment with a little bit of fear. What more could you ask?

The North Side Skull and Bones Gang during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

Planning and making a costume can be the most enjoyable part of the whole holiday. As always, Mardi Gras is about debauchery and no rules, but don't be an ass and pick an offensive costume (racism and sexism are no more welcome on Mardi Gras day than any other day of the year). When you make your costume, you can join in parading with the locals. Laugh along as they compare glitter to herpes ("no matter what you do, it never goes away") and show off your hot glue burns.

Want to enjoy more of the music and culture of New Orleans with Mardi Gras being noise in the background? Located just outside the Quarter is Frenchman Street. This small street is lined with many places to eat, enjoy music, or sit quietly sipping coffee, all in an easy three-block stroll. Three Muses is a restaurant and music venue that will remind you of the days of supper clubs. Down the street is DBA, a bar and music venue that gives you a choice to watch the band or sit in the bar next door and enjoy a drink away from the crowd.

Frenchman Street, a street full of bars and music during Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Photo by Jolie Meaux

One of my favorite things about living in New Orleans is brunch. If you go to the city that created this Sunday tradition, you must check it out. If your dream brunch includes decadent breakfasts, champagne, music, and costumes, well dreams come true because The Country Club on Louisa street outside the French Quarter has a Drag Brunch on Saturday and Sunday. It's all you love about New Orleans in one place. Make sure to make a reservation because this is just as popular with the locals as with the tourists.

Are you one of my fellow night owls? Not one for the fancy restaurants or costumed revelry? Take a short trip to St. Claude Avenue. It is a little dirtier around the edges, but I find those are some of the most interesting places. Many bars and music venues line the street. My personal favorite is The Saturn Bar. Over 61 years old, it's a dive bar in the best sense of the word, with affordable drinks, live bands, and a cool atmosphere. You will be surrounded by all walks of life: artists, society's misfits, locals, and tourists combine here and manage to get along quite well. If you are looking for a view into the days of New Orleans being what I call "The land of broken toys," St.Claude is where you will find it.

A mural in Frenchman St., New Orleans

Photo by Jolie Meaux

Any guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans should include a few places to go when you have to get away from all the craziness around you, and there is no better spot than City Park. Home of the New Orleans Museum of Art, a sculpture garden, and botanical gardens, you can roam here all day without getting bored. You can watch the parades roll by from afar if you time it correctly. Along with City park, New Orleans is full of museums to visit. Feeling a little dark? There is the Museum of Death and the Voodoo Museum. For those history nerds, you can't miss the chance to check out the National WWII Museum. Warning: If you aren't a history buff, don't tag along, as this museum, dedicated by Congress as the official WWII museum of the United States, is so full of interesting exhibits that a history nerd will spend days there only coming up for air when desperate for sustenance.

No matter your personality, New Orleans has a Mardi Gras experience for you. Don't let those annoyingly energetic party-goers have all the fun. And if they give you flack for wanting to skip fighting crowds for beads, go ahead and pull the pretentious card. Tell them that while sometimes it's fun to do what everyone else does, when you Mardi Gras you prefer to be more original and adventurous.

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