The Best Mardi Gras Celebrations – 11 Cities That Know-How
This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, we may earn a commission. Please see our disclosure policy for full details. Thanks.
Mardi Gras is often called Fat Tuesday. This is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the official beginning of Lent. Christians use Mardi Gras to celebrate and party before entering the following season of Lent; 40 days meant for reflection and repentance. Mardi Gras is usually in February but sometimes falls in March as it does this year.
If you associate Mardi Gras with vibrant colors and outrageous costumes, you’d be right! Joining the party is music, dancing, parades, and a lot of eating and drinking. This is, after all, the culmination of Carnival! Where are the best places to celebrate? Let’s take a look.
First Off, Even If You Can’t Travel, You Can Still Celebrate Mardi Gras
This article is all about the Best Mardi Gras Celebrations around the world. But maybe, you can’t travel this year and still want to celebrate a fancy Mardi Gras at home! Here are some decorations and suggestions to get you going.
But if you are planning to hit the road, March is the time when winter shifts to spring. Usually, the snow is melting, and flowers are blooming. Many festivals, parades, and events happen in March in the US and beyond. (Think Spring Break!) If you plan a vacation in March, book your travel early and be prepared for large crowds and many tourists.
Mardi Gras Celebrations in the USA
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is home to the most famous Mardi Gras parade in the US and possibly the world. When you say Mardi Gras, New Orleans is the first place that pops into most people’s minds. When Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, a French-Canadian explorer, first came to this area in 1699, he named it Pointe de Mardi Gras. Was that prophetic or what?
New Orleans and Mardi Gras’s unofficial motto is the French saying: “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler.” (Pronounced: lay-zEh leh bAwn taw rOO-leh.) In English, we say: “Let the good times roll,” and the good times really roll in this town.
Starting as much as two weeks before Fat Tuesday, “Krewes” (the social groups that put on the show) begin rolling out the parades. These weeks of Carnival include a packed schedule of events. Thousands of people pour into New Orleans to watch the parades drink Hurricanes (cocktails), dance in the streets, and soak up the Mardi Gras atmosphere. The Big Easy offers up a vibrant brand of hospitality.
While New Orleans may be the best know Mardi Gras (Carnival) in the US, Mobile, Alabama, is the oldest. The first known Carnival celebration in the United States took place in this coastal Alabama town in 1703. Mobile prides itself on being the birthplace of the American Mardi Gras tradition.
The oldest continuous Mardi Gras group in the City is the Order of Myths, who began parading in 1867. The parade with its signature float, a mule-drawn cart leading the way, makes its way down the Mobile streets.
Tour the Mobile Carnival Museum to start your visit. Next, make time to take in a few of the many “family-friendly” parades. The kids will love catching “Throws” from the Floats, like candy, stuffed dolls, and a Mobile tradition: Moon Pies.
If sweets aren’t your thing, check out the food truck vendors lining the routes. You’ll be sure to find plenty of quick yummy Cajun cuisine, including shrimp and catfish po’boys!
You probably don’t think of Texas when you think of Mardi Gras. But if you want to celebrate Fat Tuesday with sand between your toes and magnificent sunsets on the beach, head to Galveston, the home of the third biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the US. Since 1867, Galveston has been offering up all the floats, parades, Southern food, and drinking a partier could want
The biggest parade in town is held on the night of Mardi Gras. This parade is hosted by the Knights of Momus (KOM), famous as the oldest krewe in Galveston (since 1871). KOM hosts a royal ball every year and crowns a king and queen for the celebration.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Mo, has the biggest Mardi Gras event outside of New Orleans. The City attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors when the weather permits. When Mardi Gras is earlier in the year, there is a chance you will be snowed on here.
But with sunny weather, the historic Soulard neighborhood, where Mardi Gras started in St. Louis, comes to life, serving as the hub for balls and parades that take place all over town.
There is quite a food scene in St. Louis, and the Taste of Soulard was added to the celebration in 1993. This self-guided pub crawl and tasting offers up all the New Orleans-style cuisine you are craving. Crab cakes, Cajun crawfish, jambalaya, etc., it’s all here for you.
Are you visiting with your kids? The St. Louis Zoo has a special celebration with a Mardi Gras mask-making event for the kids and a grand parade!
With its two major theme parks, Orlando is a huge destination for Mardi Gras celebrations and should not be left out of the party.
And, of course, you have Disney World pulling out all the stops. Head over to Disney Springs, and celebrate Mardi Gras and a Venetian-style Carnevale with all the best Disney offers.
Visit Dinsey’s Port Orleans – French Quarter, where you can soak in some New Orleans-style atmosphere while strolling along the Sassagoula River. Stop in for a snack at any of the incredible restaurants here; after all, where else can you get Mickey Mouse-shaped beignets!
The Mardi Gras parties hosted by Universal Studios Orlando run for over a month! This year, they celebrate with an international food fest with flavors from Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, German Spain, and more.
The park has a fleet of Pirate Treasure-themed floats throughout the park, along with their classic Mardi Gras floats and parades. On special nights, Universal hosts headliners for Mardi Gras concerts and a special Krewe Crawl Scavenger Hunt. These parties will inspire people to throw lots of beads into the air!
San Diego California
Don’t forget about the West Coast of the US when planning travel for Mardi Gras celebrations. San Diego holds one of the most notable parties in and around its Gaslamp Quarter every year.
Wander through the streets of Downtown San Diego on the Mardi Gras Big Easy Bites & Booze Tour. Or head over to the Gaslamp Quarter and take part in the masquerade balls and live entertainment presented by the nightclubs, bars, and restaurants.
San Diego puts on a fabulous parade and party filled with feathered adorned samba dancers, Brazilian martial arts performances, and more.
When you’ve partied as much as any good celebrant can take a tour of Sea World or visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, oh, and did I mention that San Diego has some fantastic beaches!
Looking to go International for Mardi Gras?
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You can’t talk Carnival without talking about the biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the world. Rio has been putting on an extravagant, five-day festival of parades, music, and dancing since 1723! The celebration draws half a million visitors to Rio de Janeiro each year. And that is just the number of tourists coming from outside of Brazil. When you add in the locals, over 2 million people take part in Rio’s Carnival.
Samba schools (social clubs) consisting of 3,000 to 5,000 members, each representing a particular neighborhood in Rio. These clubs spend all year preparing for the parade. During Carnival, five or six Samba schools each night in dance and parades. The winners are awarded based on their dancing, costumes, and music.
On Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday), the Samba parade is the highlight of Rio’s Carnival. This massive parade takes place each year at the Sambodromo, a stadium built specifically to house the annual parade. No place does Carnival quite like Rio de Janeiro. This gem of a City has earned its long-held title of “Carnival Capital of the World.”
The French Riviera, resting along the Mediterranean coast, is home to Nice, the French Carnival birthplace. The earliest record of a Carnival celebration in France is in 1294 when Charles d’Anjou, the Count of Provence, celebrated the “joyous days of Carnival.”
Carnival is the main winter event in Nice, which, thanks to its location, enjoys moderate temperatures during the winter months. The Bataille de Fleurs (Battle of the Flowers) is the main feature of a Nice Carnival. Throughout the festival, at various parades, two costumed performers toss thousands of flowers into the audience. Throughout the festival, some 100,000 flowers are thrown into the crowds.
Nice introduced decorative floats and processions into its festivities in 1873. Each year, the City chooses a new theme for Carnival (the theme for 2022 is King of Animals). This theme is used for inspiration for the floats and costumes. Now one of the largest Carnivals globally, Nice’s festivities last for 15 days and hosts a Mardi Gras parade that features over 1,000 performers.
Looking for a different type of Mardi Gras celebration? In the Belgian town of Binche, the Carnival celebration starts three days before Lent. This festival, recognized by UNESCO as part of our “Intangible Cultural Heritage,” has roots dating back to the middle ages.
Mardi Gras begins with the Gilles’ ceremonial dressing, a costume consisting of a red, yellow, and black tunic, an ostrich feather hat, wooden clogs, bells, and a wax mask. (Note the Gilles are forbidden to leave Benche while in costume.)
At the ready, the several hundred Gilles begin the march through town to the drums’ beat, leading the procession of participants dressed as peasants, harlequins, and musicians. The parade comes to a climax outside Binche’s Grand Place, where the Gilles dance beneath a firework-lit sky.
The festival attracts thousands of visitors and participants. Though only men born and raised in Binche can dress as a Gille.
Venice’s Mardi Gras celebration is known for elaborate masquerade balls, featuring intricate masks, a holdover from the Renaissance. But anyone who has wandered the twisting streets and canals of Venice knows Carnival doesn’t begin or end with Lent. Decorative masks hang from shop windows year-round. These masks are almost as universal a symbol of Venice as the singing gondoliers or Saint Mark’s Basilica spires.
You may not know that Carnival in Venice was outlawed in 1797 under the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, including the beautiful masks. After a long absence, the Italian government looking to bring back Venice’s history and culture brought back Carnival as its centerpiece in 1979!
Once the ban on Carnival was lifted, creating masks became a full-time occupation encouraged by the robust Venetian tourism industry. Today, eight different kinds of masks, or as Italian locals say, “maschere,” exist —the most recognizable one being the Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor). Carnival’s highlight is the “la maschere piu bella” contest judged by a group of international fashion designers.
Italy was quite successful in its efforts to bring back Carnival in Venice. Every year nearly 3 million visitors travel to Venice for Carnival.
Sydney’s Mardi Gras is more than a celebration before the beginning of Lent. It’s a chance for Australia’s LGBTQI community to come together to “inspire the world to love each other by celebrating the power and beauty of diversity.”
The first Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras were marked with numerous arrests b the New South Wales Police. However, Mardi Gras now enjoys political favor. A reflection of these changes is the participants in the Mardi Gras Parade. Groups now include uniformed Australian Defence Force personnel, police officers from New South Wales State Police, firefighters, and other emergency services personnel from the Australian LGBTQI communities.
The highlight Mardi Gras Parade is always held on the first Sunday in March. The parade is one of the world’s largest LGBTQI events, with around 10,000 participants. Today, the event is widely popular both within and outside of the LGBTQI community, drawing thousands of visitors to Sydney in the weeks before Mardi Gras to participate in city-wide celebrations.
Are You Ready To Go To Mardi Gras?
Choose your City, get your costume and head out to the party. Whether Rio, Sydney, Galveston, or New Orleans, you can attend a masquerade ball, eat some great food, and catch some Doubloons and Throws as the parades pass by. But don’t forget to make your plans and book accommodations as early as you can. All of these parties bring in a lot of people!
Mobile’s is the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation averaging 1 million unique visitors annually from Mardi Gras ball and parade attendance over the course of Carnival. In comparison, New Orleans averages around 1.5 million annually.
Right you are, Jeremy! New Orleans tops the charts in the US for Mardi Gras attendance which is why it has top billing in my post. But Mobile is still the oldest continuous Mardi Gras celebration in the US!