New Orleans’ epic Mardi Gras may not be for everyone
Colorful beads in purple, green and gold drape the live oaks along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans to usher in the Mardi Gras season.
The Big Easy is synonymous with Mardi Gras in the United States; Louisiana’s largest city welcomes nearly 1.5 million annual visitors for Carnival, the celebratory period leading up to the Christian season of Lent.
More than 40 themed parade processions, each led by a unique krewe, take to the streets throughout the city to entertain crowds in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Krewes include Joan of Arc, whose theme this year is medieval plague doctors, and the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a foot parade of gamers, Trekkies and other self-proclaimed “super nerds” that takes its name from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Chewbacca, from Star Wars.
But the Mardi Gras revelry in New Orleans comes at a cost, including reported ride-share and rental property price hikes, bathroom fees, claustrophobic crowds and traffic jams. For the more intimidated traveler, it may feel a bit overwhelming.
And although many area parades can be fun for families, the French Quarter is another story. Local outlets discourage bringing children to this area during the season because of the often raucous, adult-only behavior of the crowds.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is an epic spectacle, for sure, but other options exist.
Location: New Orleans is located in Southeast Louisiana, with direct flights from many major airports.
Mobile, Ala., has a more approachable celebration
Mardi Gras is a major point of historical and cultural pride in Mobile. French settlers held a Mardi Gras-type celebration in Mobile as early as 1703, according to Cart Blackwell, curator at the Mobile Carnival Museum. New Orleans was founded in 1718.
Mobile was “settled before New Orleans, so we can definitely claim that,” Blackwell said. “But what will never be known is the actual form early Carnival celebrations took.” Historians do know that, nearly 200 years ago, Mobilians concocted the Carnival format still used today. “On New Year’s Eve 1830, the two ingredients that define American Carnival — a parade according to a theme that translates to a tableau and ball afterward — were established in Mobile,” he said. “That template was taken to New Orleans, and now you see it across American Carnival.”
In addition to being first in Mardi Gras, Mobile also prides itself on festivities appropriate for everyone. “It’s a family affair,” Blackwell said. “That is the defining characteristic of Carnival in Mobile: It’s a multigenerational family experience.”
More than 1 million people attend Mardi Gras in Mobile annually, eagerly awaiting more than 40 parades along several routes.
The 14-gallery Carnival Museum invites visitors to climb on a papier-mâché float, study up on Mobile’s mystic societies and marvel at the stunning wearable works of art once draped over past Mardi Gras monarchs.
This season, a new exhibit will celebrate Carnival food, including food trucks, mystic society dinners and the MoonPies, taffy, ramen noodles, peanuts and other food often thrown from floats.
King cakes are also a key culinary element of Mardi Gras in Mobile. Pollman’s Bake Shop delivers the one locals love. “We don’t put too much icing on our [cakes],” said Michelle Pollman of her family’s version of the signature ring-shaped pastry with a baked-in plastic baby. “It’s a coffeecake version, so it’s very light and fluffy — not too heavy.”
Pollman’s great-grandfather, a New Orleans native, opened the bakery in 1918. Today, the local institution is run by Michelle and her parents, Fred and Rose. Though Pollman’s has three storefronts, the downtown shop is centrally located along a parade route, just a block from Bienville Square, a city park trimmed with live oaks and a cast-iron fountain. Individual king cakes and cookies shaped like jesters, crowns and fleur-de-lis are all top picks at Pollman’s during Carnival, too.
Location: Mobile is located in the southwestern tip of Alabama, just over a two-hour drive northeast from New Orleans.
The original version of this story appeared in The Washington Post, February 10, 2022.