The world’s biggest celebration of Mardi Gras is a uniquely Cajun/Creole/Spanish take on the pre-Lenten Carnival famously held in Venice and Rio de Janeiro and dating back to the 16th century. Carnival season in New Orleans unofficially kicks off in early January with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc’s parade through the French Quarter, but really picks up steam in the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, when there are multiple parades daily. Big Krewes like Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus have the most lavish parades and some of the coolest “throws” — highly sought-after beads, Moon Pies, cups, coins, and other trinkets tossed into the crowd — but the smaller, quirkier processions are every bit as cool, like the canine-themed Krewe of Barkus and sci-fi fanatics Krewe of Chewbaccus.
While New Orleans-style parades have become a part of the Mardi Gras celebration in Lake Charles and Louisiana’s rural Cajun country, but you can also experience the more traditional courirs de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras runs, in towns like Houma (home to Louisiana’s second-largest Mardi Gras celebration), Mamou, Iota, Elton, Church Point, Faquetaigue, Soileau, and Eunice. The “runs” feature costumed and masked men on horseback who ride from house to house begging for chicken and other ingredients for a communal gumbo pot. Visitors can join the feast, chase chickens set loose in the crowd, and kick heels at community “chicken dances.”
Texas’ largest Mardi Gras celebration began with a masked ball in 1867, and within a few years had grew into a community-wide event. Today, Mardi Gras Galveston is an 11-day extravaganza of parades (including the Uptown Umbrella Brigade and Zaniest Golf Cart Parade) along the city’s seawall, balls, concerts, and fun runs. As in New Orleans, you can join the party by tossing beads from a balcony, but Galveston also offers anyone the opportunity to form their own krewe and ride on a Mardi Gras float. Across Galveston Bay, Yachty Gras is a festive boat parade that passes along the Kemah Boardwalk. Just don’t drink and dive!
Swap balconies for beach chairs and you’ve got Barefoot Mardi Gras, where Fat Tuesday meets Spring Break on the shores of Padre Island. A family-friendly parade with floats pulled by tractors and 4X4s begins on Whitecap Beach and winds through Padre Balli Park, where marchers and spectators converge for an all-day festival (the parade is free, but it will cost you $5 for the party). Barefoot Mardi Gras features all of the usual traditions — costumes, floats, beads — along with an adults-only King and Queen’s Ball held, in the Mardi Gras spirit of all things weird and wonderful, inside Corpus Christi’s new Schlitterbahn waterpark.
Twelfth Night kicks off Mardi Gras season along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, where there are more than 20 Mardi Gras parades. The annual Gulf Coast Carnival Association Coronation Ball is highlighted by the naming of King d'lberville and Queen lxolib, rulers of the region's Mardi Gras festivities. Daytime parades are family-friendly processions that include the all-women Krewe of Nereids parade in Biloxi and the Krewe of Little Rascals Children Mardi Gras Parade in Pascagoula, and more adult-oriented night marches by the Krewe of Neptune, the Krewe of Gemini, and others.
The Gulf Coast city of Mobile, not New Orleans, held the very first Mardi Gras celebration in what is now the United States, raising its first Mardi Gras toast in 1703. The Order of Myths, the oldest remaining Mobile krewe, first marched in 1867 and still parades by torchlight every year. Mobile’s new Mardi Gras Park was built to accommodate the crowds that gather for the big downtown parade, but as in New Orleans you can also catch smaller local parades in communities all around Mobile in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Mobile is so serious about its Mardi Gras, it has its own Carnival Museum, and its worth a visit between parties.
Mardi Gras is the biggest party of the year in this Florida Panhandle city, drawing more than 100,000 spectators; pre Mardi Gras masquerade balls and parties with live music, pirates, and even bowling help set the mood. Three big parades with hundreds of floats are the highlight of the celebration, capped by the Pensacola Grand Mardi Gras Parade on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. Many of the same krewes also take in the Pensacola Beach Mardi Gras, which includes parades, balls, and foodie events along the barrier beach. Why not do both?
Historic Charleston may lay claim to its own French Quarter, but its backyard surf mecca of Folly Beach is home to the East Coast’s top take on Mardi Gras. The week-long Folly Gras Parade and Festival features oyster and suckling-pig roasts — the former a Southern tradition, the latter a nod to the Cajun Cochon de Lait — as well as concerts, balls and parties, and a downtown street festival and parade with costumed marchers and decorated cars and golf carts on Fat Tuesday.
The Gaslamp Quarter Mardi Gras Parade, held annually is San Diego’s historic district of the same name, is the biggest Mardi Gras celebration on the West Coast. Local restaurants, nightclubs, and music venues play a big role along with street parties and parades. The Gaslamp Quarter Mardi Gras festival draws crowds of 20,000 people for a uniquely SoCal take on Fat Tuesday that includes samba dancers and vintage cars in addition to floats and stilt walkers parading down Fifth Avenue. Don’t miss Saturday night’s Big Easy Bites & Booze Tour to get warmed up.
The biggest Mardi Gras in the world outside of the U.S. is also the most fabulous: the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival is a celebration of LGBT culture where Down Under meets the Big Easy. The two-week festival includes a family-friendly Fair Day, art exhibits, pool and tea parties, a “Drag Race” on Bondi Beach, and Koori Gras — a celebration of Aboriginal and other First People culture. The week climaxes in a Mardi Gras parade with 10,000 festive marchers and dancers followed by a massive dance party headlined by Tegan and Sara.