Discuss as:

Mardi Gras beyond beer, beads and Bourbon Street

One of the famous Mardi Gras Indians, right, appears at a news conference Jan. 6, 2009, in New Orleans.

Whether you have ever set foot in New Orleans during the bacchanalian days building up to Fat Tuesday or not, you have a pretty good idea of what Mardi Gras entails: drinking, parades, beads, Bourbon Street, masks and, yes, some more drinking.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Ronald Lewis, founder and director of the House of Dance and Feathers cultural museum (1317 Tupelo Street), “It’s taken a long time for the outside world to realize that there is much more to Mardi Gras than just the French Quarter. Mardi Gras is what makes the people of New Orleans who we are.”

The beads, beer and Bourbon Street festival is one (very fun) aspect, but the deeper cultural event is what makes Mardi Gras so sacred to locals and visitors who venture beyond the main party. From the folk art of the Mardi Gras Indians to the culinary and family elements, Mardi Gras is not just a top New Orleans event, but one of the great American cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these traditions more apparent than with the Mardi Gras Indians. Tracing their roots back to when Native Americans aided runaway African slaves, these dancers and musicians dress in elaborate “Indian” costumes of hand-sewn beadwork. The costumes take all year to create and are worn only once.

Lewis, who has been involved with the Indians for more than 45 years, says that the costumes “have been handmade by individuals and sewing committees since the 1800s and are among of the best traditional folk art in the United States.”

New Orleans is rightly famous for both its traditional cuisine and its variety of cutting-edge restaurants. But you need not shell out big bucks to sample the local goods. A classic Mardi Gras favorite is king cake and is sold everywhere from corner stores to cafes. It is braided Danish pastry iced in the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras colors. Hidden in each cake is a miniature plastic baby doll. The person who finds the doll in their cake has to buy the next one.

Parts of the French Quarter can get a little too crowded and too R-rated for kids during the big event. Fortunately, the party actually extends for some 45 blocks along St. Charles Avenue. According to Mark Romig, CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., "The parks along St. Charles are full of blankets and coolers as Mardi Gras and the preceding weeks are an important time for multigenerational family get-togethers and picnics. Plus, St. Charles between First Street and Napoleon Avenue hosts a family-friendly parade where the whole family can cut loose together.” 

Year round, you can check out The Louisiana State Museum’s “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” exhibit at The Presbytere. No matter what you do, make sure to explore the many dimensions of what is not only the country’s most grand party, but also one of its great cultural treasures.

Lucas Jackson / © LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters/Corbis

New Orleans has reclaimed its vibrancy after Hurricane Katrina and will delight and woo you with its mojo.

More on Itineraries